Interview with Lesley Atherton, author of ‘Past Present Tense’, three short novels and five books of short stories. Lesley is also the Owner/Proprietor of small publisher, Scott Martin Productions. What inspired you to write this book? Answer: ‘Past Present Tense’ is about relationships and hoarding. I’ve always had the tendency to acquire and keep far too much stuff. Basically, I’m a collector rather than a hoarder, but I knew it was a subject I was interested in, so have watched lots of relevant television programmes about hoarding from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I haven’t watched in a spirit of judgement, but with the desire to understand both myself and others. Can you tell me about the book? Answer: A young woman, Tanya, has had a very unconventional upbringing, and on her mother’s deathbed, she makes a promise that she’ll continue living her mum’s dreams. The problem is that she doesn’t share these dreams, and it screws her up when she does so. She finds herself poor, struggling and living in her mum’s old caravan. She then discovers that the father she thought was dead, is actually alive, but he isn’t living in the best place, either mentally or physically. His house is a hoarded mess, and on the day that Tanya goes to find him, part of his hoard has fallen on him. Tanya rescues him and he ends up in hospital but isn’t allowed to return home till the hoarded house is cleared. This means that Tanya and her newly-discovered half-sister, decide they have no choice but to clear it. There are other personal challenges too. Both women have their own issues with their partners, and the dad’s mental health isn’t brilliant. I’ve tried to get inside the heads of the characters and to find positive outcomes. What is your writing process like? Answer: I began writing this book about five years ago and it was the first major project I began once I began writing in earnest. The book was published in early 2019 by my own small press, Scott Martin Productions (www.scottmartinproductions.com). My own writing process has changed throughout this time. I now ensure that I write every single day, and I prefer to do my more creative writing either last thing at night in bed on the laptop, or first thing in the morning in my office. The main part of the day is spent dealing with the other duties required to run a business. Generally when writing fiction, I like to write to completion first, then edit, edit, edit. I know that if I were to work and rework each sentence as I went along, I would give up. Plenty of people achieve much and enjoy that routine, but I can’t manage it. I seem to write best when the kids are at school, and the house is quiet. My new office is at the front of the house, but I’ve made sure to put voile curtains over the window to stop me getting too distracted by people wandering past. I tend to need a regular drink and snack to keep my brain going, apart from those times when I’m so inspired and on a roll that I can’t stop. Oddly though, and this is I think not all that common, no matter what I’m writing, I need to have something on the television on my desk. Usually audio books, true crime, sitcoms and podcasts, preferably stuff from the 1950s to the 1980s. Unless I’m editing, I’ll listen to the soundtrack and occasionally watch while I touch type. It’s so odd how it helps me to concentrate, but it only works when the television programme is something I know well. Conversely, when I’m editing, I either listen to nothing, or again I get all retro and put music on the turntable, like an instrumental LP. I’ll listen till the side is over, then take a break. It’s the only time I use the old record player. Again, it’s about comfort and listening to things I already know – probably because it channels my mind in the right direction. What did you learn when writing the book? Answer: I learned that sometimes the right thing is done for the wrong reason, and sometimes the wrong thing is done for the right reason. Usually humans muddle along and do a combination of good and bad. I also learned that the majority of people who exhibit hoarding behavior to the extent that my character Edward does, would NOT approve of the forced clearing of a home that happens in this plot! I must apologise. What surprised you the most? Answer: I was surprised at how quickly the two sisters decided to go against the wishes of their father and to force-clean his home while he was ill in hospital. I’d anticipated having to write chapters of soul-searching and philosophizing about the issue, but it happened quickly because the house cleaning was the only way that Edward could return to his home, ever. The medical authorities would not let him go back if he didn’t. I also was surprised at the immediate closeness of the two sisters and the ending of the story. I had strong ideas for the end, but it emerged that the characters had their own ideas. And these took precedence. What does the title mean? Answer: The book’s title, ‘Past Present Tense’ is a play on English grammar – past tense and present tense. Basically, the book is set in the here and now, but the story is completely grounded in previous eras. All the current day problems are down to past actions. The tense indicates the tension that all the characters are experiencing… Was the character inspired by a real person? If so, who? Answer: I spent some time in my youth living the kind of life that my main character, Tanya, was brought up with – an alternative lifestyle of political activism, idealism and agriculture. As a result, my character is based on a mix-up of various characters I encountered. Her ‘friendship quilt’ is something that I would have done, and her confusion about life was definitely me. Otherwise, she’s a mix of hundreds of wonderful, insightful and strong people. What do you think happened to the characters after the book ended? Answer: I would like to think that most of them lived happily ever after. Tanya gets her freedom and enjoys it, for the first time in her life. Her father, Edward, gets his freedom too, and lives a second hippy-hood. Natalie, Tanya’s newly found sister is another character who achieves her freedom. I haven’t set this book up for a sequel, but there could easily be one: the travels of Edward or the ordinary life of Tanya. I’d also like to think that the book’s baddie, Craig, gets his comeuppance, but not at the hands of my beloved characters! What advice do you have for writers? Answer: My first piece of advice is that it’s never too late. I spent so much of my life trying to build up the confidence to do this, and to make a move away from traditional work. But life kind of conspired, and it still does to a certain extent, to keep me away from the work I would have liked to do. Secondly, you need to believe in yourself - even if nobody else does, and with this in mind I would definitely advise you to join a supportive writing group. Confidence building and challenging. Does writing energize or exhaust you? Answer: Writing energizes, provided the work is going well, but editing is exhausting, and that’s the way it should be. What are common traps for aspiring writers? Answer: An omniscient narrator can still only see things from one character’s point of view per section/chapter/book. I receive quite a few manuscripts from aspiring writers who are keen to be published, and this is one of the most common errors. Too much or too little description is common too, as is the overuse of pronouns and the lack of flow in the prose. All these are easy to sort out in edits, so if you know you’ve done something like this, just leave it and carry on. Don’t let anything slow you down – you’ll pick it up on a future read-through! Oh, and the use of too many exclamation marks in the text is off-putting for an editor/publisher too. In dialogue they are OK, but they don’t work as well in the general prose. What is your writing Kryptonite? Answer: What a good question. I’m not sure. I’m going to answer a few more questions and come back to this one… OK, I came back to this and the answer is alcohol and salt and vinegar crisps (chips). You think you’re going to get inspired and write something really stream-of-consciousness-like, but it ends up with you having to go to bed because all the inspiration disappears. Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Answer: Yes. I was originally going to write under the name ‘Anna Scott Martin’. This was in tribute to my mum. But as the time came nearer, I realised I didn’t identify with that name for this work, and I also wanted to use my own name as I suddenly became unafraid of using it. I was happy not to hide my light under a bushel, as it were. I know my name isn’t the most catchy or modern, but it suits and it is mine. Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want? Answer: I’m not sure that I do either of these. I think I write because I have a story that emerges as needing telling – this may be in the form of short stories or a longer work. Because I write every day, I am never short of ideas, so I simply prioritise the ideas I feel are the strongest and most powerful in my own mind. I know I should probably try to give readers what they want, but at the same time we aren’t ghost writers or writers who put words on paper in order to satisfy the whims of an employer, so we always must be true to ourselves. I’ve tried to write on demand and I didn’t enjoy it as much. I suppose writing is a selfish profession! Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book? Answer: I would like each novel to stand on its own, but my short story collections ‘Can’t Sleep, Won’t Sleep’ are books that will continue till I decide not to write them anymore. I’d liked to think that no matter what I’m writing, I demonstrate a strong understanding of human nature and the inner workings of the human psyche. That, in itself, gives a connection between each book. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have? Answer: I always have a book on the go. Any short stories I write will either go onto my website blog (www.scottmartinproductions.com/blog) or onto my WordPress blog (www.scottmartinblog.com) – or both! I am also working on volume 6 of my short story collection, ‘Can’t Sleep, Won’t Sleep: Tales for Travelers’ so many of my new short stories will be included there too. These books are available on Amazon or on my website store (www.scottmartinproductions.com/store). So, short stories are taken care of as above. In addition, I am always hard at work at another longer written form. At the moment I’m writing a dissertation for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing, about the marketing required for a self-published author. For September 2019, I also need to complete my novel (the final assessment for the Masters Degree). The book is called ‘The Waggon’ and is the tale of bereavement, family ties and forced travels in a gypsy caravan. You can find more details here: https://lesleyathertonauthor.com/the-waggon - plus a little promo video. I may seek another publisher for this book, or may publish myself – I haven’t decided as yet. I need to finish it first. In addition, I’m also writing a non-fiction book about adolescent Aspergers, but this book is in its very early stages. All my other work is now complete and available on the Scott Martin Production website – short novels – ‘No Matter What’, ‘Changes’ and ‘Divine Intervention’, this longer novel ‘Past Present Tense’, short story collections ‘Can’t Sleep. Won’t Sleep’ and lots of work published by other authors. www.scottmartinproductions.com/publications. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? Answer: This completely depends on the book itself. For ‘Past Present Tense’ I watched hundreds of documentaries on hoarding and read a similar numbers of newspaper articles over many years. With short stories, most come spontaneously. If I need more information, I’ve a library of reference books or can go to everyone’s favourite Wikipedia or Google search. For my book on Aspergers, I’ll happily spend hours researching, making notes and reading around the subject, before even putting my first thoughts onto the computer. My general rule is that facts need verifying, but thoughts don’t! How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one? Answer: Ooh, that’s going a long way back. I used to write for my ex-husband’s publishing company, and had many articles published under various different names. I also wrote a little erotica as an experiment, but it wasn’t really me. Recently I’ve written part-time for may years – eight or nine – and have attended writing groups for the last four or five years. I am a full-time writer and publisher now. In fact, I probably put in enough hours per week for two full-time jobs! How many hours a day do you write? Answer: It all depends on how much else I have to do – editing, webwork, promotion, blog etc. I don’t feel right if I do less than about two hours, even if it is only rough. If I wasn’t publishing too, I’d try for 6-8 hours per day. What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult) Answer: The here and now, definitely. I do harken back to previous eras, mainly my teenage years and young adulthood. What did you edit out of this book? Answer: The main character’s mum (who is dead at the time of the book) did have quite a lot of time in the book in flashback. It turned out not to be necessary to the flow of the story as it didn’t add much to the present-day reality. I also originally made more of Craig the bad guy. But then I realised I didn’t want him to be anything other than a side story. The real story is about two half-sisters and their father. How do you select the names of your characters? Answer: I wanted Natalie to be classic and classy, and Craig to be rough made good. Tanya, the main character was given the birth name of Tanganyika by her hippy parents. Edward, her father, has the middle name Winnipeg. I wanted him to seem quite of classy too, but with an edge. Some of the names came very quickly – in fact, most of them in this book came quickly. Others were changed many times, for example, Hilary, Tanya’s good friend. I tried about eight different names and as soon as I thought of Hilary, I knew it was the correct one. Throughout the book, Tanya was originally referred to as Tan – a family nickname she hated. I grew to hate it too, hence the change. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work? Answer: Previous jobs have largely been in local government, IT and accounts. All three appealed to my sense of order and the desire for a well organised inbox and outbox. I don’t have any great desire to return to them. I do enjoy publishing and writing more than anything else I have ever done, and that includes being at school and at college. I have found my ‘thing’… What was your hardest scene to write? Answer: In ‘Past Present Tense’ the hardest scene to write was Craig’s attack of his wife and the horrible consequences. Without giving anything much away, I wanted to write it quite graphically, but in the end I simplified a lot and I think it was more powerful as a result. What is your favorite childhood book? Answer: Quite probably Rumer Godden’s ‘The Diddakoi’ about a young gypsy girl who is left alone and forced to live a more settled life. It influenced me so much – in fact, it’s probably the direct inspiration behind ‘The Waggon’. In ‘The Waggon’ two settled people are forced into a life on the road. In ‘The Diddakoi’ one gypsy girl is forced to settle. I also loved Enid Blyton books far into my late teens – they were so comforting. How long on average does it take you to write a book? Answer: How long is a piece of string? It depends on so much, including opportunity, book length, confidence, etc. I am becoming speedier as time goes on. ‘Past Present Tense’ was written over a period of time which saw the ill health and passing away of a beloved parent, and this causes its own delays to the creative process. I’m hoping that my non-fiction book about adolescent Aspergers will be out this time next year – so it will take around a year to complete. ‘The Waggon’ which I’m completing for my Masters Degree, has taken three years, simply because its creation has been built around the academic structure I’ve been following. Do you believe in writer’s block? Answer: Definitely. I’ve experienced it a lot. Unfortunately. But it’s usually during times of great stress and down to being overwhelmed. Any tips you would like to share to overcome it? Answer: I just try to keep writing, even though it might be rubbish. After a few paragraphs of scribbly garbage the decent stuff tends to return. What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand? Answer: Laptop in bed, computer on desk, longhand into notebook in the car when waiting for the kids, dictation into phone when walking, and fountain pen on posh paper when I’m trying to write something deep and poetic. When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer? Answer: When I helped my ex-husband to run his publishing business, but I was too busy earning money to do anything other than part time writing at that time. I assumed I’d be too busy till I was retired, but I’m only in my early fifties now, so am ahead of schedule. How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something? Answer: It is only hard if I’m ill, unhappy or very stressed. Most of the time I can’t stop myself. When my writing group sets us an exercise to use 5 random words and a couple of concepts to create a piece of writing, that’s when I enjoy it the most. I love the way that ideas just jump into your fingertips and you get carried away by them. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day? Answer: No. I aim to work every day, and I do, including weekends and holidays. What I do depends on what needs to be done. That’s the difference between being a pure writer and a writer/publisher. Sometimes my publisher jobs have to take precedence. Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you? Answer: I allow short stories to unravel themselves. But I always plan longer works, perhaps not down to every detail, but I do tend to know the approximate outcome. Do you read much and, if so, who are your favorite authors? Answer: I don’t get much chance anything other than author manuscripts at the moment – and in general I certainly can’t read as much as I used to. That’s the reason why I made sure I joined two local reading groups – to ensure I read at least two new books a month. I know it is an embarrassingly small number, but it’s also true to say that this is what happens to everyone when they set up a new business – your work becomes a form of obsession! What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion? Answer: Personally I need to feel like I’ve got a connection with the characters and that they are deeply written. I’d prefer a book in which little occurs, to one in which much occurs of a shallow nature. I want to feel as if I know the world a little better when I’ve finished a book. How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing? Answer: I’ve never had a book signing, and as an avowed introvert, would prefer NEVER to have one, though I know I must very soon. I don’t know how I would feel if nobody turned up. I’d like to think it would be semi-amusing, just like Spinal Tap’s failed personal appearance in an American record shop! But I suspect I’d be devastated. Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read? Answer: Not the first book or novel, as I have always read. But I can remember the first ‘adult’ oriented book I bought. Our local high school had a summer fair and I went there with my young friend. I must have been about nine or ten years old. I purchased a terrible 1970s LP, which I loved, and one of the Pan Book of Horror Stories collections, which I also loved. Both these items made a great impression on me. Short and compelling horror stories and wonderfully camp kitsch music – what a great combination. How much of yourself do you put into your books? Answer: Everything – if you are referring to the amount of effort I put in. And everything – if you are referring to my characterization. Most of my characters have at least a little of me and some, for example, Tanya in ‘Past Present Tense’ are very much me! Who are your books mostly dedicated to? Answer: I haven’t dedicated any books to anyone in particular. Those who know me well will be more than aware that my mum and dad were my biggest and most supportive influences. It’s unspoken that everything I do and will ever do is dedicated to them and their memory. Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family? Answer: I now have a very tiny immediate family, and none of them are particularly interested – they probably are a little envious of all the time I spend at my desk and on my laptop. It does take a lot of time out of my life. Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that? Answer: I genuinely don’t know. Sometimes I think yes, and other times I think it’s just all down to hard work. Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that? Answer: I’m not independently wealthy! I’ve set myself a target that if I don’t ‘make it’ by the end of 2020, then I’ll get myself a ‘proper’ job again and carry on writing part time. Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts? Answer: I’m sure some do. They tend to be the writers who complete their book sentence by sentence perfecting each. I don’t write like that. I get my ideas down and clarify everything as time goes on. Millions of edits later, I’m happy with what I’ve done. Did any of your books get rejected by publishers? Answer: No, I haven’t submitted any to publishers, as I always had the intention of self-publishing via my own company. I may consider a traditional publisher if I can get one, for my current WIP, ‘The Waggon’ – basically, just to see if I can! What is your view on co-authoring books; have you done any? Answer: I haven’t co-authored. I think I work best alone, but I’d be up for offers. Is writing book series more challenging? Answer: I can’t answer this one as I haven’t written a series yet. Potentially, ‘The Waggon’ could be book 1 of a series, and I certainly set it up for a sequel in the final chapter, but we’ll have to wait and see. Ask me in a couple of years when I’m part way through the sequel. Does it get frustrating if you are unable to recall an idea you had in your mind some time earlier? Answer: God, yes. It happens all the time now, given my advancing years. I have paper and pens in every room, but unfortunately most of the best ideas come inconveniently while in the shower or while driving. Have you ever destroyed any of your drafts? Answer: Yes, both intentionally and unintentionally. My first proper novel was written at work during lunch hours. I got to a really solid and decent 80,000 words with my tale about the development of apes to a more intelligent life form. I did so much research, and spent so much time on it, then I lost it ALL when I transferred it between two computers and the systems went down, meaning it got deleted from both, with no tape backup available! This was about 20 years ago and it put me off writing again for just over ten years! I’ve destroyed other work simply because I felt uncomfortable or embarrassed by it. Can you tell us about your current projects? Answer: ‘The Waggon’ is mentioned above. Then there’s going to be a non-fiction book on adolescent Aspergers, and lots more short stories and thoughts that will be made available on my blogs. I keep coming up with other ideas, but domestic life, publishing and other commitments are the biggest priorities. Had any of your literary teachers ever tell you growing up that you were going to become a published writer one day? Answer: My old English teacher believed in me very much. My mum and dad did too. I think everyone else thought I’d grow up to be a hippy or a social worker hahaha. Were your parents reading enthusiasts who gave you a push to be a reader as a kid? Answer: Yes and no. My mum taught me to read before I began school, and I always had an advanced reading age. I naturally loved books and reading, and always had an aptitude for writing too. My dad wrote academic books and I assisted him with this in his later years. But neither of them pushed me into being a reader – it was more of a gentle encouraging nudge. I loved how there was always money in the kitty for education, but not so much for frivolity! Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs? Answer: My partner isn’t really interested in my kind of books, he isn’t a writer and I don’t think he’s keen on even reading my short stories. The same goes for my teenager children – I don’t think they’ve read a single thing I’ve written. This is why my writing groups are so beloved and needed. Thank God for my writing groups – they really are life savers. Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece? Answer: Yes. I have extremely vivid dreams that I tend to remember for a long time afterwards. I also have a few recurring dream patterns that have been incorporated into many written pieces, and other vivid dreams about being underground have made their way into prose. Also, my most regularly recurring dream – of being lost in a city on public transport, has featured quite regularly in my work. Links: Facebook - www.facebook.com/scottmartinproductions and /lesleyathertonauthor Instagram - scottmartin.products or scottmartinproductions Twitter - @ScottMartinPro1
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