How did you become a writer?
The flippant answer is that I wrote a book, the book helped me get an agent, the agent found me a publisher, and by some strange alchemy of creative effort and the whims of the market I ended up writing (and teaching writing) as a career. The more genuine answer is that I have been making up stories since I was a child, and I went to college first to learn how to tell stories visually, and later to learn about how stories on the page are constructed and circulated. I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me, a mother who believed in me, a father who was a journalist and so demonstrated by example that one could write for a living, and a husband who supported me when I was jobless and could think of no other way to occupy myself than to write a novel.
My first book, Absolution, emerged out of a state of desperation. I had finished my doctorate in English Literature at Oxford and applied for over a hundred academic jobs in the US and the UK but got nowhere with any of the applications (I think I had a grand total of three interviews). Writing was a way of filling time, but also a means of working through the despair I was feeling. I knew that what I was writing had to be good, so I pushed myself harder than I had with anything else I had ever written. I remember feeling the physical exertion of writing that book. It took seven years from typing the first words to holding the first edition in my hands, so there was nothing quick or easy about it. Writing is difficult and to be a writer is, I still think, a constant process of becoming that involves dynamics of evolution, maturation, refinement, the incorporation of new influences, and the rejection of old ones. I had no romantic ideal of what being a writer would be like, but I knew instinctively, from quite early on, that my way of understanding the world involved the arrangement and constant rearrangement of words.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
When I wrote short stories in high school I was conscious of being influenced by Hemingway and E.M. Forster, but also by J.G. Ballard (in retrospect the combination of those three seems like some kind of unholy trinity). In college it was Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and after college Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) and AS Byatt (Possession), but also the great Hungarian writer Péter Nádas, whose A Book of Memories I found completely dazzling. When I met my husband, who is South African, the constellation shifted, and I began reading J.M. Coetzee, who remains an important touchstone. The works of Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño, César Aira, Javier Marías, and Thomas Bernhard have been important more recently. And of course I am always conscious of the distant greats—for me a constellation of Melville, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Proust—to whom I return over and over without ever quite being sure of how their influence operates.
When and where do you write?
I usually write at home in my study, which has a view of communal gardens. The cherry trees are just now coming into bloom (late this year), and there is a large horse chestnut where crows have been nesting. When I’m actively working on a book I try to keep bankers’ hours, nine to five, five days a week, although teaching means that the scheduling is frequently interrupted and I have to snatch time whenever it appears.
What are you working on now?
There’s a novel about Hollywood in the 1950s that I plan to revise this year, and I’m doing preliminary work on a follow-up to I Am No One. I can’t say yet whether this will be a sequel in any ordinary sense, but it will have the same narrator.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
When I’m in the midst of a project I sometimes go through periods of not being certain how to proceed, but this usually means that I need to give myself time to think through problems of plausibility or structure. With I Am No One there were two long gaps: three months from first having the idea to knowing that I was ready to start writing the book, and six months between finishing a first draft and really seeing how the book needed to end. Between books there are lulls, and during those stretches of time it is often difficult to see how fragmented bits of writing—short stories, memoir, essays—will coalesce into anything. It requires faith that all the parts will fit together again, and also a determination to think in a writerly way even when nothing publishable is being produced.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read and write every day, eat well, sleep and nap and daydream, take all things in moderation, and be good to the people who can be trusted to pick you up when it seems as if there’s nothing left but doubt.
Patrick Flanery was born and raised in the US and now lives in London. He is the author of the novels Absolution (shortlisted for the IMPAC International Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, and the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize) and Fallen Land. His third novel, I Am No One, will be published by Tim Duggan Books/Crown in July 2016. His work has been translated into eleven languages and he is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Reading.