Guardian Interview - please note the sub-editor chopped out the crucial bit in this interview that said it was the PREVIOUS bookthat was rejected 36 times - and is still unpublished!
In 2008 Two Caravans was shortlisted for the Orwell prize. This is an interview I did with Jean Seaton, Chair of the Orwell Prize Committee
INTERVIEW WITH BENEDICT PORTER, SHANGHAI CITY WEEKEND
6 FEB 2009
BPAt what point did you feel your story needed to be written? Why were you compelled to write it down?
MLEver since I was a little girl, my mother had told me stories about her childhood, and the story of how they left Ukraine and came to England, and I always knew I would write it down. Before she died I made a tape with her, thinking that it would be the basis of a book one day. But when I came to write it up, I realised that I didn't really have enough material for a novel, and that I was going to have to invent things. That was frightening at first, and then it was really liberating - it meant that what started off as memoir became a novel.
BPHow long have you had a book 'inside' you? Why do you think it was until "later" (and I use this term very loosely) in life that you decided to write?
MLActually, I have been writing since I was four years old, which is when I wrote my first poem (it was about rabbits). I just had many many, years of failure before I stumbled into success.
BPHave you always aspired to be an author?
MLYes I have, though my first love was poetry. When I was little, I loved the sound of it - the rhymes and rhythms seemed like magic spells to me, and I aspired to be a poet. But I also wrote plays for my dolls to act out - they were often rather horrid and bloodthirsty - and I wrote stories too.
BPHow long did it take you to write your book?
MLWith the first book, it took me about six years on and off, working mainly in the evenings, to get about half way through, then two years working more consistently to finish it off. And it took two years really flat out, doing little else, to write the second book.
BPYou and your parents throughout the 20th Century have seen so much hardship and war but in the midst of all that you must have also seen the strength and beauty of the human spirit. Do you feel that it was only until you reached a certain maturity that you were able to fully understand the ramifications of what you lived through and commit it to paper?
MLI think there's a lot to be said for maturity, though I'm not sure one actually gets wiser - I think as I grew older, I became more aware of human foibles as well as the beauty of the human spirit, and I found that I could laugh at things which would have made me angry or upset when I was younger - including at myself and my own family. The ability to laugh is very important - it sees us through hard times and keep us in touch with our essential humanity. Comedy is quite a serious business!
BPApart from being too busy to write (because of business or family, etc), do you feel that you could have written your books when you were younger? Or are the books resultative and conducive to certain experiences and time?
MLThe books I wrote when I was younger, which were never published, were much more serious and angst-ridden. I'm so glad I wasn't published then, because I would have ended up as quite a different sort of writer - much less enjoyable. When you're young, you think you know everything; as you get older, you become more and more aware of the things you don't know, and that encourages a kind of humility; as a result you are much more forgiving of other people's weaknesses. Bob Dylan has a line in one of his songs which I think applies to many people including me - "Oh, I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now."
BPWas the writing experience a gush of information and feeling, knowing that the publishers would get their knives and scissors out later, or did you closely edit it and try to refine it as you wrote?
MLI find great pleasure in writing - there's usually nothing I'd rather be doing - and rewriting and polishing is an even greater pleasure, because you've done the hard graft of getting the story down, and now you can have fun developing and refining the ideas and the characters.
BPCan you please describe the editing process you experienced with the publisher once they agreed to pick your book up? How long did it take?
MLWith A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian there was very little editing. This is because I wrote the book as part of an MA in Creative Writing, so a lot of the hard 'editing' work had already been done by the tutors. With my second book, Two Caravans, there was a lot of editing. Really, it was quite a crazy idea trying to tell a story through nine different voices - one of them a dog. So it was quite hard to get it right. The book I'm working on now - We Are All Made of Glue - is quite difficult for different reasons. With my first book, I had all the time in the world, so I had plenty of opportunities to put the book away for a month or two and then look at it with fresh eyes. With the two subsequent books, I didn't really have that luxury, so it was helpful to have someone else to point out what wasn't working and needed attention. The latest book has a mystery plot at the heart of it, so it's particularly difficult to approach it freshly once you know the secret.
BPHow long does it take?
MLWell, there isn't really a set time, because the moment I've sent of a draft I start editing, changing and revising again. It probably drives my editor mad, but she's very nice about it! There's about six months between my handing in what I think is a final draft (though it's never really final) before publication, but that includes typesetting and printing. I guess the editing and proofing is about three months, though I always push it to the limit.
BPHow long did the acceptance period take? What were the negotiations like?
MLYou know, I have a collection of thirty six rejection slips for my previous still-unpublished novel. With the Tractor novel, the acceptance period took about a weekend. As I said, I wrote the book as part of an MA in creative writing, and it just so happened that the external examiner was a literary agent. So this time I didn't have to go through the same heartbreaking and humiliating process - he read the book and contacted me to ask me whether I wanted an agent. Naturally I said yes! He did the deal with Penguin over a weekend. I was very disappointed to hear that the advance was only £25,000. I thought I would get a quarter of a million. You have to be very young and very beautiful to get an advance like that, he said.
BPWhat was it about your book that you think appealed to the publisher, which separated your book from all the others?
MLI think the book was very different to anything that was on the market at the time, though there have been a few more in a similar genre since then. The main difference is that it was funny, and I think there was a sort of directness about it that appealed to people. I hadn't really expected it to be published at all, so I just wrote it to entertain myself and my friends - but it ended up entertaining millions of people, which is very satisfying.
Again, thanks for your time.