Interview: Manda Scott on writing

Manda ScottManda (MC) Scott was a veterinary surgeon and anaesthetist, specialising in neonatal foal intensive care before she turned to writing as a full time profession. Her first novel, Hen’s Teeth was a contemporary thriller and was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her fourth novel, No Good Deed was similarly short-listed for an Edgar Award in the States. Since then she has written primarily historical fiction, starting with the Boudica: Dreaming series which have been translated into nearly 20 languages, and the Rome series of ancient spy novels which explores, amongst other things, the historical basis for Christ. She lives in south Shropshire with her competition dogs and competes in agility whenever she can.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

Reading in my youth was the inspiration. I grew up living in the worlds of Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner, of Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper was the first book I bought with my first ever book token and it’s still one of my favourites.

What attracted you to the genre that you write in?

That’s more or less answered above. I started in contemporary crime because that’s the field where I was able to write effectively without doing the kinds of research that are required for historical writing. However the Boudica series gave me the time and the money to spend the hours in the library, talking to living archaeologists and re-enactors, and to go and spend the nights in a round house: all things I couldn’t have done when I was teaching at Cambridge. So history is my main genre, although I still enjoy the contemporary thrillers: they make for a great change of pace.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

In terms of her writing, Hilary Mantel is streets ahead of almost any other living historical (or literary) author. In terms of sales, I admire J.K. Rowling. In terms of their ability to market themselves and to write for the market, I admire Val McDermid and Ben Kane – both are people I’ve got to know fairly well and both are outstanding role models.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

The ability to throw work away. Which presupposes an instinct for knowing what will work and what won’t and being able to cut the latter until what’s left is the former.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

I’d offer the two most important bits of advice I was given by Fay Weldon when I was a baby writer: Find your voice. Get a good agent. Both are vital. A good agent is your safety and sanity, your protector, help-meet and friend. Of course, finding your voice gives you the authenticity and integrity to write good work.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

The RSI. I recently read of ‘walkstations’ which are apparently the answer to RSI and am trying to figure out how to fit one into my tiny 14th century cottage.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

For good historical writing, look no further than Wolf Hall. If that’s not to your taste, almost anything by Robert Low, Andrew Taylor, or Robert Wilton is amazing. The latter won the HWA/Goldsboro prize for debut historical novel. If you want to read really, really good first novel, read it, or any of the other three on the short list: Mistress of my Fate by Hallie Rubenhold, Partitions by Amit Majmudar, or The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson. If you want to know more about them, I wrote a blog about them here. If you’re interested in historical writing, come along to the HWA (Historical Writer’s Association) forum.

Outside of historical writing, I am particularly fond of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, although both are somewhat of an acquired taste. I’d point anyone towards Robert Wilson for amazing crime thrillers, while Maggie Stiefvater’s new novel, Scorpio Races is one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a very long time. Patrick Ness’s series that starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go is similarly mind-blowingly good. There is a lot of YA writing that is broaching new ground now, and is fascinating.


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Manda Scott fiction (UK)
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Lawrence Block Interview

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block is a best-selling novelist and multi-award winner including the Edgar Grand Master Award, Best Short Story Collection Anthony Award and Best Character Award for Matt Scudder in the 2009 Shamus Awards. In addition to this he has written a number of ‘how to’ books on the craft of writing including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Write For Your Life and The Liar’s Bible.

Many of your novels are set in New York, a city where you have lived most of your life. Can you elaborate on how the changing atmosphere of New York has affected your writing?

LB: I don’t really know that it has. I suppose the books reflect the city, or at least my perception of it, at the time of the writing.

You have won numerous awards for your writing, how highly do you regard them and are they something you aspire to?

LB: Awards are certainly gratifying, but I don’t know that they’re important.  It’s the same book whether or not one gets a little statue for it.

In terms of your books about writing, what inspired you to write the first one? Was there a particularly terrible novel that served as a catalyst?

LB: No, nothing like that. I started writing a column for a magazine, and one thing led to another.

You have had an incredibly prolific career, how have you been able to keep your writing discipline over the years?

LB: I’m lazy. This leads me to do things efficiently and finish them as quickly as possible.

What is your writing routine, do you treat it like a day job and work core hours or do you work to a word limit?

LB: I don’t have a routine. The pattern varies from book to book.

Some authors have books that they really toil over, was there a particular book that you struggled to write or enjoyed writing less than the others?

LB: Not that I can think of.

At the risk of sounding cliché your books are often described as ‘gritty’, what parts of them do you enjoy writing the most and is there anything that you purposefully shy away from?

LB: I’ve never quite understood what “gritty” means, so I won’t address that. I enjoy writing when it’s going well and I’m pleased with what I’m doing; that’s pretty much irrespective of content.

Having produced various books for writers do you ever hear any success stories from people that have read them?

LB: In the past couple of years, Open Road brought out The Liar’s Bible, The Liar’s Companion, and Afterthoughts, all as eRiginals. And I’m frequently heartened when a newly successful writer lets me know that something I wrote played a role. I still hear from people who took my seminar, Write For Your Life, a quarter of a century ago, and am glad the seminar’s now available in book form under that title.

You have written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson, how did writing under a female name change your approach to books such as Getting Off?

LB: I don’t know that it did. A third or more of the book was written, and several of the chapters published as short stories under my own name, before I made the decision to put Jill’s by-line on the book.

You have written huge numbers of novels and short story collections, you also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of My Blueberry Nights, which form of writing do you prefer and how different is your approach to each one?

LB: My Blueberry Nights wasn’t my story, it was Wong Kar-wai’s. I’ve adapted a couple of books of mine for the screen, but they never got filmed. Screenwriting is interesting and demanding, and has its own satisfactions, but I don’t care if I never do any more of it.

Do you think it is important for a writer to have at least some first-hand experience of what they are writing about?

LB: No, of course not. All a writer needs is imagination.

Over the years you have repeatedly said that you try to get things right first time rather than editing later. Does this cause conflicts with your publishers?

LB: No.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, apart from to buy one of your books on writing?

LB: I don’t know that I’d steer anyone toward one of my books. They’ll find their way to them if they’re supposed to. And my advice to any writer would be to write to please yourself. Period.


If you enjoyed our interview with Lawrence Block and want to read more of Lawrence’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Buy Lawrence Block fiction (UK)
Buy Lawrence Block fiction (US)