Claire Askew has kindly answered some of my question about being an author and her novel ‘All the Hidden Truths’ !
I hope you all enjoy and I greatly appreciate the time Claire took to answer these questions.
Claire Askew is the author of the poetry collection This changes things(Bloodaxe, 2016), which was shortlisted for an Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Saltire First Book Award, among others. She is also a novelist, and her debut novel All The Hidden Truths won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress. The novel was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2018, and was a Times Crime Book of the Month. Claire’s second novel, What You Pay For, will be published in August 2019. Claire currently works as Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh.
1. What made you want to become a poet/author?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little girl. My dad was a big part of that: he’s worked in Communications for most of his career, and as a child I didn’t really know what that was, but I knew that he wrote as part of his job. “I think knowing that meant I never internalised the message “writing isn’t a real job,” and thus managed to side-step a lot of the self doubt that new writers experience.” I was always writing: limericks, little stories, journal entries, whatever. I took a small break around the age of about seven, when I got into reading animal stories and decided I wanted to be a vet. Then I learned that vets have to put animals to sleep, and felt rather tricked!
2. Why did you decide to move from poetry to a novel?
Simply because the idea for All The Hidden Truths wouldn’t leave me alone. I’ve always been strangely fascinated by mass shootings, ever since the Dunblane Massacre, which happened when I was ten and had a profound effect on schools and communities across Scotland, including mine. More recently, as school shootings have become depressingly common in our news cycle, I’ve heard people say “this is an American problem,” or “thank goodness it doesn’t happen here.” But to the people of Scotland, it’s important to remember that it has happened here. I kept thinking: someone needs to write a book about this topic from a Scottish perspective. What I wanted was for someone to write that book so that I could read it. I didn’t think I had the attention span for anything longer than a poem. But then no one did write it, and the idea kept bothering at me every time there was another news item about a school shooting. In the end I started writing just to try and shut my brain up.
3. Why did you choose to write your novel in the crime/thriller genre?
I didn’t realise I was writing a crime novel until quite late on in the process. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be able to keep going (that attention span thing), or get finished, or redraft, or any of that. I wrote in secret for quite a long time. Then All The Hidden Truths won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, and a lot of people heard about it, all of a sudden. It was a relief: I was able to say to them, so, I’m writing this thing and I’ve only ever been a poet, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I began to get a handle on what it was I was working on — a literary/crime crossover novel — only when those early readers started to come on board. I’m eternally grateful to those people for helping me untangle the knot that my manuscript was back in 2016!
4. Were you particularly influenced by any other authors or novels?
Louise Welsh really inspires me: she’s written in so many genres, and every single one subverts the tropes and expectations of that genre beautifully. The Cutting Room is a masterful book. Then there’s Jennifer Egan, whose books — especially A Visit from the Goon Squad — make my jaw drop. Egan’s prose is absolutely phenomenal and she inspires me to write the best sentences I possibly can. Lastly, Margaret Atwood has been a teacher of mine for a long time. Her book Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer On Writing is the best book on writing that exists, in my opinion. I must have read it dozens of times.
5. What sort of process and research did you have to complete when writing ‘All the Hidden Truths’?
I did a lot of reading, and am deeply indebted to the following books and their authors. A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold — the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine gunmen — gave me insight into the most unimaginable and horrendous experiences, and allowed me to write Moira. Another Day In The Death of America, by Gary Younge, is one of the few non-fiction books in existence that has attemped to get to the bottom of the whys of youth gun culture, and although it’s USA-focussed, it contains messages for all of us, I think. And for the police procedural research, I’m endlessly grateful that Michael O’Byrne has written The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure. I was also very, very lucky to be able to work with a former policewoman to ensure I didn’t mess anything up when it came to writing DI Birch.
6. Why did you choose to tell this story through three different viewpoints?
Initially, I had intended to tell it through lots more, and indeed the book’s first draft had about nine POV characters. I wanted the book’s structure to reflect the mess and cacophony of the immediate aftermath of an event like a mass shooting, but I discovered quite quickly that the content couldn’t be a slave to the form. It was too emotive, and I had to pursue that emotional core rather than trying to write something experimental and weird. That meant I had to write about the two mothers, Ishbel and Moira: arguably the two people most deeply and painfully affected by the tragedy the book describes. But one of the central questions of the book is’what the hell can we do about something like this?’, and I couldn’t answer that question without showing the ways in which our institutions respond to tragedy, or at least try to. DI Birch, who’s tasked with ‘solving’ this unsolvable case, represents the ways in which the institutions of law and justice so often feel useless. Birch herself feels useless, restricted by procedure and red tape. For me, these three women provided the most interesting lenses through which to view the themes of this novel.
7. The topic for this book is very relevant and topical at the moment, why did you choose to write about this difficult event and did it make it more difficult that it is something that people experience?
It was difficult to research, difficult to write, and it has been difficult to talk about at times, too. However, I think it’s important that we have hard conversations around the topic of mass shootings involving young people. I think the ‘problem’ of youth violence is too often spoken about lazily: the conversations lean towards generalisation and sometimes-deliberate misunderstanding. Young people the world over turn to violence for reasons that are complex, structural and which intersect with many other pressing issues: poverty, inequality of opportunity, gender, race, education, and many more. I strongly believe that we don’t talk enough about the influence of toxic masculinity on young men, for example. My hope has always been that this book will challenge people to think about the reasons behind youth violence — especially where it has a gendered element — with increased nuance.
8. Do you plan on writing any more novels?
I’ve already written the follow-up to All The Hidden Truths, in which DI Birch takes on a brand new case. The book is called What You Pay For, and it’ll be published in August 2019 by Hodder and Stoughton. Without spoilering either book, readers of All The Hidden Truths will know that thirteen years ago, DI Birch’s little brother Charlie went missing without a trace. In What You Pay For he reappears, but he’s in big, big trouble.
9. Do you have a favourite book, poem or author?
Ah, the impossible question! I’ve named a few of my favourite novelists already, but I must add Agatha Christie to that list, too! Poetry was my first love, and if I sat and listed all my favourite poets I’d be here forever. However, I was knocked sideways by the news that Mary Oliver recently passed away. She’s been another of my life’s teachers and she’s a poet I believe everyone ought to seek out and read.
10. Do you have any advice for an aspiring poet or writer?
Lots! But the main thing is: believe in what you’re writing, believe that you’re the best person to write it, and believe that it deserves to be read. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff is hard to do. But I meet so many writers who end up totally stuck in the muck of self doubt, and it ends up killing their writing projects. Until you get yourself some readers, or an agent, or an editor, you’re going to be the only person who’ll champion your work. You’ll be the only person there to say ‘hey, I made this thing and you ought to read it.’ Like I say, it’s hard. But the good thing about this sort of belief is it self-replicates, so if you can create just a little spark of it, or even fake it to begin with, it will grow if you nurture it. I’m not telling you to believe that your work is perfect and you’re a genius: rather than you believe it deserves to find readers, and you’re willing to do whatever work is needed to get it out into the world. You can do it, but you won’t be able to if you don’t believe that.
Many Thanks, Caitlin x
(PS please feel free to comment!)