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My First Time...with Tor Udall

Following a BA (Hons) degree in Film and Theatre at Bristol University, Tor (Victoria) co-founded a dance-theatre company that performed at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Festival Hall. On submitting A Thousand Paper Birds to agents, Tor received six offers of representation. She currently works part-time as an editor for a creative consultancy. She lives in London with her husband and two young children.

Tor Udall

Here's the intriguing blurb for A Thousand Paper Birds... After the sudden death of his wife, Audrey, Jonah sits on a bench in Kew Gardens, trying to reassemble the shattered pieces of his life.

Chloe, shaven-headed and abrasive, finds solace in the origami she meticulously folds. But when she meets Jonah, her carefully constructed defences threaten to fall.

Milly, a child quick to laugh, freely roams Kew, finding beauty everywhere she goes. But where is her mother and where does she go when the gardens are closed?

Harry's purpose is to save plants from extinction. Quiet and enigmatic, he longs for something – or someone – who will root him more firmly to the earth.

Audrey links these strangers together. As the mystery of her death unravels, the characters journey through the seasons to learn that stories, like paper, can be refolded and reformed. Haunted by songs and origami birds, this novel is a love letter to a garden and a hymn to lost things.

Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.

I had notebooks full of ideas but couldn’t find a way forward until I realised there were two completely different novels in there. That was a major a-ha! moment. I sat on a bench in Kew Gardens, listened, and began to write.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?

It might take seven years and several drafts but it would eventually be read, loved and published. I used every shred of faith I had to get through it.

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

With two young children and a part-time job, I don’t really have that luxury. I’m pretty disciplined. However, now my ‘Paper Birds’ are ruffling their feathers, ready to fly out into the world, Twitter is much busier and that’s a really easy way to lose time.

A helpful ‘procrastination’ is playing the piano. Usually by the end of the piece, I’ve solved the sentence, or the character intention, or whatever was keeping me stuck.

What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing your book?

My agent at the time read an early draft and said, “You can’t do that. You can’t mix up the real and the magical this way.” I stood my ground, wanting to push the boundaries of what literary fiction could do and still be ‘literary’. I believed that my quirky, hopeful book might find a readership. The agent and I parted ways but when I submitted the next draft, six agents fell in love with it and offered representation.

Best thing about writing your book?

Firstly, it was a wonderful excuse to go to Kew Gardens! Secondly, I loved the strange coincidences that happened along the way that encouraged me to keep going.

Creativity is a strange and fantastic beast – a dance between me and something ‘other’, whether that’s my subconscious or something more mysterious. It feels like an act of co-creation.

Another highlight was my agent ringing while I was standing outside the Palm House in Kew Gardens. I was told I had a publishing deal and I was in the perfect place.

And the worst?

It’s an ambitious book. Weaving the real with the metaphysical was challenging, as was having five character perspectives and two different timelines. There were days when it felt like I was entering the boxing ring, wrestling with ideas and ending the day with my nose bloodied. There were so many different versions of the book wanting to be told, it was hard, sometimes, to decide which way to go.

Go-to writing snacks?

Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.

Who or what inspires you to write?

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places: an overheard conversation, a fleeting image, even a glance between two people. A specific location is often a starting point for me – the mood of a place, and how it affects people.

Other writers are a constant fuel as well as dance, theatre, visual art – anything that makes my soul itch. In my research period, I’ll collect images of location, character qualities, moods and motifs, all of which I pin to huge noticeboards in my room. Each time I walk in, it feels as if I’m entering the book.

For my next novel, I’ve been listening to a lot of Max Richter. It is music that makes you ache, that stirs up all the things unsaid; those subtle, almost indefinable emotions. There’s a propulsion to his time signatures – it helps my hands start moving without me.

The book that changed you?

Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It was the first time I realised that literature could do that.

Your pump up song?

She Dances by Anna Jordan. I listened to it constantly in the final drafts of Paper Birds when I was cross-eyed with exhaustion. It’s not so much a pump up song – it’s quiet with pared back vocals, percussion and Indian rhythms. But there’s a journeying to it and it encouraged me to keep putting one step in front of the other. ‘She dances to it all / She must have heard those beats before / I hope that she’s always there / I hope that she feels the rhythm ‘til the end.’

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?

I loved Sarah Winman’s and Sarah Perry’s latest novels and would love to ply them with wine and ask, “How the hell did you do that?’

But if I have to pick one, I’ll say Audrey Niffenegger as I think our conversation would cover different art-forms and the act of creativity itself.

But then again, there’s Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare…

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?

Your art and craft are the only things that matter. Write because you need to write, because you can’t let go of an image, a character, a mystery. Write because you love the puzzle itself, the challenge. There’s a lot of noise when you get published. Whether you’re met with praise or criticism, the only real work is to continue writing, to continue striving to be better. If you’re one of the ones who can’t stop writing, you will get there.

Snap up your copy of A Thousand Paper Birds here and follow Tor on Twitter.


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