We're thrilled that this week is Philip A. Oldfield Week in Outsideleft. A big part of that thrill is that we don't meet writers of Phil's calibre every day. Phil is critically acclaimed for his uncanny ability as as storyteller, he's the most subtle of wordsmiths and that skill insidiously immerses us in his stories. When we interviewed Phil, he was supremely thoughtful, generous and fulsome with his answers. He has a lot to say about the art of writing and the business of doing it too. Right now Phil's like a secret you love knowing so much you don't want to share...
Outsideleft: What do you think made you want to write, when was that? And then what finally pushed you over the edge and got you to complete something...?
Philip A. Oldfield: My desire to write is quite possibly linked to my father’s death from cancer when I was 11 years old. I knew he was ill, but not dying. His death came as a complete shock as I had been living away from home for the previous six months with my uncle Ron and his partner, Bill. Writing gave me a gateway to another world and coincided I think with me becoming acutely conscious of my thoughts and feelings. That said, I should add that a supply teacher of English at school enthused about a poem I had written. His enthusiasm has always stayed with me. I wish I knew his name so I could thank him for his kind hearted inspiration, which is probably the driver that fuelled my belief in me and my passion for writing.
As to what pushed me over the edge... I had been a single parent for five years when the last of my four children, who had not longed turned 18 years of age, left home in April 2012. By way of historical context for my first manuscript, Blood Relationships, I started this in 1999, but as the sole earner, marriage and four children, finding time, energy and mental space to write was another universe away. Despite my desire, I could not write at the speed of light. However, by the beginning of 2013 when I felt sure my youngest would be fine as he built his own life, and I was confident that I could always be there for him, I made the leap and left my job to write.
Having written around 20,000 words in the preceding 11 years, I wrote a further 100,000 in the first six months of 2013 to finish the story. I traversed London and mainland Europe through its pages and melded themes such as fascism, IVF, attitudes towards gay men, catholic theology and the brutality of humanity, or lack of it, towards others when an insidious far right dogma refuses to let go of its desire for absolute power. I undertook research into the science and history behind genetics and wove the story, which has many truths within it, under the shadow of a dystopian world that is happening before our very eyes.
Outsideleft: You've written psychological thrillers, romantic comedies, published poetry... What do you enjoy most?
Phil: I enjoy writing across all forms of genre - maybe cross genre is my style. You see, Blood Relationships, Book One of Resurrections, is cross-genre: historical, medical, psychological, suspense, some say part horror, romance and poetry. I actually enjoyed writing this novel the most, maybe because it was first taste of immersing my whole self - without distractions - into the research, the characters, the emotions and the themes within the story.
That said I enjoyed writing The Lying Truth - a husband returns home and is a changed man – things become sinister. Or do they? With this story, I wanted to write a page-turner, with an ending, which allows the reader to ponder what really happened. Less literary than The Magus by John Fowles - love this book – but in an opaque way my story is similar, although some say it is like Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins.
An Australian friend who wondered what a story with our nicknames for each other might look like, led me to write the novella, My Dream Mother. It is a coming of age tale - part fantasy. I awoke one morning and had the story in my head. I thoroughly enjoyed blending fantasy with the world of dreams and reality.
Conversely, Flash Fiction 25, consisting of twenty-five very short stories, covers several genres, including sci-fi and provides readers with a glimpse into the lives of others. The stories were easy to write and a good escape valve for me after the intensity of writing a novel.
However, I have to say, the easiest novel I have written is my latest, The Devil in Me. My two daughters encouraged me to write a light romantic comedy. After reading several books by Sophie Kinsella and Lindsey Kelks, I wrote the manuscript in 4-6 weeks - lightning fast and lots of fun.
Outsideleft: Traditional publishing is wilting... Those publishers often seem to be looking for cash-cows, like say a ghost written Joey Barton biography, you've eschewed all that anyway - what do you see as the advantages of working independently and using new technology, and using Amazon and say smashwords for distribution?
Phil: After over twenty years of writing research and reports for others, principally presented in another person’s name, this was and is pretty much the reason why I have avoided trying to be a ghost-writer. That said, if you know of a lucrative offer...
As for the advantages of independent working and utilization of communication technology, then independence, freedom are my watchwords of choice. Consequently, any writer can potentially reach many readers - not the few. Traditional publishing has held onto the role of being the gatekeeper to the literary world. Communication technologies, social media and platforms to publish have been the disruptors, which have gone some way towards equalizing opportunities to be seen, read and heard.
Outsideleft: And the drawbacks?
Phil: Ones that spring to mind include being the principal editor, book cover designer, publisher and marketer. These roles and more generate a mountain of work to get a book to market. Yet, as any independent writer knows, one cannot be afraid of the sheer scale of the climb to reach, attract, engage and retain readers in a crowded market. I believe some two million English fiction titles are published every year. For an independent writer navigating such a world, being spotted amidst the crowd is tough. However, as the Chinese proverb goes, “Behold the tortoise; he cannot make progress without sticking his neck out.”
Outsideleft: When you're considering creating something like The Devil in Me, at every turn the details - of the streets, of the interiors, the clothes even the shoes, how do you do that, do you sketch out the story or wireframe it, and then sort of set decoration it, then put the characters in streets you know well? Or just, how...?
Phil: Using the Devil in Me as an example then, I imagined the main character first, Roz Summers - her; age, personality, past, fears and likes. Several years ago, she had been engaged and now anything to do with engagements, she dreaded. When with only four weeks to go to a friend’s Halloween engagement party she loses her job and finds out her ex has been kidnapped in Sierra Leone and she is the only one who can rescue him; Roz must face her fears. The story was written from Roz’s point of view: how she reacted to events and the characters she interacted with throughout the story.
Adopting Roz’s disasters as the central story line, I drew out the timelines and roles of other characters as they emerged to feature in the story using a mixture of mind mapping and storyboards - all sketched out on A3 paper. These steps were the foundations upon which the story grew and evolved.
In order to write this romantic comedy - chic lit - I looked at women’s fashion, places in London and various locations in Sierra Leone and the culture and language of the Sierra Leoneans. Google maps, You Tube and the internet per se are wonderful resources to help better understand other parts of the world.
Outsideleft: Your books seem so beach, airline, and hotel ready. Is that a factor? Do you consider that when you are writing? Is the commercial accessibility of your stories something you think about? They could easily translate into best sellers and into films?
Phil: You are right in one aspect. The Devil in Me was written with a view towards its commercial accessibility, in the hope that it would be a best seller for readers seeking a light, fun and I guess as you infer - an easy read. It has yet to realize bestseller rank, but I just know serendipity is waiting in the wings, biding her time, to spring a surprise on me.
With my other two novels, Blood Relationships and The Lying Truth, of course I hope for commercial success. However, I did not write my first novel with that in mind. It was a story that had burned within me for years. I felt driven, emotionally drawn to write it and at times, I wept at the pain and the tragedy of the words I had written.
Of course, I, along with most, if not all writers, dream of reaching a wide audience of readers who once immersed, revel in the storylines, love or hate the characters and read on because the journey has got into their heads, just as one reader wrote:
“ … Blood Relationships is the first book that I've loved for a very long time. It is the kind of story that engrosses you - I found myself thinking about the characters and the plot, wondering what would happen next whenever I wasn't reading it. When I was reading it, I didn't want to put it down. It's one of those walk along with your head in a book books.
I really connected with the characters – gut wrenchingly hating some of them, and platonically falling in love with others. The human connection that this author creates is exquisite. I fell into their world of chaos, love, destruction, compassion, pain and defiance and was swept away by the magnitude of history and conspiracy. I was on tenterhooks, willing for things to happen or not to happen ... ”
As for films, many readers have said they can see my first two novels being successful on the big screen. Hollywood Blockbusters or Independent Films... I can imagine actors such as Tom Cruise, Sean Bean, Anthony Hopkins, Colin Farrell, Emily Blunt, Jenna Coleman, Caitriona Balfe and Kristin Scot-Thomas in them. Who knows?
Outsideleft: Let's do a little gender politics. Many of your stories feature strong female characters, when you write, are you aware anywhere in the back of your mind of the Bechdel test?
Phil: Honestly, no I have not considered the Bechdel Test criteria for female interaction with one another as a must have or must not have component in any of my stories. My stories do pass that test. However, I do not agree with the imposition of criteria, which seeks to funnel a story to fit into a particular narrative or way of thinking about human interaction. I think it is best for the characters themselves to decide, for them to see how they handle situations. What they choose to say or not in the context of their character, the time it is set in, the scene/setting and the culture etc., arises ‘naturally’ from all that is in them.
You are right though, my stories have lent themselves to strong female protagonists. Maybe this emphasis relates to my preferred thinking/feeling style - creative, intuitive, spiritual, emotional and interpersonal (Herrmann Brain Dominance Profile visibly strong in the C and D Quadrants), my Myers Briggs Personality Type: ENFP. That said strong male characters (good and/or bad) do tread their footprints across the pages of my books.
Outsideleft: Can men write perfectly formed or flawed women and can women write even realistic men? Our worlds are so internal I wonder how anyone can even know them... Does it matter wholly, since the readers fill in the blanks for themselves?
Phil: We are all flawed one way or another; perfection cannot be in our present state, a reality. As for the thrust of the question, can women or men deliver realistic characterization of other genders; I would give a resounding yes. We are all human. Through our humanity, we are capable of empathy and insight into one another as individuals. Gender divisions are a construct of time, space/geography, class and culture. How much an individual, group, religion or society chooses to be bound by these constructs- consciously or subconsciously - is the constraint they impose on themselves during interaction with others. Therein lays the joy, sadness and tragedy of life. As I have often said, all humanity needs to do is to treat one another with humanity. Perhaps then, everyone could be writers and readers able to understand, appreciate and fill in the blanks themselves. Maybe after all, perfection could be a reality.
Outsideleft: Do you love your characters or loathe them, do you have a favourite and why?
Phil: Blood Relationships: I loathe Harry. I have mixed feelings about Colin. He is brutal but longs to change. I love Tom and his endurance. I admire Claire and her tenacity. I think the courage they both display is testimony to the zenith of the human spirit: to do the best one can against the worst that life could ever throw.
The Lying Truth: I think Kate is formidable in conquering her fears and challenging her husband’s changing behaviour.
My Dream Mother: Little Ben and his dream mother show how dreams and reality can be two. I love them for bringing that to me.
The Devil in Me: Roz and Mary – in some ways polar opposites – conjure the best out of bad situations and roll with the die as it casts Roz into an adventure. Oh, and I like Fred because he does not like Roger. Nor do I.
It is not easy choosing a favourite character, but as we must all make a choice in every moment, I have to say it is an elderly Romanian man, called Doru. He appears later in Blood Relationships. He has suffered tremendously, lost so much, but still he endured, still he hoped. For that, especially now in his frailty, when the body wants to give up, I truly admire.
Outsideleft: What about influences, old, new are there writers you think people should hoover up? Is it important for writers to read? I often hear of writers not reading anything at all while they are creating their own work...
Phil: For light, comical and bizarre reads, I would recommend Ben Aaronovitch. For the sheer skill in creating intrigue and mystery, for me it is Robert Goddard. For an artist at the top of his game, then John Fowles will always be there for me. As is that master storyteller, Sebastian Faulks. I am a keen believer in the quirky writing style of Douglas Coupland. Anne Tyler always gets it spot on with characterization. Her ability to write a line or two and I can just feel who the person is - is amazing. Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus is a magnificent, accessible read about the future of humanity. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is one of the most memorable books I have read, unnerving and so well written.
I try to avoid reading too much when I am writing. It can be distracting and as I do so much reading (research) and writing for novels, my brain needs a rest from worlds than my own.
Outsideleft: What's Next?
Phil: I am currently writing a book called Moments of Now. It is based on a true story and covers events over two days in 1917 and 1939 – during the First World War and on the eve of the Second World War. A glimpse into the lives of a private soldier in 1917 and a 22 year old woman in 1939: “His small, nervous, entirely soft looking face stared intently back at me. Me, a ghost to him as much as he is to me. I can't but help feel a sadness. A well of lost memories too deep and unfathomable to ever know the truth.”
I am also writing the sequel to Blood Relationships, and have several other manuscripts mounting up to be finished.