Posts Tagged Mat Osman

‘What you do with difficult ideas is turn them into art’ – an interview with Mat Osman @matosman

My guest today, Mat Osman, is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are touring again, and now he’s published a debut novel, The Ruins.

I was drawn to The Ruins because of its musical DNA. Musicians are one of my enduring interests, as you might know from My Memories of a Future Life and my series The Undercover Soundtrack. I’m not finished with musical souls either – there are plenty in the novel I’m finishing, Ever Rest.

As you might expect, Mat’s novel The Ruins has satisfying musical ingredients. It also poses intriguing questions about identity and a sense of self. The main characters are twins, Brandon, a rock musician, and Adam, his reclusive twin brother. When Brandon is assassinated in bizarre circumstances, Adam is dragged into his unfinished business. But it’s more than that. The novel is exquisitely aware of primal bonds – the bonds of twinhood, motherhood and the mysterious, transcendent bond of music itself. Anyway, I’m thrilled that Mat agreed to be interviewed. (My review is here.)

Roz Mat, I’ve said writing is your second artistic career. Is that strictly true? Did music come first or writing?

Mat As a career it was definitely music. I wrote in school but that was mainly because you had to, and from the age of about 12 I was obsessed with music and bands. That life is so all-encompassing that, although I read obsessively (all those plane journeys, all those hotel rooms), I really didn’t consider writing. But when the band split in 2003 I worked for a while as a journalist and I found that I loved to write. I did mainly non-fiction; I edited a London guidebook and wrote about art and travel but I also started to write short stories. It was a way of getting certain odd ideas out of my head. I’d wake up thinking ‘what would it be like to live in a house where everything was just as it was in the 1950s’ and take it from there. One of the advantages of a life in music is that you get used to the concept that what you do with difficult ideas is to turn them into art.

Roz So The Ruins is your first published novel – was it the first manuscript you finished?

Mat Yes and no. The Ruins sprang from those short stories. I did what I think a lot of first-time writers do – cobbled together a few of my best stories that seemed to fit into the same universe and called it a novel. It was a horrible Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, and I cut 90% of it, but it meant that I’d started, and that’s just about the hardest thing.

Roz The novel is brash and flamboyant and fun, with music, rock-star parties, high living and lowlives, twins, Las Vegas casinos, gangsters, a murder. It’s also highly sensitive to the characters’ inner emotional lives. It’s the kind of novel that can operate on several channels, depending on how the reader’s mind is tuned. I’ve seen some reviewers describe it as a story about identity. What I most enjoyed was its examination of deep attachments, how they’re never predictable, never static and have to be formed on their own terms. Adam’s connection with his twin Brandon; Brandon’s connection with his girlfriend Rae and his child Robin; Adam’s connection with Robin and with Rae. What were the main curiosities for you?

Pic by Theo McInnes

Mat I think at its emotional heart it’s about how one wants to be loved: by one person, entirely and deeply, or by millions of people, but in a shallower way. Especially nowadays there’s this constant pressure to have thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ and Adam is just kicking back against that idea.

The twins thing originally came about because I wanted to write about what would happen if you you could go back and choose the path not taken. Adam gets to see what being selfish and outgoing would have brought him. Brandon tries to be a sober and careful man. But also I have twin nieces and they were a constant inspiration – I love watching the way they are almost forced apart by our expectations. One has to be the smart one, one has to be the funny one, etc. etc. and as they try to fit into those roles they grow to be different from one another.

Roz The blurb mentions that the novel is set in 2010, when a volcano eruption put the world on hold. Does that indicate you began work on it that year? I’m certainly a long-haul writer – the book I’m finishing has been in transit for six years. The idea is even older – from a short story I wrote about 25 years ago. I could have dashed the novel off quickly, but my initial idea didn’t satisfy me. I felt it held a much bigger resonance and transformation – and I needed to discover what that was.

I recognise – I think – similar layers in The Ruins. Are you also a slow-burn writer?  (PS If you dashed it off in just a year, I will flounce out in a jealous huff.)

Mat It took about three years from me thinking ‘this is a novel’ to finishing it, but there were lots of cul-de-sacs and dead ends along the way. I’d had in mind to set a book in that time period for a while. The sense of being stuck while the world falls apart adds a layer of tension to the whole story.

Roz Did you have a process?

Mat I started without a process and found I needed one if I was ever to get anything done. If I was at home I wrote in the Map Room of the British Library. It’s hard-core researcher world – lots of beards and sandals – and I couldn’t even open Twitter or Facebook for fear of lowering the tone. On tour I wrote in hotel rooms. I use a program called Cold Turkey Writer which doesn’t let you use your laptop for anything else until you’ve done a set number of words. I regularly curse it but it got me used to the idea that you just write, every day, and I wrote very long and then cut a lot. And then my publisher cut more.

Roz Did you mind that the publisher cut so much?

Mat I don’t mind it – even the pieces that got cut were useful, I was thinking about the characters while I was writing. At first I hated the idea that there were something like 60,000 words that didn’t get used. Now I just think of them as back-story.

Roz Who were your influences, literary or otherwise?

Mat It’s hard to know who actually influences you and who you just like. But among the writers I love and was reading at the time this lot were definitely part of its world: Michael Chabon, Michel Faber, Patricia Highsmith, JG Ballard, M John Harrison, Muriel Spark, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Jennifer Egan, AM Homes and China Miéville. Lots of films were an influence too – especially Performance and Mulholland Drive.

Roz Another signature element is, of course, the musicians in the band. I want to discuss their connection through music. Away from their instruments, they’re chafing, squabbling. When they play music, they find a place of respect. It’s still a battlefield, but it also straightens them out and unifies them. It’s even ennobling. We feel that music is a personal quest and at the same time, a very scuffed marriage.

Mat Anyone who’s seen the Suede Insatiable Ones documentary will know the truth: most bands only really communicate through music. Most musicians put the very best of themselves into their music which is why often people are disappointed when they meet their heroes. They’re meeting the 100% grumpy, insecure, tired, petty, cruel person rather than the 10% of themselves that they save for their art.

Roz I also loved your sense of the bizarre. When Brandon walks on the frozen lake. The party with the beached chandelier and the red swimming-pool. The half-built complex in the desert where Rae lives with Brandon. Kimi with her electronic voicebox, which becomes a strange musical phenomenon. The couple who live on the boat in the field of bluebells. You make them totally believable. Were any of these from real life? Of course, I might be doing you a disservice by asking you that, as the fiction writer’s job is to make things up….

Mat The frozen lake is right where it says it is in the book – in Tahoe City behind a diner called Rosie’s. I stay there a lot and use it as a short cut. But of course that’s in mid-winter! The half-built complex is based on a spectacular photo-essay on this abandoned real-estate project where they’d cut into the hillside but gone bust before the houses were built. The boat has its origins in Derek Jarman’s house in Dungeness, similarly close to a nuclear reactor. The voicebox and the pool of blood? No idea where they came from.

Roz I saw in another interview that your original title was Control. What led you to The Ruins? Control must have been a suitable title in its own way, though. Can you talk about that?

Mat Control felt, in a strange way, too accurate. Much of the book is about control and I realised it was a title that described without adding anything. Whereas The Ruins felt more oblique but somehow more informative. It was almost called This Is What You Get Instead Of Love but it just looked too ungainly on the page.

Roz Tell me about your path to publication and how you met Repeater Books.

Mat I went all around the houses to end up where I started. Tariq who runs Repeater was the first person to read it. I wanted someone who I trusted to tell me if it was worth pursuing and luckily he liked it, and offered to publish it. But then I went away and got an agent and went through meeting publishers because I wanted to make sure Tariq wasn’t the only person in the world who thought it was any good. I had offers elsewhere but there were certain things – I got to design the cover – that only Repeater were prepared to offer. And they’re fantastic people who love books, which helps.

Roz What are you working on at the moment? Is it similar or are you trying something else?

Mat I’m writing about The Blackfriars Boys; a troupe of Elizabethan child actors who were taken from their families and made to take part in these very satirical, very adult, plays and masques. I wanted to write something that was way outside my field of reference to get a sense of not falling back on my own anecdotes and stories. It makes it a lot slower but there’s something really rewarding about having to invent every little moment.

Roz Are there are any consistent territories or themes you’re drawn to?

Mat The new book has a lot about London. And about how making art changes a person. So there are recurrent themes.

Roz Is there anything you’d do differently with this next novel?

Mat I swore I would write smarter; make fewer revisions and stick to the plot, but I’m finding that’s just not me. I have a mind that loves digression. I have to write out these odd side-alleys only to cut them later.

Roz Does music help in your writing process at all? I know writers who build soundtracks to evoke characters, settings or a general writing mood (hence my blog series, The Undercover Soundtrack). I know others who say music is too distracting and they must have silence. I’m both. I find music infuriatingly distracting. If I can hear builders playing the radio in my street, I find it unbearable – so unbearable that I can usually persuade them to turn it off (hell hath no fury like a writer who believes their work is being spoiled). But that distraction is perversely useful if I’m dithering in a first draft, looking for a way into a character or a scene. I put on music and a battle begins in my mind. I’m trying to ignore the music and concentrate, like swimming against an opposing current, which brings instant focus because I can’t be distracted by anything else. Meanwhile, the music is colouring every thought. An interesting tension emerges. It can’t be builders’ radios, though…

Mat I usually play music when I work, even on headphones. There’s a certain kind of instrumental music that works for me: repetitive but not too energetic. People like A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Bohren Der Club Of Gore. With The Ruins I played a lot of the music the characters listened to as well, just to check the mood. There’s a playlist of every track mentioned in the book at Spotify.

Roz You set The Ruins in 2010, in a time of interesting world crisis. You’ve published it in perhaps the strangest, most disruptive crisis we’ve seen so far this century. Any thoughts? There must be months of plans that have had to change…

Pic by Theo McInnes

Mat I managed to squeak in most of my readings and Q&As before the lockdown, which I’m so grateful for but I’m disappointed I never got to do any of the big literary festivals because a) years of music have made me a feedback junkie and I miss hearing what people have enjoyed about the work, and b) there are so many writers who I admire who I’ve never met.

Find The Ruins here and connect with Mat on Twitter here @matosman

And speaking of novels in progress, here’s how Ever Rest is doing

 

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Ready for the red pen – how to prepare for comments on your book manuscript

I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.

I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:

  • some parts will be overcooked
  • some will be undercooked
  • and hopefully some are just right.

After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?

I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.

Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.

‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’

Find Carol here.

 

Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.

‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!

Find Peter here.

Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.)  Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.

‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.

‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.

‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)

Find Marcia here.

Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.

‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.

Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.

Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.

Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.

‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.

‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.

Find Claire here.

Me again.

As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think.  And her point leads me to a final tip.

To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.

I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.

 

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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