Benjamin Wood’s second novel The Ecliptic opens on a snowy winter’s day on Heybeliada, an island off the coast of Istanbul where a gated retreat, known as Portmantle, is home to a collection of artists, writers, architects and musicians seeking refuge from the outside world. Amongst them is Elspeth Conroy, a famous painter who made her name in the 1960s art scene in London but has fled the hustle and bustle of that world in order to perfect what she hopes will be her masterpiece. Her isolated idyll is shattered by the arrival of a new resident – a teenage boy named Fullerton whom Elspeth has the strange feeling that she’s met somewhere before. It’s a novel that begins as something of an existential thriller, dishing up plenty of mystery and intrigue, but soon evolves into a thoughtful rumination on creativity and the creative process.
As well as writing – his first novel The Bellwether Revivals was shortlisted for the Costa Award when it was published in 2012 – Wood is also a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. When we meet on the morning of The Ecliptic’s publication, I begin by asking him about how he established the two prongs of his career, and where the crossover between the two takes place.
BW: I wrote more than I read as a kid. My first memory of writing was rewriting the lyrics to a Billy Joel song my mum had. I used to spend hours doing that because I loved toying around with the structure and rhythm of words. That led me to songwriting when I was older and had developed some musical abilities. I left school in the middle of my A-Levels to become a full-time musician chasing record deals, and I got very close with that life but it didn’t quite fall into place, I had to keep picking myself up after disappointments and at some point my mum suggested I should go back to college and get some qualifications so I could go to university if the songwriting didn’t work out, which of course was very good advice. So I went back and did this very ordinary BTEC in art and design. I started writing stories towards the end of it – I’ve since discovered that everything I do creatively, I find a way to use words. Anyway, then I went on to do a degree at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, which was down the road from where I lived. It was a degree that seemed to be made for people like me – people who didn’t really want to go to university, who wanted to be creative, but needed a qualification in case it all went wrong – and was in photography, filmmaking and screenwriting, all under the banner of media practice.
So I did that and it was great, and although I explored loads of different artistic practices, I kept coming back to writing so the eventual degree I got was in screenwriting. Then I applied for MA programmes, and I got into a few but couldn’t afford them, so on a wing and a prayer I put in for a Commonwealth scholarship, which I got, solely because I got an amazing reference from this incredible generous writer called Michael Marshall Smith – I’d once sent him a demo tape and he’d written back to me saying he liked it and had come to see me play and we’d then kept in touch. I’m sure there’s no way I would have got it if it hadn’t been for him, but all of a sudden I was heading to Vancouver. It was a fantastic experience, I was still doing screenwriting, and I was still writing song lyrics, but that was where I really started to focus on fiction.
I’d always had that burning creative desire, and once you have that formalised setting of a degree or an MFA programme you start to take it seriously. After my two years in Canada, I came back to the UK and began teaching at Birkbeck. I moved to Cambridge because I couldn’t find anywhere affordable to live in London, and starting writing The Bellwether Revivals [which is set in Cambridge] the day I moved there. That’s a rather long answer, I know, but I’ve recently realised that it’s all a big part of what I write as well as why I write.
LS: In what way exactly?
BW: As a person who’s looked to express themselves creatively in lots of different forms, writing is the only thing that I can actually ever do to my satisfaction, perhaps because it’s the only thing that I can keep total control of. Whenever I wrote a song, for example, I’d have to record it and no matter who I worked with, it never sounded like I wanted it to in my head. I always had this vague dissatisfaction with what I did. With writing it’s just you and your thoughts, and if you can get them on the page and order them, there’s no interference from elsewhere.
The Bellwether Revivals was about a musician who uses music to heal people, and the psychology of creativity, and The Ecliptic asks where creativity comes from: Does it come from trauma? Does it come from some innate God-given ability? Does it come from isolation and contemplation? I think I’m always trying to explain myself, and explain to myself what motivates me.
It know it sounds incredibly grandiose to say this, but I can’t imagine myself not wanting to create things. I don’t know where it comes from though. So a big part of writing The Ecliptic was chasing after that. At one point Elspeth says happiness and art can’t live together for too long, and that’s a feeling I get, I wonder why I’m always chasing after a creative project or idea. Would I be happy if I just put it aside and got on with my life? Whenever I’m sitting down to write it always seems to be the question at the forefront of my mind. It’ll probably be the subject of my next book too!
LS: There’s that bit in the novel when Fullerton says to Elspeth, “The making part is what we’re addicted to, the struggle, the day to day. Our drug isn’t the actual fix.” That seems to be part of what you’re referring to, along with the question of whether these artists need validation from critics or others around them, or whether simply the production of their work is enough.
BW: Now I’m here on publication day, The Ecliptic already seems like a very distant thing, an unqualifiable, unquantifiable product. But when you’re in it – even when it’s not going well – they’re the moments that make everything worth it. And you don’t realise it at the time, you don’t realise what you’re chasing. It’s like what people say about it being the journey not the destination that’s important.
LS: But if that’s the case, how does it feel when you finally finish a project? What did it feel like when you wrote the final page of The Ecliptic?
BW: I had a massive sense of release when I finished it. It wasn’t written quickly, but it was written in a very frenetic period of my life; loads of stuff was going on all at once and I had certain windows where I had to finish this book so I could deliver it on time. You know you watch writers in films sometimes and you think, “That’s the most ridiculous portrayal of writing,” – someone madly hammering away at their typewriting and then a ker-ching as they finish and rip the paper out of the machine – but it actually really felt like that.
LS: Am I right in thinking you wrote part of the novel in Istanbul, and that it was being there that inspired the Turkish setting?
BW: Yes, I arrived in Istanbul with 30-40,000 words of another book already written. I’d been awarded a writing residency with the British Council and Salt, an arts organisation in Istanbul, which gave me three months in the city, from January to March. So I went with this book I had been working on but it didn’t feel quite right, and then while I was there, I had this moment. My grandfather died and I felt incredibly isolated and removed from everyone, and this just sort of allowed something to surface in my head. The first line of the novel appeared fully formed in my mind: “He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us, except there was a harrowed quality about this boy that we had not seen before in any of the newcomers.” It sounds ridiculously romantic, but honestly, word for word, it just appeared, and as soon as I had that I realised about Portmantle. I’d just the day before been to Heybeliada, and I though, “Hey, I could set it here,” and all of a sudden I had this elated feeling, like an epiphany.
Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, even The Magus. That’s the stuff I keep coming back to. They lure you in with this idea of strangeness.”
One of the most important things for me is that my writing has to have a sense of atmosphere. What I really wanted to write was a book that had a Shirley Jackson-ish atmosphere, but within my own British sensibility. That’s the writing I adore – Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, even The Magus. That’s the stuff I keep coming back to. They lure you in with this idea of strangeness.
The way I write, that constant retreading and reworking, it goes back to those Billy Joel songs; that’s the part of writing I love most. It’s not the initial splurge; it’s going back and getting the cadence of the language right. That’s the thrill of writing.
LS: But you must have had to do a fair amount of research for this novel, both general period research on the ’50s and ’60s, as well as the specifics pertaining to the art scene?
BW: I’ve always been fascinated by that era of British art – Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Graham Sutherland – I love the art. I read a lot about the ’50s while I was working on the earlier book, the one I abandoned, so I had a lot of pre-research I could draw on. But yes, I read a lot about the art of that time. I love the aggregation of knowledge so I do enjoy it, but I get frustrated that I can’t aggregate that knowledge quickly enough. It sometimes feels like you’re wasting time. For the scenes set on the Queen Elizabeth in 1960, for example, I just absorbed a tonne of books and photographs. The trick is you don’t want the research to show. The skill is in hiding a lot of the research. I always follow the advice Sarah Waters gave at a talk I once went to. She said that when she writes her novels she begins by reading loads of information about the period and loads of novels written during the period, until she reaches a point where she thinks, “I can safely blag it now,” then she starts writing. Then she goes back and fact-checks everything and does more research afterwards. I think that’s a great place to be. All the research I’d done on the ’50s, for example, that allowed me to write from a visceral viewpoint rather than an intellectual one.
LS: So knowing what to omit is as important as what you include?
BW: Yes, but it’s also important to remember that it’s a story world that I’m creating; it’s not reality. And I’m a firm believer that all writing is mimetic, it’s representative, it’s a stylised version of the world we live in, and this stylisation is vulnerable to memory and lapses of memory. So I feel that if a first-person narrator is writing about their past and she might mention, I don’t know, some fancy electric iron, but she’s misremembered it, that doesn’t bother me that much. I do try to get the details right where I can though because Amazon reviewers point the mistakes out!
LS: How about fiction? Do you read much fiction while you’re writing, or do you steer clear of it in case it influences your own work too much?
BW: If you don’t maintain a connection with the voice of fiction, whether it’s work that’s reflective in some way of something you want to capture in your own work or whether it’s just new stuff that’s out there that people are responding to, if you don’t keep your connection with that then your own work will become outmoded very quickly. That said, I’ve never tried it any other way; perhaps if I were to stop reading altogether, I’d produce a completely original prose style.
LS: Some authors I’ve spoken to say they simply can’t read other fiction while they’re writing for fear it’ll influence what they’re producing.
BW: I can definitely understand how that could happen. I was reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest while I was in Istanbul, but I quickly found that it was totally permeating my consciousness, I was writing things I just wouldn’t have written normally. Appropriating other people’s modes of thought is a really dangerous thing to do. But I think because I teach creative writing, I’m more accustomed than some to looking at a piece of work and thinking about how it works, and what I can learn from it. I’m always looking for technique.
Reading for enjoyment is a tough thing when you’re working on a novel though. You’re so caught up in your own self-interest. I find it very hard to enjoy fiction when I’m writing. I admire it, and I look to learn from it, but I can’t just suddenly lose myself in a John Grisham because I feel like I’m wasting my reading time. It’s an odd state to be in – everything I’m doing is focused on the production of the novel. I remember Richard Ford wrote once that after writing each novel he allows himself a year to do nothing but sit in his pants and watch baseball – I totally get that. I think Eleanor Catton also said something about the necessity of a fallow period after a creative one.
LS: Is this something you can allow yourself? As much as it makes sense, it sounds rather luxurious.
BW: It is, and there are always deadlines. The Ecliptic was book one of a two-book deal, so I have to get on with the second one. Right now, I’m doing a lot of thinking about the right way to write this next one because I figured out that I spend a lot of time writing things in the wrong direction before I realise what I’m doing wrong. It’s work that’s never wasted, and you’re writing purposely, but at the same time, it’s not great when you’ve got a limited amount of time available to you. It’s like you’ve been given eighteen months to make a film and all the cameras have been pointing in the wrong direction for six months – you kind of want to make sure the cameras are pointing in the right direction next time.
LS: But do you really think this is something you can avoid? You’re certainly not the only author to spend a fair amount of time writing a first draft only to discover that you’re writing the wrong story, or the wrong version of the story, and need to start again. Only last night someone told me that apparently even Saul Bellow wrote as many unpublished novels as he did published ones.
BW: I don’t know, perhaps you can’t avoid it. The most comforting thing I ever heard was Kazuo Ishiguro saying that between novels he spends two to three years auditioning narrators until he strikes upon the right one, and only then does he write the novel. When I heard that, I was like, “Thank God it’s not just me.”
LS: But even if you can’t necessarily learn to avoid initially writing in the wrong direction, there are surely plenty of other techniques or tips you’ve learnt from writing The Bellwether Revivals and The Ecliptic?
BW: Learning how to build a novel, how to hold it in your head until you’re ready to begin writing it, and knowing when to begin writing it, knowing when the voice is right, this is the stuff you get better at the longer that you do it. So that even when you hit massive brick walls, you still know that the idea itself is right, and all the problems you’re facing are just logistical. It’s the development of an intellectual muscle – you’ve done it before so you can do it again.
LS: But surely a large part of knowing the idea you have is the right one is trusting your gut and relying on your instincts?
BW: Definitely so in my case because I’m very secretive about what I’m writing while I’m writing it. I don’t like to show it to anyone or talk about it with anyone, not even my editor. So yes, I have to trust myself that I’m on the right track. But I do think I know. Like when I had the idea for The Ecliptic in Istanbul. It was a physical feeling of elation; I was literally skipping down the street. I don’t normally keep a diary, but that day I wrote down, in block capitals, “DO NOT LET THIS IDEA GO – REMEMBER HOW YOU FELT ABOUT IT TODAY” to remind myself.
LS: Both your novels centre around closed communities – The Bellwether Revivals a group of students at Cambridge, and the artists at Portmantle in The Ecliptic – is this just a coincidence or is there something specific that draws you to these isolated groups?
BW: I think it’s partly coincidental, yes, but also atmosphere is important, as I’ve said, and I like having ensemble scenes. I like having characters who are very much able to be isolated, but also able to enter into scenes where they are swallowed by a crowd. Perhaps it’s also a slight product of my own sense of never quite feeling like I belong in any particular environment, and exploring that. But most of all I just think it makes for conflict, and that invigorates the novel. The technician in me wants to put characters in the place of negotiation, conflict and tension since it produces a more arresting reading experience.
I don’t plan my novels scene by scene, but I don’t start writing until I know what the narrative path is and what situations I can put my characters in, and more often than not if you can put them in a place of isolation and enclosure, you can see that narrative arc much more clearly.
LS: Does this mean you only begin writing once you know how the story will end?
BW: I have to know the dramatic climax of the book, but not the end as such. I try to work to a three-act structure because I’m a believer in that Aristotelian approach to writing. I tend to structure things in my head. I allow it to go off in certain directions, but I know where I want it to end up. It’s not a blueprint, you’ve already built the building in your head, but what you’re trying to do is build the model of the building you have in your mind as best as you can make it fit the picture. I’m full of fairly pointless analogies like that.
LS: From teaching?
BW: Yes. I teach third person point of view by means of a talking parrot – it’s the most effective way of explaining it.
LS: And do you feel that you’re continually learning as you teach, or does your constant urge to evaluate hamper your ability to get lost in your own writing?
Teaching has definitely made me aware of the gamut of brilliant writing, and how it functions. I learn a lot from my colleagues, Luke Williams, for example, who I teach a novel course with, has a totally different approach to novel writing than me. Some of the things he says completely blew my mind, and he’s introduced me to writers I never would have read, so it definitely keeps me engaged with the subject. I suppose sometimes it can be restrictive because you’re constantly evaluating your own work, but I think it’s mostly helpful, making sure that you’re saying what you want to say, and in the right way.
LS: Although they’re hugely popular, there is still some suspicion of creative writing course in some quarters. You, however, are a strong advocate for them aren’t you?
BW: People come to creative writing courses with stories to tell, and we teach them the technique they need to do so. I don’t really understand why people have such a problem with them. It’s like acting – some people can act drinking a cup of hot coffee perfectly realistically, others need to be taught how to do so. The end result is the same though – a convincing piece of acting. Why is it any different for creative writing?
LS: Perhaps it has something to do with the idea of the creative muse?
BW: I don’t know why we cling to that illusion – that delusion. Take hairdressing, for example. Some people are born brilliant hairdressers; they only need to look at you to work out what kind of hairstyle you’d suit, while others train with Nicky Clarke for years. Both are viable ways into the same situation.
LS: When it comes to creative writing people don’t seem to value that kind of hard work in the same way as they do in so many other areas. No one expects a talented scientist to be born with an innate knowledge and skillset. That’s an area in which years of studying and practice is highly valued.
BW: I wonder if it’s a British thing, and perhaps a class thing too. We don’t like to admit how hard we’ve worked at something. We like to think that if something is effortless it’s worth more. The entire ‘Can creative writing be taught?’ argument seems so bizarre to me. In the States Flannery O’Connor was attending creative writing classes in the ’40s – if someone like her and the likes of Raymond Carver can get something out of it, then surely the rest of us can too? No one expects everyone who trained at the AA or the Bartlett to go on to be award-winning architects – some will be, some will work on extensions, some won’t practice at all, but we don’t seem to mind that. Similarly not everyone who studies creative writing will go on to be a published writer. But I can’t understand why we would be opposed to them studying it in the first place.
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in the northwest of England. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of the highly acclaimed debut novel The Bellwether Revivals and The Ecliptic, out now from Scribner UK/Simon & Schuster in hardback, eBook and digital audio download. Read more.
Author portrait © Nicholas Wood
Lucy Scholes is contributing editor at Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern and Tate Britain.