A few days ago I posted a review of Marion Halligan’s latest book, Valley of Grace, and mentioned that Halligan had attended my bookgroup meeting at which we discussed the book. I didn’t, however, share in that post all of the things that Halligan told us – and I won’t in this post either. Some things are just not meant to be shared! Nonetheless, there are things we asked her that are of general interest to readers interested in writers and writing, and these I will share…
As readers often ask writers, we asked her about her writing process. She started off by saying that she never says she has writer’s block. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t get stumped at times but that when she does she just moves on to other writing she has on the go. Valley of Grace was, she said, written essentially over 20 years. She made notes for it back in 1989 when she was living in that apartment in Paris that overlooked the Val de Grâce church. And then, when she got a little stuck in her novel The point, which was published in 2004, she took out the notes she’d made back then and worked them up into a short story. Sometime later, she realised that it was more than a short story and voilà, we now have the book (though it took perhaps a little more than voilà for her to get from short story to book!).
Now, here’s the interesting bit: Halligan writes by hand! She says that the slowness of the eye-hand-paper process makes you think harder and results, for her anyhow, in fewer drafts. Essentially, she writes the story out by hand and then reads it over crossing out and adding in, etc. She then reads it again – often reversing the changes she’d made! It is only then that she types it into her computer, and the sense we got was that at this point it’s pretty much ready to go. We didn’t – silly us – ask her much about the publisher’s editors.
We talked a bit about the use of imagery, including metaphors. She says that much of this is unconscious, that if you are an experienced writer and you get into your story’s mode, the imagery seems to just come (such as the use of light, yellow etc in Valley of Grace). She talked specifically about the challenge of using metaphor and how writers often don’t think them through. Her example of a poorly thought through metaphor was one writer’s description of a person’s bottom during lovemaking as “white dunes of sand”! The mind boggles rather. Anyhow, this brought to my mind a statement she makes in one of her more self-conscious books, The fog garden:
That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go.
She had more to say on writing, such as to beware of using too many adjective and adverbs, and that for her books are not about answers but about questions. In Valley of Grace the over-riding question, really, is about the soul, about what makes us human. Now, it’s hard to get a bigger question than that!
We also talked a little about reading and what we like. Halligan is not keen on issue(ideas)-based fiction: she doesn’t think it’s interesting. This is an issue I have referred to briefly in a couple of my reviews, specifically in This earth of mankind and The workingman’s paradise.
Finally, we couldn’t let her go without asking her about her literary influences. Not surprisingly, given that she’s been writing for a long time now, she couldn’t really say, but she did name some of her favourite writers. These included Margaret Drabble, William Trevor, and John Banville. Interesting, eh, that they are all Irish or English! Clearly, I really must read that William Trevor languishing my TBR pile!
Anyhow, you can probably tell from all this that Halligan was generous with her ideas and her time. It was a real treat having her there…