Author of the Month
Michael Lawrence [January 2005]
Chosen by reviewer Sara Lomas, MyShelf.Com
Michael Lawrence is the talented and fascinating author of books for children and young adults. Born and raised in England, his young adult trilogy, Withern Rise, features his childhood home. He also has a series for younger children about the odd character of Jiggy McCue and his misadventures.
He’s currently working on finishing the final book in the captivating Withern Rise series, as well as finishing the latest Jiggy McCue book, as well as working on his memoir. When Lawrence isn’t writing, he’s trying to keep himself from writing.
Sarah Lomas: What is/are the
greatest influence(s) on your writing?
Sarah Lomas: What is/are the greatest influence(s) on your writing?
Michael Lawrence: People I’ve known, places I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard. Literary influences are probably every book I’ve ever enjoyed, and many that I haven’t, whether I can remember them all or not. Most influences become part of you, without your realising it, or even noticing.
Sarah: When did you first decide that you wanted to be a full time writer?
Michael: My interest in writing fiction started in my late teens, when I was working as a graphic designer/photographer in London. I was reading so voraciously that it’s a wonder I did any work. Over the next decade or so, while doing various jobs to pay for the wine, women, song and rent, I wrote a number of things I couldn’t sell - novels, stories, stage plays, TV plays, sitcoms, you name it. The only things I sold were poems. Between deciding that I wanted to be a writer and starting to earn enough to spend all my time doing it took almost forty years.
Sarah: What is the last book you read?
Michael: My most recent reading was Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein. I’m currently reading Faster Than The Speed of Light, The Story of a Scientific Speculation by Joao Magueijo. I read very little fiction these days. I seem unable to do so, which puzzles me: until four or five years ago I could never go anywhere without a paperback novel in my pocket.
Sarah: What do you hope readers will take from your books?
Michael: I’ve never thought about it. I am at present classed as a children’s writer, though the novelty of this is wearing a bit thin. My life has been driven by chance, and it was by chance that the first book I had accepted was a novel for children. Acceptance seemed a pointer to direction, so I continued to write for children even though it was never my ambition to do this exclusively. Since that first book I’ve published twenty more, of all kinds, for all ages of childhood, but it’s only latterly, with The Aldous Lexicon trilogy (Withern Rise 1, 2 and 3 in the US), that I’ve been able to move towards more ‘adult’ writing. In this continuing story, with each book set four months apart, I explore themes and ideas that have fascinated me for years: chance, time, perception, reality. It would be good to think that readers were stimulated by this mix - and the delivery, of course.
Sarah: What is the most interesting thing (good or bad) that you've heard about your books.
Michael: The setting for the trilogy is the large riverside house in which I was born. When I was very small the river burst its banks and the house and grounds were flooded. I brought this flood forward to the present day in Small Eternities, the second volume of the trilogy. When my New York editor read it he phoned to say that the whole time he was reading it he felt like he was sitting in a boat. I love that!
Sarah: Your stories have a very strong sense of place, how do you make your settings so vibrant?
Michael: ‘Place’ is very important to me. For instance, the house described above still stands, though it hasn’t been in my family’s hands for decades. I go there all the time and record my responses to it (from the outside) in various seasons; take pictures of it, which litter my desk when I’m writing about it. I keep description to a minimum, believing that a single sentence, put together in just the right way, can convey a much greater sense of place than a wordy paragraph in which no detail escapes expression. This is why my books are not of very great length, as the trend seems to be at present. I cut and cut and cut my text until I think I’ve said what I want to say in the briefest possible way.
Sarah: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a writer?
Michael: Working at home and being able to slope around in rumpled clothes, unshaven, not talking to people for eight hours a day. I thrive on solitude, but wouldn’t like it all the time.
Sarah: What is the most challenging part of being a writer?
Michael: Keeping away from the damn desk and computer. I just can’t do it. That’s why I work seven days a week.
Sarah: Once you've published a work, do you revisit or rework it?
Michael: I read my advance copy of a printed book when it arrives, looking for flaws and errors - there are always a few, some of my making, some not - so that they can be put right for the next edition or the paperback. After that I don’t read them again. There seems little point. The work’s done, it’s behind me, there are other things to do.
Sarah: When you were a teenager, what were your favorite books?
Michael: There were so many, mostly novels, great stories, works of the imagination, adventures in parts of the world beyond my experience and knowledge. I’m glad to say there were no ‘Young Adult’ books then, so I wasn’t in any way restricted. Here are some that stand out in my memory. The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau (Anthony Hope), King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quartermain, She (Henry Rider Haggard), The Odyssey and The Iliad (Homer), The Master of Ballantrae (Robert Louis Stevenson), The Jungle Book (Kipling), The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden (Steinbeck), The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The History of Mr Polly (H. G. Wells), The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham), The Death of Grass (John Christopher), The Outsider, The Plague, Exile and the Kingdom (Albert Camus), Brave New World, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (Aldous Huxley), 1984 (George Orwell), and many more, including almost anything by P.G. Wodehouse.
Sarah: It seems that you've held a wide variety of jobs; do you think you'll tire of writing and try your hand at something new?
Michael: I seem to change interests and professions every ten years or so. 2005 is my tenth year as a published writer, so I’m a bit restless at the moment, wondering what I can do to spice things up a bit. I refuse the two- or three-book contracts I am occasionally offered, because I don’t like to feel too locked into things. I once signed a two-novel contract and the second was pure hell - felt like I was working for someone else rather than myself. Never again. Part of the allure of writing, if allure is the word, is the freedom to write whatever I please. This rarely works out with books for kids; there’s always an editor of publishing director saying things like: ‘You can’t say that for this age-group,’ or, ‘Parents might be offended.’ I’ve had no such comments - so far - about my trilogy, but still, I long to go the whole hog with the odd adult novel, and not worry about anyone’s opinion. There, I’ve said it. The next thing I want to do isn’t so different after all. It’s to continue writing, but for a different readership.
Sarah: Your characters have unusual names. How do you come up with them?
Michael: Names sometimes come quickly, sometimes after a lot of trials when choices never feel quite right. You write about a character you’ve called Philip, say, just to give him a handle, but after several chapters you’re still a bit uneasy about it. Then the name Sebastian comes up, and you just know that this is the right name for him. After that, he’s ‘alive’. So it was with Naia and Alaric Underwood in the Withern Rise books. They both started out with different names, which went through several changes, until I arrived at these. Once I’d got them, I felt comfortable with the characters, as if I’d finally uncovered their true identities. The names of characters in novels often seem to me either dull, too obvious, or as if the writer is trying too hard. Some readers will inevitably feel that the names Naia and Alaric are the result of me attempting to impress, but these are names of people I’ve known, very briefly; names that seemed to have something out of the ordinary yet not be too outlandish. I once had an editor called Naia, and in the 1980s I met a young carpenter named Alaric who made an oak cupboard for us, into which he carved his trademark rose. As for the name Underwood, you could say that it was borrowed from Leon Underwood, a painter and sculptor whose life and work interests me. But there’s something about the name that appeals too. An earthy sound, a ‘foresty’ sound, which suggest great age, darkness, intrigue. And Aldous? Well, Aldous Huxley, of course. And I’m well aware (though it’s not necessarily pertinent) that both ‘Aldous’ and ‘Alaric’ are German in origin.
Sarah: Is there anything you'd like your readers to know about you that you haven't been asked before?
Michael: Two things. That I am a giant of a man, stunningly handsome, with glorious flowing locks, irresistible to women. Also, that I miss writing songs, as I did in the late seventies, early eighties (sometimes just the lyrics, sometimes the music too). I hereby invite enterprising tunesmiths or performers who like lyrics with a bit of edge and humour (and have contacts in the record industry, or record contracts) to join me in a sandwich at an English pub near me.
Sarah: What upcoming works can your readers look forward to?
Michael: The hardback Small Eternities will be published in the US and Canada around September, as well as the paperback A Crack in the Line, the first Withern Rise volume. The Underwood See, the third volume of the trilogy, will be published around the same time in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. I will also be publishing Neville the Devil, the seventh in a series of comic novels which keep me solvent - and I have two picture books coming out this year: Where’s Widdershins? and Baby Christmas.
But the event I’m most looking forward to is a small self-publishing venture: a memoir of a year in the mid-1960s when I started out as a young freelance photographer in London, went to Paris to write but instead became a down-and-out, ending up as a camera operator at a holiday centre in Wales. Along the way I exchanged words with Judy Garland, had my fortune wrongly told by the elderly Coco Chanel, photographed John Lennon’s nose, slept in a famous lady pop singer’s bath, printed soft-porn pictures for Bob Guccione (about to launch Penthouse magazine), and lots of other things besides. The book is to be called Milking the Novelty. I hope soon to be offering signed copies for sale from my website, if anyone’s interested.
Sarah: What do you think is the biggest mistake new authors make?
Michael: Believing that publishers are going to welcome them with open arms. The reverse is usually the case. Editors groan about the number of manuscripts that land on their desks from aspirational strangers, and read very few of them. One of the worst decisions I ever made was to decide to be a writer. If I could go back in time I would visit myself at the age of eighteen and say, ‘Whatever you do, kid, don’t buy than damn typewriter. It will take you over thirty years to find a publisher, and your first book will sell about 3,000 copies and be out of print in two years.’
Sarah: Any parting comments?
Michael: Yes. Visit me at Wordybug, my website (www.wordybug.com), and read some of the poems I wrote in all the years I was failing to sell other things.
2005's Honorary List