This week we’ve been speaking with Chloe Turner. Chloe lives and writes in Gloucestershire. She has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including the upcoming Issue 10 of Kindred magazine (US), and has a single-story pocketbook coming out with In Short Publishing (Aus) this November. Chloe has had stories shortlisted in the 2015 Frome Festival Short Story Prize, The 2015 Fiction Desk Newcomer Prize and been longlisted in the 2014 Highlands & Islands Short Story Association Competition. She blogs at www.turnerpen2paper.com and can be found on Twitter at @turnerpen2paper.
Here’s what she had to say.
Have you always been interested in writing?
I wrote when I was young. Creative writing was taken seriously at my school – we even had a short story competition judged by Monica Dickens each year, and I won that when I was about twelve. But it all tailed off as I got older, and something about a ten year career in finance seemed to kill off any creativity in me whatsoever! It wasn’t until I had children and spent some time at home that my urge to write came back.
This one could be difficult for your modesty, but when did you realise that you were good at writing? Has it always felt natural, or have you had to train yourself and your craft to feel confident in the process?
I wouldn’t say I feel confident in the process, I’m just getting better at blocking out the inner critic and getting on with it. I’ve always felt reasonably confident writing descriptive prose, because I love manipulating words, and I also paint so I think I have a fairly visual eye. Storytelling is a different kettle of fish though – plotting, creating conflict and suspense, finding voices that resonate and grip the reader: these are all things that I’m very much still learning, from others and from lots and lots of practice!
Tell us about Long-Gone Mary. What inspired you to write it?
Long-gone Mary is a short story about two girls, living in the same place, sixteen centuries apart, and the parallels between their lives. The story is being published as a single volume pocketbook, number 2 in a series of 18, by the new Australian publisher InShort Publishing (www.inshortpublishing.com), and it’ll be available online via their website later this month.
The character of Mary Arkell, the modern day Mary, and her life-story are obviously works of fiction, but other aspects of the story are firmly rooted in historical fact: there was a young Romano-British noblewoman called Mary living in Gloucestershire at the time when the last Romans were retreating, a messy, violent time of warring tribes and bloodshed, and her life-story echoes the modern trials of Mary Arkell. For Mary Arkell’s sake, we hope things turn out better for her than her historical namesake.
The story is very much grounded in the area of Gloucestershire in which I live, and specifically the countryside around the town of Stroud. It’s a landscape I love, and it’s rich in history and prehistory. I’m an archaeology graduate so if there’s any opportunity to slide off into a historical tangent, I’ll take it! I’m really interested in the connections between people across time through a common landscape: how they might experience the same place, inhabit it, mould it with their actions.
In part, the story of Long-gone Mary also explores some of the history behind the huge Roman villa that lies under the village of Woodchester, near Stroud, and in particular the incredible mosaic – the Orpheus Pavement – that formed the centrepiece of that 64-roomed mansion. That mosaic, and the amazing 1.6 million replica of it that was built by two Gloucestershire builders, is a story in itself. If you’re interested, you can read a bit more about it on my blog: http://turnerpen2paper.com/2015/09/03/long-gone-mary-coming-soon/#more-165.
Is Long-Gone Mary the first time your work will be published in print?
It’s the first time I’ve had a volume published in my name alone, but I’ve had a couple of stories published in UK magazines and anthologies, and I am really pleased to have a story upcoming in the autumn print edition of a beautiful US magazine called Kindred.
Do you feel more comfortable writing short fiction, or longer, novel length work?
Over the past couple of years, with three young children, writing short stories has suited me well: a regular sense of achievement at having finished something, and the freedom to experiment with lots of ideas and styles without having to commit too deeply to any of them.
I have experimented with novel length manuscripts in the past, a couple of times, but nothing I’d want to see the light of day. Recently I’ve started work on something that feels like it might turn out to be a novel, though, so I’m playing along with that for the time being.
How did you learn how to write?
I’m very much still learning, primarily by just getting on and writing. Also from the process of receiving feedback on my work, which is so vital: from my writing group, from editors when I submit to magazines, from anyone who’ll give me it! Recently I’ve been working with a writing mentor, which has been a very positive experience. And I’ve done a few courses, mostly day workshops because of family commitments. I dream of a writing retreat.
I do enjoy reading books on the ‘craft’: of these, I particularly enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, and I’m halfway through Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. I treated myself to a copy of the Writers & Artists Companion on Writing Short Stories by Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman recently, after hearing Tania read one of her amazing stories at a live lit event in Bristol (Novel Nights – go along if you live anywhere near Bristol, it’s a great night). I’d really recommend this book, which takes a forensic approach to every aspect of short stories, and has given me a lot of food for thought in my writing.
I’ve also learnt a huge amount from more general reading, especially trying to read ‘as a writer’, ie reading very analytically, with a close eye to structure, word choice, etc. Unfortunately, I find it can detract from the magic of a book somewhat, so I’d shy away from doing it with a favourite, but it does give a surgical view of how the writer has built that piece.
What’s your writing schedule/process like?
I’d love to write every day but I find it difficult to achieve with one little one still at home. I need quiet to write, and I sink quite deeply into it, so it’s not compatible with an active toddler! I am very disciplined about the time I do carve out for writing though, and I’ll happily make the most of any scrap of peace that comes my way, whether it’s a matter of hours or minutes. I normally have a writing ‘to do’ list on the go, and I use a calendar to record submission deadlines. These force me to finish things and get them out the door. I keep a spreadsheet of what I’ve sent where and when, any costs, and the outcome. Twitter’s been invaluable for identifying markets and submission calls, and although it is a time drain, I do allow myself some time on there to make sure I’m keeping on top of opportunities.
In terms of my writing process, my first drafts tend to be fairly rough – I force myself forward to get the story down on the page, and then I can get back to the bit I really like: building the world up, bringing it alive. In fact I read a great post today from the novelist Claire Fuller about first drafts, funny but full of lots of practical tips on how to silence the inner critic for long enough to get the words down: http://clairefuller.co.uk/2015/07/28/top-10-tips-for-writing-a-crappy-first-draft/
Are you working on any new writing projects at the moment?
I’m in the very early stages of what I hope will be a novel. I’m planning to use NaNoWriMo (the annual challenge of completing a novel in the month of November, something that seems to be bigger in the US than over here) to try and thrash out a first draft, or a decent chunk of one, so that I can put it aside and look at it with fresh eyes in the new year. It remains to be seen whether my children will cooperate.
Which writers are your biggest influences?
In the kind of writing I aim for (domestic literary fiction, perhaps), a queen of the field would be someone like Tessa Hadley, who writes such subtle, observant stories about flawed families. They’re very lightly written but they draw you in, really clever. She’s definitely someone I would like to emulate.
But I read very widely and in all sorts of genres. I love everything David Mitchell’s ever written. I love sweeping American sagas like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or anything by Jeffrey Eugenides. I read a lot of short stories too: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnesthat I read a few months ago has really stayed with me. His characters are amazing, and I love the way he uses very ordinary words and still builds the most incredible pictures, just by layering the detail. Over the last year or so, I’ve read a lot of Nature Writing: Richard Mabey’s Weeds, John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, that sort of thing. I love to write about people in a natural landscape, and I often find that these kind of books inspire ideas for new stories.
What are you reading at the minute?
My bedside table is weighed down with a great stack of to-be-reads at the moment, the result of a trip to the library, some chance finds in a charity shop, and a lovely handful of borrowed books from my friend Laura Pashby who runs the monthly #theyearinbooks chat on Twitter. One of those is Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book – Jansson’s earlier volume,The Summer Book, really haunted me after I read it last year: such a gentle, beautifully drawn account of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter, spending the summer months on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The Winter Book is a bit different: a selection of short stories by the Finnish writer, and I can’t wait to get started on it.
Close behind that will be Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive – I loved his novel The Humans, very funny and wise, and saw Matt talk about Reasons to Stay Alive – his personal account of depression – at Chip Lit Fest this year, so I’m looking forward to reading the book at last.
Finally I’ve almost finished Corvus, A Life With Birds, by Esther Woolfson. On the one hand, it’s a densely scientific book (in a good way), dealing with matters such as avian intelligence, taxonomy, evolution, migration, song, but at the same time, at its heart, it’s a love letter to the birds, particularly the corvids (Chicken the rook and Spike the magpie), that have lived with Woolfson’s family over the decades. It’s fascinating but it’s also very lyrical, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Woolfson is also a prize-winning short story writer. For example, describing here sea-bird calls heard together: “the puffin, between complaining ghost and chainsaw, the high, persistent squeak of the Arctic tern, the petrel’s rolling hiccup and the warbling choke of cormorants, the low resonant bassoon of the shag combine like an orchestra of maniacs equipped with instruments from a scrapyard.” Brilliant.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
The days when nothing comes.
What’s the easiest thing about writing?
Talking about doing it!
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
I’d love to be able to write the kind of extravagant, multi-location, multi-epoch, hugely ambitious novels that David Mitchell writes. I saw David talking in Bath last year aboutBone Clocks, his latest novel at the time. He just holds these whole worlds in his mind, amazing. I also really enjoyed the idea of his character job centre – minor characters from earlier books hang out there, waiting to be claimed, and when he’s looking for a character in his latest work, he’ll look there first. It’s something I love about his books, those secret links across very different works, references that only a dedicated Mitchell fan would pick up!
We are a creative writing advice platform, so it would be criminal not to ask you for some sage advice on writing. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Oh dear, I’m only just starting out myself. But I didn’t start improving until I bit the bullet and got my work out there, allowing it to get rejected all over the place but picking up lots of feedback, advice and encouragement along the way. Getting my first piece in print in a magazine was a big boost, but even the rejections aren’t always unpleasant – some of the smaller magazines, in particular, often throw in a few sentences of feedback or an encouraging note about submitting again. I also enter a fair few competitions – I’ve noticed yours on www.onlinewritingtips.com, so I’ll be getting my act in gear for that some time between now and February 1st! Winning or being listed in a few competitions all helps with the writing CV/bio. Hopefully my writing is improving, but it’s also the case that once you have a few successes on your bio, you can expect people to take your writing more seriously and hopefully more doors will open.
Name your top 3 all-time favourite works of fiction.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Secret History, Donna Tartt
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Thank you Chloe for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing where your writing career takes you!