About Alex Pheby
Alex Pheby is a graduate of the Goldsmiths Creative Writing MA and is currently completing a PhD at the School of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Norwich with his wife, son and baby daughter. Grace is his first novel.
For more about the author see www.alexpheby.co.uk
interview with Alex about Grace on the 'Lizzy Siddal' literary blog,
Praise for Alex Pheby
'A world evocative of Grimm and Kafka, and furnished by Freud... Risky first novels are gutsy and Pheby's style conjures Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Carter and A.S. Byatt... This is an accomplished fable of how we are all constantly struggling to escape our histories and reach a state of grace.' Scottish Review of Books
'A lyrical tale that suggests Pheby is an author to keep an eye on.'
Scott Pack, The Friday Project
'There is a compelling surface story but there are counter stories running beneath, which makes Grace a novel that plays with the mind even after finishing it... The descriptive passages are beautiful, characterisation is gloriously strange and whilst the plot is relatively small in its scale, it is not simple. When viewed as a whole the novel has a mesmorizing, unsettling quality that might be considered quite rare in this age of supposed "lowest common denominator" publishing.' Lisa Glass, Vulpes Libris.
An interview with Alex Pheby
When did you first begin writing, and what inspired you to do so? Have any specific books/authors served as inspiration for you?
I’ve always made up stories, from when I was really quite young – six or so. I used to have these characters called ‘the Gigs’ which were like hand puppets, but without the puppets (just my hands really). I used to entertain my younger brother with them when he was growing up. They were always getting into scrapes and having adventures; it was a great training in how narrative works, because the audience was right there and I got immediate feedback as to whether a story was getting across or not and how far I could push things. I’m afraid to say I used to pretend one of them had gone off a cliff and died, or got sucked down the plug-hole, which made my brother cry. I’d try to make him happy too, but I think at that early stage I was a bit better at the drama. I used to love it though, either way – the feeling that I had created something that had an effect on someone. In the end, when he stopped believing in the Gigs, I felt really miserable. I suppose the writing is an attempt to get that feeling back.
Can you tell us something about the inspiration behind Grace? And about what you were trying to achieve; what ideas you were trying to convey?
I’ve always been interested in madness and the flexibility that reality takes on when we are mentally ill. It seems to me that, particularly when living in modern cities, there’s so much flux and anxiety, that sanity itself takes on many of the characteristics of mental illness – paranoia, feelings of being out of control, the constant assailing of the senses with new and unfamiliar experiences, fear – and that the ‘madman’ becomes a metaphorical everyman – out of place and vulnerable. With Grace I wanted the main character to be completely at sea, and to find his footing only for that to be put at risk, and use this as a way of working through what it is we all need in order to make and sustain a life for ourselves. I also wanted to undercut our current understanding of the mentally ill as threatening people, to normalise mental illness a little and show that the line between sanity and insanity is very thin and the side on which you find yourself is as much about accident, history and the sort of support you get as it is about anything you are or do.
As far as the literary side of the book goes, I wanted to balance the way the book can be read as carefully as possible, so that you can go a number of different ways with your understanding of what happens in it. There’s a lot about testing in the story – tests of character in particular – and in some ways I wanted this book to be a character test of the reader. I personally favour one reading over the others, but I think the reading you personally latch on to can be an indication of what type of person you are. I like the reader to be implicated in that way in the things that I write and hope, perhaps, that the book might provoke discussion or even change the way the reader thinks about things as well as telling them a story.
How do you go about creating your voice on the page?
I try not to, to be honest. Each book I write has its own voice and so do the characters in it. I try to remain true to those voices and if I find myself creeping in, I edit me out. A bit of a strange admission in this day and age, I suppose, when the writer is always implored to find their own voice and develop it, but I tend toward a different tradition, one where the aim is to inhabit the voices of other people. I find that is a more realistic ambition anyway – isn’t a writer always occupying other voices when he or she writes characters? All too often this fashionable concentration on the author’s voice tends to produce autobiography, which is fine, but it’s not the only thing that can be done with literature.
On the other hand, I have my own obsessions and a particular eye and they are constant regardless of the material. I suppose, taken together, they aren’t that different from some definitions of voice, but they aren’t something I can consciously manipulate, so whether I can take credit for them or the way they influence a particular piece of work is something I’m not sure of.
How and when do you write?
I try to keep regular hours, as much as possible. 9-5 is good, but if I can’t fit that in with teaching I’ll work after everyone has gone to bed. When I’m writing first drafts I give myself a minimum word limit for the day and if I go under that limit, I add it to the next day’s quota. It’s not usually a problem – my first drafts are always long and rambling and I edit them into shape later. I sit and listen to music (instrumental mainly – Harold Budd is good, or Michael Nyman, or any of the minimalists – Glass or Reich – or occasionally something with an appropriate atmosphere to whatever I’m writing about) and just keep going for as long as I can. The process is largely unconscious and I usually loose track of where I am and occupy a weird place halfway between what I’m thinking and what’s being tapped out on the keyboard. It’s almost, but not quite, like going into a trance.
The editing process is where the real work gets done. I read and re-read the drafts and if something makes me feel uncomfortable I change it until it doesn’t and then, when I’ve got a finished second draft, I start again, refining the story until it contains nothing that I’m not happy with, changing parts of the plot, reworking characters and dialogue, changing the mise-en-scene. Then I let people read it – my wife is a very exacting reader, so if she likes it (and she’s not shy about telling me when she doesn’t) things are generally going well – and revise it again based on the comments I agree with. Other people’s feedback – contrary to accepted wisdom – is essential to the writing process and does nothing to dilute the individuality of the work. Other people can spot problems with a writer’s book, but only the writer of that book knows how to fix them.
When I’ve got a decent third draft together I revise it again, primarily looking at the way it’s written. Then I leave it for a few weeks – the longer the better – and work on something else. Then I come back and read it again. Something happens in the time between when you leave a book alone and when you come back to it – it often turns out not to be the book you thought you wrote. The last few revisions are aimed at pushing the book you did write towards the book you wanted to write.
When that’s all done and I’m happy, the book gets sent out (to my agent, David Smith) and there’s another round of revisions based on what he has to say – hopefully minor.
What do you enjoy reading? What are you reading that you can recommend at the moment?
I’ll read anything – literally anything: I’ve been known to read the list of ingredients on the back of a toothpaste tube for want of anything else. As a child I read a lot of classic literature – Camus, Dostoyevsky, Homer, Gide, Genet – and, while I didn’t understand as much of it as I read, it was still a great education. I can remember reading The Plague in bed while downstairs my parents listened to ‘London Calling.’ Even now I can’t hear/read one without getting the other. When I hit my teens I rebelled and only read pulp – books on serial killers, trash detective novels, science fiction and fantasy. Now I can read either and some of the time I’m not sure which are the classics and which is the pulp – it’s difficult not to like Philip K. Dick but I can’t stomach Jane Austen. My rule of thumb is that if it’s interesting I can overlook bad technique and if it’s written well, I can probably overlook whether it’s interesting or not (although in that case it has to be written really well). Ideally I prefer both, but that kind of book is hard to come by.
At the moment I’m reading as much as I can of Patrick Hamilton’s work – tales of thirties and forties English social alienation, all brilliantly observed and darkly humorous. I’ve just finished Mick Jackson’s The Underground Man, which was very good indeed. I’m looking forward to reading Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tsepeneag and I flick through Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines when I’m short of time. A friend of mine, Lijia Zhang, has just published a memoir of her years working in a Chinese missile factory called Socialism is Great! which is a great read and is doing very well. As for classic recommendations you can’t go far wrong with Kurt Vonnegut and if you are after well written science fiction and fantasy I have to recommend Jack Vance – I read all his books (50+) when I was growing up and I still revisit them now.