questions

e-mail scarlett
diary
stories
never-ending interview
thought experiments
book reviews
popco
going out
bright young things
bits & pieces
get the newsletter

 

The Never Ending Interview...

Interviews want to be free, just like information. If you have ever interviewed me, or even asked me for directions in the street, the dialogue could appear here.

Biography
The Never Ending Interview

An Interview with myself...
   

 

Biography - Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. She was educated at a variety of schools, from a state junior school in Barking (which still had free milk) to a weird boarding school which was kind of nowhere. As a teenager, Scarlett demonstrated against many things, including the Poll Tax and the first Gulf War. Eventually, she went to the University of East London to do a degree in Cultural Studies, for which she got a First. After a time spent dabbling in digital technology and video editing, and living in Hackney with Super Mario, some 'lucky' garlic bulbs and a lot of sweets, Scarlett moved back to Essex until it all became too much and she was forced to run away to the real sea. At some point she wrote a mystery novel and then two more. In 2000 she contributed to the controversial anthology 'All Hail the New Puritans', and she's still not sure if she regrets it. In 2001 her novel 'Bright Young Things' was published to wide acclaim, although it is not widely available now due to bad publishing. In 2001 the Independent on Sunday included her in a list of the 20 best young writers in the UK. In 2002, Scarlett won an Elle Style Award for her novel, 'Going Out'. She has appeared on Newsnight and written for a variety of publications including the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and Scotland on Sunday. She is currently living in Devon, working on her next novel and writing book reviews (and the occasional column) for the Independent on Sunday (although writing columns for them is like pulling teeth and needs to be stopped). To relax, Scarlett enjoys going for long walks, playing her guitar, knitting, playing strategy games and listening to Radio 3. Her novels are due to be published in both Russia and the US next year.

The never Ending Interview...
(newest stuff goes at the top; more coming when I dig it out of wherever it is hiding because it does not realise it wants to be free)

How did you first get into writing?

I've always written: stories, poetry, letters. When I was at my weird boarding school (see above) letters were the only real way of communicating with the outside world. There was no real access to TV or magazines, so I used to sit around in the evenings imagining a better life, or scribbling down angsty thoughts and ideas. When I took exams for the first time I found you could write quite bad answers in impressive language and get away with it, so that certainly gave me a reason to use my writing skills. I have always read a lot, too, except for one period when I was a teenager and 'too busy'. I think that, very often, a love of reading leads to a love of writing.

How did you get your agent?

I got my first agent from simply ringing around numbers from the Writer's Handbook. Most people I spoke to weren't at all interested but then one woman was quite nice to me. After a lengthy period of uncertainty, she took me on (not for the book I first showed her, incidentally). However, I was so excited to have an agent that I somehow stopped making any good decisions and ended up being published on a list that was too commercial for me. It wasn't really the agent's fault but in any case we never totally clicked. Anyway, I dug myself out of the whole situation by changing publisher and agent. I am now represented by Simon Trewin at PFD. He is lovely and has become a good friend, too.


How did you get your first piece published? how did it feel?

The first thing I ever had published was a piece of journalism in 1997. I was incredibly excited, and desperately wanted to write more - but it's very hard to make a name for yourself in journalism and the first few pieces I did just felt like one-offs.


Who are your favourite novelists/books and why?

I like writers who are exciting, or who try to do something new or important; people who really have something to say and who say it in a way you can't ignore. In terms of fiction, some contemporary writers I like include William Gibson, Douglas Coupland and David Mitchell. I have also been very inspired by the wonderful Mary Shelley. As far as non-fiction goes, I have great respect for Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein. I will read anything Simon Singh writes, too.


What was your breakthrough project?- a kind of turning point?

Ha! Well, maybe I am still waiting for the ultimate breakthrough project. I suppose my novel Bright Young Things marked a kind of breakthrough for me. I wrote mysteries before that and really wanted to move away from what felt like a restrictive genre (and was far too violent for me, too!).


What excites you about writing- what keeps you interested?

When you exist in a fictional landscape you have a great deal of control over what happens. I like that. I also like having the chance to try to get people's imaginations going, or make them think. The structural, puzzle-like elements of writing also intrigue me very much. Making a story out of nothing feels like magic, and perhaps that's the most exciting thing of all.


What would instantly ring alarm bells or turn you off?

Over-commercial projects, chick-lit, gimmicks, hype, multiple narrators/perspectives, 'humorous' travel books, creative-writing books, I could go on…


What do you think are the most common mistakes new writers make?

Some new writers try to write something they think they can sell, rather than a book they feel passionate about. That's the biggest mistake. Another mistake is when new writers don't read enough: they don't know what's out there and what's been done before.


How have you handled rejection or critics? Any tips?

I'm OK with that sort of thing now, probably because I have a lot of things going on: if one thing is criticised it's not like my whole world is falling in. I don't mind criticism if it's intelligent, although sometimes people just seem to criticise for no good reason - I am lucky I haven't had too much experience of that, though.


If someone has a novel, what would you suggest they do next?

Start thinking about the next one.


What are you working on at the moment?

A novel called PopCo, an introduction to a new edition of some Virginia Woolf short stories and some songs for my band.


What advice would you give to a new writer starting out?

Read. You really can't read too much. Don't read lots of books on how to write, though - the only one worth reading is ON WRITING by Stephen King. Otherwise, read lots of novels, poetry, philosophy, science books, historical documents, manifestoes, diaries, street-signs, love-letters… Anything at all. Don't write books based on what you see on TV. Lots of people have been doing that in recent years and I fear that culture may implode very soon if people don't strive to do something new.

Do you have a writing routine?

No, not a daily one. My more general routine is that when I start planning a book I think about it all the time, and keep a notebook in which I record all my research and thoughts/ideas about it. As I write I still add to the notebook, especially last thing at night when good ideas tend to sneak up on me. As far as sitting at the computer and typing goes, sometimes I only write a paragraph or two a day; other times I blast away at a book for hours and hours at a time.


Any suggestions for where/who new writers could send their work?

One thing that often works is when new writers get in touch with an established writer they admire and ask for their advice. Sometimes established writers will be able to recommend their own agent/publisher, or may even offer to read some material and give comments. I wouldn't be able to advise, say, a romance author but I do give advice to people who write to me because they feel they are working in a similar area. Otherwise, just do the tried-and-tested thing of sending out a synopsis, three chapters and a nice letter to some agents. They do read at least the first page of everything that is sent to them, so it's worth making sure your work is really polished before you send it out. Publishers are, on the whole, less likely to go through unsolicited submissions with the same level of enthusiasm. They generally assume that any good material will be sent to them via an agent.


Do you write in a particular place? Would you tell us about it?

I write anywhere, anywhere at all. At the moment all my work is happening in strange little corners (my parents' dining table, out-of-season holiday apartments, the car…) because I somehow seem to have been moving house for almost five months.

You contributed a short story to the groundbreaking collection: All
Hail The New Puritans. Do you still stand by the manifesto in favour of plain,
authentic, transparent and testimonial prose expressed in that book?

That manifesto was a bit odd, in that it only applied to that collection. I
guess you could say that the New Puritans are part-timers when it comes to
manifestos... We did the collection almost as an experiment, to see what
would happen if those particular writers were given those particular rules.
I stand by the manifesto to some extent. I agree that 'flowery',
over-written prose can be very annoying. However, I do think that prose
writers should be experimental, and craft poetry at times - although I think
the best poetry is formed from the simplest language. Having said all that,
I have seen the most bizarre styles really work, and the simplest somehow go
wrong. It's the skill of the writer that determines whether a piece of
writing works, not rules.


What originally motivated you to take up writing and to become a
novelist? Was it a consicious decision?

It was a conscious decision, although I didn't know whether I'd be
successful or not. When I was 24, I limited my employement options severely
by leaving London and going to live in a field full of sheep. It was very
much a you'd-better-write-a-book-then situation.

On your website you renounce Chicklit as an elitist conspiracy. Why?

I was recently commissioned to investigate chick lit for a feature for the
Independent on Sunday. The resulting piece ran on the cover of Life Etc on
Sunday 4th August. I've just put the full piece up on my website, so anyone
can see the argument there. Basically, it's an economic thing - chick lit is
cheap to produce, the market gets flooded with it - oh, and the writers get
treated like shit. It's just like an assembly line, in some cases, with the
commercial publishers very much in control. I wanted to investigate this,
and write something about it, because the chick lit writers themselves can't
really say anything for fear of being dropped by their publishers. I also
wanted to try to encourage people to read more interesting women's fiction.
Novels like Sister Crazy by Emma Richler, and Lili by Annie Wang are easy to
read but ten million times better than all that over-commercialised rubbish.

Can you tell us why you dislike TV with so much passion?

I used to be obsessed with TV. I loved cutting-edge dramas and intelligent
documentaries and surreal, semi-absurd sitcoms. But now everything on TV
seems so formulaic. Factual TV is the worst. I quite liked that makeover
show, Would Like To Meet, when it was first on - but how many weeks can you
sit through the same 'story'? The format is so repetitive it actually makes
me feel ill. Every week they say and do the same things, and the only
difference is the person being made-over. This applies to all makeover
shows. And dramas these days are just very badly written, full of
stereotyical characters, awful dialogue and plots so covered with signposts
they may as well be motorway roundabouts. Also, I've realised that TV makes
you depressed. I read about a study that suggested that people who watch a
lot of TV are actually having their brains fooled into thinking they have a
social life when they really don't. So now I'm trying to make up for lost
time and attempting to fill my life with real things instead. On one level,
both Bright Young Things and Going Out are about young people trying to
escape from a world full of junky pop culture.

You were sent to boarding school by your father at the age of 12. How
has that experience shaped your writing?

I was sent to boarding school by my father at the age of 14, in fact. I was
only there for 18 months but I got lots of things out of the experience: in
particular, a fear of being confined and a problem with authority. There
were positive things too: I'm able to get on with lots of different people,
I'm quite self-sufficient, and I've pretty much seen it all in terms of
teenage girls' interactions!

Your new novel is Going Out. Tell us a bit about the two central
characters?

Luke is allergic to the sun. As a result, he has pretty much lived in his
bedroom for 25 years. Everything he knows about life he learnt from the TV,
the Internet and American films. He wants to go out but knows it will kill
him. Julie is his next-door neighbour and best friend. She is happy working
as a waitress, living with her dad (her mum left several years ago) and
thinking about maths and quantum physics in secret. She is terrified of the
world. Luke wants to go out and experience everything but Julie would feel
better if she could stay in one room, protected from all the dangers of
life.

How much is this book a 'road trip' novel and have you ever been on a
road trip?

The 'road trip' section in the book happens when a healer contacts Luke and
says he can heal him if he makes the journey to Wales. Then Luke and his
friends have to work out how to do this... In the end, it involves a lot of
tin foil, a space-suit and a VW Camper Van. It's not an easy trip, of
course - Julie is scared of roads, which doesn't help; and since the book is
sent in October 2000, most of the country is flooded. As with all road trip
narratives, the journey is really about self-discovery (and some other stuff
that becomes clear at the end of the book but which I won't give away here).
Having said that, the 'road trip' isn't the whole book. Most of it is sent
in this pre-apocalyptic retail-park landscape in Essex.

I have been on several road trips. The last one resulted in me living in the
field full of sheep. (I do live somewhere more sensible now, though.)

What next for Scarlett Thomas?

The inevitable 'big book', of course.

When did you first decide to write?

When I was about 6, and then at about 17. I decided to write professionally when I was 24

What was your first success?

An article in the Guardian about young people working in elderly people's homes

What comes first - idea or character?

That's a hard one. Um... Probably a bit of both. Probably character.

Before your 'big break' how many hours a day did you spend writing?

Just before I got my first contract, I was working all day, 8 hours at least.

And now?

About three hours at the computer, a couple reviewing books. Most of my work goes on in my head at the moment.

Do you plan?

Yes.

How many drafts do you complete?

Usually about three, or maybe four.

Are they hand-written or do you write straight on to a computer?

Straight to computer, although I hand-write notes.

As a successful author, what do you know now that you wish you had known before you gained success?

Everything. There are contracts I wouldn't have signed; books I wouldn't have written, if I'd known then what I know now

How can the beginning writer gain the edge when seeking publication?

Write about something really original. Write from the heart. Don't follow trends.

Should securing the services of an agent be a priority or are publishers still willing to sift the proverbial slushpile for the next best-seller?

Publishers don't look through slush piles as much as agents do, so it's best to approach agents first. Also, publishers are suspicious of writers who approach them direct, and tend to prefer agents' submissions anyway. Instead of sending a manuscript cold, try talking to the agent on the phone first, or get in touch with authors you like and ask if they'll recommend their agent.

What is your opinion on writing courses?

The good ones are very worthwhile; the bad ones are terrible and should be avoided at all costs. A good writing course should help you develop your voice and encourage group critiques/support. Bad writing courses are the ones that encourage flowery, overwritten prose, or - worse - simply churn out Carver-clones. A good teacher will help draw out your natural voice. A bad one will just make you write in the style of their favourite writer.

How many rejections did you have before success?

A A couple of agents were rude to me on the phone, and my first novel was rejected by the agent who then took me on for the next book.

Who chooses the book title?

Me. But it has to be something the publishers like.

What are you working on now?

GOING OUT, a novel about a guy who's allergic to the sun. It's due to be published by 4th Estate next year.

How do you organise your writing day?

I don't really! Um... I tend to get up, read some of whatever I'm reviewing (I'm a paperback reviewer for the Independent on Sunday), maybe play cricket (or go to practice) in the afternoon/early evening, and then write at night. If I'm really together I write in the day too.