You’ll write better if you engage with contemporary fiction. Even if you react strongly against certain contemporary trends, your reaction will be part of the conversation that literature has to have with itself.
Harry Bingham is currently writing a crime series, featuring a young Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths. The series has sold to publishers in the UK (Orion), the US (Bantam Dell), as well as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. The TV rights have been optioned to Bonafide Films. Harry is also the author of two books on writing and getting published. Both books are published by Bloomsbury as companion volumes to the internationally famous Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. Harry founded the Writers’ Workshop in 2006 and is the bestselling author of a number of other books; his novels have sold in the US, Japan, Germany and numerous other territories. Harry is also a part-time human being who does human-things, like eating, sleeping and reading books while stuck between two walls. He is married, lives in Oxfordshire and has a variable number of dogs.
Web site: http://harrybingham.com/
How Harry Bingham Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Harry for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I honestly don’t know. I used to read a lot as a kid. I know that when I was ten or eleven, I used to come home from school and bash a ‘novel’ out on my mother’s old manual typewriter. (I don’t have that novel any more, to my relief.) If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said ‘writer’ from a fairly young age.
Things didn’t in fact work out that way: I spent ten years working in finance for some reason. But I’ve ended up where I belong. I can’t imagine doing any other job. Indeed, that’s the wrong way to put it. I don’t have a job. I have an occupation which I enjoy and that occupation mixes more or less seamlessly into the rest of my life. So there’s nothing unusual for me about writing while I’m on holiday or even on Christmas Day. Writing makes those things better; it almost never feels like a chore.
Um – I wrote a book.
The longer version of that answer is that I was working as a banker, my wife became ill, I gave up work to look after her and, while sitting at her bedside in a darkened room, started to bash out a novel on my laptop. That novel was a monster (180,000 words), but it was good enough to get me an agent, then sold at a contested auction to HarperCollins. I’ve never really looked back.
The deeper answer, I suppose, is that I had an urge to tell a story. A story entered my head and wouldn’t release me till I set it down. Then when I had set it down – in an ugly, first draft sort of way – the inadequacies of that telling niggled at me until I edited into shape. And at that point, it seemed stupid not to send it to an agent, so I did. But my motivation to write was not in the first instance commercial: it was to get that damn story told.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
That’s a curious question, for me. It’s a question that expects a certain sort of answer: an Oscar-style list of thank yous. But the truth is that I wrote that first novel pretty much solo. My wife (who contributed a lot to some of my later work) was at that stage in no condition to read, let alone give thoughtful editorial feedback. My agent too, though she was terrific about making the sale and guiding my early steps in publication, offered very little by way of editorial advice. She just said the novel was ready to sell, and sold it.
So I guess my real debts go way further back. To my family, where books were sacred and the TV nothing but a (small, black-and-white) annoyance. To those teachers, too, who shoved books into my hand and taught me to read broadly, not narrowly. To those indie bookshops of yore that found ways to help you encounter books that weren’t just the latest things to fall off some conglomerate publisher’s production line. It was an old-fashioned sort of reading childhood mine, and all the better for it.
Two writers really: Raymond Chandler and John Le Carre. Both men were basically literary writers who happened to write genre fiction. They were also both alcoholic. Both educated at English public schools. (Bet you didn’t know that about Raymond Chandler.) Both had difficult home backgrounds. Both came to writing after real careers in other things.
More to the point, I think, both men made art out of the world that lay around them. They were willing to grapple with the dirty, not just the beautiful. To deal with the political. To use protagonists who were tough, not mere Flaubertian flaneurs.
I rate these two writers extraordinarily highly in the literary pantheon. Chandler I rate higher than Hemingway, and Le Carre higher than pretty much any post-war British author. If that sounds crass, just read the books without prejudice. Ask yourself whose literary style had more poetry: Chandler or Hemingway. Ask yourself whose stories are more complete, more truthful about the society and mores they depict.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Gosh, how short is short? If I’m allowed 250,000 words in total, I guess I’d scribble a postcard then include a copy of my How to Write and my Getting Published. Is that cheating? OK. But I don’t really think you can say all that you need to in a short letter. If you want just three points, however, they’d be these.
One, understand the market. That doesn’t mean you should write cynically: you should do nothing of the sort. But you do need to engage with fiction as it is, not fiction as it once was or as you imagine it ought to be. You’ll write better if you engage with contemporary fiction. Even if you react strongly against certain contemporary trends, your reaction will be part of the conversation that literature has to have with itself.
Second, be perfectionist. If you write a competent novel, then you have (if you want it commercially published) wasted your time. Competent is not enough. It needs to be dazzling, daring. It needs to offer something unique. That means you will need to be obsessive and perfectionist in every aspect of your work. If you don’t like the sound of that, don’t become a writer.
Third, find a hook. There are too many novels which are fine, but which don’t distinguish themselves in any real way from everything else which is out there. And that novel is not going to get picked up by an agent. It won’t be bought by a publisher. The unique is hard to find, but it’s intensely precious when you do find it. I’ve found it, perhaps only truly once in my career, with Talking to the Dead. That book has been the most enjoyable book I’ve ever written. I think, thanks to that little diamond chip of uniqueness, it’ll be my most successful novel too.