Today I’m delighted to welcome Philip Leslie to Me, My Books and I:
Philip began writing poems and stories in his teens, inspired initially by Dylan Thomas and Henry Williamson, later by Faulkner, Joyce, Ted Hughes and Muriel Spark. At art college in South Wales he was a core member of the creative writing group run by poet in residence Gillian Clarke. Novels followed, and the inevitable rejection letters. In 2001 he won a consolation prize in the Bridport Writing Competition with a short story. The following year this was adapted by a theatre company and given a dozen performances at the Edinburgh Fringe. A full-length novel, ‘The History of Us’, was published by Legend in 2009 and shortlisted in the fiction section of East Anglian Book of the Year. Philip is also a composer of amateur woodwind music with a number of titles in print. He and his wife live in Cambridgeshire.
Where did the idea for What Remains come from?
I wanted to write a ‘then and now’ type of book, with ‘now’ having been affected by events many years earlier. In this case, a close-knit group of friends which had drifted apart, and the reasons why.
Who was your favourite character to write and why?
Janet. I gave her a broad range of skills, which made her interesting to write about. She can play guitar, captain a netball team and not only strip a motorbike, but put it back together again. She’s also the group comedian, a foil for Charlotte’s earnestness, Paul’s dark brooding and Nathan’s wistfulness.
What do you hope readers will learn from What Remains?
To read ‘The History of Us’ afterwards!
Is any part of What Remains based on your own personal experiences?
The settings are places I used to know well. The time period is one I enjoy revisiting in fiction: the point when school ends and higher education begins.
Why did you choose to write in your particular genre?
I’m not sure if I write in one particular genre. Even though parts of this book are set in the same time period as my previous novel, ‘The History of Us’, it’s quite different. The early book is realistic, although there is one non-realistic twist in the telling. My next book will have a sci-fi theme and the book after that is, for want of a better description, a crowd scene: umpteen interconnecting biographies covering much of the twentieth century. The great Diana Wynne Jones’ books appear to be in a specific genre (magic/fantasy/speculative), but several of them subvert those genres and turn the reader’s assumptions upside down. ‘Power of Three’ is a perfect example. I won’t spoil the plot for those yet to read it, but will mention that all is not as it seems. It’s a fantasy novel, yes, but when the identity of the giants is revealed, you are forced to re-assess everything that’s gone before.
Who are your favourite authors and do you think they have influenced your own writing in any way?
I’ve many favourite authors. In my teens I was obsessed with James Joyce, particularly ‘Ulysses’, which I laboured for several years to understand. That book influenced me a great deal, especially his interest in recreating a particular point in time. The shops and pubs in ‘The History of Us’ were real businesses; the weather in ‘What Remains’ is correct (in an early draft I even mentioned a thunderstorm that had happened the evening before the camping holiday, but later edited that out), while for the next book, ‘Back Now’, I consulted 1980s copies of Yarmouth Mercury on microfiche for details.
Other influential writers include William Golding for his unique voice; Muriel Spark for shoehorning more into one perfect sentence than most writers struggle to put in an entire paragraph; Henry Williamson for his attention to detail; Lawrence Durrell for his poetry-infused prose, notably in ‘The Alexandria Quartet’; Harold Pinter for his remarkable mannered dialogue; and LP Hartley for writing one of my favourite books of all, ‘The Go-Between’.
In my early twenties I wanted to be a fantasy writer and was greatly influenced by Diana Wynne Jones, who read my early typescripts very carefully and provided a great deal of writing advice. Her books were a huge inspiration, especially ‘Fire and Hemlock’, a complex novel in which fantasy and reality bleed into one another. ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is similarly intricate, and contains her finest writing. One stand-out scene is when Howl visits Wales. The description of that reality is treated in exactly the same way as the magical kingdom, so that we end up being surprised not by the weird and wonderful, but by the mundane (a television set is described as growing on a stalk that sprouts from a wall). Then there’s Alan Garner for his opaque prose and terse dialogue: in ‘The Owl Service’ and especially his masterpiece ‘Red Shift’; and Robert Westall simply for grabbing you by the collar and pulling you into the story. Jan Mark is another writer who deals with very specific locations: rural Norfolk, Oxford. Her novels and short stories are always meticulously crafted, and she has a knack for knowing exactly what makes people tick. Last but not least, there’s Leon Garfield who tells his gripping yarns using extraordinary twists and turns of language. A shame if no one reads him anymore.
I should also mention some poets. There’s Dylan Thomas for his love of words (and for his hugely entertaining Collected Letters), Ezra Pound for making the arcane enjoyable; Sylvia Plath for her language and imagery; Philip Larkin for being `Philip Larkin, and Paul Muldoon for his restless exploration of language; his ‘Madoc’ was the inspiration for a prosimetrum I’ve been working on for the past three years.
Are there any occupational hazards to being an author?
Excessive tea consumption.
If you could travel anywhere in the world to do research for a book where would it be?
Osaka. To wander aimlessly around (with notebook, of course, for jotting down the research), afterwards taking in a performance by NMB48 at their theatre in Namba.
Paperback or eBook?
They both have their place, but the eBook for poetry and fiction.
Hot or cold?
Hot, cold and tepid.
Dogs or cats?
Cats, without hesitation.
Talker or listener?
Listener, except I’m probably daydreaming.
Laptop, desktop or tablet?
Laptop with a separate plug-in querty keyboard.
Any last words for your readers?
After you’ve read ‘What Remains’, why not check out ‘The History of Us’ as well.
Thank you so much for being here today Philip, it was a pleasure to have you on my blog. I particularly enjoyed reading about your favourite authors and poets.
Now check out the book:
“In 1980 four friends finish their a-levels and set out on a camping trip, a last hurrah before they split up for university, jobs and the real world.
Paul, Janet, Nathan and Charlie all have dreams of how their lives will turn out. Paul is off to train as a teacher, Nathan to start work in a bank, Charlie to study archeology and Janet, well Janet’s going to be a musician.
But Paul has a secret. He’s been dabbling in magic, and as the trip tests friendships and tempers begin to flare he casts his spells.
Thirty years later nobody’s life has turned out the way they planned and the friends have drifted apart. That is, until a drunken phone call sets in motion a chain of events leading Paul to revisit that summer under canvas and confront not just the choices he made but the impact they had.
A little magic, it seems, can be a dangerous thing.”