In conversation with Marc Nair and Frances Hardinge: How do you start writing?
Author to author
A day before Frances Hardinge was crowned with Costa Coffee's Book of the Year Award for her young adult novel The Lie Tree, Marc Nair caught up with the Brit author to talk writing rubbish, their shared vices and being unafraid
At the month-old Costa Fresco on London's Tottenham Court Road, Singaporean Marc Nair sits beside Kent native Frances Hardinge. Superficially, the two are as different as night and day — Nair's caramelised complexion (a result of his three-quarter Indian and one-quarter Chinese ethnic makeup) is peppered with a well-groomed beard, while Hardinge looks every bit the English rose, albeit an eccentric one: Pale skin flushed from January's cold.
But as soon as they're engaged in conversation, similarities start to appear. Sure, they've both arrived in puffed up gear — Nair in his trusty Uniqlo jacket, while Hardinge sports a Victorian-inspired white shirt — but the core of their camaraderie is formed by the fact that they're both published creatives.
Nair needs no introduction, but for the sake of those who've been living under a rock, here's a quick recap. Part of Singapore's poetry slam scene since 2003, the 34-year-old has represented Singapore in international literary events — in fact, prior to meeting Hardinge in London, he was in Frankfurt with fellow local writer Amanda Lee Koe for Litprom, the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature. To date, he's published five volumes of poetry, which include the travel-themed Chai and social issue-themed Postal Code. On 12 March, he'll launch his sixth: Spomenik, a collection of poems and photographs from the Balkans.
43-year-old Hardinge has published seven young adult novels, the latest being The Lie Tree, which was released last year. A fantasy set in the Victorian period, it was to be awarded the title of Costa Book Awards' Book of the Year the next day — but on that drizzly London afternoon, Hardinge didn't know it yet.
On crafting characters since childhood
MN: I've written about my childhood, but I don't have characters from childhood or that was written when I was young. My genre's quite different. Spoken word for me is about accessing memory as a means to building minor narratives is quite useful, so certain episodes are true but also glazed with a sheen of poetic license.
FH: I often don't realise that they're the same characters that were visible in embryonic form in some of my earlier stories. One of the things I was looking at in The Lie Tree was not just how the 14-year-old faces actual obstacles, but the psychological effects of being subtly rejected, undermined, devalued and how someone internalises that. I didn't want her to be just a 21st century girl in funny clothes and ideas, I wanted her to actually be a somewhat believable Victorian girl who had to wrestle with everything that she has been told, but ultimately has to answer her own driving intellectual needs, frustration and anger. I think the emotional side of it still probably has a resonance now.
What I hope my 14-year-old self would learn from The Lie Tree is that is that it's okay to be angry. It's okay to have a dark side, and just because you're angry it doesn't mean you're wrong.
On being disciplined
FH: I find panic and caffeine work best for me. I still find writers' groups very useful, because they have regular deadlines, so there's a group of people who would know if I haven't written anything, and they would laugh and point. It does mean that as my writers' meeting approaches, my productivity increases.
MN: I don't have the benefit of writer's groups. I don't think there are any in Singapore. The problem with writers' groups is that the scene is not as developed as here. I think I'm productive but I don't have set hours to write. In fact I write most when I'm travelling on trains, because poetry is not about meeting 500 words a day. It doesn't really work that way — poetry has a completely different springboard of ideas. Obviously, if there's a deadline, caffeine is very much a part of it. Whisky gives me discipline, yeah (laughs).
On the moment they realised they were bring taken seriously
FH: I attended my first writing group. I had written my first short story, and I was nervous about it. I sat down, reading it, and it was quite long. The room had gone very quiet and I wasn't sure if they'd all gone to sleep because I couldn't look at them, I was looking at the page. I was wondering if I should zip through it because I had this fear that I was torturing everybody in the room. Then at about two thirds into it, there was a knock on the door. There was a sound of absolute annoyance from everyone else in the room. And I realised that they weren't all asleep, that they were actually listening to the story. And I remember thinking, "Good grief! They like it!" I thought, "Okay, I might actually have something here."
MN: Similar to Frances, it was actually on stage — it wasn't when my first book got published. It is of course, a very momentous achievement to publish a book. I came from a spoken word background where there's this divide that spoken word poets are not taken as seriously as page poets. There's some form of discrimination up till today. The first time I was on stage, I did really well and then I tanked really badly over two rounds. It gave me a sense of an audience — that people are here to listen to words and were appreciating what I was saying. I went away from that very encouraged to write and perform more. And that was really the start of things, 14 years ago. For me the impetus of writing has to come from within. But of course, people acknowledging your words is critical. Because you know, you write in a bubble.
FH: Yeah, it is the weirdest profession. Performing to an audience that I can't see. In your case, you sometimes can see them!
MN: If the lights aren't too bright.
On making a name of themselves in London and Singapore
FH: Publicity is part of an author's job. At first, I have to admit, I was trying hard to avoid social media, partly because I knew it would distract me, and partly because it always seemed like something that could suck you in and make you a little obsessive. But it was suggested that I should choose one, so I'm now on Twitter. It is useful to have a presence. One is expected to do school visits, blog tours, maybe to blog oneself, and appear in the right places. All of this is easier in London, certainly. I'm lucky that since publication I've been living in London or Oxford, both of which have impressive literary scenes.
MN: First of all, Singapore remains a small country. Even though we're densely packed, it does not translate into interest in literature. Poetry is even more niche, and spoken word is slightly more niche. In a way, I have to get myself out there. I believe in collaboration but not for the sake of making myself more famous. I'm always driven by the urge to create and to find new points of intersection. So I go out and get myself into an exhibition with a bunch of other artists who are not poets at all, they're visual artists, sculptors, jazz musicians...spoken word blends with singing. The amount we're getting paid does not reflect the amount of work that goes into it, but it's not about that. To us, it's about that journey we're embarking on, to create possibilities for words to live in different spaces. I play to a audience that perhaps would never go to a poetry gig, but they'll go for a music gig. I'm also part of a spoken word troupe, and that's very fun.
On networking, meeting strangers and inspiring people
FH: I think it helps that one meets a lot of people. I'm not somebody who deliberately networks, but I am someone who naturally talks to people. They remember the hat, for some reason. I think, then, when people are thinking, "Who do we know living in London who's a children's author?" I can't claim that it's a carefully formed strategy. I just like hats. Originally, when I was first published, people were trying to persuade me to not wear the hat when speaking in public. As you can see they've given up on that now.
MN: The beard has increased in intensity in the last year. People start referring to me as "oh yeah, the poet with the beard". I think also just being a spoken word poet. The number of people who say, "Oh this is the first time I'm meeting a poet"! We're still a minor minority anywhere in the world. Being a poet itself is something that's unique.
FH: There's still this lurking idea of writers, poets and novelists — that there's a little bit mystical about us. What kind of hole do we turn reality from?
MN: Either that or they say, "What do you really do?" This morning the customs officer asked, "What do you write?" "I write poetry." "Really? Are you published?" "Yes." "Okay, have a nice day." So that was my justification entering London — I'm a published poet.
FH: I talk to people on trains and if they ask what I do, I do tell them. If they find out I'm a children's author, the first thing they say is, "Are you going to be the next J.K. Rowling, and do you do the pictures too?"
Once we've got past that, they're often really nice about it. A lot of them will tell me about the book they've thought about writing, but never written. And sometimes they haven't told anyone else about it, but they'll know I understand. It's the most wonderful privilege. I always think of it as getting a glimpse into the life of unwritten books. I tell them to just go and write them!
MN: After a show, or if someone reads my book, I occasionally get messages. A few days ago someone said, "I wrote some poems when I was really young and completely forgot about writing, and reading your book or listening to your performance made me want to start writing again." And that's like, wow, okay. You're enabling people to rediscover what was suppressed. If as writers we can do that, I think our job is done.
On how to actually start writing
FH: Best way to start writing? By not being afraid to write rubbish. Just write. It's like running a tap. It starts out cold, but if you run it long enough, that's the best way to get the warm stuff to come through.
MN: My personal conviction is that if you're not a reader, you can't be a writer. I've met so many people and I'll ask, "Do you read books? Facebook doesn't count. If you don't read, you don't have a reservoir of words, ideas and possibilities. And even if your first stories and poems are kind of your riffing off what you've written, you're still creating and through that, you will find your own style.
FH: Indeed. If you hear lots of different voices, then it's easier to find your own.
MN: If you hear no voices, then you're either a genius, or, I don't know...it's not going to work.
Famous last words
FH: Be stubborn. Be thin-skinned when writing, be thick-skinned when dealing with people's responses to your writing, and keep going.
MN: Don't keep your words in a closet. At some point, let them out into the world and don't be afraid of what people think of you, and of what you have.
For an exclusive preview of Marc Nair's book, Spomenik, join him on the second edition of Costa Coffee's Coffee With series on 20 February, 3 to 5pm at Costa Coffee Raffles City. Admission is free. For more information, click here.