Pat Barker: To Be a Writer You Must Resist the Urge to Clean
The Author of The Silence of the Girls on the Books in Her Life
Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is now available.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Keep your bum glued to the chair. It’s extraordinary how, if a piece of writing is going badly—and sometimes even when it’s going well—other activities become steadily more attractive. Not just getting up to make endless cups of coffee either—even cleaning out the cupboard under the sink seems suddenly a fun thing to do. Resist! You’ve got to turn up, on time, at the blank page or screen, and then just stay there. That way, if the Muse does decide to pay you a visit, at least she’ll know where to find you.
What was the first book you fell in love with?
Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery: This is the middle volume of a trilogy about a young orphan, Emily Starr, who is sent to say with her Great Aunt Elizabeth. Emily wants to be a writer. I discovered her at the age of 11 or 12 when I’d decided I wanted to write and I fell in love with the book because it made writing as a career seem possible. We can only really imagine ourselves doing what we have seen people like us do, so Emily Starr and her struggles became enormously important to me.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Sometimes—rarely—it happens that a character cuts the umbilical cord that binds it to its creator and wanders out into the world alone. Frankenstein, the brilliant, obsessed scientist creating a force that turns on him and destroys everything he loves has now appeared in countless other books, films and plays always symbolizing the deep unease we feel about the extent of our own power. How did a 19-year-old girl grieving for the loss of her baby manage to achieve that?
How do you tackle writer’s block?
I don’t believe in using the term. Everybody in any line of work has bad days when nothing goes right and they are expected to work through them, I don’t see why it should be different for writers. If the words keep drying up on a particular project it may be the wrong project for you or perhaps you’re trying to write it before it’s ready to be written. Take a break, do something else, let it settle in your mind—then try again.
Which book do you return to again and again?
The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists edited by Irene and Alan Taylor
I love the diary form. I love the way each individual incident is lovingly brought to life for its own sake with no need to place it in an overarching narrative, except of course the rambling disorganized story of the diarist’s own life. There are famous names in here—Woolf, Pepys, Dorothy Wordsworth—but many others are totally unknown. Five or six entries from different diaries occur under ever date, so that the diarists’ voices seem to mingle across the centuries. A remarkable book.