The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Penelope Evans

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Penelope Evans


Summary: Bookbag loved Penelope Evans' The Weight of Water. It's a page turning story of a woman's struggle to come to terms with the changes in her life – perfect to devour on a slightly chilly, spooky evening. .
Date: 1 May 2009
Interviewer: Loralei Haylock
Reviewed by Loralei Haylock

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Bookbag loved Penelope Evans' The Weight of Water and jumped at the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work.

  • Close your eyes and imagine your readers. Who do you see?

Penelope Evans: This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I don’t have a picture of someone going into a shop, picking the book off the shelf and taking it home. And I don’t write with the hope that a certain kind of person will read anything I write. At the same time I do have a completely formed idea of the reader being right there, from the very moment I start writing something.

I don’t quite know how to put it. It’s as if there’s me; then there are the characters I’m writing about – and then there’s this invisible circle of people watching every word I write as I’m writing it, and we’re all in it together. These invisible readers sit at my shoulder and from there they cheer the good stuff and hiss at the bad. Nothing stays on the page if it doesn’t get past them. They are intensely critical and sometimes I’m so aware of them I can barely write at all. I can’t see them, even if I close my eyes, but they are most definitely there, influencing everything.

I realise this sounds slightly mad, but it’s the only way I can describe it. When at the end of the day I meet real readers, they tend to be a hundred times nicer than the imaginary ones who have been on my case. But having imagined the other kind, it seems entirely natural for me to hear real readers voice all manner of opinions about characters and events in the books. It’s one reason I’m always happy to do book groups. It just feels right. Almost like a relief.

  • BB: That doesn't sound mad at all! Sara and Tom have very different opinions about the countryside. Are you a country or a city girl?

PE: Both! I grew up in a very small village with only about twenty houses and a church. My brother and I just played solidly until I was about eleven. We were really talented at it. There were woods and streams and cows that would chase us, and we ran round with a gang of children all doing the same thing.

Thirty years later and my parents are about the only people from that time who are still there. None of the children I played with can afford to live where their parents lived; the houses are owned by lawyers and bankers who commute. The village is deserted by day and the children don’t seem to play in the woods any more. It all seems different and slightly out of kilter.

Meanwhile, like an awful lot of people who ever had to walk three miles just to buy a Kitkat, I’ve become a city girl, a Londoner by preference. I would happily have lived in London until I got too old to escape from under the wheels of a bendy bus. I like pavements and faces that don’t know you from Adam. Nowadays I live with my family in a commuter town, which is nice, but feels like a bit of a cheat somehow.

But it’s memories of growing up, and what it felt like to be insider – and then later coming back to the village as an outsider – that have coloured the whole of this latest book. Knowing where we belong can be very difficult, and nightmarish if you begin to suspect a place is not just wrong, but dangerous for you.

  • BB: Do you believe in ghosts?

PE: Um. I want to say of course not. The truth is, if you believe something ardently when you’re ten, you’ll probably believe it when you’re a hundred and ten – only secretly. Being reasoned and rational doesn’t seem to help. I frighten easily.

  • BB: Your characters are so well defined and believable, are elements of their personalities based on people in real life?

PE: Of course. My characters are always based on real life – for about the first three paragraphs. After that first page, whatever tenuous connection the characters ever had to real people is completely lost. I think most authors would say that a book only works when characters develop and grow so as to become almost independent of the writer. If you have someone real in your head and you’re trying to fit a story to him – or her - you’re going to end up with a mismatch. On the other hand, types of people can help make a character. There are lots of people who are like Sara and Tom, both wanting something the other person can’t give them. Looking for something outside themselves.

I’ll tell you where I often keep to real life though – it’s places. Houses, locations. In Weight of Water I have tried to describe a place that really does exist – a house in its own Valley, next to a river, wooded and green and remote. A place like that could have any kind of story attached to it.

  • BB: Present tense is an unusual narrative (and works really well!) how hard was it to keep it up for a whole novel?

PE: Is it unusual? Now you’ve got me worried! I seem to fall into the present tense quite often in books. Maybe it’s because I write so much in the first person. If I were to set something in the past with the subject telling the story, it would prefigure the ending in some way. It would suggest whoever is doing the talking has lived to tell the tale.

You’re right, though; it can be difficult. The past tense is easier because you can be freer in respect of what a person knows. In the past tense, you’re writing about something that has already happened, so you can be more knowing, less … stupid. After all, everyone’s wiser after the event. But then you lose the immediacy and some of the suspense, and I don’t want that.

  • BB: When embarking on a novel, do you plan, or just write and see what happens?

PE: I do plan, but it’s very organic. I’ll have a germ of an idea, maybe a situation or a predicament, which somehow becomes sticky - it attracts other ideas and characters, and they all start to cling together. It all happens much in the way of daydream. After that though, the dreaming stops and I’ll set about writing a synopsis, a very long one - sixty pages or more. In a sense it’s the book written in miniature, where I get to know the characters and how they form events, but all written quite fast. It’s where I’ll work out the atmosphere in which things will unfold, while being quite technical in making the plot work out. The important thing, though, is to be utterly flexible when writing the actual book, so that nothing gets railroaded by some fixed idea.

  • BB: What's your favourite thing about being a writer?

PE: One of the best things about writing is that however slow or enclosed real life gets, there are always the places I can go to on the page. Probably I write for the same reason I read – for the journey. I loved writing parts of Weight of Water because along with being a ghost story, it’s actually very romantic.

Often, though, I end up writing about quite dark things. Mind you, if it’s with large dollops of black humour as in my last book Saving Grace, then it can be huge fun – the devil has the best tunes.

But my favourite thing of all, is reading something I’ve just written and thinking that it’s just right. Like hitting a perfect note in music that sets up a whole train of resonances. It doesn’t happen often, and it rarely lasts, but when it’s there, it’s wonderful.

  • BB: Are there any writers or books that have been a particular inspiration to you?

PE: Too many to mention. Roger Lancelyn Green and Alan Garner woke me up to the possibility that you could read – and write – yourself out of this world. Bram Stoker made sure I never slept easy in my bed. George Eliot and Jane Austen hammered home the lesson that if you have the character right, the story will follow. Henry James showed he could write about absolutely nothing and still make the world seem flayed and exposed. Then there are Ali Smith and Helen Dunmore who write so elegantly about what it is to be human and flawed. I could go on and on...

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

PE: I’m reading Roberto Calasso’s Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony which is a meditation on Greek myths; and Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle which is just black and brilliant. It even has soot on the outside of the pages that comes off on your hands if you read it in the bath. I love it.

  • BB: What's next for Penelope Evans?

MS: I’m half way through the first draft of a book about magic and hypnotism and twins who keep a hold on each other even after death. It’s keeping me awake at nights.

  • BB: Thanks a lot, Penny and we're really looking forward to seeing the new book!

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