An Interview with Rebecca Strong

16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong, author of Here or There

Rebecca Strong, author of Here or There

What is your first novel, Here or There, about, and most importantly, what does it mean to you?
Here or There is set around the lives of several characters trying to find the right path in life and deal with the consequences of their decisions.  It is an exploration of something we all struggle with sometimes; the biggest challenge we face is not the quest for happiness, but the quest for that which will keep us happy.  It’s about appreciating what you have before it’s too late, whilst battling the human instinct to search for more.  As humans, we are always searching for validation and greater fulfilment in life – this can be a good thing, or a very destructive thing.

How did the novel originate?  Did you send it to various publishers, an agent?
It originated at a moment I can’t pinpoint, somewhere in the back of my mind between a short story I wrote ages ago and the intangible belief that I might, one day, be able to write a novel.

I first got to know Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press, in 2005 when he wrote an article for the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, which I was editing at the time. Having dabbled in writing in the past, I showed Tom some of the short stories I’d written, and received some positive feedback.  After I expressed an interest in writing a novel, Tom and I devised the challenge for me to write one within a year, and agreed on deadlines.  Not only did this motivate me to write Here or There, but I also received invaluable feedback from Tom along the way.  It was an intense process, given that I also had a full-time job, but I knew it was a worthwhile challenge, and I was thrilled when he eventually confirmed he’d like to publish it in 2007.

Who do you think the novel will most appeal to and why?
I am hoping the novel will appeal to a wide range of people, because the issues it addresses affect us all.  Here or There is for anyone who has made a choice in life and wondered if it’s the right one, or anyone who sometimes questions the person they’ve become.

Why should people read it, when there is so much to read out there, and so much of is free at the point of access?
It’s a personal decision people will make; I read free newspapers, blogs, extracts, articles and reviews, but none of them give me as much pleasure as buying and reading a good book.  I wanted to write a novel that everyone could relate to in some way, no matter who they are.  Here or There deals with emotions common to all of us, so I think it will have a wide appeal.  I wanted to drop my voice and take up those of my characters; just as in any fiction we enjoy – TV, film, literature etc – the characters should come alive for both writer and reader, albeit temporarily.  Ultimately, I hope it’s a good book with a plot everyone will enjoy, and I believe there’s something unique about it.

Are there any areas in your life or personal experiences which you have drawn on in writing Here or There?
A lot of the questions in the book are ones I’ve asked myself, and the stage I’m at in life definitely influenced the ideas in the novel.  When you’re in your twenties (though no doubt at other ages too), having perhaps finished a large part of your formal education, you begin to make serious decisions that will shape the rest of your life.  Of course these things may later change, but any decision you make will influence who you become; I wanted to write a novel that people could relate to in this way.

How does it feel to be a novelist?  Do you feel changed by the experience?
It feels great to be a novelist, but it also feels like the start of a learning curve.  I have always enjoyed literature and dabbled in writing, but now I know it’s definitely something I want to do more of in the future.  When I think back to being little and writing random stories on my DOS computer just for fun, it now feels like maybe there was a purpose to all that.  So I don’t feel changed as such, but it does feel like a lot has clicked into place.

What influenced the novel most?  A person?  A writer? A movement? A book?
I can’t say it was influenced by one thing or person, but I’m sure all the literature I have read and enjoyed in the past has subconsciously influenced how I write now.  I know what I enjoy in a book, and bear that in mind when I’m writing.  I wrote Here or There from the perspective of different characters because I really wanted to challenge myself and not just write from my own point of view.  To a certain extent, you can only write from the foundation of your own knowledge, but I believe you should always push your imagination when you write.  Several people have asked me if any of the characters in the book are based on real people, and I’ve said no – personally, I would have felt lazy as a fiction writer if I had done that.  I didn’t want Here or There to be hugely influenced by anything else, because I wanted it to be original; it’s a bit like a new musician releasing a cover of an old song as their first single – it’s disappointing because you don’t know who they are as an artist.

The structure, of eleven seemingly unconnected characters whose lives get more and more interlinked throughout the book must have been hard to get right – what made you want to do it this way?
The concept was one I had right from the start – perhaps the only part of the novel I had planned out when I began writing.  I love the mystery it creates, and the challenge of writing from different perspectives, some of them so different to my own.  I don’t like to have a rigid plan when writing; I’d rather focus on the characters and see where they take me.  I also wanted to break conventional stereotypes about age and reason: that teenagers are foolish, that mothers always put their children first, and that those in positions of responsibility are generally wise.  We can make mistakes when we’re young or old and, similarly, we can make good decisions at any age.

How did you first get into writing?
I have always loved words, language and literature.  I wrote many poems from a young age and some short stories.  This was my first attempt at writing a novel, and it was as satisfying to prove to myself that I could do it as it is to have it published.

What advice would you give other first-time writers?
There are no set rules when it comes to writing; you need to find a method that works best for you and embrace it.  Set yourself realistic targets and always keep your reader in mind.

What’s the worst thing about writing?
Not having enough time to write, or having the time and wasting it.

And the best?
Seeing your characters develop as if you were documenting their lives rather than controlling them.

What inspires you to write?
Little observances made throughout the day that spark my imagination.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?  Do you have another book in you?  What do you think that writers “can” achieve, if anything?
I think there are three levels of achievement for a writer: the first is the writing itself (as in, even if your work is not published it’s still an achievement to write a novel), the second is your writing being published, and the third is other people enjoying your writing.  I’ve achieved the first two, but the third remains to be seen – it’s the most nerve-wracking part.  How you grade your own achievement probably depends on which stage is most important to you – the writing, having it published, or other people liking it.  For me, all three are important, but I imagine that the more you have published, the more impetus becomes placed on the third stage, which is understandable.  It’s a bit like the “tree falling in the forest” question: if you write a brilliant work and hide it away without anyone ever reading it, is it still a brilliant work?  Is it the reading of the work that validates it?  Or is the unread work worthy in itself?

Who is your favourite contemporary author?  Are they worse or better than authors in the past?
I can’t name one author, because I like to read a variety, but there are definitely writers I admire – Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, and Bret Easton Ellis being examples.  I used to read a lot of Stephen King as a teenager – he’s often dismissed as popular fiction, but the thing I admire about all these writers, King included, is the way they develop their characters and relationships, and the intense psychology of their writing.  I suppose I’ve fallen into the voyeuristic trap set by our society; although many of the classics are timeless, perhaps they don’t appeal to me as much because I can’t relate as easily to the characters.  I do prefer to read contemporary fiction, but I can’t claim that the writing is better now than in the past, because it changes with the times.  Attention spans are diminishing in all areas of life, and readers want instant gratification.  Great works continue to be created, and that’s what keeps literature alive.

Is the novel a dying format?
I don’t believe so, no.  Short stories and novellas are becoming popular again because people are so pressed for time, but I can’t see novels fading away.

Who is your least favourite contemporary writer? Why?
I’m not a big fan of chick-lit, though it has its own merit and can be very entertaining.  I can’t name one particular writer though – I’d never want to completely rule out reading someone’s work, because I might learn something from it.

Does your authorial personality differ from Rebecca Strong the person?  Did you invent an idealised author for the reader to adopt?
I don’t think I’m a different person as a writer, but I definitely feel more exposed.  Even when you are writing complete fiction, you are injecting part of yourself into the novel.  Those who know me well won’t be surprised, but perhaps those who don’t know me so well will now see a different side of me as an author.  I can only be myself – I don’t think the ‘idealised’ author exists – and I would rather focus on the appeal of my writing than on myself as an author.

Sell the book, in five words
Here or There – you choose.

THE REAL AMERICAN PSYCHO

16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong meets the man himself.

When I heard that Bret Easton Ellis was giving a rare reading and interview on 10 October at the Royal Festival Hall, I phoned up immediately for tickets. I was curious to discover what he was like in real life, given his often violent and drug-fuelled writing. The woman I spoke to on the phone promptly informed me that she would also be going, and that she couldn’t wait to see what he was like either. ‘I think he owes all women an explanation,’ she said.

On the night, the atmosphere in the Queen Elizabeth Hall is hushed and the lights are dimmed, with spotlights focusing on the two white chairs in the centre of the stage, and a microphone to one side. Bret Easton Ellis enters stage left accompanied by the critic, John Walsh, who is interviewing him, and immediately his standard publicity shot appears on a looming screen. Bret (we’re on first name terms now) is dressed in a smart suit and looks somewhat unaffected as he takes his seat. John Walsh begins with flattery, claiming that all the books up for this year’s Booker Prize are old-fashioned and that Bret’s writing is refreshing in comparison. They are primarily here, of course, in light of the impending publication of Bret’s latest novel, Lunar Park. John Walsh introduces the semi-auto-biographical work that takes the reader through his struggles as a writer, onto a fictional marriage and parenthood, and out through its main premise - a nightmarish ghost story where a Patrick Bateman doppelganger is committing copycat murders, at which point The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse comes to my mind.

Bret sits patiently through the introduction, his hand nonchalantly on his chin, sometimes staring into the distance. My first impression is that he’s bored, he’s going to be obnoxious, he’s heard it all before, and he doesn’t want to be here at all. But soon the introduction is over, and Bret slopes to the microphone to read an extract. The audience’s silence is pierced by a clear American accent, which soon picks up speed and snowballs into the idiosyncratic monologue so familiar to Bret-lovers. Ten minutes later he is still reading, and it barely seems like he has taken a breath, word after word, list after list. The extract is funny, engaging, and fairly self-depreciating (though the line between the protagonist and himself is somewhat blurred). ‘I could never be as honest about myself in a piece of non-fiction as I could in one of my novels,’ Bret later declares.

It is clear that Bret has a lot to say about modern, suburban society in America. The extract lists all the things he finds wrong with it: ‘terrorism, Starbucks, Walmart, subway bombs, dead bodies, bullet-proof vests on sale, the military everywhere … even the children are prescribed stimulants, ADHD medicine, antidepressants …’. Later on he tells us that, although much of his writing seems far-fetched, a lot of it is based on reality. In his latest novel, the children attend a ‘rehearsal’ party, where many children go to interact and be observed, and only those who interact best are invited to the ‘real’ party two weeks later; the audience is incredulous, but Bret swears that rehearsal parties do indeed exist. He also thinks that over-medication of children in the US is terrible, though ‘I’m not going to get all “Tom Cruise” about it,’ he says, maintaining his sense of humour throughout.

He resumes his seat next to the eager John Walsh, who asks him why he indulges in such elaborate fantasy. ‘Because it’s fun,’ says Bret, ‘why does it matter?’ He says that he hates it when writers complain, because he can’t imagine anyone writing unless they truly enjoyed it.

Indeed reality and fantasy are clearly blurred for Bret himself. He claims that he loves the ‘celebrity’ world (‘I got to meet Jackie Collins!’ he says, with a cheeky grin) and says that to an extent ‘the public image is the real Bret’.

Bret’s own childhood - or rather the need to escape from it - seems to be the inspiration behind Lunar Park. He briefly mentions his ‘alcoholic, abusive father’ who he says he has since forgiven, but of whom he was terrified as a child. He has exorcised those demons, he says, but he won’t elaborate. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, in a frightening family home similar to that in his latest novel. He thought that everyone’s father was as abusive as his own, and when he realised this wasn’t the case, he suddenly had a lot more sympathy for himself and his two sisters. It becomes evident that he has a lot of sympathy with children, and whilst the protagonist in Lunar Park is the one that most resembles Bret, he himself admits that he ‘possibly has more affiliation with Robby’, the protagonist’s son. He was afraid a lot as a child and there were happy times, but he used to read a lot in order to transport himself from his fear into another world. When asked about the writers he admires, Bret says that he loved Stephen King horror stories, especially Salem’s Lot, as a child, as well as novels of international espionage, such as those by Robert Ludlum. He also thinks that every writer is influenced by film, but says that he does not think of his writing in cinematic terms, as they are novels rather than screenplays. His favourite film adaptation of his work is Roger Avery’s The Rules of Attraction, which he says is visually stunning and accurately captured his sensibility. His favourite book is Seminal Education by Gustave Flaubert, although he has recently re-read The Great Gatsby for the fifth time and finally ‘got it’.

He also started writing at a young age as an escape, and accepts that his father may be responsible for him becoming a writer. When he was old enough, he ran away to art school in Vermont - as far away from LA as possible - but his father refused to pay the tuition fees. His father was suing his grandfather at the time, so when Bret approached his grandfather for the tuition money, he gladly paid - ‘that’s how the Ellis men work,’ concedes Bret. At university he began to write about the drug-fuelled exploits of fellow students - without changing their names, in hindsight a ‘big mistake’. He wrote his first novel, Less Than Zero high on crystal meth - apparently the only book he has ever written on drugs - and it took him eight weeks to produce a 4,000-word manuscript that then took two years to re-write! He says that his sisters liked Lunar Park but not any of his other novels, and that his mother liked the latest novel too, but found the others ‘difficult’ - somewhat understandable given their content.

And then he comes to American Psycho, his most famous, and perhaps most controversial, novel that I think many people in the audience are curious about. He says that he was shocked when it wasn’t the ‘conservatives’ that protested against it, but the ‘left’ - those he describes as ‘my people’. His apt words are, ‘the New York Times went on a killing spree’ and journalists gained notoriety by criticising the book. ‘I always believed there’d be a time when people got it,’ says Bret. Clearly there must have been - despite opposition, the book was a huge success. In carrying out research for the book, he met and hung out with ‘Wall Street guys’ that never talked about their business, but instead talked constantly about status - the best restaurants, their suits and how ‘hot’ their girlfriends were. The protagonist of American Psycho was originally meant to be one of these guys, but one evening, listening to them drone on and unable to take any more, Bret had the sudden inspiration to make him a serial killer. The rage in American Psycho stemmed from leaving university, he says, and ‘discovering that society sucks and that you have to conform to its rules’. He claims to have had a realisation that society places value on all the wrong things.

By now, the audience is eating out of his hand, and clearly welcomes the reading of another extract from Lunar Park. This extract is more personal, clearly relating to his father, more descriptive. After opening up in this way, when he sits back down to take audience questions there is a shift, and he seems to close up again, becoming evasive. He cracks jokes to distract the audience: ‘why is everyone in the back row wearing blue?’ he asks, ‘is that a school uniform?’ ‘Paranoia, paranoia,’ tuts John Walsh in response, and everyone laughs. He avoids discussing why Lunar Park might end on a more positive note than his other books, and virtually humiliates the girl that asks him to explain the ‘central themes in American Psycho’.

When asked about his attitude to drugs, he says that he never wrote about drugs or addicts, but about people that take them casually, and he also writes from his own experience.

Bret is asked about his connection to Donna Tartt, and whether the classicists in The Rules of Attraction are based on the ones in her book, The Secret History, and admits that it’s true. They were once set up on a blind date and decided to exchange first chapters before meeting. They remained firm friends and she subsequently dedicated her book to him, as he was the one person who had been in on the project from the beginning.

The questions are soon wrapped up, and the majority rushes to join the queue to get a book signed. The queue is more than two hours long, but clearly worth the wait. Bret looks at his fans with curiosity, chats to those who ask him questions, and writes ‘Best Wish’ in all the books. He clearly favours the young ladies to the gentlemen, is charming but cheeky, and continues patiently to sign each copy presented. When it’s my turn, I tell him my name, and he chirps ‘I know that name!’ before proceeding to write ‘Becca’ at the top of the page. ‘No, it’s REbecca,’ I say politely, and he sheepishly corrects it; I shall treasure the inscription ‘To ReBecca, Best Wish, Bret Easton Ellis’ for a very long time.

I don’t think we did get the answers to all the questions, but I think Bret Easton Ellis provided a lot of explanations to questions we hadn’t thought to ask. He has shifted in my mind from perpetrator (as creator of Patrick Bateman) to empathiser (as victim of troubled childhood) and not the promoter of meaningless violence that I supposed him to be. It could be that he has found a great literary formula - gratuitous sex, drugs, violence and satire - but I think Lunar Park will shed new light on the real Bret Easton Ellis, even if it is just the public persona he chooses to display.

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, November 2005

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