Christmas Awards 2011

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Interview with Wendy Perriam

Questions for Red Roses For Authors/Reviews /Interview

Tell us a little about yourself

I suspect I’m two different people – the wild, fearless extrovert I was probably born to be, and the anxious, cautious introvert who often tends to take over. However, such a split is valuable because it allows me, as a writer, to depict characters of contrasting type and temperament.

My Roman Catholic upbringing had a huge influence on both my character and my work. Although it inculcated lifelong guilt and a deeply ingrained sense of sin, it also made me familiar with extraordinary things like miracles and angels, and startling concepts like resurrection from the dead. I think all that drama, along with Catholic ritual, helped nourish my imagination. I’m no longer able to believe, alas, but I’m still emotionally a Catholic– and still terrified of Hell.

And that’s not my only fear. I’m too ashamed to admit them all, but I wrote my new novel, “Broken Places”, about a man with many similar fears - and I wrote it as a comedy. Fortunately, I can always see the funny side of life!

What do you write?

I’ve published 15 novels and 6 short-story collections. I used to write poetry and articles for newspapers and magazines, and I also keep a diary. Looking back at what my 12-year-old self said about boarding-school, or life, or love, is frequently hilarious, though sometimes plain embarrassing.

All my fiction tends to feature characters who are living on a knife-edge, or struggling with inner conflicts. I’m fascinated by the secrets in most people’s lives, the private fears or longings we often hide even from our nearest and dearest. Love and relationships are important in my books, but I’d never describe them as romances, because for me love is a dangerous force.

Why do you write?

I find writing wonderfully therapeutic. Constructing a novel is a process of bringing order out of chaos. By drawing on experiences that might have been dark and difficult in reality, the writer can transform such things into satisfying plot-lines, or use them for character development. And the actual process of writing is so thoroughly absorbing, it distracts one from day-to-day problems and is the perfect cure for loneliness or grief.

This was especially true of “Broken Places” When I began it, my daughter had recently died of tongue-cancer, leaving two small sons, whose father had already died. To cope with my devastating sense of loss, I plunged myself into work, feeling I was writing the book for my daughter. Sometimes I had the uncanny sense that she was helping me from beyond the grave. Who knows?

What are you writing now?

I’m halfway through my seventh short-story collection. One of the joys of the short story is that it can be prompted by the smallest thing – an odd item in the newspaper, a snatch of dialogue overheard in a supermarket, a dusty old book in a junk-shop. Something of that nature will jump out at me spontaneously and I’ll suddenly feel a narrative building up around it, taking me way beyond those particular circumstances.

For example, one of my new stories is set on the number 24 bus, which stops near my flat and goes all the way from Pimlico to Hampstead Heath. Once, when I was on it, I got talking to a couple of American tourists, and that provided the trigger for the story. It’s not actually about them - or me – it’s about a girl of 17 who longs to escape her pedantic father, fretful mother and the restrictions of her home-life. However, once she’s fled the nest, she sees things in a rather different light.

I have a sense of almost playing when I write short stories, compared with the more serious business of plotting and constructing a full-length novel. However, I do have a new novel germinating in my head and, although my main task at present is the stories, I’m continually mulling over its characters and plot, and trying to give it some sort of preliminary shape.
What kind of clothes do you like to wear?

I’ve never been very interested in clothes. As a child, I hated hair-ribbons and frilly dresses and wished I was a boy. Even now, I get irritated by fashion magazines telling me I have to follow such-and-such a trend, or wear such-and-such a colour. I especially hate uncomfortable clothes like tight skirts and push-up bras, and I once wrote a novel about a bunion operation, so I worry about high heels. If I see a woman tottering along on 4-inch stilettos, I’m tempted to stop her in the street and warn her that she’s damaging her feet!

I prefer to go barefoot, or wear old, comfy trainers. And my favourite clothes are tracksuits and pyjamas, so, when it comes to fashion, I’m afraid I’m a dead loss. I’d rather read Enid Blyton than Vogue.

Are you in love? Have you ever been?

My past is littered with tragic romances! I always chose the wrong guy, fell head-over-heels in love, then suffered for it, hugely. But the great thing about being a writer is that no experience, however bad, is wasted. At least I had ample material for the sort of difficult, dominant men who tend to work well in novels. Who wants to read about saintly men or pussycats?

I always feel a strong bond with my own male characters, however annoying they may be for other people. For example, Christopher in my novel, “Bird Inside”, is a moody, selfish, overbearing stained-glass artist, but he does have redeeming features – he’s cultured and charismatic, as well as being a wonderful lover. In order to create characters, the author must feel a basic sympathy for them. I go further than that and sometimes find myself actually fantasising about those maddening males I’ve conjured into life!

As for being in love now, well, there’s no one on the horizon. But, despite all the tempestuous perils of romance, if someone came along, I’d probably let myself be swept up in the excitement – and then regret it later.

Do you have a dream lover – and what does he look like?

My dream lover is an ex-priest – someone who has suffered and struggled and fought his inner demons. He’s not young – indeed he looks rather ravaged, but in a lean and handsome sort of way. He’s controlled, contained, scholarly and deep, but capable of sudden romantic tendernesses, such as kissing the inside of my elbow or the spaces between my fingers. Aaaaaah!

What kind of comfort food do you like best?

Nursery food – rice pudding, custard, Marmite ‘soldiers’, squidgy peanut-butter sandwiches. I always enjoy children’s parties, where they serve jelly and iced fairy cakes. I also love those buffet-restaurants where you can help yourself to anything and everything. When I was researching my novel, “Sin City”, set in Las Vegas, I’d sometimes end the day by dining in one of the amazing Vegas buffets, where there might be over 200 different items on display. Some of the Vegas residents, who came on a daily basis, could hardly fit on the chairs!

What makes you laugh?

Woody Allen’s films; my brother’s awful jokes; an American friend’s parrot, which knows 150 words but whose favourite phrase is “Birds can’t talk!” And I always giggle at foreign menus that get their English wrong. I once saw “fried god” and “cow pie”. I had to laugh the other day when I saw a flock of greedy pigeons scrambling over each other to grab their share of crumbs. They were literally trampling each other’s bodies, like a gang of manic shoppers on the first day of Harrods’ sale.

And however immodest it may sound, I sometimes laughed out loud while writing my new novel. Although it deals with serious themes, I tried to make it funny. Eric is petrified of flying and his terror drives him to farcical lengths, when, for the first time in his 44 years, he’s forced to board a plane. He’s convinced that the woman sitting next to him – a devout Muslim in a niquab – is actually a terrorist in disguise. And he refuses to budge from his cramped, confining seat, for fear that if he walks around the plane, it might overbalance and cause a fatal crash.

What makes you cry?

Young men returning in coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan. Every coffin reminds me of my daughter’s, and I feel a bond with every grieving mother, because losing a child is one of the sharpest losses in the world. At least I had my daughter for 42 years, whereas some of those dead soldiers are barely out of their teens.

Another thing that makes me cry is cruelty in any shape or form, whether to animals or children or the helpless elderly.

And I want to cry with sheer frustration at those official forms that ask endless, pointless questions, phrased in gobbledegook.

What do you do to amuse yourself when not working?

I love going to the movies. Because I rarely watch television, the big screen is a genuine treat, and cinemas, which I adored as a child, are still magical places for me. I love the sense of occasion; the companionable darkness; the way my petty problems fade into insignificance as the opening credits come up on-screen and I’m transported to a different world. Films provide the perfect escape.

I also love meeting friends, especially old friends from school and college days who know the real me. I haven’t much patience with cocktail-party chit-chat, but a real heart-to-heart with a mate from way back is wonderfully therapeutic.

And I enjoy going to the gym, although less on account of the exercise than because I meet such a wide variety of people there – every size, shape, type and profession. My third short-story collection was called “Virgin in the Gym”!

What is it in a man or woman that turns you on? The clean version please!

Despite my own dislike of smart clothes, I’m attracted by men who are elegantly dressed, preferably in a suit and a crisp white shirt, worn over their bare skin. Vests are a real turn-off, as are anoraks, and yes, pyjamas. (How inconsistent I am!) Voices are very important. The perfect male voice is a mixture of Cognac and black velvet. And I like short hair, superbly cut. Ponytails on men are anathema to me. I’m intrigued by enigmatic men who possess depth and subtlety, and are full of internal contradictions

What do you hate about life?

Its injustice – the way some people have to endure extremes of pain and suffering, while others romp through life with barely a graze. It’s all the more upsetting when it applies to children – those, for example, who’ve had no security or proper parenting. This is one of the themes in “Broken Places”. Eric is a foundling who’s spent his whole childhood in care, with frequent unsettling moves from so-called home to home. Although he’s saved from a dead-end future by an altruistic librarian (who encourages him to become a librarian himself), most kids-in-care are far less fortunate. Often, their lives have already been blighted since birth, yet they go on to suffer every sort of adversity, through no fault of their own. The future for many is bleak. They frequently land up unemployed and homeless, and their numbers are scandalously high among all disadvantaged group such as drug-addicts and prisoners.

On the more trivial side, my pet hates include tapioca; long waits at bus-stops; doing my tax-returns, and – worst of all - those round-robin emails that insist you send them on to at least 2-dozen other people, or something dire will happen. If I don’t send them on, I feel ridiculously worried all week!

What do you hope to achieve in life and when will you know that you have been a success?

I’d like to continue writing till I’m 99 and also still be doing something useful like teaching or volunteering – so long as I haven’t lost my marbles. In some ways, writing is a selfish pursuit – tuning in to one’s own passions and obsessions - so it’s important for writers to interact with the wider world. I suffered quite a lot of trauma, especially in my early life, so I hope I can be some help to other people, and react with understanding and compassion to their particular problems.

As for knowing one’s “a success”, I doubt I’ll ever feel that. Most writers always think they could do better. Perhaps that’s why we struggle on, continually hoping that the next book – or the next – will be the one that makes it.

What are you going to write next?

Well, I hope it will be that new novel I’ve started planning in my head, but I don’t want to say too much about it yet. When things are in the embryo stage, they’re often frail and vulnerable, and need nurturing in private before being paraded in public. Also, a plot or idea can suddenly change and take a totally different direction. But that’s another advantage of being a writer – one is continually surprised.

No comments: