Relationships between publishers and authors can be both turbulent and fruitful. In this extended guest post, student Sarah Wray interviews author Wendy Perriam and discovers a writer who values her publishers more than most.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Wendy Perriam as part of the primary research for my MA Creative Economy and Publishing dissertation (entitled Author-Publisher Relationships: How Should Publishers Oversee Author Creativity?). I was able to get in touch with her after she gave a talk for the Working With Authors module in the spring. Given that Wendy gave me so much of her time and openly shared a lot of great information with me, this blog post about our interview is the least I can do to show my gratitude.
Perriam, first of all, is surprisingly different from the stereotypical author about whom I have been reading. My literature review is filled with sources that touch on the frequent discord between authors and publishers, mainly due to anecdotes of authors with inflated egos and a publishing industry that ‘just isn’t what it used to be’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean). While some of these stereotypes surely exist for a reason, Perriam described her relationships with her publishers – current and past – as being both good and gratifying. She explained how grateful she is to simply have a publisher, and how almost all the publishers she has worked with are gifted people and good at their jobs.
On the author-publisher relationship
Her viewpoint on the author-publisher relationship has parallels to that of two partners in a marriage, where each has to put in an equal amount of work, while trying to understand the other’s point of view:
‘People’s expectations of marriage today are, in my opinion, too high. The young expect not just a partner but a soul-mate, a fantastic lover, a devoted friend, someone equally involved in the childcare and willing to go out shopping with them. Surely this is too much to expect from just one individual. And perhaps there’s a similar problem when it comes to what we expect of publishers—to receive a lot of attention, VIP treatment and a huge advance, without realizing that publishing is a business and you are only one of many other authors, all of whom have claims on your publisher’s time.’
Perriam is willing to accept the give-and-take nature of working with publishers because she simply loves to write. When asked when she first felt she was a writer, she said she started writing stories and verses at the age of five.
‘I was a great reader, so my main interests were reading and writing, and those seemed natural pursuits. I wasn’t very sporty, I was interested in books – reading other people’s and writing my own stories. I used to go to the public library almost every day and saw it as a treasure trove.’
Like most who are creative, Perriam has been influenced by her childhood, which she described as a strict upbringing in suburban Surrey, followed by years at a convent boarding school. This eventually led to a struggle between two opposing ways of being. The model favoured at home and at school was to be a quiet, well-mannered, obedient little girl, but her natural temperament was wild, headstrong and rebellious, with a strong romantic streak. Writing provided a way of fulfilling fantasies and enacting roles beyond the safely suburban, and it has remained a valuable outlet for expressing different sides of her personality and for creating characters who may share her own struggle between duty/conformity/obedience, on the one hand, and wildness/wantonness/rebellion on the other.
Perriam was later expelled from her school, and she told me how the loss of her once strong religious faith plunged her into a deep depression, which, for many years, prevented her from writing. However, since her return to the craft and her first published work at age 40, Perriam has continued to write and publish her work and now has a portfolio of 16 published novels and 7 collections of short stories. She is currently working on a new novel about three generations of women, which she hopes will be published in 2013.
On writing rituals
Perriam stresses the importance of rituals for the writer:
‘Rituals are a way of telling the unconscious mind that you now intend to write. It may be a certain time of the day when you always sit down at your computer – or with pen and paper on a corner of the kitchen table – or a special mug for your coffee that signifies “this coffee in this special mug will spark some fruitful writing”; or perhaps a picture of a famous writer you pin above your desk as a source of inspiration, or a photo of someone important in your life who supports your creativity.’
This emphasis on rituals stems back to her Catholic upbringing, in which formalities and ceremonies punctuated daily life. Perriam’s own personal rituals include writing in red notebooks (the only novel of hers she ever discarded was written in a green notebook!) and a Peter Rabbit coffee mug.
On writer’s block
She also has strong views about writer’s block, urging her creative writing students not to use the phrase, not even to believe in it, because that way it may take hold and become a reality. Instead, Perriam insists that writers should allow themselves to write badly, at least in the early stages:
‘Getting something down on the page, however crude or imperfect, is a very important stage, since it provides a canvas to build upon. Those first, imperfect outpourings can be changed, improved and modified, whereas aiming for perfection first time round will often result in paralysis. If necessary, writers should give themselves permission to write a really bad sentence. That relieves the pressure on us to write a really good one and, once we relax, we’re far more likely to write something rather than nothing.’
Writer’s block can also arise from the use of a computer rather than pen and paper:
‘The trouble with computers is that they produce straight, neat, “finished” type, and this can be off-putting in itself. Whereas if you write by hand in a deliberately messy scrawl, it seems to free the unconscious and lead to greater creativity. If you saw my notebooks, you’d be horrified by how messy they are – things crossed out, the writing itself sometimes almost illegible. You need to tune into that unrestrained, anarchic part of you that doesn’t care about neat margins or correct spelling or keeping within the lines and, that way, you can free yourself to write with more facility, as well as with more truth and depth.’
I myself can back this up. I tried writing Perriam’s way. I used a notebook and pen, turned off the computer and just went for it. While I cannot take much pride in what I wrote, it was the first time I have written anything at all – as opposed to dejectedly staring at a blank computer screen – in years. I finally gave shape to a plot that has been swirling through my mind, and I have been slowly working on the piece ever since.
I think perhaps the best thing about talking with Perriam was her openness and honesty. She devoted an hour and a half to our interview; she answered my questions in full without feeling the need to skimp on any details. Her humility stood out as well. Perriam was not like the writers discussed in the literature about the publishing field; she has a realistic expectation of what publishers can and should do for her. Most of all – something I find very refreshing in today’s world in which so many seem to feel entitled to fame and fortune – Perriam considers herself lucky to be published and writes mainly from her sheer love of the craft.
Written by Sarah Wray in partnership with Wendy Perriam.