• Karen Hamilton-Viall

An Interview with author Bobbie Darbyshire


Author Bobbie Darbyshire won the 2008 fiction prize at the National Academy of Writing and the New Delta Review Creative Nonfiction Prize 2010. Her latest novel is The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker. Her three previous books are OZ, Truth Games, and Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones. At various times, she has worked as barmaid, mushroom picker, film extra, maths coach, cabinet minister’s private secretary, care assistant and volunteer adult-literacy teacher, as well as in social research and government policy. She lives in London, where she hosts a fortnightly writers’ group. How did you get started on your writing journey? From early childhood I always wanted to write, but life prevented me from doing much about it until my forties, when I quit my civil service career, determined to be a novelist at last. The civil service taught me useful things: how to write for different audiences, in different voices; how to accept gracefully that most first drafts belong in the bin. But I soon realised I lacked knowledge of the craft techniques for creating spellbinding stories. Civil service writing requires you to get your point across fast, whereas stories rely for their magic on suspense, mystery and surprise – stimulating the reader’s desire to find out what happens. I discovered that the best sources of useful advice about how stories work are books about screenwriting. Try Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder for starters.

Your fourth novel, The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker, is about the afterlife of a famous actor. Where did the inspiration come from for the novel? I was struggling to find inspiration. A story I’d begun to develop explored the effect of a dying father’s mean-spirited will on his family, but it wasn’t firing my imagination. The father had been a world-famous, superstar actor with a huge ego – think Laurence Olivier crossed with Jack Nicholson. I complained to a friend: ‘The problem is that the most interesting character is dead.’ As the words left my mouth – ping! – the light came on in my head: Harry Whittaker would still be around to see how his will was received. I soon realised, though, how dull it would be if he were no more than an observer. So I decided to give him obstacles to overcome in the afterlife, a predicament that would limit him severely. I decided to bring him down several pegs and teach him some lessons. I couldn’t wait to start writing. Which of the characters in The Posthumous Adventures… would you most like to spend time with? Lily, I think. I won’t give away her role in the story (spoilers are death to mystery, suspense and surprise!), but I admire her and would enjoy chatting to her. She has a facial birthmark that draws stares and insults from strangers, and at the start of the novel her rat of a husband is having an affair. But she doesn’t wallow in self-pity; she isn’t needy or prickly. She stands up for herself, holds tight to her self-esteem, and finds her way to a deserved happy ending. The story is set around Worthing, Sussex, on the south coast of England. Is this an area you know well? What was the inspiration for setting it here? The good guy – the hero of the story – is Harry Whittaker’s unacknowledged son Richard, who is running a failing café in Worthing. Richard longs to break free of his dotty, demanding mother, who lives in a ramshackle terraced house along the coast in Hove. Harry himself (before he dies on page one) had been living in Brighton in style. My first inspiration for setting the novel in this part of the world was that Laurence Olivier had a grand house on Brighton’s seafront, so that seemed apt for Harry. I knew Brighton well, having been a student there. With three other students I shared a house in Hove very much like the one in which Richard’s mother hoards her piles of junk. I didn’t know Worthing at all until a decade ago, when Waterstones branches used to have authors in on Saturdays to introduce their books to customers. I spent several of my Saturdays in Worthing’s Waterstones and got a feel for the town. Was the book inspired by any real-life ghost experiences? Do you believe in ghosts? Not at all. I’ve walked across the echoing cobbles of Hampton Court Palace (where I worked for a while), alone after dark, without even the beginnings of a shiver. But I very much like the idea of someone departed being able to observe what goes on, and sometimes I’ve let myself imagine that being so. It was great fun to give the events in the living world extra edge and irony by having the reader aware that Harry was there, unseen, looking on. If The Posthumous Adventures was made into a film or TV series, who would you like to see playing the main characters? How lovely that would be, and I’m sure the casting director would do a far better job than ever I could. Harry would need an actor with a big voice and presence – Brian Blessed perhaps, or Anthony Hopkins? For Richard, you’d need someone attractive but also a bit put upon – I’ve just watched Ben Whishaw in This is Going To Hurt – he would fit the role, I think. How long did it take you to write this book? Three years altogether. There are two phases to writing my novels: it took me about two years to get a complete draft of this one, and a further year to polish and edit, add and subtract, until I was happy enough to submit it. The first stage takes me a long time because I continually edit and revise what I’ve done, only gradually pushing forward into the blank pages. Nearing the story climax and resolution, I always pause to do a slow, in-depth revise from the beginning. I know the characters much better than I did and can bring them fully alive from page one. When I arrive back at the blank page, my sense of them as real people carries the story forward. The end I planned may change. It always acquires new resonance because they make it their own. What do you find the most difficult part of the writing process? (editing for me!) I’m the opposite. Having blank pages ahead oppresses me. I procrastinate a lot before managing to push on and fill them. It’s a huge relief when I fill the last one and write ‘The end’. At last I have a complete manuscript, imperfect, that I can review and work on as a whole. From then on, I relish editing and polishing. It’s such a pleasure to feel the story getting a bit shinier with each thing I do. Editing can be tiny things – like searching for overused words and deleting them; or major things – like colouring in a character’s backstory with additional scenes; or in-between things – like re-ordering paragraphs in a dramatic scene to give the emotional turning point more impact.

What are your three previous novels about? In OZ, the protagonist, Mark, fears his marriage is over, but he can't bear to lose his seven-year-old daughter. Just when he thinks things can't get worse, his mother is killed in a road accident. Shocked and grieving, he decamps to her house, where he uncovers a secret that turns his life upside-down and sends him and his daughter on a whirlwind search for the truth.

Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones is a comedy with dark, serious threads. Three troubled people dash off to the Scottish Highlands, where their destinies are mysteriously entwined around a reading group in the Inverness public library.

My debut novel Truth Games is set in 1970s London, the baking dry summers of 1975 and 1976. A group of friends get out of their depth in infidelity. It’s a story of how we hurt each other with lies and with truths. Do you have a special place that you go to write? The back bedroom I’m talking to you from has become my study, equipped with a big desk, two useful tables, a day-bed, a bookcase full of books about the writing craft, and a pleasant view of suburban back gardens in the changing seasons. I work in silence, apart from habitually reading what I’ve written aloud. Back in the 1990s, I vowed I would do nothing but write whenever I came through this door, but sadly the internet has made that impossible. I try not to be distracted by social media and emails, but I’ve become able to flit to those things from my writing and back again with no great loss of concentration. It’s great, though, when I’m so deep in the writing zone that I don’t notice the pings of incoming messages! Are you a meticulous plot planner or a spontaneous writer? (I'm somewhere in the middle but I feel my best writing is spontaneous) I’m in the middle, too. I start with a rough idea of the main characters and where they’re heading. I have a hazy idea of a few key scenes – big events ahead. I usually have a pretty good sense of how the story will end – the feeling I want readers to have when they turn the last page. Then I start writing, guided by the sketch but not pushing the characters to follow it. Getting to know them, imagining myself in their shoes. Not in too much hurry, though. Story and character in conversation, developing as I write. I do some spirited, spontaneous writing, but in between pause to reflect as if I were the reader not the writer, sensing what I want next from the story and challenging myself to deliver it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Try to open your ears to all the feedback you can get from whatever source. It is gold dust. Don’t feel hurt when someone criticises what you’ve written. Thank them sincerely. Don’t defend your work – listen, take notes, maybe ask for clarification. Afterwards, take time to read the notes and think about them. It’s amazing how often you’ll see a way to achieve your aims more effectively. It’s not writing by committee – it’s tapping into the hive-mind to stimulate your creativity and take your writing up a level. The other thing I’d say is that most good novels are fiction, not thinly disguised autobiography. They need a narrative journey, suspense and surprise, character growth, an author who can see beyond his or her own point of view. Fiction is liberating – it frees you to create a bigger, more universal story. So maybe start with something that happened to you, but then... make stuff up! If you could spend a day chatting to any author, alive or dead, who would it be? No contest – the man who wrote the Shakespeare plays. I would love it if he turned out to be Christopher Marlowe, but even if he didn’t, I’d be enthralled to discover the personality and world view of the man behind the writing. Can readers meet you at any book festivals this year? I’ve had events at book festivals in the past, but nowadays I’m meeting readers at the talks I give (about one a week) to the countless u3a* branches in London or within reasonable reach of London. My talk is called “Where do novelists get their ideas from?” *The University of the Third Age is an international movement whose aims are the education and stimulation of retired people. Most localities in Britain have a u3a branch, and they nearly all have monthly meetings with invited speakers. Will there be a sequel to Harry? What's next? No sequel, I’m sorry to disappoint. Each of my novels has been stand-alone. During the pandemic I finished a fifth one, set in Norwich this time, about a man who walks out of a dispiriting forty-two-year marriage hoping for a new start. I’m at the very early stages of planning a sixth – set over twenty-four hours in a bookshop. Bobbie’s four published novels are available in paperback and Kindle. The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker is also available as an audiobook. You can find Bobbie at https://amzn.to/2vs47uZ https://www.facebook.com/bobbie.darbyshire https://twitter.com/BobbieDar or contact her at darbob8@gmail.com



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