- 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...
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,
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
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
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
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,
) because I somehow seem to have been moving
house for almost five months.
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 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
I stand by the manifesto to some extent. I agree that 'flowery',
over-written prose can be very annoying. However, I do think
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
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
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
and write something about it, because the chick lit writers
really say anything for fear of being dropped by their publishers.
wanted to try to encourage people to read more interesting
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
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
seems so formulaic. Factual TV is the worst. I quite liked
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
difference is the person being made-over. This applies to
shows. And dramas these days are just very badly written,
stereotyical characters, awful dialogue and plots so covered
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
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
particular, a fear of being confined and a problem with authority.
were positive things too: I'm able to get on with lots of
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
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
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
How much is this
book a 'road trip' novel and have you ever been on a
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
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,
What next for Scarlett
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
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.
About three hours at the computer, a couple
reviewing books. Most of my work goes on in my head at the
Do you plan?
How many drafts
do you complete?
Usually about three, or maybe four.
hand-written or do you write straight on to a computer?
Straight to computer, although I hand-write
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.
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
Me. But it has to be something the publishers
What are you working
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.