Are we nearly there yet? Ben Hatch is in the driver's seat...
An interview with Ben Hatch, author of 'THE LAWNMOWER CELEBRITY', 'THE INTERNATIONAL GOOSEBERRY' and 'ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET? A FAMILY'S 8,000 MILES AROUND BRITAIN IN A VAUXHALL ASTRA'. Here he talks to Pencils and What-not about the art of writing a memoir...
Q. Is there a vital ingredient that a memoir needs in order for readers to buy a ticket, hop on the bus and follow you anywhere?
You have to engage readers in exactly the same way in a memoir, I think, that you must do in a novel. A memoir is basically a novel that’s true but with a few more sentences that start, “Another thing that thing that my Mum and Dad did wrong was …” It also helps if there’s a progression, some character growth – so that the protagonist is a slightly different person at the end than they were at the start. A degree of emotional honesty also helps. And some jokes about bats. A strong narrative, character growth, emotional honesty and lots of jokes about bats.
Q. It’s been said that writers are the ‘custodians of memory’. To what extent is writing a diary or a memoir or an account, a way of carving one’s existence or view of the world into the rock-face of life?
I think politicians writing memoirs probably do attempt to impress their view of events on to the wider world. There’s some self-justification involved too probably with respect to the difficult, sometimes compromising decisions, they’ve had to take. I’m not sure though what my own memoir will have carved indelibly onto the rock-face of the world – maybe, “try not to take your kids for a nature wee in a field of live ordnance.” Or “don’t lose the key to the roof-box containing your son’s nappy changing stuff.”
Q. During the writing process how easily can a fun idea - a whimsy - turn into an urgent mission that must be completed, perfectly, at all costs? And how can the pressures to be accurate - to not offend; to include everything; to do justice to the past; to portray the people and places that feature, truthfully; to finish the project - be hushed so that your own voice can be heard?
That’s a very long question and I am replying to this at 7.30am so will go now and eat an egg so I am capable of understanding it. OK, I had my egg and soldiers and now I’m ready Here’s what I think. I think a fun idea progresses quite slowly into becoming an urgent mission. I tend to have lots of ideas that fall by the wayside. Plus I’m always weary when I think I’ve had a great idea. Quite often the great idea proves a red herring; although by pursuing it you’re frequently led towards another great idea that itself is a false dawn, but which again propels you towards what seems like another great idea. It’s by way of these small failed attempts to realise great ideas that a novel eventually emerges retaining a small element of each of the failed great ideas. In terms of accuracy balanced against the need not to offend, that’s a tricky one. It was easier for me as I wasn’t writing a memoir that points the finger and accuses people of major crimes. I do have a pop at a café in the lake district for not heating up some baby milk, but I’m not exactly accusing people of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction or clubbing seals to death. I think my rule of thumb is if I know it will offend someone I care about then I will try and find a different way to convey the same truth. If, however, it’s merely a place we’ve been to, a city say, or someone I just bumped into on a train, I don’t feel quite so protective.
Q. What one word of advice would you give to a writer who has a personal story they are burning to tell?
Writing a personal story can be hugely cathartic whether it’s published or not. It’s effectively a form of therapy. By revisiting painful memories time and time again as you write and rewrite scenes you’re desensitising yourself to them. You’re also learning more about yourself. That can only be a good thing unless you’ve been a ruthless dictator for the last decade responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people in which case it’s probably going to make you feel guilty and a bit worse. Tyrants shouldn’t, as a rule, write memoirs. And they don’t. Basically writing about your past is the equivalent of unloading to a very good friend or talking to a shrink. In fact it’s better than either because it’s cheaper and nobody’s going to say, “God, you’re boring me now.” If anyone has a burning story to tell I’d say, “Go for it. Get it down.” There are a few caveats though. You have to be careful because there will always be others who were part, in their own way, of the same story you’re telling, who’ll naturally have seen it all from a different perspective. It’s very easy to offend someone in print. And whereas people forget and easily forgive a verbal insult, one in print can hang around poisoning relationships for a long time. My wife, who I once accused of not knowing where Italy is in a book, is nodding over my shoulder.
Thanks for the interview. And by the way I’m on twitter @BenHatch
Are we nearly there yet? by Ben Hatch is available from Amazon. Check this link to read rave reviews and to order your copy: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Are-
COVER ART © Ben Hatch