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Interview with Charlotte Rogan about writing tips

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I´m very proud to present this exclusive interview with Charlotte Rogan about writing.

And I´m really happy that she liked my questions…

In fact, these are the best questions about writing that I have been asked yet.

Charlotte Rogan is the author of The Lifeboat.

It is the summer of 1914 and Europe is on the brink of war, but Grace Winter’s future finally seems secure as she and her new husband set sail for New York, where she hopes to win over a disapproving and status-conscious mother-in-law. When a mysterious explosion sinks their ship, Grace is thrust into a lifeboat by a quick-witted crew member, who climbs in after her even though the boat is already filled beyond capacity.

The Lifeboat is highly appreciated among readers and critics, as just one example, listen to what JM Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, says about her novel:

Charlotte Rogan uses a deceptively simple narrative of shipwreck and survival to explore our all-too-human capacity for self-deception.

Christian Wåhlander – Författartipsbloggen: Now, as you´ve written a highly appreciated book, do you feel that “I´ve said what I wanted to say to the world”, or was this just the beginning? (feel no pressure…)

Charlotte Rogan: Good question! I imagine there are writers who have an overwhelming message for the world, get it out, and then retire. I do not write with any sort of message or agenda in mind. Instead, I start with a character in a situation, and use the evolving story to explore something about human nature and also something about the world. I don’t expect my work to provide answers or to make a final statement, but if it makes people think, I will consider it a success.

Why do you think you wrote The lifeboat?

I think my first impulse is artistic: can I create a finished piece where the story is compelling, the characters complex, and the language interesting, while also conveying some kind of deeper meaning? Of course there are other motivations, too. Through my writing, I am trying to get at essential questions: what is the nature of human society? What do we owe to ourselves and what do we owe to each other?

What techniques did you use to organize all your ideas for The lifeboat?

I am not an organized writer. The character(s) appear in my imagination, and then I start to write the story down. Much is wasted as I feel my way toward the central story. But your question is a good one, and over the years I have figured out a few techniques to keep myself organized and my story on track. Here are some of them:

  • I use a three-ring notebook for the hard copy of the manuscript, with each chapter in a separate tab.
  • I use folders on my computer for notes that haven’t yet been included in the manuscript. I also put old versions of the manuscript into a separate folder so that I won’t mistakenly work on the wrong version.
  • While I do not outline my story in advance, I do use an outline to keep track of my material. Once I have a lot of pages written, the outline is useful for making sure the chapters are in a logical order and also for planning the end. (I never know where my story is going to end up until I have most of it completed.)

Click on the cover to buy the book!

What was your greatest challenge writing The lifeboat?

The lifeboat makes use of ambiguity: Did this happen or that? Is Grace a perpetrator or a victim? This comes about in part because she is writing the story down as part of her defense against criminal charges, so of course she is not going to come right out and tell the truth about everything she did in the lifeboat. It also stems from her character—she knows how to play a situation to her advantage. So I think my biggest challenge was deciding what to tell and what to leave to the reader’s imagination.

What do you think is the most important ”writers skill” when it comes to create a novel worth reading?

I think there are several important skills, but probably the most important is fully imagining the central character. The character doesn’t have to be likable, but he or she does have to be fascinating and his or her motivations have to make sense.

When in a novel project: do you write every day / how many hours a day / how many pages a day?

It depends what stage of the novel I am at and also what else is going on in my life at the same time. I try to start work first thing in the morning—after feeding my dog and making myself a cup of tea. Then I work for as long as I can. I can spend more hours editing, for instance, than I can writing a first draft. And if I am ever at loss for ideas, I can always do research or read the work of a master. My advice for other writers, though, is to work every day if at all possible. That way, the ideas will be gestating in your mind even when you are not sitting at your desk.

Did you ever make a decision to ”become a writer” way back when?

I don’t remember deciding to become a writer, as that seemed out of my reach. But I did decide to write a novel, which seemed smaller, somehow. I guess along the way, I did become a writer, which kind of astonished me.

When writing a novel – what in your work makes you inspired?

The feeling that I have gotten a character or even a sentence right. And toward the end, when the pieces start to come together into a whole—that is very thrilling to me.

What is the most boring part about writing a novel?

I guess the second-to-last draft is the most boring. You want so badly for it to be finished, but you force yourself to go through it one more time just to be sure there isn’t anything that can be better—and there always is. Of course, inevitably, your editor or trusted reader will point out things that still aren’t working, and you will have to go back at it again.

Do you need a certain “writing environment” when writing – and if so, what does it look like?

I try not to need a certain writing environment, as I worry that that will stop me from writing when I can’t have it. While I mostly work at a big table in my dining room, I find a change of scene can be very inspiring. I know writers who like to work in cafés, and for some reason, I always seem to get good ideas when I am on a train.

When you´re reading a novel – what makes you continue reading?

When I am browsing in a bookstore, I will read a few paragraphs from the middle of a novel, and if I like the language, I will buy it. A compelling story is a plus, and the characters have to be interesting. I do not like pages and pages of description or background. I do not care what the characters look like or what they are wearing.

What makes a novel worth reading, in your eyes?

It has to surprise me in some way. I do not read just for the story—there has to be something else. If there isn’t, I will put it down. I am too old to finish every book I start.

I guess you read books now and then… could you tell me about two authors you really like – and why you like them?

I am currently reading My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I love the way he can make the most mundane details of daily life compelling. Not a lot happens in the book, yet I am drawn into the writer’s world. I recently discovered Herta Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in 2009. The Appointment is brilliant for how it portrays the recurring sense of peril in daily Romanian life.

The best novel you´ve ever read – and the worst one!

I do not bother with bad books. Besides, often a reader’s judgment is merely a matter of taste. As for the best—there are so many it is hard for me to choose one. I have put a lot of my favorites on my website, so perhaps you can look at my book shelf.

If a young (or an old one…) aspiring writer asked you ”what is needed to create my first novel?”, say three things you would tell this young (or old…) aspiring writer.

  • Immerse yourself in books by authors who have written the kind of book you would like to write.
  • Only share your work with people who can help you with your vision, rather than imposing theirs.
  • Remember that ALL first drafts are bad. Don’t let that stop you. Keep revising, and little by little, you will make it better.

In your opinion… What is the meaning of life?

I think there are a lot of little meanings rather than one big one, and they are probably different for all of us. I think living well is the process of finding (or conferring) meaning on your life. It doesn’t matter if this ends up being an illusion—it is the best we can do.

Here comes another tricky one: is it something else you would have liked to be asked? In that case what? And in that case, please also answer your own question…

You have done a wonderful job with your questions. In fact, these are the best questions about writing that I have been asked yet.

Thank you, Charlotte, for sharing your great knowledge about writing!

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