Thriller author Christobel Kent was kind enough to give us the lowdown on the care and feeding of her bedside reading, balancing writing with childrearing, and her memories of the first story she ever wrote. Her latest novel is The Crooked House.
What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
I’m most frequently asked how I find the time to write (I have five children) and my answer to that is actually the job of being a mother (and make no mistake, it is hard labour, even if no-one pays you to do it) is pretty compatible with writing as long as you let your standards of cleanliness and decency slide. (The great thing about the job of being a mother being that it is hard to get fired, although complaints do get made.) Children eventually go to school and then you have hours and hours in which either to cook and clean, or to write, you decide how to divide the time. You do have to have some discipline about it: I sit down and write the minute the last child is out of the house, for three hours or so, without fail. If I procrastinated it would all fall to pieces. I write a thousand words, then I do the mother stuff.
Who sees your first drafts?
My agent and my editor see my first drafts. I wouldn’t dream of showing them to a non-professional or a friend because I am very over-sensitive to criticism and I wouldn’t have a friend left in the world! Also you absolutely cannot trust a word a friend or relative says about your stuff, they have a different agenda: they would almost always be too nice. My husband is a mathematician who isn’t much interested in fiction, which suits me fine.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
I remember learning to read: reading a whole sentence from a ‘Janet and John’ book in kindergarten. It was a huge moment, I can still distinctly remember holding my breath with excitement. The first book I remember adoring, diving into and not wanting to come up from, was Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. The first grown-up book I read was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and that moment of understanding that books could be written about terrible things, pain and guilt and betrayal and violence, and that there would be no happy ending, was like a bucket of cold water in the face. Bracing, exhilarating, shocking.
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
I don’t remember writing anything seriously until I was fourteen or so, and then it was pretty much a disaster: a snippy English teacher criticized it in a fairly cutting way so I didn’t try again until I was twenty odd and in my first job with a typewriter and time on my hands (it was a very quiet literary agency). On which occasion I criticized myself in a fairly cutting way (for pretension and for having nothing to say) and gave up again until I was forty. This worked for me: it meant that instead of writing I read a vast amount. I think reading, and living, is how you learn to write, and you can’t do it properly until you have read enough and lived enough, and it takes as long as it takes. I wrote in my head, though, from when I was a tiny girl. Scraps and sentences, trying to find the words to describe things properly. Reading inculcates that habit, too.
Can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?
My bookshelf is too vast to explain (except that it holds a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in memory of my dad who was the London editor in the ’60s and ’70s), but the messy teetering tower of books beside my bed is perhaps more illustrative of my tastes and inclinations. It is all current reading.
Some I haven’t read yet (the first Elena Ferrante, the new John Banville, a Ruth Rendell someone recommended called Simisola, the Lucia Berlin, a proof of an extraordinary collection of stories Scary Old Sex by Arlene Hyman that I my agent gave me and I have only just begun) but I WILL read them: I generally save new stuff up for my summer holidays otherwise–if I read while I’m writing–it’s too much of a distraction. There are several Raymond Chandlers: I started re-reading The Big Sleep at Christmas then just wanted to re-read all of them. Jane Smiley’s take on the Decameron (Ten Days in the Hills) I re-read last summer when I was reviewing her, it’s a lot of fun. Patricia Highsmith is the QUEEN of crime fiction and I read Deep Water driving down to Italy in December. Maupassant needs to be by my bed for complicated reasons of superstition and hero-worship: he is an absolutely remarkable humane writer, I want him there so some of it rubs off. Ditto Flaubert, who is further down the pile, ditto Tolstoy and Jane Gardam who would both be there except I have lent them out to friends: I have read all of them within the last year. Writers who understand human frailty and who forgive, who burrow inside what it’s like to be human. Reading them is the closest thing there is to magic in my life, now that childbirth is done with: sometimes I look forward so urgently to the day I can stop writing and JUST READ.
Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?
The best advice is to sit down and write and keep going till you get to the end. It’s my own advice to myself and the advice I give if asked by aspiring writers: it sounds ridiculously obvious but the biggest problem is procrastination. It is deciding that before you write you need to ‘do research’, or make a cup of coffee or something. You can do research, most writers have to do a bit but you should think of it as a luxury, something you can do after you have done some writing, not before. The only advice I got from an external source was not exactly advice but reading somewhere that Graham Greene wrote in the mornings, then edited in the evening after a drink, or I suppose even two drinks. I was encouraged by that as I was already quite naturally doing the same: editing your own work is easier with your defences down. Best done after one drink. Not advisable after three drinks, when your defences are down and a machete mysteriously appears in your non-drinking hand.
Do you have a favorite literary character?
My favourite literary character is Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Or Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. They’re both idiots who pine for the unattainable, but they’re both dreamers and lovers too, they reach out. It is the character that reaches out until he falls that gets me every time. The tug and anguish of rooting for a flawed human being, knowing they’ll mess up and die. Brilliant.
Christobel Kent was born in London and was educated at Cambridge. She has lived variously in Essex, London, and Italy. Her childhood included several years spent on a Thames sailing barge in Maldon, Essex, with her father, stepmother, three siblings, and four step-siblings. She now lives in both Cambridge and Florence with her husband and five children.
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