Ten Questions with Tony Williams

Tony Williams

1. How and when did you get started as a writer?

I wrote a bit as an undergraduate, and afterwards lived on the dole in Sheffield, thinking I was becoming a writer but really not working anywhere near hard enough.  Signing up for the MA at Sheffield Hallam was me taking the plunge, making a commitment – since then I’ve been steadily working harder, and realising I’m still not working hard enough.

But I suppose you really start as a writer when you start as a reader, and as for that I couldn’t tell you.  I started early, and read anything – instruction manual, toothpaste tubes. Viz. Tolstoy.

2. Where do your ideas tend to come from?

I just think of them.  That’s facetious, and of course, you listen out for phrases and stories and you note interesting things you read in books.  But fundamentally it’s about imagining.  You lie in bed at night and think of things, and if you’ve got any sense you write them down.  But the more you read and look and listen, the more ideas you’ll have.  When a piece isn’t working, when it’s inert, the way to fix it is – think of something better.

3. Are there particular ideas or themes that interest you or that keep resurfacing in your work?

Yes, but I have to be careful about talking about them.  Because I make things out of words, I have to maintain an exclusion zone around the subjects I’m interested in, and not use words too close to them unless I’m actually writing a poem or a story.  Maybe that sounds fey.  But I know from experience how ideas, whole poems, can dissipate.  All that aside, it’s safe to talk in general terms – in my poetry I’m interested particularly in place, in how landscapes shape who we are and how we experience them.  When I came to write flash fiction I was surprised because that interest didn’t translate in any straightforward way – I’m overwhelmingly interested in story, and that means people.

4. Do you plan your writing?

In poetry, yes, but it never bears fruit, or not the fruit I thought it would.  The conscious control that a plan implies is toxic to poems.  I sometimes feel that’s the difference between great poets and the rest of us: they can make a plan and then carry it out, whereas I have a plan and it holds me back for eighteen months.  Actually that’s misleading – I’m writing other things along the way, and no writing time is ever wasted.

In prose I use plans more. I have a clear idea what’s going to happen, and I think a prose writer needs that, because if you don’t know what’s going to happen, how can you make the material along the way take you in the right direction?  Of course, it’s hazy at the edges, and when I say ‘plan’, I usually don’t write anything down, anything more than a very brief phrase or a single word.  Anything more can be the kiss of death.  But it’s there.  It’s a code to myself saying what I’m trying to do.  That’s less necessary in poetry where the equivalent of a narrative is more complicated – it can be provided by the poem’s music, and of course that can’t really be planned until some of the music exists.

5. Do you have a writing routine or any ‘rituals’ that you follow?

Not really.  I snatch writing time when I should be doing other things.  It’s harder when I’ve got time set aside for it.  Better when I have twenty minutes on the train or half an hour before a meeting.  I always use cheap pens, whatever’s to hand, and the same with the paper – scrap paper or envelopes if necessary.  That’s for poems.  Prose goes straight in on the computer.  Writing longhand is too slow for prose – the physical means of recording the sentences is too slow.  For poems, I tend to go in fragments, or just a few lines at a time.  Typing up the draft is really a revision process.  Then print, and read out loud in my office, correct typos and mark initial changes.  Then put it down to read the next day.

6. Who are your favourite writers?

I don’t want to make a list, because then I’ll try to think of everyone and miss someone out.  So let’s say: the European novelists, especially the Russians.  English novels: picaresques yes, social comedies no.  American novels are a blind spot for me – none of them appeal to me, so I’ve hardly read any.  (Short stories are different.)  Any poetry, but mainly European, especially early twentieth-century Germans, for some reason.  In the English tradition, the Metaphysicals.  Auden.  Everyone.

7. Do you have an ideal reader?

I don’t think I can help it.  There’s a performing aspect of writing that means there’s always an ideal reader around somewhere – probably readers, plural.  One way I have of judging my work is to ask, ‘What would X think of this one?’ – the answer is usually surprising clear.  But you have to have more than one referent – not just X, but also Y, Z and preferably a whole alphabet’s worth.  ‘X would hate this one, but Y might like it.’  That’s one way of situating yourself as a writer, imagining those judgements (or living with them, once you’re published).

As a child I suppose I wrote for my parents – for their approval, to make them laugh.  In some sense they and my brother remain my ideal readers.  My taste grew up round theirs.

8. What are you working on now?

I’m just about to publish (July 2011) a pamphlet of poems with Nine Arches Press called All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head. You can read about it here: http://www.ninearchespress.com/alltheroomsofuncleshead.html

I’m working towards the end of a book of poems, which I hope to finish by the end of the year.  I have a lot of material, as I write a lot, but most of it’s not good enough.  I’m not a perfectionist in the sense of sticking with a small number of pieces till I have them right.  I write lots, discard lots, and keep the good ones, or at least the better ones.  Now I’m at the stage where I might be able to pull a book together, but that would mean revising the ones which are OK apart from a bad last stanza etc, and I find it easier to keep writing new ones.  Over the summer I intend to force myself to go back and revise, and see what I’ve got.

I’m also working on a new prose project – well, a novel, I should say.  It’s terrifying.  It’s so big, and it doesn’t exist.  I can’t talk about it yet.

9. What are you reading at the moment?

Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr Rosewater.  I’d only ever read Cat’s Cradle, which is frankly a bit lame, but I always thought I should try something else by Vonnegut.  Then last week I was using a colleague’s office and saw this on the shelf, so I borrowed it.  It’s ace.

I’ve been dipping into a verse translation of the Iliad.  And I started Proust the other week, and loved the first fifty pages or so, but I’m not sure I can be arsed with it.  I want something to happen.

Poetry: early Auden, John Ash’s The Goodbyes.  Alistair Elliott’s translations of Verlaine’s most obscene poems.

And Maurice Keen’s Social History of England in the Later Middle Ages.

10. What piece of advice would you give to new writers?

Read more, write more, work harder.  Make it funny sometimes.  I don’t care how you, or your characters, feel.  Tell me what happens.  Write well.  Grammar matters.  Punctuation matters.  Lose the zombies.