Self doubt can be creativity’s worst enemy. The rub? Many artists are crippled with it. Some, though, manage to find a thread to hold on to and are able to unravel the obsessions that make them itch. People and places are often the lights shining in the darkness of doubt and Liverpool has the heart to offer both, at times, to its seekers. The latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary chats with a writer who has flipped the switch. By Alan O’Hare.
“Some things melt before they become memories.” Patti Smith said that. Well, she might have, but she definitely wrote it (in her 2017 book ‘Devotion’). Writing is an amazing way of communicating; it can turn liquid into solid and make tangible the thought-dreams of our unconscious mind. Processes, memories, interests and motivations all form part of great writing and its uniqueness as an activity arrives from the fact it can save the author as much as the reader.
“My mum was always reading when I was growing up and I’d pick up anything she’d bought to give it a go,” says Liverpool writer Clare Coombes. The Scouser will release her second novel shortly and is talking about her early memories of reading. “‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was the first book I remember affecting me,” she reveals. “I was young and didn’t know what I was getting myself into… but it was the first time I can recall a book completely immersing me in a new location, culture and dialect.”
Her own writing pulls that trick off with aplomb, too. ‘Definitions’, Coombes’ acclaimed debut novel released in 2015, is a tense thriller set in Liverpool focusing on secrets and someone’s sister: “It’s a ‘psychological thriller’ by genre definition,” she laughs. “But it has so many different sides to it – from defining emotional abuse, to how people cope after loss, and to how these issues affect people’s lives.” She also reveals how it affected one of her reader’s lives, too: “Yeah, one of my readers came to town from Israel and spent a large part of his time here studying people’s eyebrows after reading about the ‘Scouse Brow’ in my book!” Talk about #LiverpoolLessOrdinary! The author, then, is another perfect polymath to chat to about the distance between the dreams and reality of the city that has altered the shape of her work…
Tell me more about ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’…
I think I expected some kind of bird version of ‘Watership Down’! I’m not even sure if I fully understood the issues of rape and racial inequality at the time, and it was also a book without a clear-cut happy ending, but its interesting moral complexity gave me a lot to think about.
I’ll bet! The first books we connect with often shape our creative instincts, don’t they?
I’ve been fascinated by books featuring similar settings and themes ever since. Another favourite, which also has a civil rights theme, is ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd. She’s another writer who describes a place so vividly, you feel like you’ve been there.
I remember sharing ‘… Adrian Mole’ books with my mum as a kid. Were books a big deal in your house?
Definitely. My mum was always reading. She was from Dublin, so I got through a lot of Irish writers: Roddy Doyle, James Joyce, Marian Keyes, Maeve Binchy… I had access to a pretty extensive library. I remember a school friend who loved reading coming to mine one day and saying in wonder: “You’ve got ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ in your house!” Obviously, she meant the paperback and not the actual mandolin…
‘… Adrian Mole’ was another favourite which I read again and again growing up. The political and social commentary was so clever. I was always in awe of Sue Townsend.
Is writing a cathartic process for you?
It can be. Sometimes getting started can be the most stressful part, but I know that after the initial wobble, I’m soon writing away and loving it. There’s something about the process that gets rid of your worries, even if you’re not addressing them directly in your writing.
What were the first things you wrote that were published?
I started out writing non-fiction mental health articles and it’s still a topic I feel passionate about. I know from first-hand experience that reading and writing can help a person through difficult times.
What was the catalyst?
I joined a writing group and got used to reading my work out loud and taking feedback. Then I got a place on the Creative Writing Masters at Liverpool John Moores University and it helped me realise that – just like any other professional – writers need to train and practice. There’s so much background work.
Intellect over instinct, then?
Well, it’s not just about inherent talent… I like to stretch my own reality when I write, going beyond my own world and experiences. That’s the best thing about writing – however difficult the subject is, you feel like you’re learning more about life as you go along. Then you get to pass that information on to other people through your books.
Tell me how your first book, ‘Definitions’, came about…
I entered Writing On The Wall’s (WoW) ‘Pulp Idol’ competition and it helped me get another step further past my fear of reading and sharing my work. WoW also provided me with some excellent feedback and, in the end, I got a publisher out of it!
Now you’ve got an audience for the second book, has that had an impact on your writing?
It has, because people always think what you’re writing is autobiographical. I usually take a subject that is emotionally relevant to me, like the loss of a parent, and build a fictional world around it. I regularly find myself having to make this clear, as some of the subjects I write about are so dark. For the most part, the plots and characters I write are really just an amalgamation of books I’ve read, films I’ve watched, conversations I’ve overhead and articles and research I’ve come across. Alongside the occasional personal experience…
… of course…
… hopefully people will realise this with my new book, as I definitely didn’t live through World War Two!
World War Two? Go on, give us a clue…
In its simplest form, the new book is ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ meets ‘The Book Thief’. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychological impact that certain periods in history had on the young people who lived through them and what society can learn from it. My new novel brings both sides of Nazi Germany together, being written not only from the perspective of those who turned away from it, but also the ones that were forced out; and how small pockets of resistance existed within children and young people, despite the brutality of the world around them.
‘Definitions’ gave me the impression that growing up in Liverpool had an impact on you…
Liverpool is essential to my work and is such a creative influence. I’ve seen the city grow and shape itself into something amazing and I’m proud to come from here. My first book had to include a section of the Liverpool skyline and my new editing business has a liver bird logo… you only have to look at the architecture and the humour to see what I mean. I used all that in my first book.
The place certainly helps fight the tyranny of the blank page!
I also have a two-year-old daughter who bashes the keys for me if I pause for too long… she’s a real tyrant when it comes to blank pages!
‘Definitions’, by Clare Coombes, is out now
Pic courtesy of Liverpool Editing Company