Interview: Martyn Bedford

Martyn Bedford is an award winning author for adults and children. His latest short story collection, 'Letters Home' is published by Comma Press. It's a wonderful collection, exploring a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and times. Martyn was kind enough to take some time to discuss the collection, writing for adults vs writing for children, and strong plotting.

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[AB] One of the things that really stands out to me in this collection is how many different viewpoints you are writing from, not just in society, but ages as well. Was that a goal when you began the collection or did it happen organically?

[MB] It was organic. The stories span nearly twenty years of my writing career and were conceived and written as stand-alone pieces, aside from a couple of the most recent ones, which were written specifically for this collection. But one of the things I love about writing is the licence to assume a variety of personas, voices and perspectives – you can see this diversity of viewpoint in my novels as well as my short fiction.  

A lot of these stories feel like they’re examining the absence of something. Sometimes, in the case of some stories it's literally about people searching for something, or trying to get a glimpse of it. In others it's more abstract, and the absence is never directly addressed. What draws you too examine these moments?

I’m interested in the tension between life as it is (or seems to be) and as we might wish it to be, between what we have and we don’t or can’t have, or what we’ve lost. The boy whose mother has disappeared, the asylum seeker separated from his wife and son, the widower facing another lonely Christmas dinner, the sole survivor of triplets . . . each of these characters is trying to reconcile what is present in their lives with what’s absent from it. I’m exploring the notion that these empty spaces in our existence don’t signify something missing, as such, but are as much a part of who we are as the silences between the notes are integral to a piece of music.

Is there anything else that you feel unites the collection?

Following on from my previous answer, a related theme which recurs in Letters Home is the idea of characters finding, or seeking, a sense of their own identity through (sometimes unhealthy) attachment to others. For example, the man fixated on catching a glimpse of the Beckhams, the maternalistic sleep-clinic technician obsessed with a permanently dormant young patient, the out-of-work actor who assumes the guise of a suicidal artist. For these people – as for many of us – it is difficult to form a proper sense of “self” in isolation from those around us. This is central to the human condition, it seems to me, and I return to it again and again in my fiction, not just in this collection.

There are several pieces in here written from the perspective of a child that I found very convincing. What's something that you try and focus on when writing from the perspective of a younger person?

With all of my characters – young or old, male or female – I focus on the particular character, first and foremost, rather than adopting a generic approach to the portrayal of their viewpoint: “What is this child’s perspective?”, not “What is a child’s perspective?” Voice comes from the specifics of character and circumstance; if it doesn’t, then you risk veering into stereotype. Beyond that, with younger characters, I try to tap into my memories of being a child, or teenager, or observations of my daughters and their friends when they were growing up, or the many young people I’ve met as a YA author visiting schools to run workshops or give talks and readings.

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You've said elsewhere that when you were a journalist you enjoyed features writing. I'm fascinated by feature writing, and the overlaps longform journalism has with fiction writing. Would you say that the feature work helped with your fiction?

My time in journalism – news reporting, features writing, sub-editing – helped to develop my fiction-writing in a number of ways. For one thing, it taught me the discipline of sitting at my desk and getting the words down – you can’t cite writer’s block when a deadline is looming and the news or features editor is barking at you for copy! Journalism, especially sub-editing, also taught me the art of concision – don’t use ten words where six will do – and clarity of expression. As for features writing, what I loved about that was the extra space that a longer form of journalism gives you, relative to news reporting, along with the fact that features are much less formulaic than news pieces. You have scope to tell a story in your own way, to shape a narrative, to develop the “characters” of the people you are writing about, and to explore themes and ideas . . . all of which has an obvious correlation with fiction-writing, albeit in a factual or documentary context.

You write for both adults and children. How separate do you feel the two disciplines are? How often do you find the lessons you learn writing one translates over to the other?

They don’t feel particularly separate, to me. Whether I’m writing for adults or teenagers, the process is pretty much the same: trying to tell the story in the best way you can, and to bring the characters and their voices alive on the page. At the keyboard, in the throes of writing, I’m very seldom conscious of writing “for” children or “for” adults, I’m just writing.

You've talked about the importance of narrative drive when writing for children. Do you try and bring that with you with your writing for adults, or are you looking to explore something different?

My adult fiction has always been strongly plotted – in the novels more so than in the short stories – but depth of characterization and extrapolation of theme are equally central to my work, whether I’m writing YA or for an older readership. I am aware, though, of the balance between action and reflection being calibrated a little more towards action in my fiction for younger readers. I wouldn’t say I’m looking to explore different things so much as exploring similar things in slightly different ways. So, no, my YA fiction hasn’t influenced my adult fiction-writing as such. It has influenced my reading, though – often, when I read a “literary” novel for adults, I catch myself thinking: “Oh for crying out loud, just get on with the story!”

How have you found the return to writing adult fiction. Do you think you'll be doing anything longer for an adult audience?

It hasn’t really been a “return”. I’ve been writing short stories for adults throughout my career as an author; even though it’s 12 years since my most recent adult novel was published, several of the stories in Letters Home were produced alongside, or in the breaks between, the YA novels I’ve written since then. As for another novel for adults, I don’t have one on the horizon at the moment. I’m in the last-draft stages of a new YA novel, with another idea in the same category waiting in the wings.

Does your interest in moving through different perspectives apply to forms of writing as well? Are you happiest when you've got a variety of projects to work on?

No, I’m very much a one idea, one project, at a time person. Having said that, the nature of being a published writer is that you receive requests and commissions for other forms of writing: book reviews, journalistic features, self-reflective articles . . . not to mention questionnaires for blogs, podcasts and websites! I do like turning my hand to those forms from time to time as a break-out from writing fiction.

I really enjoyed your foray into speculative fiction in this collection. Is that something you think you'll be exploring more in the future?

Thank you. The Sayer of the Sooth was great fun to write and I especially enjoyed exploring for my research into the possible futures that might await us. As it happens, my last novel for adults – The Island of Lost Souls (Bloomsbury, 2006) – was set in an imagined, dystopian near-future, so I have “previous” in this area. I haven’t gone down the speculative route with my YA novels, as yet – not least because I feel it’s already a saturated and over-exploited genre – and I don’t have any plans at the moment for another foray into speculative fiction. But who can tell what the future might have in store?!

Many thanks to Martyn for taking the time to speak with Papertrail.