Wednesday 29 May 2013

Rupert Thomson: steered out of the unknown

Recently I saw author Rupert Thomson at the Charleston Festival talking about the inspiration for his recent novel, Secrecy.He started by admitting the topic wasn't always easy to address:
As a fiction writer there's this dreaded question you always get asked, which is "where do your ideas come from?"  It's dreaded because it's normally really difficult to answer, it sounds so feeble and slender when you try and do it. You find yourself inventing; you're inventing within the invention.
However, his latest book had a clearer story behind it. He'd been living in Tuscany and met a friend whose companion recommended he should visit La Specola, a museum in Florence:
This was from a complete stranger. There was an unusual moment. I think as a writer you're always alert and open to these moments of being steered out of the unknown; it's a bit like inspiration, something that you're not expecting.
He visited the museum on his way back to the UK and was fascinated by the some of the wax sculptures "but not really thinking it would go anywhere". It wasn't until he attended an art exhibition in London some months later and saw a description of an Italian wax sculptor as 'eccentric' that he began looking for the background to this story... and began writing his own.

The Charleston event was a fascinating insight to Rupert's work. His novel-writing process struck me as similar to the steps in James Webb Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas.

In this advertising classic, which was published over 70 years ago, the author refers to an idea being "a new combination of old elements" and goes on to talk about a five-step process of gathering material, digesting that material, letting ideas incubate while you think about something else, experiencing the birth of the idea and finally developing the idea.

Of course, having ideas is only the first part. Turning them into successful books is the really clever bit.

Monday 20 May 2013

Why I like audio recording

I like audio recording. This probably won't surprise you. It's something I spend a fair amount of time doing.

I'm particularly fond of on-location interviews that have enough background sounds to give you a sense of where you are without being distracting. If you hear the sounds of the seaside you'll get a different impression than if you heard the sounds of an exhibition hall.

But what I've not done until recently is give much thought to exactly why I like the recording and editing process.

I was editing an interview that I'd recorded with the CEO of a technology company in a hotel restaurant. As far as I can tell, PR people tend to treat hotel restaurants in the same way that the rest of us use offices. WiFi, coffee, other people ignoring you...

Anyway, I was listening back to the interview - fortunately no piano player, no china being dropped, just a little indistinguishable background chatter - and I started cutting out a few of the 'ums' and 'ers' that punctuated the conversation. Quite a few, actually. The end result was rather pleasing, even if I say so myself.

The conversation still flowed but it was tighter and - dare I say - more listenable than it was before.

Had I been doing the recording with magnetic tape, I'd now have a pile of off-cuts - each one an um, an er, a 'so' or - my particular favourite - 'that's a good question'. Over the course of several interviews I'd have accumulated enough for some kind of art project. Maybe a spoken version of Do Re Mi in assorted European accents.

Fortunately digital editing is less painful than its old-school equivalent. And I don't just mean mentally - I never was much good with a razor blade and a chinagraph pencil.

It was the editing process that got me thinking about why I enjoyed audio recording above its alternatives. If I'd been video recording, I wouldn't have been able to remove as many hesitations, phonic tics and repeated words. At least, not while remaining focussed on the interview subject. Yet if I'd been editing a written interview, I could have included all manner of incidental subjects and could even have rearranged the timeline. The audio interview seems - if you'll forgive the cliche and its associated pun - a happy medium. It's a slice of time, a snapshot, an experience. It's been polished a little, it's been put in a frame but it maintains its authenticity.

To put things simply, you know where you are.

[Recorded using the HiFiCorder Android app on a Google Nexus S mobile phone; audio version available on]

Sunday 5 May 2013

I wanted to be a writer

"I wanted to be a writer. Almost everybody was a writer. Not everybody thought they could be a dentist or an automobile mechanic but everybody knew they could be a writer."

 Charles Bukowski, Factotum

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Book review: Cities are good for you

I've recently finished reading 'Cities are good for you' by Leo Hollis. My review is now on

"Cities can indeed be good for us, yet only if we consider the human elements throughout the construction process. We need to build communities, not just structures. If we don’t, we’ll have nothing to escape from but ourselves."