7 Jul 2017

Author Interview / Charlie Laidlaw

 With elements of The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Lovely Bones, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead shows how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, and how sometimes we can get a second chance.

On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions. It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… Or does God have a higher purpose after all?

At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decision to make and that maybe she needs to find a way home.


If you could work with any other author, who would it be and why?
I’m not sure that I’d want to do that, or vice versa. I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson, and she lives quite close by…but I’m sure she’s happy writing away on her own. Likewise, Joanne Harris, who has never written anything less than brilliant in her life. Maybe, however, I’d like to work with an author(s) who has talent, but who hasn’t had a publishing break. I honestly believe that the best books ever written are mouldering at the bottom of landfill sites or circulating the world as incinerated particles of carbon because their writers gave up hope.

What would be a typical working day for you? When and where do you write?
A typical working day would be doing very little or writing a huge amount. I’ve learned never to write unless I know what I’m writing, and how and why it’ll fit into the overall narrative structure. I’ve wasted too many days and too many sheets of paper writing stuff that has ended up in the bin. I’m now much more focused.

As to where, I write in an office-study although, as much of writing is about thinking, the book I’m working on is never really out of my head. My characters tell me what to write, and are never slow in telling me when I’ve got things wrong.

What is the hardest part of the writing for you?
I think it’s to fully understand the characters you’re writing about, otherwise you’re describing people who are, at best, two-dimensional. The best books are populated by people who are real, and who the reader can relate to. That’s why good literature is timeless, because human beings haven’t changed much. It’s why the likes of Shakespeare remain relevant; human nature is still what it’s always been, with all its glories and imperfections. The trick is to make those people and their complex motivations real, and to make the reader believe in them.

When and why did you first start writing?
I wrote my first “novel” aged about fifteen, and burned it shortly afterwards. The idea of a Fourth Reich having a secret base in the Norfolk Broads seemed absurd, even to me. My second was written when I was about seventeen, and I still have that. Nobody will ever get to read it. My third was completed a year later, by which time I had learned to type. It will also never, ever see the light of day.

As to why, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I can write, and am pretty useless at everything else. I certainly have a compulsion to write, although I have no agenda. I have no ideas or political that I want to talk about. Maybe also, I believe that if you’re good at something, you have (almost) a duty to pursue it. After all, where would the world be if Michelangelo had thought, “sod the Sistine Chapel, I’m off to the pub.”

How did you come up with the idea for your book?
For no absolutely no idea at all, the first inkling came on a train from Edinburgh to London. It was an apt place to have that beginning because, being a civilised place, Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have named its main railway station after a book.

Part of the inspiration was a quote that I’d always liked from the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who wrote that “our life is what our thoughts make it.” But I’d always thought that life is what happens to you – all things good or bad: the people you meet, the things you do.

But, from a different perspective, everything about life is also about memory. We can’t do our jobs if we can’t remember how to do them; we can’t love people if we’ve forgotten who they are. It is our thoughts that shape us.

It’s the only train journey I’ve ever been on where I’d hoped for signal failure, or for spontaneous industrial action. I could have sat on that train for another five hours. When I got home, I wrote the first chapter and the last chapter. The first chapter has changed out of all recognition, but the last chapter is still pretty much the same.

Are you a big reader? If so, what are you reading now?
You can’t write if you don’t read. Equally, you don’t deserve to be a writer if you don’t love reading. At the moment I’m rereading A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. There are some books that inspire me to write, and that’s one of them.

Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?
If you think you’re good enough, persevere. If you’re not sure whether you’re good enough, join a book group, or take professional advice, or have friends you trust to read and critique your book. The fact is that publishers aren’t interested in finding the new literary genius; they simply want to publish books that sell and, therefore, make money.

And always remember the wise words of Somerset Maugham who said that there are three rules to writing a book, except that nobody knows what they are. In other words, keep reading, keep writing…and eventually stumble on those three rules.

F: @charlielaidlaswauthor