We speak to Melissa Harrison on her debut novel Clay, the benefits of using social media and the struggle of writing the second novel, whilst she gives us her invaluable advice for aspiring authors.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was very young I wanted to be an eye surgeon – I’ve no idea why now! Then in my teens I became interested in psychology after volunteering at a local psychiatric hospital. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I admitted to myself that I wanted to write. Once I realised it, though, it felt as though I’d been moving towards it all my life.
Why do you write?
To change the world for the better, of course.
Clay has done exceptionally well – it won the Portsmouth First Fiction Award 2013 and you’ve been selected for the Amazon Rising Stars programme. How did you feel when you heard about this?
It’s a strange feeling. You incubate a book inside your imagination for so long, and it’s a very intense, private process. Then it goes out into the world and suddenly it’s totally separate from you. You have no control over it any more, no ability to affect what people read into it or take from it. That’s just as it should be, but it means that when things like prizes happen, there’s a strange sense of disconnection – as well as pride, of course. And there’s also the temporal gap; I finished writing Clay in 2010 and it won the Portsmouth prize at the end of 2013, by which time I was working on final rewrites to a whole new novel. Clay is out there now, with has a life of its own – it’s absolutely wonderful that it’s had the reviews and attention it has, but I do sometimes have to remind myself that I wrote it!
Has anything changed about your writing process now that you are a published author?
I did try to change my method when I started writing my second book – I thought I should learn the lessons of Clay and plan the book out minutely from the start, because Clay was written instinctively and without a plan. But trying to do things differently proved a disaster! In the end, the lesson I should have learned from writing Clay was that whatever I was doing seemed to work, even if it wasn’t particularly ‘efficient’. Your method is your method, for good or ill.
In your novel, you explore the presence of nature in urban life and how we connect with it, combining fiction and nature writing – what was it about this theme that inspired you to use it?
I’ve always had an intense belief in the importance of nature in leading an authentic, connected life. Living in London was a challenge at first, but when I began to tune in to the green spaces around me I realised that it was possible to draw just as much sustenance from them as if I was living in the Lake District – it just required a change of focus. That discovery felt like something I wanted to share, and it really drove my writing; instead of ‘trying to write a book’ I was trying to find a way to say something I thought was valuable, which felt very different.
Can you describe your daily writing routine? Was your own personal writing process something you discovered only as you started to work?
I work three weeks a month as a production editor on a magazine, so in the evenings I find sitting in front of a computer and working on copy again extremely difficult – not least because it’s difficult to make the switch from ‘critical’ to ‘creative’ mode. I tend to do most of my writing in my weeks off, and I get away a couple of times a year, too, if I can; I have a couple of friends and relatives who trust me with their flats when they’re away. On a writing day I tend to walk my dog first thing, then aim to get any jobs or chores done in the morning. I usually start writing after lunch, although it often doesn’t really start to flow until about 4pm. I’m more of an evening than a morning person and will often write until 9 or 10pm if it’s going well.
How did you find the publishing process? Did you have to face rejection first?
I was very lucky. When I was first getting started a friend recommended I speak to an ex-colleague of his, Kathy Gale, who is a writing coach. I had no idea at the time what I was doing or what it might mean; I also had a great sense of conflict about the idea of trying to write at all. Kathy told me that I was a writer, and that I was writing a novel. I burst into tears. A little later she suggested I consider entering some competitions; I won the John Muir Trust’s Wild Writing award in 2010. At that point she put some material together and sent it to Rogers, Coleridge & White on my behalf. It was smooth sailing from there.
You’re currently working on your second novel. How’s it coming along? After receiving such positive feedback for Clay, have you found the expectations that come with a second novel difficult to deal with?
It’s finished – finally! I found it a lot harder to write than Clay, mostly because with Clay I didn’t really believe, in the early stages at least, that other people would actually read it. With book two I found myself constantly imagining what other people might think, which can be crippling unless you can find a way to bypass it. One of the biggest parts of the learning process has been working out how to stay true to what I want to say, despite that sense of self-consciousness.
You’re active on social media and you write a blog: do you think it is important for writers to use social media and other online mediums nowadays?
If you enjoy using social media it can be a great way to meet new friends, make connections and even get help with research. But if it doesn’t suit you – and it can be a terrible time-sink – it’s fine to avoid it, too; I’m not on Facebook simply because I don’t like it. If you don’t enjoy social media you probably won’t make the best use of it; there’s nothing worse than an author who only logs in to Twitter in order to promote their book and doesn’t actually engage with anyone properly. People can detect self-interest a mile off, and quite right.
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
I’ve written recently about the recent proliferation of advice for writers, and whether it’s really helpful. Creativity of all kinds is an intensely personal process, and committing yourself to it fully involves making terrifying mistakes and facing down your own doubts and uncertainties. It seems to me that attempts to shortcut that valuable process of self-discovery merely short-change a writer in the long run. It’s a long journey, but for every writer it starts in the same way: with one word on the page, and then another, and then another…