My earliest ‘publications’ were parodies, written as school exercises and put into the school magazine by a teacher, so I suppose from the start I was something of a prostitute when it came to style or genre. In other words, I was anybody’s and wrote whatever the style demanded. I still love parody and I think we learn lots from trying to write like others – not all the time, of course, but as occasional writing exercises.
As a teenager, I wrote poetry – truly awful stuff about love, broken hearts, lust and all that time-wasting but so painfully-felt angst. But my first real genre, when I began to realise that writing was what I wanted to do, was drama. I wrote stage plays for adults and children. My first real taste of ‘being a writer’, though, was when the BBC accepted one of my radio plays. They broadcast several more, mostly serious, dramatic stuff, but some comedy too and finally, skits and songs for revues.
Those days, I was praised for my dialogue so when I started to write novels it was a surprise to find that the characters in them sometimes sounded less natural and realistic than those in my plays. I think writing long prose works sets up different rhythms in your mind as you write and they get carried into the dialogue, so you have to read it aloud and rewrite it to get the proper rhythmic balance.
I’m talking about different forms rather than different genres, but I think it’s relevant, to show that most of us start out just writing, rather than writing ‘crime’ or ‘romance’ or whatever. When we do fall into a particular genre – in my case, crime – that becomes what we’re expected to produce. But if readers are allowed to have short attention spans, so are we. By that I mean that the prospect of churning out book after book, each featuring the same characters in more or less the same places, is challenging in one way but claustrophobic in another. Exploring fresh ground, shifting into different centuries, past and yet to come, bending realities and multiplying dimensions, they’re all ways of releasing and refreshing your writing.
With the need to engage in energetic marketing nowadays, I realise that choosing to write novels which are totally different from one another in terms of genre, might be confusing for readers and make them harder to sell. Those who read The Darkness, a police procedural as dark as its title, which questions ideas of bad and good, will be very surprised if they think “I enjoyed that, so I’ll try The Sparrow Conundrum”, only to find it’s a satirical spoof of the crime/spy genres whose sole aim is to make them laugh. So they say “OK, I’ll give this guy one last try” and they read The Figurehead and find they’re in the company of shipbuilding people in Aberdeen in 1840 and that a novel that starts with a corpse on a beach ends up with the mystery being solved but with a strong romance developing at the same time.
Oh, and if they then decide to read their kids a bedtime story, choose one about a miserable fairy called Stanley who lives under a dripping tap in a bedroom, then find out it’s by the same bloke who wrote the others, they may wonder which asylum I finished up in. More importantly, they probably won’t trust me to satisfy their writing needs because I “lack consistency”.
The point is that, for me, there’s no difference writing any of these books or, for that matter, the dialogue between Joseph and Mary when she tells him she’s been visited by an angel and she’s pregnant. If the subject’s interesting, it absorbs me. The characters dictate the sort of things that happen; they have their own voices, their own ambitions and flaws. So whether they’re in Victorian Scotland, a contemporary police station, a space colony or sitting under a dripping tap; whether they’re murderers, lovers, saints, fairies or Klingons, they force their way into your head and you have to deal with them on their terms.
Writing is like acting – if you want the audience to suspend their disbelief, you have to do the same, you have to commit to the reality of the play you’re performing, the story you’re writing. I feel as intensely in the scene when I’m describing the antics of Stanley as when I’m watching John Grant carve his figurehead or my detective work his way through external clues and internal devils. It makes life very exciting..