I like it when readers ask questions. It feels as though the core of what I’ve written has touched a heart, in a special way. When John Hingston read Death in the Mountains, he very kindly wrote to me in Italy with a series of questions. I felt you’d enjoy his thoughts too. It helps writers persevere with their work when they read what and how other writers handle their creative work.
Do you need to love words to be a writer? Are you primarily an entertainer or a communicator?
Yes, I think a writer has to love words. You need to turn words over, to make sure they perfectly express what you are trying to say. A writer has to communicate uniquely, in their own voice and invent different ways of expressing emotions. I’ve always been a communicator as I started my career as a journalist. Communicating is a huge part of journalism. Now I think I am primarily an entertainer. In fact, when my publisher asked me whether I was ready to leave non-fiction and move into fiction he asked me just one question. ‘Are you ready to move into the world of entertainment?’
Does your purpose change with the project/book you’re engaged in creating?
Yes, stories morph and move as you write. You start with an idea, then it generally changes or takes shape. Ideas strike as you write. That’s why it’s important to keep writing, even if you’re not sure how the story will finish. It’s only when you are writing that ideas can flow.
Do you constantly have your audience in mind or do you give yourself some rope to range about, and then pick things over during editing?
I usually have an audience in mind. Almost all my readers love Italy in some way. So my name has, over the years, become synonymous with Italy, Tuscany and Florence. I always pick things over when editing, over and over and over. But generally most of my readers enjoy ‘armchair travel in Italy.’
Do you distinguish between writing for yourself and writing for others?
Yes and no. I always write what is important to me at that moment of my life. I couldn’t write The Promise now. I couldn’t write Death in the Mountains now, or Naples, A Way of Love. I am ready to write a contemporary, fiction, thriller set in Florence that has a deeper message about inter-cultural marriage. I am writing it for myself but I would hate to think it would bore people.
Do you start with a big idea or a phrase that sounds good?
I start with a huge idea. And it has to sound good (at least to me). I always try to write the opening with a big bang. Start with action. It helps me drive the narrative and the story as I go. If I don’t’ like the story it won’t get written so it’s imperative that the writer is in love with their story, or it won’t sustain them for 80,000 words.
Can/do you compose at the keyboard or is the computer more a tool for assembling and editing the sections as they acquire form?
Usually, I write daily in long form on the computer. Though I tend to hand write when I need to think more deeply and find personal or distinctive phrases. I also tend to edit on hard copy in a café. I print off what I’ve written and read it like I would any book in a café. If it holds me, I know I am onto something. I do my best writing up at our old family farm, completely undisturbed, totally absorbed in my characters and the story.
Finally, have you looked back at your fb account where you asked tourists/travellers for feedback on their love of Italy? Has it turned up anything interesting or provocative?
Yes, for Rome (I live in Florence so Rome is not my stomping ground) I’ve been given some wonderful tips.
How soon before your next book is published?
I hope to finish this first draft by November or so. June, July, August will be frantic with The Art of Writing and my children on summer holidays. So my word count will diminish. I want to go to Hong Kong to see my mother in July and I will take my 17 year old son Leo. I would like him to spend some time with his grandmother. I’ll take my new book with me and work on it there. This story will take many drafts. So if I am happy with it by early next year, it would be out late next year. Normally I submit my manuscript in May and it is released just before Christmas.
Thanks John, for sending me these questions. I’ve enjoyed thinking about the answers.
If you would like to write with questions, don’t hesitate.
Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together. Email me at email@example.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.