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Chris Paling
The ending of Newton's Swing is enigmatic. Do you feel you've given the reader enough pointers or were you deliberately leaving the ending open and, if so, why?
I hope I've given the readers enough pointers although this is the question I'm asked most often about this book ie "Who did it?" or, just as usually, "should I know who did it - I have my own ideas, but am I right?" I think this is what I intended. I wanted people to use what they'd learned about the characters to come to their own conclusions. I've always been a fan of murder procedural novels - particularly American ones - but I'm always frustrated by the end. It's always a disappointment when you learn who did it. Leaving it open keeps the mystery alive after you put the book down. I wrote the book knowing who had done it from the start, but I'm happy for anybody to come to their own conclusion about it. And no, I never tell whether they're right or not. All responses are valid.
The portrayal of loss and its consequences are very convincing in Newton's Swing. Is it based on your own experience or research or do you rely on empathetic imagination?
I think all of these are interrelated. Empathetic imagination is rooted to some extent on your own experience. When people begin to write they're always advised to "write what you know". This is always interpreted as meaning that if you work in a bank, you should write about a bank clerk. What is more valid and useful, is to write about what you know emotionally. You don't have to have killed somebody to write about a murderer, but everybody has experienced huge rage. It's simply a matter of looking at your emotions and taking them further.
The central character in Newton's Swing is an Englishman in an American setting. would you tell us a bit about this idea?
Nearly 20 years ago my wife and I went to New York and Boston for three weeks. She was pregnant with our first child, and the trip really stayed with me. Travel often influences my writing and since that time I had wanted to write a book set in America. The big problem for a British writer, though, is to write convincing setting and dialogue. I made John Wayne an Englishman to get around the dialogue problem. Because it was written in the first person and he was reporting everything through his own voice, it made it easier to find the voices of the Americans around him. Whether or not they are convincing I expect you'd have to ask an American about it. Though I was hugely flattered when one reader contacted me assuming I was an American.
How much do you live the lives of your characters, and how closely do you identify with them?
In terms of identifying with them, if the characters are at all sympathetic then yes, you must identify with them. After all, you can spend 2 or 3 years living with them in your head. They have to become real to you - and you can feel a huge sense of loss when you say goodbye to them at the end of a book
What writers do you read and and what are your major influences?
When I'm writing I tend not to read. It clutters your mind. I grew up reading American writers: James Jones, James Mitchener, John Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, Hemingway, Raymond Carver. My mother read widely and passed on her tastes to me. I think this gave me a strong taste for narrative. I find I need to want to turn the page. Raymond Carver remains, to me, an object lesson in how to draw characters very precisely with very few words. He was a genius. In terms of living writers, I rate Shena Mackay very highly, and Anne Tyler, and I'm very keen on Andrey Kurkov, a Russian who wrote a beautiful and funny book called "Death and The Penguin" a couple of years ago. But I think one of the few recent books destined to become a classic is Austerlitz by W G Sebald. Reading it is like living a dream.
We are looking forward to your new book, The Repentant Morning, coming out in February. Please can you tell us a bit about it.
The Repentant Morning is a labour of love. I've never spent so long writing a novel and this one took almost three years. It's set in the second half of 1936 and in part concerns a group of fairly dissolute drinkers, drinking their lives away in various Soho pubs. There's Arthur Lawler, a lovesick drunk, Harry Bowden, a rich Mosleyite owner of a car business on Great Portland Street, and his acolyte, Billy Royle. All three of them are in love with a woman called Meredith Kerr, who lives off Bowden's money and is considered an actress (although she has never actually appeared on stage). Into the pub one late afternoon walks Kit Renton, an old schoolfriend of Arthur and Billy's. Meredith is immediately captivated by him. Not just by his looks but because he actually believes in something. He's just about to leave London for Spain where he will fight for the Anarchists against Franco's rebel forces. The novel then splits between London and Spain as we follow Kit on his long dangerous journey, and Meredith as she sets out after him. But we never stray too far from Arthur and Billy and Harry Bowden , and the endless afternoons in Soho drinking haunts.
You said you already had the title of your next novel. Where do you get the inspiration for your novels and where do you start - with a story, the characters, an image or an idea?
It's always different. Newton's Swing started with a picture in my mind of a small Boston town by the sea, and a man standing on a sand dune looking out at the waves. The Repentant Morning arrived unexpectedly one afternoon. I sat down and very quickly wrote the fifteen pages which begin the book. It was a strange experience, almost as if I was transcribing the situation. I could see all of the characters in the pub and I just wrote down what I saw. Characters usually arrive through their speech patterns rather than their physical shape. They start out rather sketchily, but when you write them down on the page and make them talk to each other they slowly emerge through the fog towards you. If they stay in the fog, you wave them goodbye.
Chris Paling

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