Bookcase Focus: An interview with Gary Raymond

Bookcase Focus: An interview with Gary Raymond

Wales Literature Exchange interviewed our Bookcase author Gary Raymond, about his writing and influences.


What first inspired you to be an author and where do your ideas come from?

I have written since I was a toddler – my own made up newspaper stories about dastardly criminals and unsolvable mysteries. My father bought an electric typewriter when I was about 8 or 9, to do his tax returns and invocies, and I used to use up all his ink ribbons creating little sci-fi/horror stories complete with illustrations. I think City of the Dog People was one. Maybe not a pool of ideas to return to. But I do feel that I was born with a need to express something through storytelling, and as soon as I knew what a novel was, then my journey to becoming a novelist began.

I’m not necessarily your typical writer, in the sense I was born and brought up on a council estate in Newport in south Wales, but was exposed to classic literature, music and cinema by my grandfather from a very young age. So, yes, I read Roald Dahl and watched Disney movies, but also at about age 6 I was introduced to Arthur Conan Doyle, to Edgar Allan Poe, and to classic American cinema – Westerns, war movies, to John Wayne and Jimmy Cagney, to Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day. Looking back now, I was being inundated with the craft of storytelling way before I could even do long division.

As for my ideas, they come from long drawn-out thought processes that can take years to come to fruition. I have to be attracted to a central notion, something that presents itself to me as a mystery that I feel a need to explore. So with my first novel, For Those Who Come After, it was a mixture of the Bloomsbury Set, and the Spanish Civil War, and the book brings those two things together in a sense. In my latest novel, The Golden Orphans, it was my personal experience of life on Cyprus. But also, as an experiment, I wanted to see if I could put into action what I learned from the writers I had been studying at the time, writers like Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith. So, the idea was to set a classic-style twentieth century thriller on Cyprus.

So, I’d say my ideas come from a meeting-point of a subject that presents itself to me and I feel deeply interested in exploring, almost on an unconcious level, and my interests in trying things out in my writing. The Golden Orphans is a literary thriller, because I wanted to give that a go.

How would you describe your writing?

My latest book is being touted as a literary thriller, and I’m happy with that. But it was also picked as one of the top new crime novels in The Spectator. So these things are just marketing labels to a certain extent. I am interested in ideas, so I always feel like I am writing about ideas. But I now also want to entertain, so my compulsion is to write exciting, pacy books, that are about ideas. Greene did this so well, particularly in The Power and the Glory, a novel about faith and betrayal and human frailty, all wrapped up in the dirt and dust of a chase narrative. I think of that book when I’m trying to develop a story.

Stylistically, my influences are broad and I think they all come out in my work. I believe writing should be attractive to read, but that doesn’t mean florid – concision and functionality can be beautiful when it serves the greater purpose. So I try to serve the story as best I can.

The Golden Orphans is first and foremost a fast-paced thriller, but its’ been really nice to see reviews complimenting the prose, and unpicking the ideas in there.

Which authors have influenced you the most?

For The Golden Orphans, as I mentioned above, certainly Greene and Highsmith. I have gone through periods of looking at certain writers to learn about certain elements of craft. And by that I mean quite specific things. I have picked apart the ball in Anna Karenina when Anna meets Vronsky for the first time. It is a masterclass in writing a busy room. Likewise, if you want to know how to write many characters interracting, how to get dialogue and subtext and body language all working together, the opening of The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch is invaluable. I spent a bit of time obsessing over sentence structure with Roberto Bolańo, particularlay that 5 page sentence early on in the English translation of 2666.

But everything comes back to Saul Bellow, really. When I am low or lethargic, I can just take my copy of Humboldt’s Gift or Mr Sammlers’ Planet down off the shelf, read a short passage and it acts as fuel.
But I am influenced in some way by every writer I read. I am loving Gillian Flynn at the moment – I love how she manages to make quite absurd set ups seem utterly necessary as a reader. I love that she has that relationship with reality and with the expectations of the real world. I’m liking Virginie Despentes. I’ve found Hoeullebecq an utterly brillaint, if problematic, writer in the last few years or so.

In your opinion what are the biggest challenges that writers face today – and do you think these challenges have changed since you started writing?

There are challenges to every profession, although perhaps the economic challenges of writing can be pretty intense. I make a living writing now, but not from writing novels. I write a lot of non-fiction, I’m an editor, and I am also a broadcaster where I get to essentially speak about the things I would othersie be writing down. I think it’s important to remember that making a pile of money out of writing was a rather special time, and brief, in the history of literature. Capitalism, and the big heavy publishing machinery, has meant that age is pretty much over. It won’t change unless the big players see a need to change the structures and get writers more money, and I don’t see any reason why they’d do that. A select few writers now can make real money, but mostly writers cannot live on writing alone. So that of course is a big challenge, and, personally, I think writers need to be extremely creative in finding ways to overcome that.

But away from money, there are challenges to be met in the industry. The gatekeepers dictate largely what people can read now. There is a pretence that reading trends are like weather, and nobody has any control and we must all cut our ideas to be formatted to the current climate. But it’s not weather, and agents and publishers create these trends. As writers, we can’t do anything about that. So we have to find ways in. That doesn’t mean selling out, but it means pragmatism, and the answer is in finding a way to say what you want to say in a way that feels authentic to you as a writer, and also will fit into the understanding of the gatekeepers. I think some literary novelists are way too precious about this stuff.

What I have discovered with The Golden Orphans is that figuring that out how to meet these challenges can be hugely rewarding artistically, rewarding critically, and a lot of fun to write. So these challenges, artistic and financial, need not be remedied with drudgery. Creative solutions will make you a better writer, not a worse one.

What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?

The hardest part of writing novels is working so slowly in an age of such informational speed. Writing a novel is a slow process, and publishing it is even slower. And all the while you see the world spinning on uncontrallably at a frightening pace.

The easiest part – and I think most writers hit this point – is the line-for-line writing. Sitting down and writing a scene is no longer difficult, as such. Creating a novel can still be excruciating, of course. There may be a hell of a lot of difficulty in getting to that point, but at some point you find the physical act of writing is as easy as talking, or running, or eating.

I think of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s advice in Living To Tell The Tale, that if you absolutely one hundred percent do not need to be a writer, then do something else. But I think that if you do need to be a writer, then come out fighting, take the hard times and find a way to write through them, gorge on the life, on the person you are, and try at every juncture to enjoy what you have been set up to do.

Which writer from Wales would you recommend to readers and why?

There are so many brilliant writers coming out of Wales at the moment. Christopher Meredith is an obvious and well-known choice. Tristan Hughes’ last book was wonderful. Joao Morais has his first collection of stories out and they’re very powerful. Deborah Kay Davies continues to grow as a novelist. Natalie Ann Holborow is a young poet with a great deal of potential, I’d say. But I think if I was to recommend a novelist who I think ticks the boxes I look to be ticked when reading a novel – intellectual ambition, absolute control of the prose and narrative, a dedication to craft – it would be David Llewelyn. His new novel, A Simple Scale, is an impressive thing, and is exciting, world-building, and very bloody clever.

The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond was selected to our 2018 Bookcase, our annual selection of recent Welsh literary works which we recommend for translation, and Angels of Cairo is selected to our 2021–22 Bookcase.

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