for Balancing on the Edge of the World

Stop 4 on Caroline Smailes' blog

Stop 4 appeared on a blog by Caroline Smailes which has now been deleted and replaced. These are the questions she asked me, and my answers:


CS: When did you begin to write/tell stories?

EB: I can’t remember, and neither can my mum - I was always drawing and writing - but by the time I was eight I was going to be a published writer. Well, Mrs Gladden said so. Can you imagine it: every Friday afternoon there’s this kid with specs and sticking-out teeth having her story read out to the rest of the class because as usual it’s the best, and then one day her story about A Day in the Life of a Penny is so good that Mrs Gladden calls her up to the front and tells the rest of the class to take a good look at her because the person they are looking at will be a published writer one day, mark her words. So there and then Mrs Gladden gave me the sense that I could do it, which never went away. I can never remember this, though, without feeling bad and wondering how many other potential writers in that room were made to feel they couldn’t, simply because they hadn’t been singled out like me. (I so hate best ofs when it comes to anything creative!) The other thing that makes me feel bad is this: Mrs Gladden knew the enormity of the gift she had given me, and the day I left (because we were moving away) she asked me to promise her something, that I’d dedicate my first book to her, and I promised, and really meant it, but then when I did publish my first book I forgot all about it. So I say it here: thank you, Mrs Gladden, for giving me the ambition, and the sense I could do it!

By the time I was eleven I was, in a way, a self-published writer: I made comic books, doing the drawings and sewing them together, and they were circulated amongst the neighbourhood kids. I even had waiting lists and records of who’d had what.

: Why do you write/tell stories?

EB: Crikey, this is a hard one! It’s just an obsession, really, and of course we don’t always understand our own obsessions. Um. Well, like lots of writers, as a child I found books a refuge from difficulties – in my case the fact that very early on things went wrong for my parents and we became pretty poor and had to move around a lot. The world of books and stories was a better, more stable one where things, however awful, ultimately made sense and worked out. Writing your own stories was a natural progression: you could make your own worlds to live in, and indeed be a different kind of person living there. On the other hand there was the recognition I was getting at school for writing, so writing was also a way of being appreciated for what you already were and for how you saw things. And at home story-telling was well established as a way of reminding yourself who you really are and asserting your true identity: as soon as we left South Wales where my sister and I were born, and where my mother came from, my mum began telling us tales about the family and community we had left: for my whole childhood, every Saturday lunchtime, as soon as we’d finished eating, she would push the greasy egg-and-chip plates aside, forget about the washing up, and talk on and on…

I think all of these motives, the desire to both hide and yet assert oneself, the desire to lie (to invent) yet at the same time to tell the searing truth, underpin all fiction-writing. And also, importantly, to understand things, to work them out – that became a more conscious motive the older I got, and I’d say it’s certainly a main one now. As I indicated to Clare last week, when I first started being published it was very much a matter of gaining a voice after having felt voiceless, and I think I also wrote quite often from a sense of personal injustice. It’s much less like that now. Nowadays, I think, however personal or autobiographical the experience I’m writing about, my interest in writing about it is more purely to uncover universal truths.

A few years ago my mum handed me a letter which I wrote to my father when I was very small, and gave him when he came home from work. She says I was less than four, and that I wrote it without help and without telling anyone, and I do remember it like that: that I was full of secret excitement at doing something I wasn’t expected to be able to do until I went to school, and great anticipation at the effect it would have. In one very wonky and, shall we say, innovatively spelt sentence, in huge tentative letters, it told my father that I had been to my grandmother’s that day. I remember vividly the scene when he read it, down to the sunshine slanting into my bedroom (I had lain awake and called him in to give it to him), and my parents standing there amazed and amused and proud. And I remember the reason I had written it: I had been anxious about the fact that my father was due home later than usual that evening – I know now that I had good cause to worry (it’s no wonder, I think, that some of the stories in Balancing on the Edge of the World are, as I said to Clare last week, about children’s sixth sense!) – and I felt that writing him a letter and making him know about our day (in other words, identify with us) would somehow make things all right. And, you know, none of that has ever gone away for me with writing: the secret excitement while doing it, the sense of reaching out, and the sense that it will make things all right.


CS: Do you have a structure to your writing day, or are you controlled by the seeds of ideas?

EB: Yes, I do have a structure. I write in the mornings: it’s the best time for me, when I’m mentally alert yet still in touch with the night’s dream world. Not that it always works: I’ve just spent a whole week of mornings sitting at my desk and waiting for the seed of an idea to sprout and it hasn’t, and I now think I’d have been better going off and doing something else and allowing space for different ideas to come in sideways. (Trouble is, though, I feel guilty doing something else in my designated writing time, as I’m not contributing much to the household income at the moment!) I do only write mornings at present: I’m writing short stories, which fits this morning-only pattern nicely, and anyway usually by lunchtime I find I’ve had it, creatively. I used to keep going all day if time allowed, or grab time in the evenings, but that was when I had far less time for writing altogether, and by the time I got to my desk my ideas were always backed up in my head. However, even now if I’m on a deadline I will carry on all day, sometimes into the evening if necessary. And if I’m writing a novel I go back after lunch and type up what I’ve written by hand in the morning (you just have to put in the hours!).

CS: Any tips for people wanting to be published?

: Be prepared for failure. Don’t accept failure. If your work gets turned down, take a good look at it. If you’re still sure it’s OK, bang it off again; if not, rework it: turn your failures to good. If you’re writing short stories, get your work published in print and online magazines. If you’ve written a novel get an agent (not that I’ve got one!) because that’s the only way to get your work seen by most publishers. Read loads.

CS: What are you currently reading?

: I’m dipping into two wonderful volumes of short stories from my own publisher, Salt: The White Road by Tania Hershman and Astral Bodies by Jay Merill .
That’s the best way to read short stories, I find, giving individual, focused attention to each story in turn.

CS: Do you, in any way, know Simon Cowell?

EB: Afraid not. And unfortunately he doesn’t feature in any of the stories in Balancing on the Edge of the World, which I can see is a real lack. But if he’d like to be in my next collection, maybe he could get in touch…



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