This week I'm delighted to interview Paul Cranwell, author of A Material Harvest. I've known Paul for a number of years and he and his wife have attended quite a few of my Fictionfire workshops, so it's a particular pleasure to see him finish his novel and bring it out into the world. In this interview, Paul discusses what he's learned from creative writing courses, what inspired him to write the novel and the publishing choices he made.
Welcome to Literascribe, Paul!
Hi, Lorna. Thank you very much for inviting me to your blog interview.
We first met at the Winchester Writers’ Festival – can you tell us about what made you want to get your writing career off the ground and what part courses, workshops and conferences such as Winchester and Swanwick have played in helping you on the way?
Although I enjoyed writing in my youth, my wife, Mary, has always been a keen writer. Eight years ago she saw an advert for a writing weekend at Farncombe, sadly now closed as an adult learning centre. The course was run by Crysse Morrison, the first of several inspiring creative writing tutors that we have been fortunate to meet. Not having written creatively during my professional career, the weekend was a revelation. For the next four years we were avid consumers of writing courses. Those courses taught me the basics of creative writing and encouraged me to lean the craft of writing. I supplemented the courses by reading the required reading lists for the masters’ degree in Creative Writing that several universities publish on the internet. Amongst the various courses and conferences, we attended a number of workshops. The opportunity to practice writing and learn from others is important. Fictionfire is a good case in point. The chance to consider a particular facet of writing and to put it into practice is invaluable. We are also members of an excellent writing group, Stratford Scribes, facilitated by Cathy Whittaker. Fictionfire provided the inspiration for a number of fictional pieces that formed part of my masters’ degree. Without these courses I would never have written anything.
You have been involved in the organisation of the Swanwick Summer School – what advice can you offer to writers thinking of attending such events to make the best of their experience there?
Swanwick is the longest running independent writers’ conference. For a week every summer the school runs a packed programme of writing courses and entertainment. The timetable runs every day from 8.00 a.m. to midnight and can be exhausting. So, the best advice is to select the courses you want to attend and not feel that you have to go to everything. The school attracts writers with every level of experience from complete novices to those authors with over a hundred published titles to their name. The quiet surroundings and friendly environment give you the opportunity to mix with fellow writers and to learn from them. In terms of conferences generally, one piece of advice that may help is to read the tutor biographies. Some of the best courses I have been to have not been in genres I would normally relate to, but have been taken by inspirational tutors.
You’ve also completed a creative writing degree at Brookes University, Oxford – can you say in what ways this complemented or added to what you’d learned about writing elsewhere?
I wanted to take a professional approach to learning the skill of creative writing. In my view Stephen King was absolutely right when he said that, “with practice and hard work, it is possible for a competent writer to become a good writer.” Studying for a masters’ degree in creative writing was a logical next step in that process. The course at Oxford Brookes is a practical one, based on assessing published authors’ work and learning from them. It has made me read with a more critical eye to identify which techniques work and which don’t and, more importantly, why. I should also say that the chance to immerse myself completely in writing for a year was wonderful – a real privilege.
How important is it for a writer to network with other writers?
Networking is such an important way of learning about new trends and developments in writing. The world of publishing, in particular, is changing fast and readers are becoming more demanding in the way that fiction is delivered to them. For instance, writing for audio books was once an arcane activity with limited application, but with the advent of downloads for mobile phones, people listen to stories as they exercise or travel to work. That in turn shapes the length and type of fiction they want. Without networking it is impossible to keep up with these developments. It is also important to realise that you are not alone. I’m very fortunate that my wife is also a writer. Without her my writing life could easily become a lonely one.
Your partner, Mary, is also a writer – how important has it been for you to have one another to provide mutual support or a sounding board/giver of feedback? Are you writing very different types of work? Are you different or similar in your writing practices?
I am lucky to be married to Mary. She is a talented writer and editor. Whilst completing my novel, to have someone of her skill to help me with both the structural edit and the copy edit was invaluable. Having a shared pursuit gives us both an understanding of the demands that writing imposes. We have very different writing interests and different strengths. Mary has a Carveresque style: a penetrating understanding of character and dialogue that I can only aspire to. She also loves memoir. For my part my novel is a thriller, but I also enjoy writing humour and poetry. We are also different in how we structure our writing day. Mary can write all day for a few weeks, but I find I am better at writing in shorter bursts over a longer period.
Tell me about your newly-published book, A Material Harvest. What is it about? What led you to write it?
A Material Harvest is about Michael Turner, a senior banker with Scottish Imperial Bank. He is at the pinnacle of his personal and professional career. Michael disappears after his mother’s funeral. At Scottish Imperial Bank, files for one of his most important clients are also missing. His colleague and friend, Alex Shepherd, takes charge of the Bank's investigation. He follows a dangerous and complex trail to find Michael and uncover the truth.
My professional career was in finance and corporate banking and I wanted to explore that world in my writing. Having an understanding of the financial world made it easier for me to write it than might otherwise have been the case. I wanted in particular to look at the reasons why there are so many examples of fraud and misconduct in banking. I started the novel as the major project on my masters’ degree and was fortunate to have feedback from Oxford Brookes along the way.
Luck plays a part in these things. The story deals in part with non-disclosed companies and offshore funds. The recent events in Panama with Mossack Fonseca, have led me to believe that there is scope for a sequel.
You chose to write under the pseudonym of Paul Cranwell. What was the logic for doing so?
I write in a wide range of poetry and prose forms and in a number of different genres. From a presentational point of view, it makes sense to identify one genre with one brand. In this case Paul Cranwell is the name I will use for thrillers. If I publish my humorous stories or poetry, I shall do so under a different name. More prosaically I like the name Cranwell
How long did the novel take to write? Were any aspects of its composition particularly easy or tricky?
The idea was conceived during Christmas 2013 and the book was first published in March this year. As a project it took just over two years. However, I took a break between writing the first draft and undertaking the edit. It took about eight months to write the first draft and then six months to edit. The easiest parts to write were those scenes that I could readily identify with. The hardest, conversely, were those that required an understanding of character that only came as I completed the book. As a result, there were parts of the book that were rewritten during the edit, including the ending.
Tell me about the route you took to publication – what governed your choices and what advice do you have for other writers on this?
I listened to all the advice about publishing on the various courses I’ve been on. I very early realised that, for me at least, there were two possible options. If I wanted to attract a mainstream publisher, and possibly to make some money, then I would need to write a commercially oriented book. That wasn’t my objective. I simply wanted to write the best book I was capable of writing; to enjoy the process; and learn as much about writing and publishing as possible along the way. The only way to do that was to set up my own publishing company and have full editorial control over the book.
The novel has a beautiful and striking cover – would you like to tell us what choices were made and why? Did you employ a cover designer?
My sister-in-law runs a website design business and has been involved in graphic design as well as publishing. She was the first person to read my completed novel and I asked her if she would design the cover. She selected a range of images that represented the story. The moment I saw the image that we ended up using, I knew it was right for A Material Harvest. The coastal location picks up some of the key moments in the novel and the unsettled sky reflects the tone of the book. Brenda also did the typesetting for me, something I would have struggled to do for myself.
Are you working on a new project now?
I have three projects that I’m working on. I have a collection of connected humorous stories that I would like to expand; my aunt’s memoirs – she was one of the last missionaries in China and India; and a sequel to A Material Harvest.
What three writing/publishing/marketing tips can you offer would-be writers?
- Write because you enjoy it.
- Only aim for a mainstream publisher if you want to target the mass market, otherwise self-publish.
- Make sure you have comprehensive distribution agreements through the printing option you choose.
A Material Harvest is published by Speart House Publishing, ISBN 97819113230200099.
I'll finish with a quick reminder that Fictionfireby the Spires: Get into Character weekend workshop/retreat takes place May 21-22 2016. You can come for the full weekend or on a single day basis. Four workshops will help you create and develop believable and engaging characters, there's delicious food throughout and you'll have time for your own writing too. Find out more at
http://www.fictionfire.co.uk/fictionfire-by-the-spires - places are very limited.
Before then, two Saturday afternoon workshops in May:
How to Write Short Stories: May 7th
How to Edit your Submission: May 14th – details of these are at http://www.fictionfire.co.uk/focus-workshops