Photograph by Tina White
Mark Mayes, author of The Gift Maker and short story writer, talks me through how he came into writing and how he works to make his style his own.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style.
I think it’s evolved over the years that I’ve been trying to learn about writing. Having said that, I think I possibly have more than one style, as the writing in The Gift Maker does seem rather different to that of many of my stories.
Perhaps I should say the ‘voice’ is different, certainly the syntax and rhythm of the prose; and in the novel I’ve gone for a slightly more elaborate style – it just came out that way, and seemed to fit the otherness of the rather odd and arcane world in which the story takes place.
A question I consistently ask myself with regard to style is: does this irritate me in some way? Another one might be: could you simplify or clarify the image? And yet another: are you straining for undue emotional weight or effect? Are you leaving the reader with nothing to do, on account of spelling things out too explicitly?
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
I’ve done a whole host of pretty dead-end jobs, having left school early. Having said that, I did try my hand at acting for a while in my 20s; and then returned to education in my 40s, to pursue a degree in English.
I don’t know if I am a professional writer, as such, as I’ve never earned my living as a writer, or even part of my living. However, I have hopes for the future that it might be possible to earn part of my living from writing. I think being able to do that would be a most fortunate thing. Whatever occurs, I will always go on writing for the pleasure and challenge of it – perhaps even to satisfy some strange underlying psychological need.
In terms of my overall writing journey, I began with literally no confidence or related background, some twenty years ago, by taking an evening class in fiction writing for beginners. I also took classes and workshops in poetry. Song writing has been another creative outlet over the years, although I’ve never formally studied music or song writing. I’ve written short stories for quite a while now, always hoping to write a novel one-day, and for many years never having the confidence; or else the idea fell flat, and I gave up hope; or else life got in the way.
As for drawing on my past, I tend to write more from imagination than directly basing stories or scenes on past events. Having said that, character traits can be drawn piecemeal from several different sources, and then further mixed with pure invention; so, often, characters and settings can be an amalgam of memory, experience, imagination, dream, other literary sources, newspaper reports, and so on. I relish the idea of mixing things up like that.
Please tell me about The Gift Maker. What really makes this book stand out from the crowd?
I think it’s an unusual story. It’s quite hard to define, and undoubtedly cuts across several genres. In a sense it’s a hybrid. The gifts in the story come in boxes, and ironically perhaps, the narrative and world of the novel cannot easily be boxed. At least I hope it cannot.
I believe the story is both quite simple in terms of the fairytale and mythical tropes it employs; and the notion of quest, or a hero’s journey; yet in some ways the book as a whole might be seen as philosophically quite complex, but that’s for the reader to decide, I feel.
I think, finally, that it poses questions, rather than offering rigid answers. It explores themes of identity, responsibility, moral agency, and purpose – both at the individual level, and that of humanity at large. That sounds a bit grand, but some of those considerations bleed through, I believe. I hope so, anyway.
How do you adapt your writing style when composing short stories? Do you find the word limit restrictive or freeing?
I do quite like first-person narratives when it comes to short-form fiction. I’d also love to write a novel from a single character’s perspective, but that is certainly more of a challenge, I’d imagine. If the voice/character chosen is not compelling, sufficiently nuanced, but simply vapid or annoying, this could be disastrous.
When you get above five thousand words in the short story, it becomes increasingly hard to find outlets that might consider looking at pieces of this length. Understandably, in a magazine or anthology, they need to fit in a good number of pieces, and so word count is important. I have written a number of stories that fall around the seven to nine thousand mark; and there really is not much scope for publishing those, as far as I can see.
I read somewhere that ‘a story finds its own length’. I’m not sure who said that, but I’ve always liked that idea. Thinking of a story I love, such as ‘Let them call it Jazz’ by Jean Rhys – that’s got to be up towards ten-thousand words, and I just wonder how or where you’d publish that today; unless it was part of collection.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
In terms of inspiration, I find things flow more easily when I cease all worry; when, in effect, I stop trying. So it becomes more like play, like a game, where the internal critic is muted, or even silenced for a while. In that space, anything is possible; and you are not second-guessing yourself.
Another thing to get out of the way is any concern about how something will be received, or if you’ll be able to publish it, or even if other people might judge you as this or that kind of person because of what you have a character saying or doing. All that heaviness has to be dispensed with, for me at least, or else I feel paralysed. In some ways, personally, the flow comes out of an apparent emptiness, almost a blankness; a sort of open calm.
The times I’ve felt really blocked were during periods of personal turmoil or grief, and then nothing much can be done. Just have to wait it out, I think. There’s another saying: ‘happiness writes white’ (anon?) – for me that doesn’t hold true. When I’m feeling tranquil and happy, and life is on a fairly even keel, that’s when I feel I can be most disciplined, and really enjoy the writing process.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I’m not sure I’d be a good collaborator, although I’d try my best. If there was a way to do it where you wrote alternative chapters, of a novel, say, as I know some writing ‘teams’ do, then perhaps you wouldn’t be getting in each other’s way so much. So, perhaps it depends on the form. It would be lovely to work with proper musicians who could set lyrics to music, or take a melody you’d written, and create a beautiful arrangement so to enhance the whole thing. Sit-com writing seems to attract pairs of writers. I’ve never tried script writing, but would love to one day.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I am working on another novel; well, I hope it’s going to be a novel, but the ending is giving me problems. I’ve left it alone for a bit now, in order not to kill the idea by putting too much pressure on it. Another thing is talking in detail about something you’re currently writing. For me, that kills the idea, and too much talking can make it feel like you’ve already done it, and so you lose some essential tension, mystery or charm when it comes to actually getting it down. I think one of Jean Rhys’s maxims was “Never tell…never tell.” I completely understand that this is a very personal take, and that for some people, talking at length about the plot or character, or what have you, may give them impetus to complete a long project.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
Recently I’ve been reading, and hugely enjoying, a lot of books by my fellow Urbane authors, and currently have three on the go: ‘The Lighterman’ by Simon Michael (superb, and the third in the wonderful Charles Holborne series of crime novels); ‘debris’ – a second collection of poems by Chris Parker (really enjoyed his debut collection, The City Fox, and this follow-up looks great, too), and a romance/comedy of manners called ‘Close of Play’ by P J Whiteley – which is charmingly gentle and gracefully written. There are lots more Urbane titles coming up this year, many of which I will definitely make a point of reading.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I really want to thank you, Hannah, for giving me the opportunity to appear as a guest on The Dorset Book Detective. It’s been a great pleasure, and I must say I find the book blogging community absolutely wonderful in the way they support books and authors and independent publishers. We really couldn’t do without you!!
Thanks to Mark for taking the time, it’s been an absolute pleasure. You can read more about Mark and his work HERE.