This morning I’m talking to Paula Harmon about writing habits, Nanny Ogg, and her latest novel, The Cluttering Discombobulator (published by Createspace).
Tell us a little about your writing to date, Paula.
I have always written but never showed any of it to anyone outside the family till 2015. That year I was encouraged by a friend to enter a local short story competition and much to my surprise, I was shortlisted. Another friend led me to Facebook writing groups and I started to share little bits of flash fiction. It was as if a dam had been breached and all the creativity which I’d been hiding for years came flooding out. A year later, I published two collections of short stories: Kindling and The Advent Calendar.
You have said that memories of your father provided inspiration for The Cluttering Discombobulator – how much of you is a part of your protagonist, Laura?
A great deal. The book started because I’d written some silly stories about my father’s imaginary adventures as an eccentric pensioner which my mother loved but which I couldn’t really turn into a book in its own right. I decided to combine them with other pieces of memoir writing which I had. The Laura who is sitting at her father’s bedside is 100% me. All of that is completely true and was mostly written shortly after I was doing the same thing. The Laura who is a little girl in the 70s is broadly me. The memories are based on things which mostly happened although not necessarily at the time I’ve said they did or all together. I think I was probably a lot odder and out of sync in reality. I enjoyed making Laura’s little sister Jane even naughtier than my real little sister was. The too-serious grown up Laura who disapproves of her pensioner father’s adventures and needs to lighten up is what Dad would accuse me of being when I’d found out he’d done something particularly bonkers (like getting out of his wheelchair to lie on the pavement, inches from the kerb, to take pictures of passing traffic).
Is there a difference in the way you approach the writing of a short story compared to the construction of a novel?
Structuring a long work is quite different to structuring a short story. I usually know the whole of a short story before I write it down, I just need to find the words. I have three novels in edits and although none of them were plotted in detail, I did have an outline for all three to keep me on track. With The Cluttering Discombobulator because it links memoir, fantasy and short prose, I needed to create a structure so that the individual elements made sense and had a narrative thread. I thought of the top aspects of my father’s personality which made him unique and used that as the structure round which everything else fitted. In order to create a beginning, middle and end for the younger Laura and her family, I chose a pivotal eighteen months when they moved to Wales from England and how she comes to terms with that.
Personal writing choice: pen or keyboard?
Keyboard. After years of using a computer for work, my handwriting is now illegible even to me and I can type faster!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be one. I lived inside my head a lot as a child and it was the only way I could share it.
What is the best part of being an author?
When someone tells me that what I’ve written made them connect with the story or the character, that it made them laugh or cry (in the right places), it’s wonderful to know that you’ve managed to convey what you wanted to. When someone says ‘this isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually read but I couldn’t put it down,’ that’s wonderful.
And the worst? Too many ideas fighting for pole position and not enough time to write everything down. Also editing novels. It’s hideous when you have to do it when you can fit it in.
Who are your writing heroes?
That’s really hard. I love Louis de Bernieres for the way he can make people come alive and thread a narrative in complex situations and with multiple points of view. I love Joanne Harris’s use of magic. I love Bill Bryson’s ability to make ordinary life or little bits of research fascinating, sometimes thought provoking and sometimes funny.
If you had to be stranded on a desert island with three fictional characters, who would you choose, and why?
Nanny Ogg from the Discworld books would at least keep things cheery. I can imagine she’d have wine brewing in no time and sing ‘The Hedgehog song’ so loudly we’d get rescued in no time. I’d like Miss Marple to be there so that I could find out who she is behind the polite conversation. When she has to walk barefoot, maybe she’d talk about her lost loves as I’m sure she had more than one. If all else failed, she could knit some hammocks. when she hasn’t got any knitting and has to walk barefoot. And maybe Snufkin, who was one of my first literary heroes. I’m sure he’d be really exasperated being surrounded by women and would slope off to the other side of the island for a quick smoke, but at least he’d be good at survival skills if Nanny Ogg’s magic ran out or she was asleep.
I am editing a novel which is a thriller set in post-war Dorset. It’s taking longer than I’d expected because I wrote it a while ago and have learned a lot of writing skills since, so there is still a lot of work to do. The other two novels, which are waiting patiently to be edited are completely different. One is set in the Highlands and has a supernatural element but it’s not really in the supernatural genre. I started it intending to write a novella with a sister observing her brother’s complicated love affair but it ended up about the sister herself and her need to find healing and friendship. The third is something I wrote during Nanowrimo this year and is a humorous murder-mystery. I’m planning for one of these to be out in Autumn 2018.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Paula.
Paula Harmon was born in north London but her life in the country began at eighteen months when her family moved first to Bedfordshire and then westwards from small town to village until arriving in South Wales when she was eight. She graduated from Chichester University with a degree in English Literature before settling to Gloucestershire and then, when her children were small, moving to Blandford Forum, where she has lived for twelve years. She is married with two teenage children and works full-time for HM Courts and Tribunals Service, writing when she can find time. Her job involves a fair amount of travel and trains consequently turn up in a lot of her writing. She is constantly battling to keep on top of things at home, but on the other hand, writing and reading are more interesting than housework. Her stories can be serious or thought-provoking or humorous, the latter often tracing the battles between an inadequate home-maker and a laundry fairy. She took up writing seriously in 2015 and since then has published three books, all of which include elements set in the West Country and is working on a thriller set in Dorset.