Interview with Adrian White, Novelist

Today’s interview is with writer Adrian White who has authored three novels, An Accident Waiting to Happen, Where the Rain Gets In, and Dancing to the End of Love, which can be purchased together on Amazon as Three Novels. The first two of these titles were originally published by Penguin, and Adrian has self-published his third, so he is a true "hybrid" author.

First, here’s some background on Adrian:
My shorthand description of myself is that I’m an English writer living in Ireland, having moved to Galway on the West coast of Ireland over twenty years ago. I’m a bookseller as well and my time  is split between these two jobs - although this split has an ever-changing demarcation line.
I’ve been a writer ever since I became a conscious being, late in my teens. By that, I mean I discovered that here I was, in this world. I noticed things were happening all around me. Writing seemed to be my only way of making sense of it all. Eventually, I learnt to take these scribblings and use them as the basis for storytelling - as in, what I wrote was only as good as the story within which it was framed. And it was the novel I turned to as an art form; nothing else would do.

SARETT: In a recent quote,  novelist Jonathan Franzen (confession: haven't read him) said that fiction is a messy business -- and that it's dangerous for a writer to be too perfectionist.  I'm wondering how you respond.
WHITE: It is a messy business but I suspect Franzen is talking as much about his own work as about fiction in general. He writes big, sprawling books that do reflect the messiness of life and putting too polished a finish on something that cannot be pinned down is a silly thing. Personally, I love big messy stories but I also love small, perfectly-formed novels such as The Great Gatsby. Or another example: War and Peace is big and messy while Anna Karenina is big and perfect; my heart lies with War and Peace while my head knows that Anna is the more perfect work of art. My own approach is to write messy and then try to perfect it.

SARETT: In An Accident Waiting to Happen, your narrator is “remarkably unsympathetic” to quote Image Magazine.   He’s not merely an unreliable narrator, he’s small-minded (which this reader found funny.) Was it tricky handling this in the first person?
WHITE: It’s funny: my publisher didn’t want me to see that review because it wasn’t what you’d call ‘gushing’ in its praise but I loved what it had to say. Treading that fine line of a narrator who isn’t appealing but has to be engaging is tricky. I think doing so in the first person was the only way I could have succeeded. I needed Gregory to be an outsider from society, awkward in company and with a worldview that is difficult to be around.
I have a technique that I call "Method Writing" in which I absorb myself into the character I’m writing about. This is easier to achieve in first person. Gregory has to believe that the world is unhinged rather than himself. I had to believe it too as I was writing, otherwise it was never going to ring true.

SARETT: In some of your novels, the male is  swimming in an ocean of women.  In one, we have Leta, Caitlin, Brenda, not to mention Olivia, Suzy, even Grannie Annie- it’s as if the man can’t escape women, even as he's pursued by everything else . To me, it felt like Kafka meets Woody Allen.  Your comment?
WHITE: That Kafka thing keeps popping up and it makes me happy - partly because it never occurred to me until I started seeing it in reviews and even more when I remembered that the main character in Metamorphosis is Gregor while I had Gregory in An Accident Waiting to Happen.
Do my male characters feel like they’re bugs on the ceiling? Both Gregory and Brendan (in Dancing to the End of Love) are adrift in a world they don’t understand and the only thing that grounds them is the women in their life. Time and again, it’s the love of a woman that saves them - despite their efforts to resist or sabotage it. The Woody Allen thing, I presume, is more the angst than the comedy? I would love, really love, to be able to write comedy but I suspect it’s the hardest thing for a writer to get right.

SARETT: Post 9/11, there’s a sense that people can unwittingly become entrapped in what’s been termed a war on terror.  How has this figured into your work?
WHITE: There have been so many people unjustly imprisoned as a result of the brainless War on Terror. While I was writing Dancing to the End of Love, I wanted to write from the perspective of one such prisoner; I couldn’t see how else to respond to the world as it had become. I wanted the reader to be of two minds about my character and Brendan is not without faults. But that phrase ‘being held without trial’ haunted me then and haunts me still. Any government that does such a thing - whatever the circumstances - has lost moral authority and the right to govern. (Guantanamo is an obvious example but Belmarsh Prison and others in the U.K. are places where people are held without trial.) I was keen to portray how such a thing can happen and how mundane it is for the captors - if not for their captives. 
How I felt about prisoners held without trial when I was writing Dancing to the End of Love is how I feel about the witch-hunt of whistleblowers today: there’s no point in my being a writer if I don’t engage with such happenings.

SARETT: Where the Rain Gets In involves a woman who cuts herself. What drew you to this material?
WHITE: This was the result of my personal response to being told of a case of self harm. It’s a straightforward process: I hear or see something that moves me and to deal with it I write about it. I put it up to myself to write from the perspective of a woman - albeit in the third person - and my starting point was to imagine what such a thing would be like. 
I can’t say I understand why anyone would self harm but I can say I’ve made an honest attempt to understand. While Katie is the main character, there are three women in the life of Mike (another man surrounded by women!), each of whom is hurting herself in some way as a way of coping. It’s upsetting material - like prisoners held without trial - and it’s hard to spend time in that mindset but nowhere near as hard as it is for those who live through it.        

SARETT: You have released Dancing to The End of Love as a series of shorts.  Is this an experiment, or is something peculiar to that novel that influenced this decision?
WHITE: An experiment, definitely, but the length and distinct sections of Dancing to the End of Love lends itself to such a trial. I hope that each of the four parts are satisfyingly complete while prompting the reader to look for more. Also, having more work available in different editions increases my presence online.  
The same reasoning applies to the omnibus edition of Three Novels. Most of my sales, though, come through the individual books. I’m relaxed about experimenting. One of the good things about digital is that you can experiment - change jacket images, prices, etc. It’s interesting but the real deal is still the books themselves - they’re either good enough for people to want to read or not.

SARETT: You write novels that rather tightly plotted, but also populated with distinctive characters.  When you’re developing the novel, which comes first -- story or character?
WHITE: I’d say character comes first, or rather, some incident that I have to write about. With An Accident Waiting to Happen it was very much a case of what would happen if such a character was all of a sudden adrift, having to engage with the very people he’s avoided. From that premise, I imposed a tight plot/timeline of a five day deterioration of his world. 
With Where the Rain Gets In, Katie’s self harm was the be all and end all of the story. (There are many things that make me proud of that book but, if I’m honest, I don’t think the plot is as controlled or as gripping as Accident.)
The key to Dancing to the End of Love is that its working title was "The Misogynist." Who was this nasty man and why was he so bitter? The plot developed from writing the explanation of his life. I flipped the plot halfway: I set Brendan on a road to redemption, only for him to mess it up once he got close. I effectively had to write a whole second half to see if he could pull through.
So, the answer is: character every time. I’ve no problem allowing a plot to develop or take a diversion so long as the end product appears tightly controlled.

SARETT: I’m always trying to discover new (or forgotten) interesting fiction writers.  Do you have any suggestions for our readers?
WHITE: I’m lucky: working for a bookseller I have unlimited access to great writing. Here’s a brief list of some writers new to me over the past year or so.

Philipp Meyer - American Rust: The Novel and The Son
Sergio de La Pava- A Naked Singularity
D.W. Wilson - Ballistics, Once You Break a Knuckle
Jonathan Dee - A Thousand Pardons, The Privileges
George Saunders- The Tenth of December
Keith Ridgway - Hawthorn and Child
Kent Haruf - Plainsong
Donal Ryan - The Spinning Heart

SARETT: You are part of a growing crowd of so-called hybrid authors: you have worked with traditional publishers, and you have self-published. Any viewpoint about the different experiences?
WHITE: Ten years ago, Penguin Books published An Accident Waiting to Happen (every writer will understand this was not the first book I ever wrote) and soon after, published Where the Rain Gets In. I was unable to find a publisher for Dancing to the End of Love.  This coincided with the rise of digital publishing. I’d shied away from self publishing but doing so digitally seemed a no-brainer. Penguin was nice enough to give me back the rights to the books they’d published.  So I had two good-to-go novels to send into the ether. Dancing to the End of Love had been edited by three agents, so I was confident that this novel was in a fit state to publish.
Nothing will ever better the feeling of being told your book has been accepted for publication. But in terms of taking control, I’m glad I self-published. I feel as though I’ve tapped into markets that were missed by the publisher. There’s no time constraint on digital self-publishing; I can keep trying different angles while sales patterns rise and fall whereas with a publisher, if you don’t make it on publication, the chance has passed you by.

Empowering, is how I would describe the self-publishing experience. It’s been a trip but all this while I’m waiting for the time to be right to get back to doing what I love - telling stories.

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Adrian’s books can be found on Amazon and other booksellers:

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