This month’s guest is Andrew Blackman, author and blogger. He has written two novels, On the Holloway Road and A Virtual Love and I’ve read both, the latter being the first book I read in electronic format. He was also the first author who continued to respond to my emails making me believe there isn’t an actual parallel world where writers create unbelievable works of fantasy and we the ordinary mortals are just lucky to read said works. He was also the one who encouraged me to submit my novel for publication, therefore prompting me to finally finish the thing which would have taken a lot longer to complete otherwise. I know writers are very busy people and so I was very happy when he agreed to do this interview.
1. Who are you?
I’m a writer from London. I’ve had a couple of novels published in the UK, as well as hundreds of short stories, essays and articles. I used to live in New York, where I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, but now I’m travelling long-term around Europe with my wife, and we’re paying for the trip by doing freelance work online as we go. My third novel is in progress.
2. Why do you blog and what is your blog about?
I started the blog back in 2008 because something terrible was happening to me: I was reading lots of great books, and then discovering that after a year or two I had no memory of them whatsoever. I wanted a place to blog about my reading, so that I had a record of what I’d read. Since then it’s expanded a bit — after becoming a published writer I started to write more about writing, and also to do a bit of awkward self-promotion for my latest books — but still it’s writing about books that I enjoy the most. In fact I almost never refresh my memory by reading old posts about old books, but the process of writing the reviews, and of discussing the books with knowledgeable, enthusiastic fellow bloggers, solidifies them in my memory anyway.
3. Favorite books/authors/genres
I can’t give an honest answer to this kind of question. I love Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera and John Banville, but if I name them as my favourite three authors, then what about Joan Didion, or Vasily Grossman, or Kazuo Ishiguro, or R.D. Laing, or George Orwell, or Edward Said, or Jamaica Kincaid, or… It’s just impossible. I’ve never been the sort of reader to fall in love with one writer/book/genre and read in that little corner over and over again—I prefer to read widely, always looking for the next new discovery.
4. Kindle or paper book?
This is something I’ve blogged about a couple of times. The bottom line is that I’ve had a Kindle for a few years now, but still prefer real books. Because I am living an itinerant life, I am almost exclusively buying ebooks at the moment. But when I’m settled in one place, I think I’ll go back to buying almost exclusively print books, only using the Kindle for an occasional 99p punt on an author I’m not sure about.
5. Three things you learned from a book.
When I was about eleven or twelve I read War and Peace, probably my first “adult” book. I discovered how a good writer could create a whole new reality. It took me months to get through the book, and I really felt part of that world, which was so different from my suburban London reality. It made me want to create those worlds myself.
When I was much older I read Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, and discovered that fiction was a much more malleable thing than I’d realized. Many of Borges’s stories are not stories—they use non-fiction forms, or deliberately misquote from other books. He plays with form and narrative structure, writes mysteries and detective stories as high literature, and has stories with no real plot at all. The book completely redefined for me what short stories could be.
I’ve also learned a lot from non-fiction books about the way life really works. I studied history at Oxford University, but there were massive gaps in what we learned. I had to read Eric Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery to discover how extensively British economic development was financed by the profits from the slave trade, Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins to discover the mass imprisonments, killings and torture administered in the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, and so on. It’s not just Britain, either—all around the world, most of what we now consider to be normal has some pretty ugly origins.
6. Best book to take with you on a desert island.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. There’s lots in there about acceptance and serenity, which I imagine would be quite important if you’re stuck on a desert island.
7. Best book to use as a doorstop.
A Game of Thrones. I’m enjoying the TV series, but couldn’t stomach the book. And the good thing is that when one doorstop gets tattered, you can work your way through the rest of the series!
8. Favorite quotes
I love it when a book begins with some beautiful prose that just makes me feel I’m in good hands. These are not necessarily my favourite quotes, but they are some of my favourite opening paragraphs:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)
I am, therefore I think. That seems inescapable. In this lawless house I spend the nights poring over my memories, fingering them, like an impotent casanova his old love letters, sniffing the dusty scent of violets. Some of these memories are in a language which I do not understand, the ones that could be headed, the beginning of the old life. They tell the story which I intend to copy here, all of it, if not its meaning, the story of the fall and rise of Birchwood, and of the part Sabatier and I played in the last battle.
(John Banville, Birchwood)
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.
(Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing)
9. Three tips for bloggers.
1. Don’t check your visitor stats. Or if you must do it, only do it once a month at most. Early on, I used to be quite obsessive about my stats, and it was a waste of energy. Now I try to follow a quote from the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”
2. Remember why you’re doing it. It’s easy for blogging to become a chore or an obligation. If you’re not enjoying it, just ease up on your schedule, or even stop for a while, and only return when you’re feeling enthusiastic about it again.
3. Never write a “Sorry I haven’t posted for so long” post, or an “I’m giving up blogging” post, or an “I’m back again two weeks later” post. Just write when you have something to write, and be silent when you don’t.
10. Best/worst blogging experience.
The best part of blogging for me is not so much a single experience, but the cumulative effect of thousands of little interactions over the years. A comment here, an email there, and gradually I’m getting to know people from all over the world who share nothing in common but a love of reading. It’s a wonderful thing, and although my life circumstances mean that I’m not as active now as I was a few years ago, it’s something I treasure.
The worst blogging experience for me has been when I have a book out and am hoping to get reviews. It takes my relationships with other bloggers to a place I don’t like. I worry that they feel under pressure to read my book and review it. Of course I hope to get good reviews, but when I do, I wonder if they’re genuine or if the bloggers are just being nice because they know me. And if they don’t review it, I assume it’s because they hated it. Basically it’s not a process I enjoy. Being published, yes, but anything to do with publicity, no.
11. You are also a writer. Tell us more about your books.
My first novel, On the Holloway Road, is a story about two young Londoners who are inspired by Jack Kerouac’s famous 1950s novel On the Road and try to create a spontaneous, free existence in the more limited world of contemporary Britain. The book was inspired by my own feeling of alienation and suffocation when I moved back to London after living in the U.S.
My second novel, A Virtual Love, explores relationships in the age of social media. It’s a love story of sorts, but one based on constructed identities and therefore crucially undermined. Although I love blogging and enjoy other social media to a certain extent, I do feel that we perform and are not our true selves when we construct these online identities, and the novel examines what happens when those dishonest, often idealised identities cross over into “real” life.
12. What is your writing routine like? Do you have one?
I write first thing in the morning, which is odd because I’ve never considered myself to be a “morning person”. I think it’s because to write good fiction, you need to access the subconscious, so it helps to be half-asleep!
I keep a regular writing schedule, every day from Monday to Friday, usually three hours a day, but it depends on what else I have going on. My routine has been disrupted this year by all the travelling, but I still aim to do at least some writing first thing in the morning, even if it’s only an hour or even half an hour. It’s important to keep the rhythm going. When I lose the habit of writing, it’s hard to get it back.
13. Three tips for writers.
1. Have a purpose. George Orwell said that writers’ four main reasons for writing are aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, and sheer egoism. Understand your own motives. If you want people to read your stories, you should at least know why you’re writing them.
2. Be humble. Nobody would expect to sit down at the piano and immediately play like Chopin, but because we can all type, we think we can write a great novel with no practice, study or effort. It takes time to be good at anything, and becoming a good writer is a lifelong commitment. Read a lot, write a lot, and stick at it for a long time.
3. Be arrogant. To be a writer, you have to believe that despite all the millions of books out there and the thousands more being published every month, what you have to say is important and the world needs to hear it. In other words, you have to be unbelievably arrogant. So embrace that arrogance: be bold, be ballsy, and say something the world needs to sit up and hear.
14. What are you most passionate about?
Social justice. As a middle-class white British man, I’m aware that I enjoy a lot of unearned privilege. It disturbs me that so many people in my position refuse to acknowledge the fundamentally unfair ways in which we’ve chosen to structure our societies. So many of us live in a bubble, refusing to accept the reality that our comfortable existences are being propped up by the suffering of millions of others who will never get the chances we had, and more importantly refusing to do anything to change things. It reminds me of how Orwell ended his book Homage to Catalonia, giving a beautiful description of a train ride through the bucolic Kent countryside in which everyone was “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
15. Last book that made you cry.
I’m not sure if it was the last one, but I know that Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman made me cry. He described a village in the Ukraine having all its grain confiscated, and the villagers digging for worms, boiling their cats, making bread from acorns, eating rats, and making noodles out of shoe leather. Reading about people slowly dying made it impossible not to cry, especially because I knew that in some form it was a true story, and also because it was so beautifully written, so that the beauty of the prose clashed horribly with the brutality of the subject matter. Grossman’s Life and Fate also made me cry, and I preferred it overall, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.
Ask me a question.
What’s your most daring ambition?
Over the years I’ve asked myself the same question. To travel the world while writing, to see and experience and live a freer existence. I guess this sounds familiar since this is the life you are living. But if you ask me to sum this up to one essential thing, that would be to one day see my novel in bookstores around the world.