November 6, 2009
Kara Charlesworth: What’s the most important thing in a book?
Tim Wynne-Jones: I think you have to have a character you care for. The plot can be the best plot in the world but if you don’t care about the central character then your reader won’t care. You need to start by throwing this poor, lovely character into the middle of some awful conflict right off the bat so that the reader thinks, “Oh my goodness! How are they going to get out of this? If that happened to me what would I do?” Right from the get-go, your reader is inside and they will follow. But if they don’t care they won’t follow.
KC: What roles do setting and place play?
TW-J: Setting and place are much more than backdrop because we are formed by where we live. You might ask yourself, “Who am I?” and spend the rest of your life answering that question. But “Where do I come from?” is a question we can answer immediately. I come from this place. That might change—you might move. But as a writer it’s terribly important because even if I don’t know who I am, I can say where I am. You can say, “This forms me. I live in this area. Every morning I come out and I see those mountains or I see this swamp” or wherever it is you live. For me, the characters are always resonant with their landscape, to some degree. In regards to The Uninvited, the other facet of is that sometimes the setting can evoke the story. For the setting ofThe Uninvited somebody told me about a piece of land they had bought with a house on it they were going to fix up. It was by a stream call the Sny. It was a local word I’d never heard before so I went and looked at this house and the minute I saw it I thought, “I just love the setting; it looks like a place a person could escape to.” The next thing I thought was, “Yeah, someone could be spying on them.” So even before I’d begun the story the setting was evoking in me certain responses. In that way I don’t think I’d be capable of writing a story that moves from one environment to another, because the environment is part of the story.
KC: What traits or qualities do you think are most important in a good writer?
TW-J: Stick-to-it-iveness. What I mean is the ability to keep your bum in the seat, to sit down and write. Also, the ability to ask, “What if?” It’s the desire to walk around always looking; a writer is a detective except they’re not trying to solve a crime, but rather to find a story. You always have to be looking around you and noticing things. A writer sees, say, a three-legged dog. That writer is thinking “ Maybe it’s growing each leg one at a time and the fourth one hasn’t come yet. Or maybe it used to be a three-legged stool that somebody turned into a dog.” They aren’t just saying, “Oh, a three-legged dog.” A good writer is inquisitive; they look at the world and wonder how it could be different or why it is different. They have a sense of wonder. I don’t think you can write unless you absolutely are filled with an almost child-like sense of wonder. As time goes by, it’s inevitable that you develop a bit of a thick skin and you can get a bit cynical about somethings, but if you become entirely cynical I don’t think you can actually write. You get to the point where you say, “Why bother?” But if you have a sense of wonder, then you can go from there.
KC: What do you feel is the most satisfying part of being a writer?
TW-J: When I first start off, the story is just like an illness—like the flu—and my body just wants it out. I wake up at all hours of the night to write it down. I just try to get through it as quickly as I can. Once I’ve got it down, no matter how bad that draft is, then the fun comes. Because then I get to start rewriting. The story is already there. The story might change dramatically. I may pull out a character, I may put in a character, I may take them to this place instead of that place, but it’s almost an abstract quality. I feel relief that it’s out there, right in front of me. Then I can really enjoy it. So that next period is when I really do the writing, and for me, oh, I love it. I get to live in a story of my own devising; I get to be inside it, so it’s really great.
KC: Is there any other advice you would give to aspiring writers?
TW-J: The primary advice is always to read and read and read and read because the greatest inspiration to a writer is reading something wonderful and wanting to emulate that. Sometimes people say, “Well, I read this book but I can do better than that.” But that person will never become a writer.It is much stronger when somebody says, “I read such-and-such a book, and it just filled me with this desire to write anything even vaguely as good as that.” That person I put my bets on. It’s an attitude that only comes from reading other books. Lots of people have ideas and lots of people come up to me and say, “I have a great idea for a book!” and sometimes they want to tell me, and I say, “Don’t tell me!” because as soon as you tell someone an idea you’re getting rid of it.Keep it to yourself and write it down. Work on it; sink your soul into it.