Author of 26a, The Wonder & Ordinary People
Interview conducted by Tenikah Beveney.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a Spread the Word writing workshop at which Diana was co-hosting the session with Michael Donkor. I felt incredibly lucky to be able to hear Diana read the opening section of her latest novel Ordinary People, a book which has been an exciting and inspiring read for me. Not only did we get to hear a reading, but we managed to obtain some inspiring advice from her as a successful writer. Diana is a powerful source of wisdom, and anyone who has heard what she has to say would agree. So, I was extremely excited when I had the chance to interview Diana, this year’s headliner, over email this past week. I wanted to uncover more about her writing process, what influences her, and more about the author behind her fantastic books.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your most recent publication, Ordinary People, and how the idea for the novel came about?
Ordinary People is the story of two 30-something couples grappling with relationships, aging and parenthood in late-noughties London against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s first election. I was inspired by my desire to see black lives normalised and presented in ordinary domestic settings, their internal psychologies acknowledged and given space on the page, away from the overriding themes and preoccupations often associated with representations of people of colour in fiction. I was also inspired by novels of marital breakdown by John Updike, Richard Yates and James Salter, and the New York portraiture of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children.
Q: Ordinary People is influenced by a variety of contemporary events both abroad and within the London setting which the book is based. What type of research (if any) do you do before sitting down to write a first draft of your novels?
I do the smallest amount of research possible before I begin to write, just enough so I have the facts straight but not too much detail as too much research can be obfuscating, I want to feel as free as possible while I’m writing. If I’m writing something more historical, such as my second novel The Wonder, some of which is set in Jamaica in the late fifties and west London’s Portobello in the sixties, then more preliminary research is needed. For that book I read a lot of dance biographies and geographical histories, while for Ordinary People I read a lot around the history of the Crystal Palace, became quite obsessed actually! I like my novels to have a layered effect and to weave history into contemporary landscapes.
Q: Your interest in history and its relevance to contemporary landscapes, was that an interest you had before your writing career or something you have developed along the way?
I’ve always been interested in history and it was my strongest subject at school. I enjoy the adventure and mystery of exploring other times, other lives. So, it always seems to leak into my writing about the contemporary, as a backdrop and a mirror and juxtapositioning.
Q: What do you think is the hardest thing about writing?
The hardest thing is maintaining the faith to keep on going until the end. It’s very hard to complete a novel and it always feels to me like a mountain. When I get to the top I feel both elated and that I can never achieve it again. Every project begins with the question of whether it is possible. There is enormous risk. The process of climbing, building and completing is the answer to the doubt, slowly winning.
Q: I’ve recently been trying to write my first novel, but I am finding it difficult to keep the momentum going. I still have a passion for the project. I think it’s more to do with being worn out from throwing so much at it within a couple of weeks, when I’m used to writing in a short form. Do you have any advice for ‘maintaining your faith’ and productivity though-out the first draft process?
It’s best to get the first draft done as quickly as possible and then let it sit for a while. Then take longer, as long as you need – it can take years even – on the second and subsequent drafts. It’s very hard to finish a novel, like climbing a mountain. At one point during writing 26a I gave up, but it wouldn’t let me go and I went back to it after a time. Sometimes you simply need a break, to work on something else for a while, or just stop writing for a while. If it returns to you, then it means it has the potential and the spark to be finished and become real.
Q: What would you say is your main influence(s) when it comes to writing?
I’m influenced and inspired by many writers, such as Jean Rhys, James Baldwin, John Updike, Richard Yates, Toni Morrison, James Salter, Chinua Achebe, Ali Smith. I’m always reading. Books are like food to me. They’re my friends and they help me connect with myself and feel my way through life. Music and visual drama are also important inspirations, music for its energy, bright hope and power.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
‘The secret is to have faith in your work and to enjoy it’. I read that somewhere and it’s always stayed with me. Faith and pleasure are crucial in writing.
Q: Do you have any particular favourite rituals or treats during the writing process?
I need gallons of peppermint tea and I like to write in a high-up place like a loft or upper floor. I also need pure silence and usually use earplugs, in silence, so I am in the inside of silence. When I’m finding a project really hard, I will burn some grapefruit essential oil in an oil burner and it helps me stay in the room.
Q: How do you come up with names for your characters?
I love the naming process. It takes ages to find and settle on the right one, though sometimes it’s quite quick, a character will appear with a strong identity and almost tell you the name, like Mr Rogers in my second novel The Wonder. I write names down that I hear around that I think I might want to use and I have a baby name book. I think about the assemblage of the names as well as the individual contexts of them. They have to feel natural and random and work alongside each other, as a cast.
Q: Some writers say that they tend to ‘write what they know’ or that their characters are in some way an extension of themselves. Do you like to develop characters that you see yourself in? Or is this not essential or the case for you as an author?
I sometimes draw characters from life, others are drawn from research, or amalgamations of reality and fabrication. I usually start from something real to give me a solid ground, and then I can travel into the magic where people emerge and develop all by themselves. I do have to feel some personal connection or fascination with the world of the book, be that through a character, place, activity or event.
Q: Do you have a specific writing schedule and setting in which to do it, and if so, could you tell me about them?
When I’m working on a novel I like to work on it every week day between around 10 and 3, school hours, maybe returning to it in the evening or doing some work on another, shorter project. I need to keep up momentum and regularity otherwise my faith loses energy. I have to be alone when I’m writing so I usually work at my desk in my study at home, or sometimes go on retreat to write (Hedgebrook in Seattle in the US has been my favourite place so far).
Q: If you didn’t become a writer, what other career would you have chosen and why?
I was a dancer before becoming a writer and had to choose between the two so I might have still been dancing, or making dance. I loved the theatrical setting as a place of work, and it made me very happy. Otherwise I would probably have become an editor or something to do with words, because I love words, manoeuvring and building meaning with them.
Q: I enjoy dance and performing too! You have a lovely ‘flow-like’ quality to your work, a musicality. Do you think your background in dance has influenced your style of writing? Perhaps even the idea for your second novel, The Wonder?
The Wonder was inspired by having been a dancer – I wanted to see if I could evoke actual physical movement through words and their rhythm. Writing does often feel like dance in terms of the movement and agility of sentences, and the arrangement of a novel is evocative of choreography – positioning, pace, layering, all those things are important and create a sense of pattern which I am always aiming for.
Q: Do you have a favourite author or book to read and who or what is it?
Anything by James Baldwin.
It has been fascinating receiving these responses from Diana and she offers such great advice, tips and tricks along the way. Being able to dive into her routine, thought-process’ and seeing where her fantastic ideas have stemmed from, has given me both inspiration and excitement about the work I am creating. I can take away many things from Diana’s words, but the main thing I’m left with is a renewed sense of energy and excitement to churn away at my book. A new motivation to write daily and get to the top of that mountain. Diana’s headlining session will be on Saturday evening of our virtual festival where I will be chairing her event. I can’t wait to throw more questions her way and to learn more about the brilliant craft of storytelling.
Buy Ordinary People
**WINNER OF THE SOUTH BANK SKY ARTS AWARD**
‘Diana is so amazing when it comes to writing about humans and relationships… about how we change, grow, and fall away from each other… I don’t know anyone who’s as skilled as her’ Candice Carty-Williams, Oprah Magazine
Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning. Melissa has a new baby and doesn’t want to let it change her. Damian has lost his father and intends not to let it get to him. Michael is still in love with Melissa but can’t quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Stephanie just wants to live a normal, happy life on the commuter belt with Damian and their three children but his bereavement is getting in the way.
Set in London to an exhilarating soundtrack, Ordinary People is an intimate study of identity and parenthood, sex and grief, friendship and ageing, and the fragile architecture of love.
‘I just finished Ordinary People by Diana Evans and it is utterly exquisite. What a writer she is – the depth of her insight, the grace of her sentences. WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING ALL THIS TIME NOT READING HER?’ Elizabeth Day, Twitter
**WINNER OF THE ORANGE AWARD FOR NEW WRITERS**
‘A remarkable first novel…vibrant…exotic’ Sunday Times
Identical twins, Georgia and Bessi Hunter, live in the loft of 26 Waifer Avenue. It is a place of beanbags, nectarines and secrets, and visitors must always knock before entering. Down below there is not such harmony. Their Nigerian mother puts cayenne pepper on her Yorkshire pudding and has mysterious ways of dealing with homesickness; their father angrily roams the streets of London, prey to the demons of his Derbyshire upbringing.
Forced to create their own identities, the Hunter children build a separate universe. Their elder sister Bel discovers sex, high heels and organic hairdressing whilst the twins prepare for a flapjack empire. It is when the reality comes knocking that the fantasies of childhood start to give way. How will Georgia and Bessi cope in a world of separateness and solitude, and which of them will be stronger?
‘Diana Evans’s fiction is emotionally intelligent, dark, funny, moving. The sheer energy in her novels is enthralling. A brilliant craftswoman, a master of the form, she makes the reader ask important questions of themselves and makes them laugh at the same time’ Jackie Kay, British Council and National Centre for Writing’s International Showcase on Britain’s 10 best BAME writers
Tenikah Beveney is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who is one half of the duo social media and website marketing team for the festival. She will be chairing Diana’s headlining session on Saturday evening during this year’s festival.
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