Ep 123 Meet Louise Doughty, author of ‘Black Water’

podcast-artwork In Episode 123 of So you want to be a writer:  Gawker is closing down, discover why you’ll never finish your novel and how to write a memoir about a painful experience. Meet Louise Doughty, author of Black Water. Plus: writing tools for authors, great content marketing examples for author blogs, and much more.

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Review of the Week
Michelle Barraclough:

Dear Allison and Valerie. Thanks for the shout-out in this week's podcast, especially the lovely cheer for finishing the draft of my first novel. Absolutely made my day! As one of the millions of writers sitting alone at their desks around the world, your podcast has been a godsend – motivating, inspiring and keeping me company on the journey. If a question pops into my head regarding structure or editing or publication or author platform (or banoffee pie!), I know Al'n'Val will have the answer. The search function on your soyouwanttobeawriter website is brilliant for this too, pointing me in the direction of the podcast I need. Thanks gals. Love your work.

Thanks Michelle!

Show Notes
Gawker.com to End Operations Next Week

The #1 Reason You’ll Never Finish Writing Your Novel

How to Write a Memoir About a Painful Experience: 6 Tips

Writer in Residence

Louise Doughty
louise doughty authorLouise Doughty is the author of eight novels, including the recently published Black Water. Her previous book was Apple Tree Yard, which has been published or is being translated into twenty-seven languages and is currently being adapted for television.

Her first novel, Crazy Paving (1995), was shortlisted for four awards including the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her sixth novel, Whatever You Love (2010) was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also won awards for radio drama and short stories, along with publishing one work of non-fiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her popular newspaper column. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC. She was a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and the Costa Book of Year Award in 2015 and has chaired many prize panels for new writers including the Orange Award for New Writers, the Fiction Uncovered promotion, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Desmond Elliott Award.

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Interview Transcript


Thanks so much for joining us today, Louise.



You're welcome, thank you.



Now for readers who haven't read your new book yet, Black Water. Tell us what it's about.



Well, Black Water is about a man called John Harper, and as the novel opens he's in his 50s, he's in a hut in rural Bali in Indonesia, halfway up a hillside. It's the middle of the night, the rains on the roof, there's geckos and squirrels scampering around outside.


And as the novel opens we find him lying awake in the middle of the night. And he's mortally afraid. He thinks men with machetes are going to come and kill him.


As the novel progresses we find out that actually what he's really afraid of is not something that's going to happen, what he's really afraid of is something that he, himself, has done. It's about the ghost of his past, that's what's really going to come and get him. And you find out more about that as the novel progresses.



What a great premise. Now how did this idea form in your head?



Well, I first got the idea in 2012, when I was a guest at the Writers' and Readers' Festival in Ubud in Bali. And I've never been to Indonesia before. I did what I always do when I go to a new country, I started reading up about its history, it's politics, it's culture, and that's when I came across this extraordinary collision, which anyone who's ever been to Bali will recognize, with the extraordinary physical beauty of the landscape, the rice fields, the green hills, and this incredibly troubled political history across Indonesia. But, in particular on Java and Bali and the massacres of 1965, the rise of Suharto military dictatorship for many decades, and then the fall of Suharto in 1998.


So, I got an idea for a novel that would bracket those events. As the novel opens it's 1998 and Harper is in his 50s. And then there's this big flashback sequence in the middle of the book where we go back to his birth on the island of Sulawesi in 1942, underneath Japanese occupation, his upbringing in the Netherlands and in America. And then how he returns to Indonesia in 1965, when he's a young man, he's in his early 20s, he's done his military service in the Netherlands, and he's working for a company of what we would nowadays call risk analysis or security consultancy. It's basically a private mercenary firm. And he gets involved in the massacres then and does something very terrible that we find out about during the course of the book.


It's set in Indonesia and also in the Netherlands and various places, but a lot of the setting has to do with Indonesia. You said that you became intrigued when you went there in 2012. Now presumably when you went there in 2012 for the festival it was just for a short period of time. Did you subsequently go back and spend time there and research all of these things that are in your book?



Yes, I did. I did two further visits, I went back to Bali and I also did the trip to Jakarta, they were both very short visits. I was foolish enough to set a novel in a long-hold destination when I still had school-aged children, it was really not smart. So, there were flying visits. There was also a lot of research online, a lot of research from journalistic and historical and sociological sources.


It was a tough one to research. I think it's very difficult to start off with, when you set a novel in a foreign country. I'm sure there's all sorts of details that I've got wrong.


I did have it read by Indonesian friends, a guy in Indonesian academics based in the Hague. And I tried to get as much of the detail right as I can. I think you can never guarantee that as a novelist.


I think that it would have been very difficult for me to have written this novel from the point of view of an Indonesian person. I think that you really have to live in a country for many, many years before you can do that.


So it, to me, was very vital that Harper is mixed race — he's half Indonesian and half Dutch. And it's a novel about an outsider. He's a global citizen, really. He's grown up all over the world. And when he goes into Indonesia his firm sends him in because he's mixed race, and I think the naively assumed that he'll pick up the language quickly, he can pass as a global.


But, there's a lot in the novel about disguise. When he wanted to join the demonstration on the street he wears a sarong and sandals, and ties a bandana around his head. When he wants to go into a Western hotel he takes off the sarong, puts on loose trousers, a shirt, and a Panama hat and says ‘Chao' to the doorman, who assumes he's Italian. So, he's really kind of a master of disguise. He's a chameleon character, and the more you read, I think, into the book the more you realize how appropriate that is for the themes.



I know that you said that you couldn't have written from the point of view of an Indonesian without having lived there for a long time, which of course makes perfect sense. But, you have written from the point of view of a male, who is half Indonesian and half Dutch, so it's not really… it's still pretty foreign. How did you get into John Harper's life and mindset and brain?



You're so right. I really don't like to make my life easy, do I?


It's very odd. I think I felt the need to make an imaginative leap when I was writing
Black Water. My previous two novels had been very much from female points of view, first person. And I think I was really ready to make that leap into the head of somebody very different from myself.


The interesting thing about writing from a male point of view is that I do take as my starting point that we are all the same under the skin, regardless of gender, race, nationality, sexual preference and so on. But, there is a basic common humanity that we all share, and to me that's a very important starting point.


But, the issue about writing from a male point of view was in many ways more about language than it was about feeling or consciousness. I had to think very carefully about whether his phraseology would be the same as a woman in that situation.


To give you an example, early in the book, I think it's Chapter 2, there's a scene where he goes into Ubud and in the first draft I had him thinking to himself that he was going to go into Ubud to do a bit of shopping. And then I thought, “Well, let's think about that phrase,” because what that phrase implies is shopping as a leisure activity, as a pastime, something you might do while away the hours. And I do think that, without wishing to generalize too much, that's generally a female perspective on shopping, the idea that it's something that you're going to do with a friend. I'm not sure that most men, certainly a man of Harper's generation, he was born in the 1940s would think that way, doing a bit of shopping. I think it was an alien phrase.


So, I changed that to something more specific, “Pick up a thing or two.” He would go to town thinking, “I'm going to do this and this…” And in actual fact the activity is the same, he's definitely going into town to while away the hours. He's a lonely man and he's looking to pass the time.


So, the activity wasn't different, but the language that he would use to describe to himself was different.



It's such a subtle thing, isn't it?



It really is, but it's very important to get that kind of thing right. I mean equally this is a man who's never been to Britain. His English, his learned English is firstly in school in the Netherlands, and then America, most of his formative years are spent in America. So, he would use not only American vocabulary, but an American idiom with the kind of North-European education layered on top. I had to be very careful where I would go to use a phrase which was British/English idiom and think, “Now, hang on a minute here, he wouldn't have even heard that phrase, it's not his upbringing.”



Can you give us some idea of timelines? Let's say you were there visiting at the Festival in 2012, can you give us some key milestones when you decided, “OK, I'm actually going to write a book set here now.”? How long did it take to write that first draft and just some of those key points?



Sure, yes. It was rather traumatic that timeline, in fact, because I wrote 2,000-3,000 words, most of the first chapter, very quickly. I think I may have even started it on that first visit to Ubud, because what came to me first was that very strong image, right on the opening page, of a man lying awake in a hut, mortally afraid.


And I think when it first came I thought it might have even just been a short story. I just had a very strong picture in my head. I didn't know how the man was. I knew that he was afraid of something he, himself, had done, but I didn't know what that was.


And so the first few thousand words were written almost immediately. And there was then a real hiatus. I went back home, obviously, real life took over. I was still finishing the editing on Apple Tree Yard, the previous novel. I think I've done most of the copyediting, but there was still the proofreading to do.


And then there was all of the run up to publication of Apple Tree Yard going and I was writing features for newspapers, I was doing the whole publicity round. So, there was a very long gap, I think, of around eight to nine months before I actually got back to the book. And, I remember looking at my timetable and sort of panicking a bit thinking, “Hang on, I've let a bit too much time go past.”


And writing a very, very hurried first draft of around 70,000 words in about six or seven months. And that, for me, was very quick and probably too quick. It was a very rough first draft. It was a bit chaotic. The scenes set in Jakarta were particular thin, because at that point I hadn't been to Jakarta.


And I did submit that first draft to my publisher and I knew then that it needed a lot of work. And we sat down and we agreed a timetable for some really hefty rewrites.


So, on top of that there was then a period of between six and eight months of solid rewrites, including a visit to Jakarta to do research, adding another 20,000-30,000. That's unusual for me. I mean normally I cut on the rewriter. Normally the first draft is very fully realized and it's a question of honing it down.


But, this book the first draft had been too hurried and I had to add material. I had to change the tone and focus a bit.


I have to say to me it was a real lesson against writing the first draft too quickly, because the rewrites were hell. Normally my rewrites are pretty light. Normally my first draft, the draft I deliver is pretty much a finished work. But, this time it was different and I learned my lesson.



Why did you write it so quickly?



Well, I had a deadline. I had book deal and Apple Tree Yard had been a huge success in the UK, it had been on the best seller list. It was optioned for TV. It's in post-production now. And there was no doubt I felt under a bit of pressure to follow up with the next novel as quickly as possible. And ideally my publisher would have liked Black Water two years after the hardback of Apple Tree Yard and I tried to hit that deadline, and it was a mistake. I think I should have just said, “I need another year.” I think a three-year gap between novels is what suits me, that suits my rhythm of writing.


And I tried to get it in with a two-year gap and I learned my lesson, you can't rush these things, particularly not with a book as complex as Black Water. It might be possible with a simpler narrative.



Yes, and one that requires so much research as well.



Yes, absolutely.



OK, so you wrote it in that hurried six or seven month block, but initially when you first started writing that first, you know, few scenes when you were in Ubud, you didn't have an idea what was going to happen. It was really more of scene or, as you say, a short story.



It really was. Yeah.



Did you just let it flow out of you or did you plan it before you went hell for leather, do you know what I mean?



Yeah, I really let it flow. I mean I had a very funny conversation with my agent because once I realized that there was sort of ‘meat' in this idea, there was more to it than a short story. Then I think at that stage still thought it was going to be a very short novel. It was all going to take place inside the hut, inside Harper's head. And there weren't going to be these huge chunks — there's a big chunk set in California during the civil rights movement of the 1950s, another chunk set in the Netherlands. And I didn't intend that early on.


And I remember saying to my agent, I said to him, “Oh look, I think I can do this one fairly quickly.” I thought it was going to be one of those short, perfectly formed novellas, those little sort of 150-page things. I said, “This is going to be my short novel,” and he said, “Louise, you say that every time.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yes, every single book,” he said, “you say to me ‘this is going to be my short, simple, beautifully-formed on' it never is.”


So, I think the minute that you start doing research, particularly into a subject as vast as mine, I mean we are talking about a novel of this sort of global canvas, spans 30 years in a man’s life. I don't know what made me think it was going to be a short book. I think the minute you start taking on that level of material, obviously it's going to expand and it is over 100,000 words now.



Just take me back to — when did you know write books?



Very, very early on. Although I was distracted for a few years in my adolescence. I think I thought I was going to be a great actress of the kind of Glenda Jackson school in my adolescence. But, very early on I was always obsessed with stories. I always loved inventing stories as homework at school. I read voraciously as a child. I was a bit of a kind of sort of weirdo child. I lied to my mother that I was going to play with the kids on the housing estate where I grew up and I'd sort of sneak out of the house with a book in the pocket of my anorak and sort of go and hide in a den on some waste ground at the back of the housing estate.


And, I actually wrote my first novel when I was 11. I wrote a book about a group of talking horses. And, I don't know if you remember Watership Down?



Oh, yes.



That was the big hit of children's fiction in the 1970s, the talking rabbits. So anthropomorphizing small animals was very big back then.


So, I invented this novel about a group of horses wondering across the Midwestern plain, and probably also influenced by the John Wayne movies that my father used to watch on black and white TV every afternoon at the weekends.


And it was a very odd choice for a girl who never left the East Midlands and never sat on a horse at all —





And I remember writing this book… so, my horses, they not only talked to each other. I think they wore hats. There were definitely hats in there. And I illustrated it. And I wanted it to be a hardback, so I made cardboard covers.



Oh my goodness.



I believe I still have it somewhere.



Oh that's cute.



I could probably dig it out.


Then in adolescence I wanted to be an actress, as I said. I went off to university and I did a degree in English literature. And it was really only towards the end of that that I started to think, “You know what? What did I actually want to spend my time doing? What activity makes me happy?” And it was when I asked myself that question that I knew that it was writing. I knew that was the thing that made me happiest of all.


Apple Tree Yard, which is so successful, won number awards. And it was a National Book Award Thriller of the Year. This book, Black Water also has the element of that unfolding, where you need to get your pacing just right so that the reader is left with that level of stress, in a sense. That's my feeling anyway.



Thank you. I should probably say that I was only shortlisted. I didn't win. But, you know, in my heart of hearts I feel it was mine.






Let's just pretend for the purposes of this interview I won.



Yeah, why not.



I've been shortlisted and longlisted for almost every award in the UK, I've never actually won anything, but, hey, I'm not bitter. It's great even to have a shortlisting tag is great fun.


It's funny, you know, this whole thriller tag, because I certainly never sat out to write a thriller, as far as I was concerned Apple Tree Yard was a feminist indictment of criminal justice. You know, it's a book about morality and the way in which women's morality is always judge through the prism of their sexual morality.


And I thought in many ways is was quite an angry, almost a campaigning book.


But, my publisher in the UK, Faber, did a really brilliant job of spotting the facts that it had a narrative that gripped, that it had a courtroom drama at the end. And they published it with a kind of thrillerish cover and it worked, I have to say, extremely well. I mean it brought me to a huge audience who had never read me before.


When it came to Black Water, again, I mean I never consciously sit down and say, “Now, I'm going to be thrilling.” I mean I think if I did that I wouldn't be able to write a word.


I just started with this single image of this man in a hut, this character, John Harper. But, I suppose my sensibility tends to be quite a narrative-driven sensibility. I think that my characters always have secrets, usually dark secrets. There are always things that I want to find out about them that get revealed during the course of the novel.


And I suppose that's what makes a book readable to the reader, if you, yourself, as the novelist are discovering a character and revealing them, then that's what intrigues the reader too.


I think if you're not thrilled by your main character, then it's unlikely the reader is going to be.


But, I don't consciously set out to write thrillers. I mean as far as I'm concerned both those books are character studies as much as anything else.



When you talk about your characters and you say you're also getting to know your characters, do you literally get to know them as you're writing? Because some authors have entire dossiers on their characters. They have entire backstories. They write. They collect photos of the kinds of places they would live in. They know the characters intimately, whereas other authors do get to know their characters as they unfold on the page.


Where do you sit?



Well, I'm very much in the latter group. I get to know my character gradually over the course of writing the book. And I suppose I set out really to answer questions. I put the character in the situation in the early stages of the book. With Black Water it's Harper and his hut, very afraid. With Apple Tree Yard it's Yvonne on the witness stand at the old Bay League giving evidence at her own trial. And all I knew about her was she was about to be caught out in a very damaging lie. With Whatever You Love, my sixth novel, that opens with the police officers coming to a woman's door to tell her that her child has been killed in a hit and run accident.


And I think once I've got that set up, once I've got the situation, it's then my job to go and discover the character, definitely through writing.


I do build up a dossier gradually and often there does come a point, sometimes around two-thirds of the way through my first draft, where I realize I'm getting a bit confused, because I've been carrying the facts of this character's life around in my head and not writing it down. And that's the point at which I will stop, quite a long way into the book, and go, “Right, OK,” and get out a bit of paper and write when they were born, the date of their birth, their education, all of those kinds of basic CV-type details, because I've realized that I have not anchored that character development in reality.


And quite often when you do that lots of questions arise that you hadn't thought of. I mean an obvious one for me, once I decide that Harper was born in 1942, it's the middle of the Second World War, and that's when Indonesian is being occupied by the Japanese. You know, where was he born? Why was he there? Who were his parents?


So, to me, it's a fairly organic process. I'm not as organized as some writers. I don't sit down and do huge amounts of flow charts or lists. I let it unfold in a rather messy way and then end up having to do flow charts and the lists when I'm sort of quite a long way into the book.



So when you are writing, when you're doing that first draft, in particular, what's your typical day like? Do you have a routine that you stick to? Do you try to achieve a certain number of words each day or week or anything like that?



Well, again, I'm not as organized as I'd like to be about that. I definitely find now, and it gets more so the older I get, my best hours are morning. Not very early, I'm not a particularly early riser, but I generally start, once I've got the kids out of the house, off to school, around nine o'clock in the morning. And my best hours are definitely those first two or three hours of the day, the first coffee of the day, that's always a very important moment.


And quite often I'll take my laptop and I'll go out to cafes. I find it very, very difficult to get first draft writing done at home. I can do rewrites, I can do admin/emails to agent and so on, but that first draft concentrated writing, I really need to leave the domestic arena. Even though I have the house to myself now, my partner's at work, the kids are older, I find it very hard to concentrate.


If I go make myself a coffee I start thinking about, “Should I unload the dishwasher while the kettle boils?” Or, “Should I take the chicken out of the freezer?” And then that's just a different way of thinking, that's my domestic head.


So, quite often I'm very, very familiar with the cafes of North London. I could write you quite a detailed guide. I know who gives you a free biscuit and who house keeps the toilets. I'm just saying.


And so luckily I live close to a high street. So, I'll take the laptop out, I'll go and sit down. If I'm lucky, if I'm really in the swing of a book, then in that sort of two or three hour period I can easily write a couple of thousand words, just letting it flow. I should say though my first drafts tend to be rather badly written. I just let it all flood out. I don't stop myself at that stage to think intently about the quality of the prose.


I just think, “First draft, just get it on the page, sort out the mess later.” And I do really envy writers — I've got a couple of writer friends who do sort of 200 words a day, but the words are perfect. They never go back to those sentences.


And I do sometimes wish I could do it that way, but I'm just not that kind of writer. I need to get the first draft out there, on the page, whatever state it's in and then take it from there.



Can we go back to your first novel? Can you remember your break? How you — because so many people would love to be in a position where you are one day, where you've written many, many books. But, many listeners are at that first stage. Can you describe your first break and how you got it? Whether that was through an agent or a publisher or whatever?



Yes, certainly I did do an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, after my English degree. But, funnily enough my break didn't come through that. I moved to London after the course and I was just in temp jobs, secretarial work, bar work, you know the real writer in the garage thing, living in a sort of rented room that was basically as squat in Southeast London with mold on the walls and paying a sort of peppercorn rent.


And my break came actually through two things, which were both competitions. And, I don't know to what extent you have them Australia, but in the UK there are a certain number of competitions for unpublished writers. And, some of those, the ones that have been running for many years are very reputable. And if you get even a runner up prize in one of those it's a really good calling card for literary agents. And I got my first agent through one of those competitions. It was a short story prize called the Ian St James Awards. It doesn't exist anymore, sadly.


But, again, I was runner up. I got third prize, and that was a nation-wide competition, it had thousands of entries, it was open to everybody.


But, I remember that the money that I got for third prize was the equivalent of five months of what I was earning as a part-time secretary. It seemed like a huge amount of money.


And in the same year I had a radio play, an unproduced radio play that also got a runner up prize in a competition run by a magazine at home, The Radio Times.


And those two things, the second one led to my play being produced on Radio 3. So, I suddenly became a professional playwright and I went on to have four other plays produced.


And the first prize of the short story competition, one of the administrators was in the process of sitting up his on literary agency and he took me on.






And it wasn't all plain sailing from there. I was working on a novel that was not very good. It was actually the second novel I had written, and he sent it out to, I think, three or four publishers and they all turned it down. And it came back with the rejections that sort of said, “Not for us, but we'd like to see what she does next,” kind of thing.


And I knew that book wasn't good enough. In fact, I'm very grateful that those first two novels were not published. I would be very embarrassed if they were in print now.


And I was working on what was, then, for me, my third novel in my late 20s. And the agent rang up and he said, “Oh, you know, what are you doing? I haven't heard from you in a year or so. Let's have lunch and let's meet up.” I said, “Well, I've done about 100-pages of a new idea.”


So, I met him for lunch and I gave him the 100 pages, this is way before email and mobile phones, any of that. And I remember getting the bus back home to this flat share where I was living in South London. And as I got in the door the phone was ringing and I picked it up and it was the agent who was at the railway station. And he had started reading those pages while he was waiting for his train. And he called me and he said, “I'm going home tomorrow. I'm photocopying this and I'm sending it out to publishers. This is the book that's going to get you published.” I said, “What do you mean? I've only written 100 pages.” He said, “No, trust me. This is ready it's going out.”


And he was right. I got a two-book deal off those first 100 pages.





I guess if you're going to ask me to anticipate your next question, what was different about that book as opposed to the other two? I think partly it was that I had just matured as a person. I was in my late 20s then, I think I was 29 when that happened. I know I was 31 by the time it was published. I think I've matured.


But, I think also throughout my 20s I had been honing my craft. I had written two complete books that were no good. I had lots of false starts where I had started novels and abandoned them. I had written numerous short stories. I had started doing book reviews, trying a bit of journalism.


I really spent the whole of my 20s gradually, gradually getting better as writer.


And I remember speaking to a publisher who said in his experience it's quite common for somebody who has a kind of basic talent to knead around seven or eight years of serious working at your writing before something falls into place. And I think that's about right. I think seven or eight years of trying and reading a lot and writing as much as you can before something clicks into place. I think if you think a doctor or a dentist or a vet takes how long to train — seven years, or a lawyer. I think writers need that same training period. You need to teach yourself to be a writer or do a course or be mentored. And during that time, of course, you don't get the formal recognition that a doctor or a lawyer does.


But, I think that is what most people need. You need to train yourself. You need to read and you need to often write a huge amount of not very good stuff, you have to sort of get all of those bad sentences out of your system before you write something that can be published.



That's great advice.


So, what's next for you? What are you working now? Apart from obviously doing promotion for Black Water?



Yeah, at the moment it's very much about promotion for Black Water. So, I'm over here in Australia on tour. I won't be back home until the end of August.


I will be starting a new novel in September. I do have an idea in my head, but I'm not really talking about it yet. It's very early stages. I have done about 7,000 or 8,000 words.


This one is going to be my short, perfectly formed novel, I swear. It really, really is. I so long to write one of those beautiful novellas.


Yeah, I've got an idea in my head. It's a return in some ways to an easier landscape for me. It's back to the UK and it's a female first person narrative. I loved doing
Black Water, I'm very glad I did it and I'm proud of it. But, I feel the need to do something that's more within the scope of what I usually write. Something, to be frank, is easier to write after a difficult book.


I think that's very common with writers. I think you quite often write a novel as a reaction against the difficulties of the previous one. So, I'm going to try to make my life a little bit easier.



Well, despite being a difficult book, and you say that it was challenging, but it certainly doesn't look challenging on the page. The sense of place is very real, which is I asked you those questions about how much time you spent there, because I had assumed that you had spent quite a lot of time there, because the descriptions are just — they're incredibly authentic.



Thank you.


You obviously succeeded on that front.


Anyway, Black Water, fantastic book. And thank you so much for your time today, Louise.



Oh thank you.

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