My First Time with...Xan Brooks
Xan Brooks is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. He spent his rude youth as part of the founding editorial team of the Big Issue magazine and his respectable middle period as an associate editor at the Guardian, specialising in film. The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is his first novel.
Here's the blurb...
Summer 1923: the modern world. Orphaned Lucy Marsh climbs into the back of an old army truck and is whisked off to the woods north of London – a land haunted by the past, where lost souls and monsters conceal themselves in the trees.
In a sunlit clearing she meets the ‘funny men’, a quartet of disfigured ex-soldiers named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Here are the loved and the damaged, dark forests and darker histories, and the ever-present risk of discovery and violent retribution. Xan Brooks’ stunning debut is heartbreaking, disturbing and redemptive.
Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.
In October 2014 my dad told me about his aunt (who had recently died) & about something she had told him once - how, as a girl, she had been taken out to Epping forest to meet “the funny men from the war”. I immediately thought this sounded like some dark, social-realist fairytale & started to wonder how such a thing could & would happen. I decided I wanted to write about it - and initially envisaged it as a brutal. pitch-black short story. But the more I thought about, the more the story opened out.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?
Not to let the story open out *too* much. The obvious worry for the first-time novelist is how you are possibly going to fill 400 pages. So the danger in those opening weeks of plotting and writing is just to throw everything into the pot. Scores of subplots, hundreds of supporting characters, anything to furnish the book. Whereas you’re probably better off just trusting in the original idea and letting it shape the direction and content. As it was, I found myself have to go back and weed out most of the ingredients I’d initially thrown in.
What’s your go-to procrastination method?
Social media is the curse of our age. You break from the writing to check your Twitter timeline, take a moment to respond to some pointless inanity with an inanity of your own, click on the link to an article you’re not especially fussed about reading and then all of a sudden two hours have passed.
What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing your book?
I don’t think I had a big tantrum while writing this book. But I remember a three-day crisis of faith when my wife read the first draft & took violently against a pivotal chapter towards the end. She thought I should scrap it altogether, whereas I thought the whole book hung on it. Happily she later read the chapter again & changed her mind.
Best thing about writing your book?
Write long enough & hard enough & you - sometimes, not always - reach a point where the magic creeps in. The lights come on, the characters look around and start speaking & the story starts to tell itself. At this point, it’s as though all you’re really doing is transcribing, or holding onto a planchette as it moves around a ouija board. This never lasts very long - a few pages at the most. But it is the best, most exciting feeling of them all.
And the worst?
When you write flat out as hard as you can for hour after hour, day after day, and the magic never materialises. The lights remain switched off, the characters are a bunch of dead-eyed mannequins, and the story is an endless up-hill slog. I think the writing is only good when it feels like its own living thing, its own story; somehow separate from the writer. But on bad writing days, the process is like staring into a harsh, unflattering mirror. All you can see is your own limitations.
Go-to writing snacks?
In the heat of battle I’ll eat whatever’s close by. I once scooped up a handful of pot-pourri thinking it was Bombay mix.
Who or what inspires you to write?
I think I’m probably inspired by the art, films & music I love as much as by books that I love. It seemed to me that they were all attempting a similar thing. This thing always sounds horrendously wanky when you put it into words, but it is essentially about trying to open an interesting new window on the world and to frame the place in all its beauty and mess and goodness and horror.
The book that changed you?
God, this is such a cliche but I’d have to say The Catcher in the Rye, in that it hit me at exactly the right moment. I have a crystal clear memory of opening the book out of curiosity, in my bedroom on a Sunday evening, aged 13 going on 14 & it was like the doors blowing off. But then every great book changes you a little bit - so honourable mention to (in no particular order) Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, Martin Eden, The Stand, My Antonia, The Day of the Locust, Wise Blood, A New Life, The Book of Daniel, Blood Meridian and Cannery Row.
Your pump up song?
I want to say Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth - but then I recently read Colson Whitehead saying that he always listens to it before writing his books. So I guess I have to give it up, on account of him being much more successful than me.
If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?
Are you kidding? Imagine watching your all-time favourite writer get pissed-up on plonk. Imagine them slurring their words, mangling their grammar, probably repeating themselves & then laughing at their own drunken jokes. It would be absolutely horrible - you’d never look at their books the same way again.
One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?
Don’t think about getting the book published. Sit down, start a story and then simply see where it takes you.
Xan is joining us at our October 12th Spooktacular! Snap up your ticket here.