Today’s question and answer session is with author Phil Rowlands.
Give us a brief introduction to you.
I’m originally from Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire but now live in Penarth. My widowed mum wanted me to have a proper job with good prospects. I tried but the junior civil engineer career I managed to talk myself into didn’t last. I quite liked the travelling life, the laughs and the banter but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped. So, after a variety of jobs, I eventually got into drama school and after three years became a professional actor. I wasn’t the best or the worst and for a long time I loved it, especially the social side, and was quite successful but then I became caught in a TV villain/ policeman axis and decided to try writing scripts to see if I could do it. It was as hard as the performing but it worked and, more to the point, I got well paid for it too. Eventually it became my main creative outlet and although I had wanted to write a novel for a long time, it took years to find the courage and discipline. My first novel, Siena, was published in 2017. My second, Single Cell, is now being edited and I’m a third of the way into my next, TimeSlip. I split my time between writing screenplays for film and tv and novels.
Could you tell us about your writing routine?
I write in a shed at the bottom of our small garden. It’s perfect for me. It’s very light and airy with space for everything I need around me and I can lock the door if I really want to be alone… not isolated but unreachable. It has a calm that helps shut out the world and it’s quiet and energising. I’d love to write to music or the radio but it distracts me too much. I am more creative early in the day so I try to start at ten at the latest and write until the sense starts to go, then spend a couple of hours editing and rewriting. I do the same first thing in the morning as well before I start.
How would you describe your writing process?
Writers are usually either ‘plotters or pantsers’ although some are a mix of the two. I take a lot of time before starting to write anything, plotting and exploring the initial arc of my story, creating my main characters and finding the rhymes and reasons for their journeys. I then have a beginning, middle and end. From that point I become a pantser (flying by the seat of….) and let the characters take me where they will but sometimes slipping in a couple of sneaky crossroads to see which path they will choose. I then travel with them or perhaps, if I feel that particular direction will confuse the story, I gently move them another way. We make this fictional world our shared experience and hope that our story will be worth the telling. The research I do varies from online to the personal stories and experience of those who help me to find the physical and psychological worlds that my characters will inhabit. I have always loved trying to simplify the most complex subjects and talking to those with expertise and experience gives you the chance to understand and use an easy common denominator clarity in your story.
How much of you is in your characters?
Most are a real mix, some drawn from me and some from those I have known or researched in depth. What does come wholly from me is the emotional response of my characters. How they react and respond to any given situation I try to relate to my own experiences from both good times and bad. Our voices eventually become entwined. Sometimes they speak to me and sometimes I give them my own thoughts. I think a lot of writers hear the voices of their characters . Durham University did some research and found that over 60% of writers did and of the remainder there was a mix of hearing and speaking to them with only a few not hearing them at all.
So far the characters in my books are all in standalone one off stories. But they all go through a life-changing event that challenges and drives them to find a deep truth within themselves and a new way to relate to those around them. I balance the darkness of their situation with edges of humour and emotional reality. They each have their own methods of coping with their journey and facing their nemeses. In Siena, Sara is an artist, whose husband and young son are killed in a shooting and has to find a way to escape her unbearable pain and find closure; in Single Cell, Giles is a prison governor who questions the suicide of an inmate and gets dragged into a violent and dangerous world of international crime; in Timeslip, Ian is a successful author who finds his sanity and life threatened because of his investigation into the violent death, over eighty years ago, of a young policeman. There are possible sequels to both Siena and Single Cell but I might just find myself an ageing detective who will happily sit in a series for several books. He will have a small but lush garden, love a good Rioja, be immensely proud of the talents of his contemporary artist wife, have an embarrassing nauseous reaction whenever he hears the song Bridge over Troubled Water, and a quick draw collection of handmade facemasks that he will wear until he is sure that the Covid 19 virus has been eradicated… oh, and he will be pretty good at what he does.
Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how/where?
Location is as important as character and influences the synergy of a story and its physical and emotional direction. Wales and Italy feature in Siena. Yorkshire and Sicily in Single Cell and in Timeslip it’s both a contemporary and WW2 Yorkshire.
What prompted your latest story?
For several years I lived in the Yorkshire Wolds and when my son was a baby I’d take him to Bridlington and we’d walk on the deserted beach furthest from the town. One day just as it started to rain, we came across a crumbling WW2 concrete lookout post and went inside to shelter. Apart from the stench of what had been left by others, there was a very strange and unsettling atmosphere. It was icy cold and I had a strong feeling that we weren’t alone and that something terrible had happened. We didn’t stay long. I really didn’t want to be there but didn’t want to risk my son getting soaked. Luckily the rain soon stopped, and we could scramble back into the outside world. Years later when I was starting to think of a subject for my present book, I remembered it. I went back there alone and although the feeling wasn’t as powerful, it was still there and so Timeslip was born. The main character is a writer who gets caught up in a world of past and present where a moment of shared time can change the fate of those it encompasses.
Do you read other novels while you’re working? If so, what is your preferred genre?
I read several books at the same time, each having a place in my day. Recently there were three. Paul Auster, 4321, Philippa Gregory, The Queen’s Fool and Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place. I like the eclectic mix of genre and find that it stimulates and stretches me in my own attempts at story.
Read more about Phil Rowlands