Interview with Rowan Brigid McShane

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Being able to connect to my characters, learning about them, seeing where I can push them, and where they take me, and sometimes disagreeing entirely with them, when their voice gets strong and I have to accept that they're now alive and I have to compromise on some things.
What are you working on next?
I'll be working on the next instalment of Tales of Phallusy, carrying on Charlie's "adventure" in The Anti-Hero. I've already got a first draft, but I haven't worked on it for a while, because I wrote it at the same time as Pure Phallusy, so there's a lot to do.
Who are your favorite authors?
Terry Pratchett, for making me laugh.
Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones, for constant magic, in so many forms.
Phillip Pullman, for epic-ness and a wider perspective.
Tove Jansson, for sweetness, characters, and complexity.
K.G. Lethbridge and Nicholas Stuart Gray, for being read to me as a child.
Susan Cooper, for darkness and making the part of me that longs for the old stories sing.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Who says I get out of bed?

I wrote most of Pure Phallusy in bed, but I was ill at the time. I read somewhere that every writer has a special place where they write, and mine might possibly be in bed. It's warm, big, comfortable, and safe. It's where I daydream.

I digress.

Different things, usually, necessity more often than not, feeding the pets, feeding the family, general house stuff, work.

But then, there are times when I just need to go somewhere. The other night, at about 1.30am, the moon was shining really brightly, but the mist was coming in. It was really warm and still, and it smelt really fresh. I got up and walked to the view point close by, which shows east to the mountains, south to the hills, and west to the sea, and was then captured in a dome of mist and moonlight and shadowy trees, everything still and silent, no one else in the world.

Times like that, when something special is happening, a sunset, a sunrise, the weather, things like that, I suppose.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I sort of go through phases, writing, reading, playing computer games, watching films or TV, or listening to music and daydreaming. I usually find it difficult to do something else in one of these phases, but usually one inspires me to go on into the next phase, and I think they're all connected.

Recently I've been listening to music and daydreaming. I feel like I'm heading into a writing phase next, because now the creative juices are being spun out like a blender that doesn't have a lid on.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in North Wales, all mountains, sea, and green hills. On top of that, I lived on the National Trust property of Penrhyn Castle. I was pretty wild, with very few friends, because there were no children close by of my age. I've got a wanderlust, and was always off somewhere, usually in bare feet, eating wild fruit, swimming in the river, playing on the mud flats, climbing trees, running across the fields, or exploring the castle gardens and grounds.

I'm not bothered about what the weather does either. The wind is my favourite, because I love hearing it in the trees, or watching it ripple across the grass, or gust the rain in your face. So I used to spend a lot of time alone, out in beautiful countryside, next to a castle. Lots of time to think and create.

I've always been an avid reader too, my whole family has, and so there was a lot of time spent inside, next to the fire, reading. We used to get powercuts a lot, so TV wasn't always available.

My mum used to take us places, cairns, caves, stone circles, old churches and castles, the White Horse of Uffington, getting us up early to see the sunrise on Midsummer solstice, places of meaning, and with a great deal of history. And she always encouraged creativity, even if I was always told that my head was in the clouds.

So with regards to influence, it's very much to do with history, and magic, even if that magic is what someone thought was there. I'd like to think I'm connected to the land, and that my love of it, and of old things comes across. Sometimes perception, and how the light changes, is all that's needed to make a different world.

Then there is the comedy. I don't really know where that came from, except that my family is pretty accepting and relaxed. We're not really very angry people.
What is your writing process?
Ooooh....

Ok, so I set up four documents usually, three of which are word, the fourth is a spreadsheet, which I use to track my progress each day (i.e my word count).

The first document I call Bits and Pieces. It's where I do the main bulk of my writing. As new thoughts come to me, I write them down as numbered questions. If they're a question, it's more likely to prompt me into answering, and to thinking about the answer. Some answers are short, but more often than not, they're long, whole chunks of my story as I think of it, and sometimes they're back-story.

Nothing is in order at this point. I might be working on the end of the story, and then jump into the middle somewhere, or the beginning. I just flit around. I don't really plan anything out, I just go along with what's happening.

If I start to find it difficult, if I don't know how to answer that question yet, I move on, so that I don't block up the creativity. There's usually something else I can answer, and for me, creativity is a flow. I save the difficult bits for last, because then I've usually got more to work with and I don't stunt my writing.

Once I'm happy I've sufficiently answered the question, I colour it in pink. If I've written it, but don't intend on using it, I colour it in yellow and keep just for the sake of it. If it's in black, I know it still needs to be answered, or work doing on it.

When I've got most of the bones of the story, I assemble it into a rough skeleton in my second document, which is my Story document. Here I can see which bits are missing, and start to connect things up. Usually the assembling, and reading through, produces a number of other questions to answer in Bits and Pieces.

Anyway, then I make a list of the general happenings in the book, not chapters, as they're bigger than that, but sections. Then I write out the bits I think need working on, and bits I'm happy with, again, colour coding them (in red, blue and black this time, so it's easier).

Then I do what I can with regards to writing, filling in the bits I need to. After that, I work out the timelines and sort things out that don't make sense. Because in the book you're following Charlie, and her brother Heath, I had to make sure that the two of them progressed at the same speed. I didn't have a calendar to work with for the majority of the book, so it was a case of figuring out how long it would take to walk or ride from here to here, that sort of thing. Boring work really, but necessary.

I read through, and make the necessary changes, and read through again, change, and then leave. I left it for a couple of months, giving my brain a chance to recover. Then I read through, changed, and gave it to my mum to read, giving myself another break.

I got the comments back from my mum, and was all fired up, ready to work on it, and spent ages going through everything. Shortly after that I joined a writers group, and got loads of help. From hearing one of them I got the idea for the prophetesses, and so put them in.

Then it's just a case of getting it to people to read, and working on their comments. I've got some wonderful beta readers, all of whom gave me invaluable advice, and even if I didn't always agree with their suggestions, that in itself was a big help. It made me realise where I was going with Charlie, and how I wanted to do it. I had to do it my way. It is my book, after all. They're all writers themselves, so they understood.

But then it's just read and edit, and read, and edit, and think, and edit,, for ages and ages until I was almost sick of everyone and everything.

Oh, my third word document, it's called Names. Guess what I do in it...

So, it's my list of names, where the people turn up in the story, who they are, sometimes what they look like, basically it's just lists and lists of things, like the actual journey Charlie takes, or the list of countries and worlds, that sort of thing. What I use to reference things, make sure people don't turn up where I don't want them to.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I remember a few stories, but none that I read myself, from an early age. My mum read Grimbold's Other World, The Rout of The Ollafubs, and various Moomin stories to me and my little sister. There were probably more, but those three stick in mind.

I especially remember The Rout of The Ollafubs. I don't know why, but it's still one of my favourite books, as are the others. I don't know what it was about them, except that they're magical.

I don't know how old I was when I read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, series. I had quite a high reading age compared with my actual age, but I remember my mum read the first one to me, then I read it by myself, and then devoured the rest of the series. I love the feeling of old magic, and dark magic, but especially old stories. What I liked was how she combined not only Celtic, but Anglo and Saxon, basically, she combined Briton magic. I don't like it when everything is just Celtic.

With the Moomins, I always liked the Groke. Sometimes she really dark, and sometimes she's really cruel, and sometimes she's just sad, and lonely.

There's something about dark stories, or characters, that have a profound effect on me. They make me think about them, as do the whimsical or wise.
When did you first start writing?
Um, when I was about 16, I think. I started a few things then, just ideas, nothing really to mention, or to write home about (hur hur). I was 18 when I wrote my first book, over 100k words. That's packed up in a box somewhere, maybe never to be seen again. I learnt a lot from it, mostly because of how bad it was. The good thing about it is that I didn't make the same mistakes again with Charlie, Pure Phallusy.

Pure Phallusy was the next thing I completed, and I started it when I was 22, but in-between 18 and 22 there were lots of half started stories. And since starting it, I haven't been able to write anything else because she fills up my entire mind. But, you know, three years on one book isn't too bad, I guess, and hopefully I'll do better.
Describe your desk
My desk is my bed, or at least it was, when I wrote Pure Phallusy.

Ok, so the bed is a super king sized one. The covers were always blue or cream, with a dark blanket on the bottom of the bed. I used to sit bang in the middle, not only to get the most out of the bed, and the most duvet, but because of how the frame was, there was a gap for me to rest my head back, and not have my head shoved forwards by my ponytail.

When I wrote, when my boyfriend was there, if it was cold, I used to stay where I was so that I could touch him and stay warm when he went on the computer (which was on one side of the bed) but if he complained about the dent I was making in the middle, or if I needed more light, I used to shuffle over to the side where the bedside light was.

But alone, it was always in the middle. I used to spread my papers and pens out all over the bed, with the most important things closest. But I type, so my laptop was always on my knee as well.

The walls of the bedroom were cream, and there were no pictures on them, but the room wasn't always tidy, and he liked to collect beer bottles, so they were around the perimeter of the room. Because it was in Warrington, and we lived on a not so nice street, I used to shut the curtains, and put my earphones in.

Music varied from classical, to rock, to metal, to pop, to dance, trance, and folk, as well as various others I cannot name. I wrote almost all of the book with earphones in, unless I got to a complicated bit, or a rhyming bit, then it had to be utter silence.
Published 2013-09-25.
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