Thanet Writers Question Laura Powell

Author, journalist and editor Laura Powell answers the Thanet Writers Discourse Questions.

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I’m Laura Powell, Features Editor (Magazines) at The Telegraph, host of the My Life in Books podcast and author of The Unforgotten.


I began writing fiction when I was growing up in Cardiff, soon after my local library shut down for refurbishment. A very small porta-cabin library was installed temporarily to replace it and I’d visit weekly, taking out armfuls of books at a time—so many that I soon ran out of books I fancied in the teen/young adult section and so turned to adult fiction, years before I should have. I came across a series of true crime books about death row inmates, covering their grisly crimes but also looking at life on the Row, and I became obsessed with the injustice of capital punishment. I felt so strongly that I wrote a rambling short story, told from the perspective of a young man on death row, with what I thought was a corker of a twist. In reality it was a very bad story and it was hopelessly heavy-handed, but I was so incensed about the fact that the death penalty still existed that I sent the story to a local literary magazine and the editor must have taken pity on me as he kindly published it. I was so excited that afterwards I wrote anything I could—I signed up for a local short story mentoring scheme and I entered every short story competition I could find. I never won—my submissions were all hopeless. But it was good training.


The thing that influences my writing most is stories—or specifically, well told stories. As for novelists who influence my writing, I love reading anything by Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters and more recently Sally Rooney—her prose is perfect.


I like to write fiction—stories about people and plots nothing to do with me—but I do it in order to get my head around subjects that are deeply personal to me, to make sense of them, and then to move on. This might be loss, unrequited love, change in circumstances, whatever. It’s absolutely not therapy, and I hope that personal impetus isn’t clear to others in the finished story. But it needs to be there—buried secretly within the story—to give the book some heart, I think. And to drive me on to actually finish writing it.


I’m a sporadic writer. I don’t follow the rule of writing a little each day—for me, it’s more feast and famine. I have days when all I can think about is the book and the characters and the particular turn of sentences, and wherever I am, whoever I’m with, my head is with the characters. On those days, any other activity is an annoyance, an imposition (I’m a terrible, barely-present friend and relative), and I often find myself writing on my phone for my whole commute not even noticing where I’m walking. Sometimes I have no idea how I got from home to work, as my head has been completely in the GoogleDoc I’m working from on my phone. It’s a wonder I don’t get run over. Then, after work, I can’t wait to escape and write all night, until I fall asleep, face on laptop. But then there are weeks when I don’t look at the manuscript, often if I’m busy in work or have lots of plans with friends and family, and I only start writing again when I’m craving to get back to it. That’s probably not a sensible routine.


I love stories in books—I have about 500 books at home in two giant bookcases—but it’s the stories in films and television dramas that often really stick with me. Nocturnal Animals, the film directed by Tom Ford, is a story within a story within a story, and this stuck with me for ages. There has also been a run of brilliant television dramas recently, often adapted from books—things like Killing Eve (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote it, is a genius) and Sharp Objects (starring Amy Adams)—both with great stories.


Time is the biggest challenge. Like most writers, I have a day job. I’ve also recently launched a new podcast, My Life in Books; I chair events at literary festivals in my free hours, which eats into writing time. And then there is the attempt to hold down some sort of social life, travel as much as I can, do hobbies and exercise of some sort. So when you’ve no book deadline, no publishing contract that says you must write and submit a draft of your next novel by X date, it’s easy to let the fiction writing drop to the bottom of the to-do list. Even when you do free up some time and think finally, I can write for two solid hours…there are days when you find yourself in a black hole on Instagram, or booking holidays, or signing up to art courses or French classes, or Googling the entire life history of Frida Kahlo, or making wish lists on Net-a-Porter of entire wardrobes of clothes you’ll never afford to buy…and then the two hours have gone. So yes, time is the greatest challenge. Or more accurately, self-discipline.


I don’t know that I’ve achieved much yet. Maybe that’s for others to answer. Or to think about 30 years down the line…I hope I’ll still be writing by then.


My advice would be to not listen to rules—some people say write what you know, other say write what’s new. For me, it’s just about going with your gut. Write the thing that makes you want to write—the thing that makes you get out of bed two hours early to get on your laptop before work, and the thing you have rolling around in your head when others are having conversations with people you love but who you can’t quite listen to because you’ve a whole other story going on in your head and distracting you. Ultimately, the thing you write may never be published, you may never have any readers beyond loyal friends and family, and even if you’re lucky enough to be published it may barely shift any copies. But at least if you’ve written the thing you want to write and the thing from your gut, you’ve gotten something great out of it. And that time has been very well spent.


I’m currently working on a new podcast, My Life in Books, interviewing brilliant novelists like Ruth Jones, Jojo Moyes, Marian Keyes, Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernieres about their life and careers and childhood, and the books they love most.


I’m writing two books—a big dark drama set in the interwar years with a love story and a crime at its heart, and also a shorter autofiction thing about a personal experience I had. I’m not sure whether it’s publishable but it’s one of those things I’m in the thick of and can’t stop writing…so I’ll go with it and see where it leads.

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Laura Powell is Features Editor (Magazines) at the Daily Telegraph and host of the My Life in Books podcast.

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