J. M. Smith
Tony Plumb and the Moles of Ellodian
Tony Plumb and the Last Days at Daisy Bank (TP short prequel)
Recently Loyal Lyre connected with UK author J.M. Smith, the author of January 2020s Book of the Month Tony Plumb and the Moles of Ellodian to talk about her book, her inspiration, and her somewhat parallel struggle to see Tony Plumb's personal plight complete itself on the page (at least for now!).
Tony Plumb and the Moles of Ellodian deals with some very dark issues for the protagonist and follows the process of Tony mentally coming to terms with the reasons for his parents' death. Did you always intend the story to be taken in the fantasy direction or was it originally going to have a different execution?
J.M. SMITH: Yes, the fantasy direction came naturally, allowing me to play with the concept of the ‘unreliable witness’. It paved the way for the idea that we may only see what we want to see, are certain we know what’s going on, and then discover the other story was there all along, but we missed it. In a way, although the story could be seen initially as a fantasy story, it twists and we realise that it isn’t a fantasy story after all.
This mirrors Tony’s denial about the nature of his parents’ and their death, as we go at his pace and alongside him, as his story unravels.
What were your reasons for the direction you took and where did the idea for Ellodian come from?
J.M. SMITH: The idea of Ellodian, an underground school of sorts, came quickly when I was partway through a creative writing course at Oxford. One day I walked passed one of those little red and white striped tents that construction workers erect to stop the public falling down their excavation hole. I peered into the little tent and down into an underground space and that was it. I knew that was where Ellodian was going to be. I guess being at a university, gowns featured in the story and ‘Cubbage’, as in Frank Cubbage, the mole, came when I looked out of my window at the corner of Ship Street and Turl Street, and saw a small van drive by with the name ‘Cubbage’ painted on the side.
I think that's what's quite special about this story. The aspect that the unreal is actually just 'submerged' reality is what makes it so strong a novel. I think I get quite inspired from caves and underground spaces too, so I love the idea coming from the excavation tent. The writer's mind at work! You mention a creative writing course. Did you already have the idea to write the book before you started it, or did it actually start at the excavation tent? How would you describe the effect the course had on your writing?
J.M. SMITH: Since childhood, I had always dreamed of writing a book, but had no idea what it would be about. Ideas came and went, some thoughts got to the page, but over time these thoughts and ideas lay discarded. I think it’s true to say that the protagonist’s age (thirteen) pretty much reflected where I was when I began writing Tony Plumb; a young ‘teenager’, (even though I was in my forties!) bashing his/her way into a storyline. It’s highly likely that ideas about Tony Plumb lurked before I started the writing course, but the excavation tent triggered the story. Being underground is highly suggestive of an unknown world, an alien environment and a good place to experiment with new ideas and to be surprised by what pops up. The summer writing course at Oxford had an enormous impact on me. Away from home, staying in a room vacated for the summer by a real live student, the beauty of the building, the dining hall, and the pervading sense of history and ritual. It offered a great space to find the inspiration and energy to begin to write the story of Tony Plumb.
I absolutely understand the inspiration of ancient buildings, and also that sense of being in an off-limits environment of sorts - Durham University (attached to a castle and a semi-secret Norman chapel) gave me almost the exact same feeling! So readers may be interested in how you approached writing Tony Plumb. Do you have a firm structure or a more liberal approach to your inspiration?
J.M. SMITH: With this book, there was very little structure. I kept hold of all the storylines and ploughed on, writing and writing until a plot emerged – bonkers really. Except I think there must have been a story ‘in me’ and I just had to find it and get on the path, so to speak. This ‘non structure’ meant I scrapped thousands of words, in fact I wrote two books and chopped out most of them. On the negative side, this took ages and might have stymied me. Conversely, I really got to know my characters and most of what I edited out were the character’s back stories. This meant I absolutely knew what, for example, Terry would say to Daphne or how he would view the boy he had just kidnapped. With the next Tony Plumb book I have the story mapped out, chapter by chapter; it’s working out OK, but there’s no ‘right’ way.
Is there a space of your own, or do you have to manage your writing space when and where you can?
J.M. SMITH: I work on the landing, at the top of the stairs. I’m very fond of spaces like verandas, sun porches and balconies that to me are half in a building and half out. The landing is a very open and mobile space dynamically – anybody might ring the doorbell or pop up the stairs. My usual visitor is Sybil the Jack Russell, who can bomb me from twenty paces. (Sybil has a cushion in a drawer in my desk, where she sits and tries to drink my coffee.)
Anyone with a pet may absolutely relate your dog-bomb! I find your working space very different to my own - I have to generally lock myself away to get any real work done, however, I can also be in public (like a nice National Trust café with a great view) as long as I've got headphones in and access to tea or coffee.
J.M. SMITH: I really like the idea of writing in a special café with life going on all around. I imagine that must be quite stimulating and might tackle the isolation of the long distance tapper. I wonder though, if I’d be too distracted? (I see the need for headphones). That or hyperglycaemic from an overdose of cake!
You might be surprised how easy it is to delve into your work, as long as you sit outside! I tend to take a walk in the area or grounds beforehand then take a seat and get on with it with said coffee (and occasional cake :D). So, clearly sharing Tony's story was something very passionate for you, and it's great to hear there's a second book on the cards! In terms of your choice to self-publish, did you approach both trad-pub and self-pub options and decide on the latter, or was it more complex?
J. M. SMITH: Initially I approached publishing via the traditional route; attempting to find agent representation. However, it was far too soon, the book wasn’t ready and the process folded. We live and learn. That said, it’s quite easy to become jaded and almost indifferent to the traditional publishing route when the book is continually rejected. I thought the book was worth publishing and found relief and joy, actually, in taking hold of the reins and making my own decisions. I re-edited the book several more times and had it proof read and copy edited with my independent publisher. I designed the book cover, took the photograph and capitalised on the skills of the publisher who jiggled colour, fonts and layout - all very exciting and I am very pleased with the result.
Well, I'm very glad you dug as you did for story, it clearly worked. The fact that you wrote two books and then scrapped most of them, but still continued to plough away at it is an admirable lesson for any new writers reading this, as there is a great amount of give-up at that stage.
So, we see the actual story came after a lot of hard work (as ever!), but what about the message itself? Your book explores some very dark themes, and of course the challenge to come to terms with tragedy and layers of mental repression from the eyes of a child.
J.M. SMITH: With regard to Tony Plumb, the overall message of how we might repress or suppress difficult times and as humans carry the corresponding denial and emotional pain, I thought was relevant to pretty much everybody. I thought, too, that to ‘uncover’ it through one boy’s particular emotional journey might be interesting, and a journey the reader might identify with. Particularly, perhaps, readers with similar experience, though not necessarily in the care system or from abuse, but those who have at times felt unwanted, excluded or different to others. I guess part of writing Tony Plumb’s story was to make accessible the struggles of human life; wanting to highlight, I guess, the fact that anything might happen to any of us. Hopefully there is much hope in the story too, as it’s also about how Tony overcomes his demons. This sort of paved the way for my personal darling to appear; the topic of gratitude – which I think can be a source of nurturance in a sometimes less than satisfying world.
Is this something that you'd wanted to explore before, or was it something that came after you'd 'discovered' Ellodian as your setting?
J.M. SMITH: I worked for most of my adult life as a psychotherapist within the NHS and so the subject of how we as humans naturally seek to avoid emotional pain is one that's close. Ellodian is a perfect metaphor for the unconscious (the hidden, the underground). ‘Breaking out’ of Ellodian as Tony does, gradually emerging from repression and into the ‘reality’ of the ‘outside world’, was a useful way of showing Tony’s progress from him being completely cut off from painful historical experience, to his developing, dawning awareness and insight into the huge relevance of this experience and the impact on his life. Since writing it I’ve thought a bit more about the crash helmets and how we now have more opportunity (through technology) to hide and disguise the self.
It's interesting that you mention your psychotherapy work. I know from working with new authors that knowing a lot about a subject can be detrimental to many writers’ work. It can suffocate the story when writers are too enthusiastic about sharing all they know of a subject. Tony Plumb is extremely well-balanced. It handles the process authoritatively, but so subtly that it never feels clinical. How did you find exploring your experience in this area, and did you have any trouble trying to keep out all that knowledge?
J.M. SMITH: Thank you – this question contains a huge compliment. I guess the straight answer is that there is a lot of theory to learn in psychotherapy training and you’re right, theory or explanations couldn’t feature too much and bog down the story. The theoretical matter of psychoanalytic psychotherapy and its delivery encompasses a wide, comprehensive and sometimes complex arrangement of ideas that, to varying degrees, are more or less user friendly. The early text books (especially) contain extraordinary ideas, (perhaps because back then the language was ‘new’), that if repeated verbatim to clients, even if appropriate, might initiate a mass exodus from the consulting room. As a jobbing psychotherapist in the NHS, using this model, there isn’t endless time, so time must be used properly and not wasted.
Over the years I guess I developed a way of utilising the essential elements of the theory in ways that made sense to the majority of people I saw. Translating the works of Klein and Freud and many other theorists into a modern succinct language in terms that both fitted the issue in hand, and made sense at the same time, is part of any therapist’s job. Tony Plumb in therapy meant that I had to try to convey, to an unknown but likely audience, some basic bits of theoretical kit. Communicating with Tony (in my author’s head) required me to be Mrs Heapey sitting with a thirteen year old boy and imagine, drawing from experience, what it might be like. I also had to be Tony in therapy and figure things out from his point of view. As the author, I did get to choose what he said and where Tony’s therapy might go, but I have to say that having sat with people for years, and undergone therapy myself, his issues almost wrote themselves.
That said, the story is Tony’s story and making him a real boy, with a big back story, made it easier to imagine how the ‘therapy’ would go. In short I did with the writing what I might do with a client; try to use the bits that enable, the bits that could yield insight and the bits that might move things on.
What was the most important lesson you learnt from your whole experience writing Tony Plumb?
J.M. SMITH: I think the most important lesson I learned was to find a balance that was right for me between the advice given from all quarters – editors, friends and consultants and what I actually wanted to do. It’s always valuable to hear what others have to say but steering one’s own ship is the beauty of independent publishing. I‘m glad I self-published. I like my book and it has taken me to lots of places and many new experiences. I think to go it alone the independent author must think about the text and then wait and think again. The pressure I placed on myself to publish and complete the project was immense. It’s really true that once you think you’ve finished – put the manuscript in a drawer and wait. Fish it out six months later and read it again. Then start another round of re-reading and self-editing. I’m glad I did this – it drove me mad, but I’m happy with the result.
Thank you so much for a great interview, and I very much look forward the the next instalment of Tony Plumb's investigations!
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