Write Advice: author Paul Kingsnorth talks about his book, The Wake

There have been few books in recent years more experimental than Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. Paul joined our Faber Academy alumni to discuss how unconventional publishing impacted his novel, and how his ideas have developed while writing the next book in the trilogy.

Q – Hi Paul, thank you for joining us for this chat. I’d love to ask a few questions about your novel The Wake. Firstly, is there anything you would do differently in terms of the language you created?

Also, is the book being translated, and if so, how are you ensuring the translations are up to standard?

Paul Kingsnorth – Would I do anything differently? That’s a good question. The language was something that evolved as I wrote the book, rather than something I planned coherently beforehand, so perhaps there are improvements I could make in retrospect.

I have noticed a few modern English terms that crept in unchecked, but in all honesty, I don’t think I could do much differently.

As for translations, I’ve had no offers yet! Personally, I think it would be impossible.

Q – What was the most surprising thing you learned through the writing of The Wake, and what brought you to write Beast?

PK – I think the main surprise was that things will intrude as you write that you don’t expect. In the case of The Wake, it was the voice of Weland, and the whole story of the lost gods of England.

As for Beast, well, it’s impossible to say where ideas arrive from, but this one came to me almost fully formed — unlike The Wake, which developed very slowly. Like The Wake, though, it’s an exploration of the territory of mythology through fiction.

Q – What was the hardest part about writing The Wake?

PK – I think the hardest part of The Wake was getting it published! The writing was a joy. It was a puzzle too, but I enjoyed it.

Q – I understand you crowdfunded this book. What’s your advice for anyone looking to follow this route, and is there a particular platform you would recommend?

PK – I published the book with Unbound, which is different from a crowdfunding platform like Crowdfunder, for example. For the latter, you are essentially self-publishing.

Unbound is in many ways a conventional publisher, but it requires its authors to crowdfund the initial chunk of money which they spend on publication. That’s done through people pre-ordering books before they are even produced.

This allows the publisher some financial security, and also allows them to share more of the profits with the writer.

It’s especially useful to consider Unbound if you have a novel which is perhaps too risky for a more conventional publisher. Essentially, you are taking it straight to your readers.

You should probably stop worrying about being a ‘success’, and just write what you are really called to write.

– Paul Kingsnorth

Q – Did you struggle going down the traditional publishing route, and did your resulting success make you cynical about the publishing world, and what they’re willing to back?

PK – I couldn’t find a publisher for The Wake, which is why I took it to Unbound. There, I found a lot of interested readers, and when the book was published it had a lot more success than I ever expected.

Speaking of cynicism, incidentally, only one newspaper (the Guardian) reviewed the book when it came out. Then it was longlisted for the Booker prize, and every other newspaper immediately followed suit!

A lot of publishers – and most of the media – are simply following each other about. However, publishers are having a very difficult time financially at the moment, and it’s harder for them to take risks.

There are still some very good publishers out there, though, and some very good editors who really believe in good novels.

Q – I wondered whether having self-published to a certain extent, do you now have more freedom with regard to future projects? That is, do you feel that you have more control about what you want to write?

PK – I haven’t exactly self published – at least not my novels – but managing to publish The Wake, and then seeing its success against the odds has made me feel freer.

I think the main thing it’s taught me is that nobody really knows anything about what makes a book a ‘success’, and that you should probably stop worrying about being a ‘success’, and just write what you are really called to write.

There’s a lovely quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, which I strongly recommend, by the way. She says of writers: ‘You were made and put here to give voice to this, your own astonishment’. In other words, to write about what it is that fascinates you, and to follow your own path.

Q – That’s a wonderful quote. To change the topic slightly, I’ve read that The Wake will be turned into a film — congratulations! How do you plan to be involved creatively?

PK – Thanks! The actor Mark Rylance bought the film rights, and is currently writing a script for a TV series. We’ll just have to wait and see if that will happen. Fingers crossed.

I may be involved as a script consultant, but I’ll mostly leave it to them, though I wouldn’t mind being a Hitchcock-style extra…

Q – What’s the next project you’re embarking upon? I hear you’re writing two books to follow The Wake — are you finding these more or less challenging?

PKBeast is the second book in a trilogy that The Wake begun. The Wake was set 1000 years ago, Beast is contemporary, and the next book is set 1000 years in the future.

I haven’t started that one yet, but I think that’ll be the most challenging!

When I was writing my novels I wrote in the morning, which is, for some reason, the best time of day for me.

– Paul Kingsnorth

Q – You’ve tried yourself in so many genres — non-fiction, historical fiction, poetry… Which one has given you the most satisfaction, and which one have you found the most difficult, all things considered?

PK – At the moment, I can honestly say that fiction is by far the most satisfying form of writing for me. It gives full voice to the imagination, and anything is possible.

Poetry’s hardest: there are fewer words to hide behind, so every single one of them has to be necessary.

Q – It’s inspiring to hear you speak of freedom in writing. How does your exploration of time-setting affect your writing? What restrictions does it create, and what potential does it open up?

PK – One thing I have discovered through writing both of my novels is the importance of restriction. In The Wake I created a very restrictive language, with far fewer words in it, while in Beast I restricted myself to a book with essentially only one character in it, and a very limited location for his actions.

Imposing these limits, I found, forced me to be more creative in the way that I wrote and presented the book.

I think it’s a fascinating exercise for any writer to impose limits on themselves (limits of language, limits of setting, anything really) and see what it produces. It’s a great way to break out of any ruts you feel you might be in.

Q – Your novels are such wild flights of the imagination. Did you ever think, whilst writing, ‘maybe this work is madness and no one will enter it with me’ (the reader, I mean)?

PK – The answer to your question, in short, is yes. I felt that with both of my novels, and some readers don’t want to enter those worlds. Reaction to my fiction is quite polarised.

Sometimes I hear from people who say my books have changed their lives and that they’re the most wonderful things they’ve ever read, and other times I hear that they’re pretentious garbage that nobody can understand.

I think this probably means I’m doing something right. I do feel it’s important for writers to push themselves into areas where they feel uncomfortable in the act of writing.

It means you are doing something different, and perhaps necessary.

Q – Do you have a writing routine, and do you try to write a certain number of words every day? Where do you go for inspiration when you are stuck?

PK – When I was writing my novels I wrote in the morning, which is, for some reason, the best time of day for me. I did set a word count: 1000 words a day. I used that as a rough guide, but I didn’t beat myself up if I didn’t achieve it.

One thing I have learned over the years is the importance of listening to yourself. Some mornings I can wake up and write 3000 words of a novel, then the next day or two I might have nothing at all I can write.

I’ve learned just to go and do something else during that time.

A lot of what is happening when you are writing is going on at a subconscious level: things are churning away in there, and working themselves out, and you have to give them time to do that.

It’s good to have a routine and to set some rough targets, but you also have to listen to your inner rhythm.

Q – How was it finding an ending for a novel set long ago, or even deciding on the time span within that context? At what stage did a natural whole for the novel become apparent to you?

PKThe Wake was a novel that evolved as it went along. The character of the narrator suggested the kind of ending it might have fairly early on to me, but although I had a rough sense of where the journey was going, I didn’t plan it out beforehand.

I knew the direction of that journey fairly early on, but I was quite a long way into the novel before I understood where exactly it was heading.

There are many different ways to write a novel, but this kind of flexibility can be very useful.

Q – That’s interesting, Paul. I sometimes feel like I am trying to write on a moving target.

PK – I think that’s quite normal. The thing to watch is that you don’t allow the plot to get to flabby. Sometimes, though, a writer can feel they are being pulled along by the momentum of the story they’re telling, and I think that’s a good thing.

It means the story is alive.

Q – When you’ve completed your trilogy do you plan on sticking with fiction, or will you move on to something different?

PK – I’m planning to write a non-fiction book when I finish the next novel. I know what the subject matter is, but I like to try and write it with the same creative freedom as I have for fiction.

Not sure how to do that yet, but it will be fun trying to find out.

Q – Sounds very exciting! Thank you for joining us Paul, your answers have been illuminating. Take care, and good luck with the next book!

PK – No problem, I do hope some of this will be useful. The very best of luck to you all.

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