Interview with Jack Messenger

When did you first start writing?
I’ve written since childhood, but in recent years it has become my main work. I have published quite a bit of non-fiction, but now I want to tell stories. I believe strongly that in this extremely troubled world of ours, the stories we tell one another really matter. We need to understand one another, to have compassion and empathy. Good fiction helps us in all these things. Fortunately, reading and writing are also very enjoyable!
What is your writing process?
Usually, some kind of idea comes to me for a situation or a line of dialogue – even just a location – and it settles into the back of my mind until I am able to amplify it by thinking of a story. A great deal of a writer’s work is done long before the business of typing words commences. I have to live with my ideas a long time before they feel natural and possess enough energy for me to be confident I can do something with them. I’ve had so many false starts with things that I haven’t really thought through that I have become very cautious: I don’t start writing until I’m absolutely sure I’m not wasting my time with a half-baked idea that doesn’t work. Once I do start writing, the main thing for me is to find the characters – find their voices and their lives – and then have them interact within a larger context. That’s all about giving a shape to the narrative and making the milieu as real and tangible as possible for my readers.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Finishing! Writing is such hard work, and a novel is a real marathon. So I am always relieved to get to the end of a project, having done the best that I can. The pursuit of excellence in writing is never ending. Readers deserve the best you can do and I would not be happy if I did not think I could give of my best.

Aside from finishing, I love finding the right words - in dialogue, in descriptions. Language is so beautiful and so complex that finding just the right word, then combining it with other words just as carefully chosen, is a painstaking process of trial and error. Sometimes it’s as if I have to force the language to say precisely what I mean!
What motivated you to become an indie author?
It seems the ideal opportunity to find readers without having to seek someone’s permission or approval beforehand. My writing is closely critiqued by a number of colleagues whose writing and opinions I respect. Once they are happy with what I am doing, I feel assured that I can seek out an audience for my work. Today, for a whole host of reasons, mainstream publishing is tremendously averse to taking risks, especially with untried authors, and it is hard for writers even to find someone willing to read their work in order to assess if it is publishable. This is extremely frustrating. So I decided to become an indie author, while at the same time seeking independent small publishers who might be prepared to try someone new. So I am pursuing a dual strategy and not putting my eggs in one basket.
What's the story behind your latest book?
‘Four American Tales’ is just that: four short stories all set in the United States and all with a US voice to them. Three of them feature women as their main protagonists, while the fourth also has strong female characters even though it is narrated by a young man. I am always attracted to female characters. I generally prefer the company of women to that of men and I hope I can communicate women’s experiences in my writing. On the one hand, it’s a technical challenge to write from the point of view of another gender but, on the other hand, where would any of us be as writers or human beings if we could not imagine and empathize with fifty per cent of the human population?

‘Four American Tales’ is my first venture into ebooks as a writer of fiction. It is, I suppose, an experiment, a way of seeing how things work out, how to connect with readers. My novel ‘The Long Voyage Home’, while it shares some of the emphases of these short stories, is somewhat different. I hope I can surprise and engage people with everything I write. That is why I enjoy reading and writing.
What are you working on next?
I’ve just finished a novel called ‘The Long Voyage Home’, which takes place on a passenger freighter sailing from Singapore to Port Said in 1935. It’s about a woman, Miss Bird, who is returning to England for the first time in many years. She is prey to all sorts of uncertainties about the future, but she also has a secret to keep, and there are complicated dangers to confront among her fellow passengers. I am extremely pleased with the story and I think people will enjoy it.

I’m also nursing an idea for another novel, but it’s early days yet and too soon to talk about it!
What do you read for pleasure?
Fiction, primarily, plus the occasional biography or other subject. I do more and more rereading of my favourite books, as I’d hate to think I would never read any of them again. So that means I am no longer as adventurous a reader as I should be. Writers have to read as well as write, but I suppose if I have found what I think is the best, then it can’t do any harm to my writing if I keep rereading it. I hope not, anyway!
What are your five favorite books, and why?
I have so many favourite books, but five which come immediately to mind are Anna Karenina, Going to Meet the Man, Great Expectations, The House of Mirth and The Wine of Solitude. I love classic Russian literature and, to my mind, no one can beat Tolstoy. His people are so real, I feel I know them. James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man is a fabulous collection of short stories about Black experience from which I learned a lot. Dickens shares the humanity of these two authors, plus he’s terribly funny. Edith Wharton’s novels are superb and The House of Mirth is one of her most moving stories. I love anything by Irene Nemirovsky, so The Wine of Solitude has to stand for them all. And I’ll cheat and add a sixth favourite, which really is a cheat because it comprises a series of seven novels: Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series exemplifies an entirely different approach to fiction that I find compelling and unsurpassed.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
Mine’s an iPad. It’s very adaptable for different formats and it also enables me to take photographs and videos, and record interviews, for my blog at Feed the Monkey.
Describe your desk
It’s a big wooden dining table that we bought in France when we lived there for eight years. The table is far too big for our small house, but it would be such hard work getting it out the door that I think we’re stuck with it. I just have my Mac computer on it, plus a coaster for my mug of tea or coffee, and my spectacles case. My wife, Brigitte, works on the other side of the table, so we share our thoughts and emails from time to time. Her presence helps me concentrate. Strangely enough, if I am on my own I spend far too much time staring out the window.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
When I am not writing I am usually thinking about writing, or else promoting my writing. When I’m not doing any of those things I can usually be found reading books or watching films, which have always been my great passions in life. Brigitte and I have two gorgeous greyhounds whom we adore and they take up much of our time.
Published 2015-12-16.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.