Iain is currently acting as editor and cat-herder-in-chief on a collaborative novel with TEN (count them, TEN) writers. A contemporary story set in a tacky British seaside resort, the Ten To One novel will follow ten characters whose lives intersect that of a mysterious old man…
We thought we’d ask those ten writers about themselves and their involvement in collaborative writing. All ten interviews will appear here over the course of the project.
Today, Yasmin Ali…
Yasmin Ali, who are you?
Being of a philosophical disposition, that’s not an easy question. I was born in Birmingham, and lived there until I went to York University to study politics. I now split my time between Birmingham and Aberystwyth, the two termini on the Mid-Wales Line. But I’ve lived in many places in Britain; London, the east Midlands, and the North on both sides of the Pennines. Also I’ve travelled a lot, and all these places impact on my writing.
But who am I? A writer, once mainly of non-fiction, now writing fiction, and keen to explore my identity as a writer. I’ve had short stories in two anthologies in 2009 and 2010, and I’m completing a novel. In a bid to test myself as a writer, I’ve written one short stage play, which had a reading by a professional cast to a large audience in Cardiff in 2011 at the launch of Black History Month Wales, and which this year I adapted for BBC Radio Wales. I recently completed another radio play, and I’m studying playwriting and writing for soaps; the latter because I was told that it’s a great way to learn how to plot.
I want to write novels, and I want people to read them, which means publication in some form. But I’m no Dan Brown or James Patterson (there’s only one of me), so I doubt that I shall be able to make a living from novels alone. With luck, and the continued existence of the BBC I’m hoping that writing for radio will fill the gap.
At what age did you start writing, and why?
As a child, I tried to write a novel in a series of Silverine exercise books. But I didn’t really believe that people like me were allowed to be writers, and gradually I stopped writing fiction. Non-fiction wasn’t really an adequate substitute, though. It takes footnotes, and facts, and stamps on any ideas that can’t be substantiated. Fiction, I realised, can tell the truth more accurately than non-fiction. So I went back to it. I think it’s no accident that my first published short story, ‘Man and Boy’ in Written in Blood, edited by Lindsay Ashford and Caroline Oakley (Honno 2009) was about a subject – families caught up with gun crime – which I might previously have tackled as an academic study. The story was based on a real case, and the idea for the story came from reading a sociological article. But I think that my story gets nearer the truth of the matter.
Describe your writing style
I am drawn to the off-beat, to humour, to satire, but also to contemporary social and political themes. My short story, ‘The Lucky Jacket’ is a bit The Thick of It, mixing Machiavellian political intrigue with human idiocy. The novel I’m finishing now will feature police privatisation and riots. I think I use fiction to explore what’s troubling me in the world.
Do you do a lot of research for your writing?
Where necessary. But it’s a tricky issue. The detail may inform, but not drive, the story. Readers want to believe the narrative, and may be less concerned about factual accuracy. But if something is too obviously wrong, it distracts the reader and punctures the flow of the story. The last chapter I wrote for Ten To One described a tour of a meat processing factory. I’ve no idea of what goes on in such a place. I made it up. But I did consciously draw on relevant past experiences, such as work I used to do for an agricultural college. I have been inside an abattoir, albeit not when it was in use. And I used to drive regularly past a motorway junction where there was a meat processing plant, and it looked like the one I imagined for the novel.
How have you found the process of writing collaboratively for Ten To One?
Collaborative writing is already well established in film and broadcasting, as well as in newer forms of entertainment, so there’s no reason why a collaboratively written novel can’t be a good read. Writers of fiction need active imaginations and broad sympathies; so pooling the wisdom and experience of many people can be creatively fertile. But we do need to approach the work rather differently from the work we do alone.
What I’ve found with Ten To One, as the months have passed, is that this is writing in the raw. The pieces are written quickly, with little time for revision, and as time goes on, the need for discipline, and for respecting editorial guidance, becomes greater. The biggest challenge for me has been with accepting that I have to make a story work, whether or not I approve of where it seems to be heading. And that’s as it should be.
If I can dissent from the project just a little, I find the fact that one writer is voted out each month a distraction. It can push the balance too much towards competition when what is needed is cooperation. Writers can generate competitiveness without the gameshow element. But I also understand that publishing is a business, and the reality show format is hot at the moment.
You mentioned James Patterson earlier, who frequently farms out the writing of his novel to ‘co-authors’. Is there good collaboration and bad collaboration?
James Patterson’s a brand. No harm in that. His prose factory brings on new talents, and when they rise up the ranks they get name checked on the jacket. Any opportunity for new writers is a good thing. In any case, the collaborative novel has a long and fascinating history, and has been used for radical artistic purposes. Ultimately there’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ collaboration, only good and bad writing.
What’s your ideal writing gang?
I’m not sure I’d like to be in a writing gang but there are some writers, usually of a muscular and argumentative disposition, whom I always love, even when they are being maddening. Will Self, Sara Paretsky, Hanif Kureshi, Zoe Heller, Michael Chabon, Lionel Shriver, Howard Jacobson, Val Macdiarmid, Hari Kunzru; I could go on, and I could give my reasons for a mix of Booker listed writers and those who sell by the supermarket shelf-full. What they all have in common is a sense of having fun with their writing and being wholly in control of their craft.
Jeanette Winterson wrote about the experiences of women writers of her vintage on the literary scene recently, and it all seemed peculiarly macho and unpleasant. There are probably writers whose work I love whom I’d want to poison if I knew them in person. That said, I’m a member of the Tindal Street Fiction Group, and it’s a privilege to meet every two weeks with a group of talented and generous colleagues, some of whom are amongst the finest writers in Britain today.
Tell us about your Ten To One character, Anastasia Boty.
I got the initial idea for Anastasia Boty from a newspaper article on the 1960s artist, Pauline Boty. Pauline Boty was a beautiful young woman and a talented pop artist, but she died at 28 and was effectively forgotten. Stealing part of her name seemed like a little salute to a woman who, had she lived, might have been feted today. Another influence was Mabel Pakenham-Walsh, who died recently. Mabel was a multi-talented artist and crafts person with work in several national collections, including the V&A. Mabel found a dead seagull on the beach. The skeleton in now mounted on the front of her house. In other words, Anastasia is nothing like me. I made her up, stealing her from bits of other people.
Anastasia’s quite a self-contained individual, isn’t she?
It is fair to say she’s self-contained, but she’s as active in the world as anyone else in the narrative; it’s just that her world isn’t Skegness, it’s the international art scene. Where Anastasia interacts with other characters, she’s not especially stand-offish, even if she’s not exactly warm. I gave her a certain rudeness towards Valerie, because I thought that artists and actors tend to have large egos, and so they might irritate one another. Novels need light and shade, and I thought some low level antagonism might be good. Alas, Valerie is no more, as I had in mind some comic interactions for the two characters. But in formulaic terms, I invented Anastasia as a character who can be free-standing, and who can act as required as the narrative twists and turns without becoming unconvincing.
Which Ten To One characters are the most successful? Is it those who have so far survived?
A successful character needs to be work within the context of the story. For what it’s worth, the characters who have gone, to my mind, also contributed significantly to the development of the novel. They, too, are successful characters.
All the characters have contributed to the mix, and I hate to single out anyone, but here goes! Flic’s gone, yet I wanted Anastasia to have a one night stand with her, with tantrums to follow. Valerie, I’ve already said, was someone I’d an interest in keeping around. Tim and Gracie, as young characters added extra depth to the narrative. And as long as Anastasia remains, so will Gracie, as she’s so central to Anastasia’s art. As for those who remain, we’ve mysteries, enigmas, villains and tragi-comedies. Don’t make me choose!