Today I’m pleased to welcome Dan Micklethwaite to the blog. Dan is the author of The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, published by Bluemoose Books on 28 July 2016 and which was recently shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s Not the Booker Prize.
Dan kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote.
It’s the story of a young woman who lives at the top of a tower block in Huddersfield, in a flat that’s literally carpeted with books. She’s become so immersed in the fairytales and fantasies they contain that even when she does go outside, she relies on them for inspiration and to mediate the experience. To the extent that she makes some armour out of oven trays and dresses herself up as a medieval knight errant.
What follows is a quest to escape from her past, and to recast her present in a more suitable light. But what that might mean for her future is something even she can’t imagine, no matter how hard she tries…
2. What inspired the story?
As the title suggests, the inspiration came from Don Quixote. I’ll confess that I hadn’t read more than a few excerpts from that book at the time, and so it was probably Milan Kundera’s writings about it that really put the idea in my head. Then, when I saw Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt(s) to adapt it as a film, I think that gave me the angle I looking for in terms of a fresh take on the material.
What I found fascinating about that was firstly the Quixotic aspect of Gilliam himself, able to look at his scribbled storyboards and very rough test footage and see his masterpiece clearly, before anyone else could — getting a sense of this tremendous imagination at work; and secondly the fact that, unlike Don Quixote, who has ‘lost his mind’ and doesn’t have a choice in what he’s doing, Gilliam keeps making the conscious decision to return to this project no matter how many times it goes wrong, always in the hope of a different result. It’s both the textbook definition of ‘madness’ and yet at the same time displays a peculiar, and endearingly stubborn, rationality. Those are the seemingly contradictory positions that I wanted to explore with Donna, in the hopes of uncovering just how much more complex, changeable and fragile an individual’s connection with reality can be than in the relatively broad approach of Cervantes’ original.
3. The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote is your debut novel, though you have written short stories in the past. What have you learned from the publishing process and how did writing short stories influence writing a full length novel?
The most important thing I’ve learnt from the publishing process is patience. It’s only natural to want everything to come together as quickly as possible, but it doesn’t often seem to work like that, and so you have to develop greater perseverance and a kind of endurance mentality.
I think the same is true of the writing itself, especially with the transition from short stories into a novel. Writing short stories taught me a lot about craft and structure and developing characters quickly and clearly, but then carrying this over to a longer project required even more focus, and a lot more perseverance when it came to the editing stage.
Another way short stories helped with this novel is that I felt confident attempting a more episodic structure, and especially when it came to some of the fantastical sections, which are almost stories within the story themselves.
4. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
It depends on the project. I always try and make a few notes on any idea as soon as I have it, and sometimes these expand into full-on plans, or even rough sketches, where I do just kind of see where the words take me without any idea of where the plot will end up. This book is a bit of an anomaly in terms of what it says about my process, because I was somehow able to write the first draft (43,000 words) in only 8 days, with only sparse and pretty abstract notes. That was unprecedented for me, and I certainly haven’t been able to repeat the feat since. Mind you, given that it’s then taken 4 years of editing to get it up to publishable standard, I’m not sure I’d want to try!
It was a fantastic challenge to produce the first draft on that timescale, however, and often very fun and liberating to not really know where the character was heading next before she got there. And it was an immensely helpful and enlightening process to work with Bluemoose’s excellent (and very understanding!) editors on the rewrites, which I think has taught me more about the actual craft and what’s required to succeed than anything else I’ve been through.
In fact, to thank them, and to hopefully spare all involved a little hassle on the next one, I’m already well under way with a pretty thorough plan…
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
Writing can be a lonely profession at times, and so it’s always good to get out and see friends, whether that’s just to play a few games of pool or to go camping, or even to sample the wares at a real ale festival or two. That said, I do also like to spend time drawing and painting when I can, as that’s a passion of mine that goes back even further than writing. I consider myself lucky, though, that my most common form of relaxation is reading, as it can help me to gain enough distance from my own work and ideas, at the same time as I learn from it, and hopefully discover new things, new facts and possibilities, that in turn might feed back into something else I write later.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
I’m tempted to cheat a bit here and name a huge compendium of short stories, probably by Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, as I think with both of those I could probably find enough to muse on and be inspired by for a good many years.
In terms of novels, though, I’d probably have to say The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I tend to read it about once a year anyway, and it’s always such a rewarding, cathartic experience, offering new things to appreciate every time I go through. On top of which, it would contain the memory for me of its precursor, In the Skin of a Lion, which is also a beautiful book. Given the frustration of finding myself in a literary desert, I think I could rely upon this to be the oasis I’d need.
7. The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote has been short- listed for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. What does this mean for you as an author?
It’s fantastic news, and such a huge boost coming relatively soon after the novel’s release. It was really surreal to see it on the longlist with such big-name authors, but making it through that field has actually helped calm me down a bit and feel a bit more secure in what I’m doing, giving me additional confidence as I move onto the next set of stories.
I’m also pleased that it seems to be bringing my publisher, Bluemoose Books, some extra attention, and helping readers discover all the other great novels they’ve released in their first decade in business. It’s heartening that all the other shortlisted works are from independent publishers as well – it helps offset some of the horror stories you hear and all the negative predictions for the future of the industry when you see these places getting the recognition they deserve, especially when they’re taking risks on new writing.
8. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you have done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Well, this is only the third one I’ve done so far, so there are probably quite a few such questions. But perhaps: Which other author, living or dead, would you most like to have a conversation with?
It’s a very tough call, but I’m going to say Cormac McCarthy. I might only get a few words out of him, but I’m pretty sure they’d all be excellent, and grimly hilarious to boot!
About the Book:
“THE LESS THAN PERFECT LEGEND OF DONNA CREOSOTE is a modern fairy tale from the inner city, where the mundane becomes fantastical and the everyday ethereal, but where living happily ever after is often easier read than done.
Donna Crick-Oakley walks on six inches of stories every day. She may live on the top floor of a tower block but she still pads her walls and floor with books to shut the real world further out. Or do they only shut her in? Armed with her myths and medieval adventures, Donna sets out to escape her isolation and change her home town to better suit her dreams.”