DAlden Author Posts: 25 I'm so thrilled TBL decided to feature you as their Noteworthy book of the month, Dr. Reynolds! I actually just recently read Designs after all the TBL staff members decided that quoting it to one another was a delight way to communicate (I really thought they had all gone a wee bit mad). However, after finishing it, I can't stop informing people that their nervousness in interviews is due to inappropriate chair choosing and that "the Downstairs Convenience" is the best place in the home for self-reflection! Really, Reynolds, it was such a delightful read! Congrats on your wonderful accomplishment! While I, like Miss Maggie, am "bubbling" with questions, I thought I'd start with the broader ones before cutting into it. I keep coming back to this passage in the eighth chapter: "This book is turning out very differently from how I meant it to be. But so is my Life! And the point of a book is to show you how things really are. By doing that, you can make the world a better place. That is what I set out to do. To tell the truth..." I kno w this is a great point in Alizia's personal development, but how does this rationalize with the passage quoted in the TT article about her purposefully adulterating her memories to paint a more august image? At times her propensity to want to see the world in a certain way (a better way) is so strong that she in fact sees it as she wishes it to be, but she has to be conscious enough of the effort to tell us she sees no shame in her making her memories more beautiful. I feel like this understanding is essential to how you balance your unreliable/reliable narrative. Is this strange tension something you set up intentionally or am I a victim of an in-depth lit education and thus see the world through theory-tinted glasses?
Sphere23 Author Posts: 115 Dear Dr. Reynolds, Firstly, thanks so very much for doing this interview! I loved the Tethered article so much I couldn't wait for our group shipment to come in and rushed out to get my own copy...and then stayed up all night reading it! I have a deep love of satire (Pope's my favorite) but as the article pointed out, your satire didn't overshadow the character development at all! Fantastic job! I know we really shouldn't attack you with too many questions while you are off "gallivanting," but I couldn't stop myself from jumping in. One of my favorite things about the book is the group of "artists" that Alizia is surrounded by. What inspired you to parody the modern intellectual artist? Did you borrow characteristics from people you know (they all seemed (especially Jem and his friends) to be so alive)?
CTacker Author Posts: 129 Dr. Reynolds, As those that have iterated before me, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions here on TBL's forum. I just recently finished Designs for a Happy Home and have quickly put it on my recommended list for my round of reading friends (we like to think of ourselves as King Arthur types, but instead of swords, we lay down books. It's all very theatrical). While I am already a huge fan of satire (loving the classics like Voltaire and Pope) I found your work to be incredibly refreshing. The voice of the piece so easily mirrors that of Alizia that I find the progression incredibly smooth and well organized, much like the idea behind the story itself. My question has to do with your ability to overcome the road blocks when being confronted with your dialogue (even though your main characters so eloquently interact with each other that it feels almost like a dance with Alizia's voice guiding). I also tend to find myself holding the short end of the stick when it comes to forming creative dialogue with my chara cters. Did you find that the more you felt in tune with Alizia, the more the dialogue seemed to come? This may seem like a queer query, but did you find that if you, yourself, interacted with Alizia that her voice that, as TT put it, you couldn't quite get out of your head, would emerge easily? Or did you find that just working through with the voice in comparison and relation to her fellow characters, that the dialogue just then came naturally? Thank you for your time! So glad to have you with us!
Rookwood Author Posts: 68 Dr. Reynolds, Thank you for taking time away from your hectic daily life to answer all of our questions. I was fascinated by the Tethered Tidings article that TBL presented on your wonderful work of satire and simply had to grab a copy. While my question is more or less not directly about the story, I wanted to ask into more about your process. I was thrilled to read that you were more of an "observant" literary mind and heralded as a literary critic. I fancy that sort of work myself and am currently working fervently on my first big bit of analysis work. I was curious as to ask into your influences. Your recent work, Designs has been labeled a modern day Emma, did you find pieces like this helpful in your journey of transitioning from "observant" to "creative" writer? Were there any direct influences that you felt helped shape and inspire the direction of your story? Did you find that transition to be incredibly difficult? D id your background in literary criticism effect your writing process and how you wanted your work to be perceived? Thank you again for your time. Truly looking forward to your reply.
MRemington Author Posts: 83 As we have all said, thank you so much for taking time to do this interview. We really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. I've been holding off on adding to this thread because a) you are away from internet and b) my question involves your rather shocking ending, and I didn't want to ruin the book for anyone who hasn't finished it yet. To combat this second point, I'm just going to ask my question in very broad terms. In Designs, you have characters who end up being something vaguely akin to villains who are not revealed to be such until the end. How did you manage to write them in the beginning with such innocence and even love through the perspective of your narrator? Was this very difficult to do? How did you manage to distance yourself and remain objective? Thanks again, Dr. Reynolds!
J-Llew Author Posts: 5 Dr. Reynolds-- Congratulations on this achievement! I find the quasi-self-help book format a very appealing one, was there anything that inspired you to adopt it? I must confess that my enthusiasm for posting my queries has rather outpaced my reading (we have only just left Wood Street) but I am burning with curiosity about Alizia: is she based on any one person, a composite or in some sense an autobiographical sketch? I also love the (increasingly hilarious!) illustrations--do you do your own artwork?
Matthew Reynolds User Posts: 2 Dear Tethered By Letters People. I’m back and – gosh, many thanks for all this interest and all these questions. I’ll take them in order. Hughes: I think the voice has several origins. First, and most obviously, media figures who tell us how to improve our lives. Egs from the UK: Trinny and Susannah, who tell women they will become happier & more confident if only they wear better clothes; or Nigella, the TV cook, who mingles recipes with snippets of personal recollection and lifestyle advice. I have mixed feelings about these figures: on the one hand, much of what they say is obviously trite, and they are obviously driven in part by commercial ambition. On the other, there is a human warmth in them; and people are pleased by them, and cheered up. A lot of fiction in the UK at the moment, it seems to me, is concerned to assert authenticity of voice and values (in fact, of course, only ever a myth). I wanted, instead, to take a voice that was obviously inauthentic, obviously in many ways trite, and tweak it so as to reveal a well- meaningness, an honesty, within. Other sources in the same vein: women’s magazines, eg Elle; design magazines, eg Wallpaper; and actually, really quite importantly I think, Carrie from Sex and the City. She had an influence on the rhythm of Alizia’s voice: the ‘Magic Mottoes’ are a bit like that moment in each episode of Sex and the City where Carrie finds the topic she’s going to write about that week. Another influence, which I only became aware of about half-way through, is the discourse of literary criticism. The connection here is that academics start out doing what they do because they love reading. But they find then that they have to express that love in a constrained, professionalised discourse. Of course, that language is necessary and enabling in various ways. But it also has an obvious artificiality to it which has something in common with the jargon Alizia uses. I am interested in the way Alizia’s warm feelings tend to get diverted into the construction of an object. All the energy she puts into the funnel office is an instance of this: it’s a way of showing that she really likes Stan as a friend. As of course is the endeavour to hold on to Jem by creating helpful interiors for him. These constructions are, I think, a little bit like critical interpretations (for instance, they arise out of a process of theorising about the nature of something – work, babyhood etc), so the work that goes into creating them is a bit like the work of literary criticism, and the deadness that attaches to them has something in common with the deadness of lit crit also. Just occasionally, when I was writing, I was aware of borrowing a phrase or cadence from a critical article (though I can’t now remember where these are). But this strand of the book is something that perhaps matters (and indeed is visible) only to me. Shining – No, strangely, I hadn’t noticed how much the book was like Emma until my editor pointed it out to me. But then I guess Carrie is a teensy bit like Emma; and I was probably aware of Cher Horowitz, the main character from Clueless – of course an adaptation of Emma – as merging somewhat with Carrie in the back of my mind. Now I think of it, Cher was played by an actress whose first name is not unlike Alizia …. I was anxious, in fact, not to have visible literary sources. Or at least to try not to. A fair number of novelists at the moment, it seems to me, too loudly assert their indebtedness to great novelists of the past: James or Forster or Woolf. Of course, several of the novelists who do this are very good, incomparably much more important literary figures than me. But still, the display of august parentage still seems a little bit pompous to me, like setting oneself up as an aristocrat. It also makes the novel seem necessarily old fashioned: if fiction is to be serious, this tactic says, it has to have something profoundly in common with James etc, something that sets it apart from popular culture. But there’s great energy and inventiveness in popular culture, also especially linguistic inventiveness. I wanted to connect my novel to those areas of imaginative energy – to write a literary novel without ‘literary’ pretension. DAlden – You’re quite right that tension’s there: on the one hand to think the best; on the other, to tell the truth. It was intentional but it’s not resolved – which is to say it must play out in ways I haven’t thought through. Things I can say to make some kind of a map: the bit quoted in the interview is from the beginning; the bit you quote is from about 2/3 of the way through, after – as you say – a crisis. So there’s a shift from one to the other. And yet the first commitment, the first aspect of her character, doesn’t disappear. I wanted to show that, at the end of the book, all her utopianism, with the associated blindness and tendency to be controlling, is still there – rephrased and downsized, perhaps, but no less strong. On the side of telling the truth, it seems to me important that she has compiled and decided to publish the book we read, including all the often-rather-nasty contributions from her friends and colleagues. So she wants to show herself warts and all. But there is also something messianic about that ambition, a wish that good should come of it. So the tension you point to is fundamental, really, and ought not to be unravelled. Sphere23 – This is driven by the anti-‘literary’ impulse I described above. Jem is obviously the figure I end up stabbing most fiercely. He’s full of that paradoxical vaunting of authenticity that I have mentioned. In his attachment to mud he owes something to Seamus Heaney & to lesser poets in the same vein. Stan is really a personification of Cultural Studies discourse – but I rather like him. The endeavour with him was like that with Alizia – to take a kind of language it is easy to make fun of and put it in the mouth of a character who is in many ways admirable. Cristophe is the most absurd and probably the least successful. Fisher owes something to the discourse of influence and the chosen protégé that Oxbridge dons sometimes come out with. The relationship between Carla and Alizia is meant to be a better, warmer version of that between Alizia and Fisher. C.Tacker – I think the trick with dialogue is to imagine the whole room where the conversation is taking place, and the bodies of their characters, and their clothes and eyes and gestures. In life, what we say is only part of what we communicate to one another: in writing dialogue you need, somehow, to prompt readers to imagine those other elements of communication that are not spoken. I say ‘somehow’ because it’s not at all clear to me what makes this happen – beyond the imagining of a space around the spoken words so that they can be suggestive in that way. Another thing is that, in life, people often don’t respond to what has just been said. There’s a lot of cross-purpose in everyday conversation. When fictional dialogue feels flat it is often because it is too orderly, in that characters reply to what has been said to them instead of speaking at a tangent. Rookwood – I think I’ve talked enough about influences above. Re my process, it was important to me to write at a time that I could tell myself wasn’t part of the working day, ie from about 6 to 9am. But I think the avoidance of, or maybe uneasy interchange with, lit crit has a more pervasive influence on this novel. I’ve talked above about the influence of lit crit on Alizia’s voice. But I think probably also there’s an element of defensiveness about the whole endeavour, ie something that drove me to be interested in a character who was in some ways absurd & in others not, & in a mode that was in some ways satire & in others not, & in a form that was in some ways a game & in others not, was the need to create an imaginative space that it was possible for me to disclaim, even to myself. One that made it possible for me to say ‘I’m not really serious about it’, even though I was deeply serious about it, and still am. Re being ‘observant’. The mediation of a narrator is crucial here, I think. With a narrator like Alizia I can tell myself I am just watching her speak even as I write words for her to utter. In the novel I am writing now there is a superficially opposite but finally rather similar setup: an omniscient narrator who slides into various of the characters via free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness, and who then also veers off into various kinds of impersonal expert knowledge, but who never coalesces into a figure who might possibly be taken as an authorial mouthpiece. MRemington – I think the key here is the feeling called ‘relish’. I wanted to present the characters impartially, ie to feel that I was giving them the chance to say what they might say for themselves. But I guess it’s true that one can’t actually manage to do that without having some warm emotional connection to them. I’d say that what I felt for Jem and Marion was relish more than love. Ie, I loathe them – but I very much enjoy watching them being the way they are. There are some people who manage to read the book to the end and still think that Jem and Marion are the repositories of true value – true creativity, desire etc. This amazes me: I though of myself as showing the bogusness of that construction of value. But it pleases me too, because I didn’t want to guy that construction, ie I didn’t want not to allow it a fair hearing. J-Llew – Apart from what I’ve said above, there’s a novel by John Lanchester from about 15 years ago called The Debt to Pleasure which is a cookery book mixed with a gothic narrative. Its tone and structure are quite different (and it was a lot more successful than Designs has been); but it made me see that it might be interesting to piggy-back upon another genre. Perec’s La Vie: mode d’emploi gave me confidence to build a narrative room by room. Alizia is based on nobody beyond the sources I have mentioned above. Yes I did do those little drawings: glad you like them.
Sphere23 Author Posts: 115 Oh Dr. Reynolds! I'm so thrilled you have returned from your adventure to answer our many questions! I have so loved reading all of your replies. A splendid way to spend my lunch break! I think in particular your parody of the post-modern poet in Jem is just phenomenal. Again, instead of going over the top with the satire you really used it to your advantage to both make the twist at the end incredibly believable and simultaneously outrageously shocking. It really makes me want to go back and reread, sections like the pottery proposal and testimony and the vases that hold two flowers, destined to die within a day without water. Well done, really. And don't be hard on Cristophe. He's one of my favorite parts of the book! And that ending with her trying to eat his "present." God, I loved every disgusting section. Thankfully, i was too distracted by the crazy buzz of symbolism and social critic to really think about the cannibal ism too much...but now, suddenly, my lunch seems like appetizing. (: Thanks again for commenting! I'm so excited that TBL featured you this month!!!
CTacker Author Posts: 129 Dr. Reynolds, thank you so much again for answering our questions. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and the questions of my fellow TBL'ers. I always do have trouble with dialogue when it comes to my characters and I agree that picturing them as tangibly as possible will help make them more real and conversational. I see what you're saying about conversations in books becoming stagnant or flat. I think I just need to focus my efforts on my characters having more common emotions. I sound so socially inept, but when transitioning from real life conversations to the conversations you want your characters to have in a certain context is a completely different thing. Though the author is indefinitely in control of what is being said, it feels more pressured each time a character has to reveal something in order for the story to work and flow where you want to it to go in fictional conversations. This has truly helped however. Did you find that the more your characters spoke, the less that you the author had to guide the dialogue or control it? I want my character dialogue to be as natural as possible, but I find the more they speak, the more stagnant it becomes. I become lost in the conversation, unable to find where I wish to end it and what is being said to much. Thank you again for your time. Designs is incredible, and although you didn't intend it to come out sounding like a modern day Emma (loved your comment on your influences and how you find it almost deadening to actually try to be like someone else, rather just piggy back on a genre that makes it more authentic. While I still remain heavily influenced, always thinking this to be a rather comforting thing, I can see now, it might be better to leave a bit of my influences behind and strive for something more organic.)
Hughes Author Posts: 115 Wow, Dr. Reynolds. One hell of a response, mate. I was fascinated by your comparison with literary criticism. It is strange how so much love and passion goes into the production of their work to only come out deadened and hallow sounding. You must be so proud of Designs for having so many layers. Just looking at these comments and talking with the friends I've thrust the book upon, it's so crazy to see how many different things people cling onto in the text.
Spontificus Author Posts: 33 Dr. Reynolds, I took the time to read your response to everyone in this thread and was just thoroughly impressed with all of your answers. I loved your response to Shining about how you compared Alizia to Carrie from Sex in the City with a hint of Cher from Clueless. Who knew that a man of your literary caliber could draw such a complex character from nineties television! Also, the way you decidedly described the fact that being able to watch Alizia speak, while keeping yourself a separate entity baffles me. While I'm still a fair novice at the distance an author must have to his characters, no more is it truly displayed than in this novel. The palpable tensions the characters create for each other is never once over shadowed by a dominant "authorial mouthpiece" as you called it. I can completely agree with most readers who come out thinking Jem (oh, Jem!) and Marion are the essence of creativity and desire, but upon closer evaluation (and upon reading your talk backs) I can see the true difference in each voice, how you've play ed ever so carefully with each one and slaughtered your piece with happy satire. Truly well done. I can't wait to suggest this to my reading group as our next literary expedition! Thank you for your time on this thread and for all of your insights, I'll be formulating my book club questions mainly around the questions and well thought answers you have provided! Thank you so much!
Rookwood Author Posts: 68 Thank you for getting back to me Dr. Reynolds. I always find that deriving a true authorial voice is the most distinct and hardest part of writing any novel for me. I am so involved in all of my critiques that I can't seem to remove what I find to be my own true voice peaking out from behind the narrative bushes just waiting to interject! Your new work sounds intriguing! I can't wait for the finished project! Please let us know how it's going and when you get far enough along in it for a due date! I think I shall take your advice, however, on the bit that you proclaimed to C.Tacker about imagining the characters as fully as possible in a room with each other. While dialogue is not necessarily my strong point, I find it much more comfortable than restraining my narrative style and not having too much influence over my work. Ah, to be a writer and have to hold yourself back from preaching through your own paragraphs. We are quite the masochists, wanting to say and feel everything on paper, but never allowing ourselves to come right o ut and say it. Always crouching beneath the bindings and hiding behind the pages. Good luck to you Dr. Reynolds! Thank you for all of your wonderful insight! It truly is a help!
LKScribbler Author Posts: 92 Hey Dr. Reynolds, As we have all yelled into the internet abyss, thanks so much for doing this interview. It's so awesome to be able to chat with such wonderful authors. So, I just finished Designs and I really loved it (gets really gripping toward the end.) I was curious about your target audience. Was this primarily a book aimed at academics/artists/intellects of some sort? One of my friends warned me that it might be hard for Americans (like me) to understand all of the humor, but luckily, BBC has broken me in. :) I imagined from the paperback cover that your agent was trying to break into the chick/lit market (which it does not really belong), but i was curious who you thought would enjoy it most..aside from all us nerdy TBLers :) Thank you so much again for this! (p.S. I hope this thread is still active...took amazon.uk a while to get the books sent over).
Hughes Author Posts: 115 I was actually wondering about this, too, Lauren. When I first heard that TBL was recommending an English satire, I was worried that our American TBLers wouldn't understand the humour (a feeling that was amplified when I actually read Reynolds' book). So many of the lines had me rolling with laugher, but the parody (esp. in Alizia's voice) is so subtle at times, I really worried it wouldn't cross the Atlantic. Did this worry you, Dr. Reynolds? It's obvious from the mostly American commentors on this thread that many of them really loved Designs, but, as Lauren pointed out, we are a strange group. (:
Hughes Author Posts: 115 P.S. Lauren, you should order the hardback. The cover is quite witty.
J-Llew Author Posts: 5 Dr. Reynolds-- Thank you for your answers to my (and all of our) questions. Having now finished Designs I have a few more questions I wanted to ask in a rambling and roundabout fashion. I wonder that I did not earlier think of the word 'Design' in the title more in the sense of 'plan or intention' rather than as the simply the artistic design to which Alizia dedicates herself--but then I suppose that is the point? I found that your novel really gathered pace shortly after the introduction of Chef Bluenet, and transformed at the turn of only a few pages from an entertaining and clever read to a real page-turner. Was this your intention from the outset? I realise that structurally it would have been tricky to advance some of the more more involving material to earlier in the work--was there at any point a temptation to so do, in order to draw the reader in more? **BEWARE THOSE WHO HAVE NOT FINISHED--HERE BE SPOILERS** It was only the Oxford episode that actually alerted me to the probability of what was happening behind the scenes, al though I feel that the blurb by Literary Review on the back of the edition I read ('This sad and gentle story of a family's breakdown...') really destroyed any possibility I might have had for surprise at the outcome. What was your editor/publisher thinking? This aside, the book is eminently readable (and re-readable!) and I look forward to picking it up again soon! Many thanks, J. Llewellyn
Matthew Reynolds User Posts: 2 Yup, we’re still active. So … for LKScribbler: I didn’t have a very clear sense of who my audience would be. I would say I was writing for myself were it not that I think you do have to hold open a critical perspective on what you are doing, ie imagine being read by someone who is not also the writer, so as not to be merely self-indulgent. So: mainly I was writing for someone like me. An opinion I sometimes formed was that a paragraph I’d just written, though enjoyable to me personally, wouldn’t do for someone like me who was picking up the book cold. This mental opening-of-the-text to a public eye is, it seems to me, a really important part of writing. like the shell of a baby turtle hardening. That said, though, I wanted the book to be understandable by all sorts of people, not only a highbrow, or would-be highbrow readership. As it turns out, the reception of the book has been somewhat split. Some very highbrow people have liked it and it is probably they who have most seen what it is all about. On the other hand, it was also an Elle Magazine book of the summer which I was very pleased at. But it’s been readers in the middle, especially broadsheet reviewers, who seem to have had most trouble liking the book. I think the reason may be that many of those people are committed to an aesthetic – let’s call it the New Solemnity – that Designs chips away at. The cover that had been planned for the paperback was rejected by a major chain of book-shops as off-puttingly sharp - the current soggy chick-lit cover was produced to make that chain carry the book. Did you know that happened in book production? (at least in the UK). The publisher does a mock-up of the book and shows it to bulk buyers - & then alters it to please them. for Hughes: Do you know I don’t have a strong sense of the difference between English and U. S. humour so that didn’t really trouble me. Thinking about it now, though, I’d have thought there might be some affinities between the mood of the book and, oh I don’t know, Frasier, or Charlie Brown (+ Sex & the City, of course). For J-Llew: Yes, Designs was meant also in the sense of plan. In fact I had Dryden in the back of my mind – the word is important to him in that sense (the TLS reviewer noticed that Alizia has ‘an Augustan feel for capital letters’ which is just right). About the shift of pace – yes, I always wanted it to break into the present, to change from being reflective and instructional to a blow-by-blow diary-style account. About the spoiler – I suppose I didn’t really expect anyone to be surprised at what happens two-thirds of the way through. I thought of myself as adopting a familiar, probably-largely-predictable narrative form & spinning it in such a way that readers would feel right from the beginning that Alizia’s hopes, her sense of her own exceptionality, were unlikely to hold true – so that it was just a matter of when & how the fall would come. To me, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy in all the bright assertions at the beginning – because, if there weren’t, why would the brightness need to be asserted? Eg, even on p. 2, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful’ is, to me, a terribly sad thing for her to say, because of its thinness and fragility. (Like Winnie, in Happy Days: ‘Another heavenly day’).
THarding Author Posts: 33 I'm so glad the thread is still live. Took ages to get the book shipped over. I'm not quite done with it, but I wanted to make sure to weigh in before it was too late (ending on Sunday, I presume?). Dr. Reynolds, I was wondering about how your related to your characters. Was it difficult to merge yourself with your narrator? How did you manage to get far enough into Alizia's head that her sections about design seem so authentic? I can't imagine you agreeing personally with all the things she says, but I really get the feeling as a reader that she truly believes that her designs will make people happier and, essentially, better. Even when she goes on her rather judgmental rants (especially about Stan and Marion's house/relationship), I get the sense that she really just wants to help them and make them better (hence projects like the funnel office and even "allowing" Marion to sit in her special chair in the sitting room). As I've read in your replies, this was one of the things that really attracted you to the parody behind the novel (and how it relates to modern superficial industries and academia), but that task must have been daunting. How did you manage it? Did you talk to people like this for research? Live in a Cosmo/Sex in the City fueled world? I have a similar question about Jem's character. I originally found myself siding with him in their relationship, perhaps only because I found Alizia quite, hm, I don't want to say annoying, because I really enjoyed her narrative, but definitely outlandish. It wasn't until later, after she went to France, that I started to get really suspicious of him. Did you pour any of yourself into his character? How do you really explore a character you know will, to put it lightly, not end up being the hero? Thanks for answering our questions, Dr. Reynolds. And thanks for the great recommendation, TBL. You guys are awesome! I never would have stumbled upon such a unique book by my lonesome.
Shining Author Posts: 58 Thanks for getting back to us, Dr. Reynolds. I have so enjoyed reading everyone's questions and your responses. I'm surprised that you hadn't consciously used your literary "parentage," not because I felt that you needed to borrow anything, but because you are so immersed in that world. I know as an academic myself, I find it impossible to tear my mind away from the works I study when it comes to my own writing (a tendency, I must admit, that is often more frustrating than helpful.) How did you manage to break away mentally from the "parents?"
Sphere23 Author Posts: 115 "an Augustan feel for capital letters"--That is awesome.