This was truly a FUN interview to read! In addition to learning about the controversial nature of Linda Gillard’s novel, A Lifetime Burning, and hearing about different readers’ perspectives on the topic of transgressive love, I was given the chance to consider some cut-and-dry definitions of various styles of writing. Commercial fiction? “Meant to comfort”. Genre fiction? “Invented for the convenience of booksellers and marketing departments”. Literary fiction? “Literary fiction confronts”.
Will readers agree or disagree with Linda’s definitions? Has anyone else written on such a controversial topic, but in a way that was intended to not only disturb but to also show an understanding (and, indeed, compassion) for the characters involved?
There is so much else I would love to say about Linda’s exciting comments but I will simply turn it over to her. That is the point of these interviews, after all!
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
A Lifetime Burning, a complex family drama spanning the 20th century.
Flora Dunbar is dead, but it isn’t over. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora observes her grieving family and the four men who loved her. She recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin. Now Flora is dead. But how did she die? And who was to blame?
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
I think I’m both and my images embody concepts. I think that’s one of the characteristics of literary fiction. The visuals are also working on the reader at another level, they aren’t just telling the story.
The genesis of A Lifetime Burning was both an idea and an image and there were two of each. I was listening to a radio programme about homeless people and one woman – educated and well-spoken – described how she’d ended up living on the streets of London. She said her family had tried to get her to go home, but she’d ignored their offers of help and continued to live rough. The interviewer asked tentatively if she thought her family was ashamed of her and her situation. She replied, “Oh, I do hope so.” I thought that was a novel waiting to be written.
The other idea/image was a challenge I gave myself. I wanted to write a scene in which a character walked into a room and saw or experienced something that made him re-evaluate his entire life. Not his wife in the arms of a friend because that would only make him re-assess his marriage, not his entire life. I wanted something that would shake a character to the foundations, but – this was the killer! – I wanted nothing to happen. No-one else was to know, there was to be no indication of an epiphany. Life would just carry on as normal – apparently. In addition, I didn’t want the reader to know anything untoward had happened, not until much later in the book when they learned about the seismic upheaval that had taken place earlier.
I thought of something eventually. That kind of plotting fascinates me: nothing happens, but at the same time everything happens. I love the paradox. What goes on inside the mind of a character interests me far more than what goes on outside. There’s often not much in the way of action in my books, yet readers often describe them as un-put-downable. I think that’s because there’s a lot going on for the characters internally.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
The theme was forbidden/destructive passion and it was there from the beginning. I knew I wanted to write about all kinds of love – maternal, paternal, sexual, platonic, transgressive. As the story developed, I gradually realised the full implications of the transgressive love and it came to dominate the novel. There were some surprises there, things I didn’t plan.
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
I have no idea where A Lifetime Burning came from! I don’t really feel I wrote it. It was as if I was channelling the story, one that was much darker than the book I’d planned.
To begin with, I thought I was in control of the narrative. I had definite ideas about what was going to happen. I had a very long synopsis and a timeline I’d drawn up on a sheet of wallpaper. (The novel covers three generations of one family.) But then the characters started to dictate. Even though this was only my second novel, I had the wit to realise that if my characters were saying the story should go in a different direction, I should listen to them.
Writing ALB led me to realise something that has proved an important part of my writing process: if you let it, your subconscious mind will write a much better and braver book than your conscious mind.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
I believe there are two types of book – those that comfort and those that confront. Commercial fiction comforts. Even the most gruesome crime fiction aims to pass the time by supplying an engrossing story and perhaps a sense of schadenfreude. It’s not trying to change or challenge anything. If it is trying to do that, then I’d say it’s edging towards literary fiction, which is why I stipulated “commercial fiction” above, rather than “genre fiction”. Genre fiction can challenge. I like to think I’ve written some challenging Women’s Fiction and I’ve certainly read challenging Children’s, YA and Historical Fiction.
Literary fiction confronts. It questions. I have some reviews – negative ones – describing A Lifetime Burning as “disturbing”, as if this is a bad thing, but disturbing is exactly what I meant the book to be. I wanted readers to be haunted by my characters and their fate.
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
I set out with a clear aim: to evoke compassion. I wanted readers to walk a mile in the characters’ shoes. I was writing about a situation – adult brother-sister incest – that only a tiny number of readers would have experienced and that all would find repugnant. (The book actually lost me several friends!) But I wanted to take readers beyond judgement, via empathy, to arrive at compassion.
One of my fictional interests is moral grey areas. One of the key ideas in the book is expressed by Flora, the heroine who ends up living on the streets. She says of her clergyman husband, “I believed Hugh to be a truly good man. I still do, if one accepts that it’s possible to be good without being honest; that in fact it’s sometimes necessary to be dishonest in order to do good.” I also wanted to examine how much damage you can inflict by trying to do “the right thing”. That’s what all the characters in ALB are trying to do most of the time, yet the results are catastrophic.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
I consider myself a writer of Rattling Good Yarns. I write mixed-genre novels, some more literary than others, but I like to think I write accessible literary fiction, by which I mean, I tell a good story, but the way I tell that story is as important as the story itself. My award-winner, Star Gazing, is a last-chance-saloon love story, but it’s told by a 45-year old blind woman from her blind “point of view”. Her blindness is not a gimmick or a plot device. Star Gazing is about what it’s like to be congenitally blind and readers get to share that experience. In my view, that makes Star Gazing literary fiction, even though it was shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year.
I don’t find genre categories useful. They were invented for the convenience of booksellers and marketing departments. Readers don’t need these labels and actually like mixed-genre books.
It annoys me that the publishing Thought Police have decreed that if you write genre fiction, you can’t be writing literary fiction. There’s a snobbish and wrong-headed idea that if something is popular and sells, it can’t also be literary. My response to that is three words. Daphne. Du. Maurier.
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
My aim was to involve readers deeply, make them feel complicit. I described the twins’ lives from birth to sixty, so by the time the fateful love affair took place, readers knew these characters very well. I wanted readers to feel what happened was awful but somehow understandable, almost inevitable. I was aiming for something like a 20thC Greek tragedy. (I listened to a lot of opera while writing because that was the mood of the book – passion and tragedy on a grand scale.) Reading ALB was meant to be like watching a car crash in slow motion: you know what’s going to happen, but you can’t look away.
I think I succeeded in my aims. A Lifetime Burning is not just challenging, it has upset a lot of readers. (There’s one Amazon review headed “Filth”!) Many more readers have described it as one of the best books they’ve ever read. The biggest compliment has come from readers who said they couldn’t settle to read another book afterwards, because they were still thinking about my characters.
A Lifetime Burning is literary fiction. It’s also my best book and I’ll never write a better.
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
I don’t think reaching readers is the problem. Readers aren’t concerned whether fiction is “literary” any more than they care whether a book is indie or traditionally published. They just want a good story at a good price. That’s how we should market our books to readers. We have to sell the story, even if a particular theme or issue made us write the book. Transgressive love is not going to sell A Lifetime Burning – well, not to the right readers! – so one of the review quotes I use to promote it is from a blogger, himself a twin, who wrote, “Probably the most convincing portrayal of being a twin that I have ever read.” Readers like stories about twins, so I use this to promote a challenging literary novel.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
Amazon will always favour what’s popular and what sells, whether it’s indie, literary or both, but by marketing our books as “literary fiction”, we probably do ourselves no favours. I usually avoid the term because it’s misunderstood and puts some readers off.
As indie authors of literary fiction we should take risks, challenge and disturb. We also need to become better at marketing, so our books can find their readers. I write commercial-sounding synopses for my books and give them rather old-fashioned covers indicating one clear genre, even though the novels actually mix genres. Mixed messages just confuse readers, especially when a thumbnail image is your main selling tool.
Above all, we must write the very best books we can, whilst remembering one of Elmore Leonard’s Golden Rules for writers, especially authors of “literary” fiction: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Comment: Questions or observations for Linda Gillard can be left in the comments section below. If you’re an author who wishes to join the ranks of other writers of literary fiction who have participated in the LitFic survey, click here.
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Linda Gillard lives in Ayrshire, Scotland. She’s the author of eight novels, including Star Gazing, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award. House of Silence was selected for Amazon UK’s Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.