Taster Session- ‘Teaching your Characters to Talk’
Interview conducted by Albie Fasseau
Award winning Author Gillian Best’s debut novel, The Last Wave expertly deals with themes of freedom in the form of Swimming. For this interview, I wanted to delve into the origins of Best’s story, and how her experience as a writer, and lover of swimming, influenced the novel.
Q: Where did the idea of the book come from?
The idea of the book came from a painting my friend Richard Stone did. In the painting I saw a man standing on a foggy cliff looking out to sea. And when I thought about what he might be looking at I knew he could only be looking for his wife, and that she would be swimming. From there, I started writing a short story — the first chapter in the book — and then one thing led to another. I just kept wanting to find out what happened to these people.
Q: What do you find the most difficult about writing?
The trickiest thing for me was keeping the timeline correct. There were some chapters and scenes that I had to write a few times to get it just right, to get the emotion of it.
Q: The sea and swimming are obviously massive themes in the novels. When writing, what did you want the sea to represent to the reader?
I’m not sure I wanted the sea to represent anything. What I mean is that I didn’t actively think of it as a metaphor. It’s the sea and to different people in the book it means different things. For Martha it’s an escape, but I’m not sure everyone else feels that way. Harriet and Iain certainly don’t. For them the sea is something else entirely. Dangerous, unknown. But for Martha it’s the place she feels most herself. And swimming is how she feels free from the constraints of her life. In the water she’s thinking only about herself, she doesn’t have to think about her family or anyone else’s needs. Just hers.
Q: As a swimmer yourself, do you share any of Martha’s own feelings and ambitions?
I’m normally a pool swimmer. I’m the sort of person Martha would hate! Though, since lockdown I’ve had to become more of a sea swimmer — though I don’t swim ‘Channel Rules’, I’m quite happy in my wetsuit. For me swimming is a sort of freedom as well, but it’s more concerned with my body. I have a form of arthritis where my spine and hips are trying to fuse, so I need to keep exercising to keep mobile and manage my pain. Swimming is the best thing for it. So, for me, swimming is a way to be free of the constraints of the way my body works on land.
Q: In terms of the non-linear and less mundane format, what do you feel this adds to your story?
For me, the story follows an emotional arc. Which wasn’t something I did on purpose; it’s just how the story came out. The order you read it in, is the order I wrote it in. I hope it helps the reader see the consequences of the character’s actions, but in all honesty, I didn’t impose that structure on the story, it’s simply the way I told it to myself.
Q: The main characters in the novel present to the reader a fairly dysfunctional family, with each individual having their own personal issues. What message did you want to convey about personal struggles?
Well, I didn’t set out to convey any message in particular — when I’m writing it’s about telling the story. But including characters with complicated stories, complicated and messy personal lives feel true to life and that’s what I want to portray. And from a purely practical point of view, having characters who are constantly in conflict with one another makes my job as a writer a bit easier. I think that by allowing the characters to have the kind of complicated lives that we all do in real life it allows for me and the reader to see things from different perspectives — I mean, one of the great things about reading is that is helps to develop our empathy — when we can start to understand someone else’s lived experience maybe some of that will sink in and we can apply it in our day-to-day lives.
Q: By going from multiple perspectives of characters what challenges did this place?
Switching from multiple first person POV was actually a lot easier for me — I cannot for the life of me manage to write third person well. Having the ability to switch back and forth between voices and POVs also let me show and focus on different angles too, which was helpful with the emotional arc of the story. And it let me control things too: we see the Christmas dinner scene from Harriet’s POV, not John’s. And we see the scene where John’s manager comes to dinner and he and Martha have a horrible fight from Martha’s POV. I didn’t do this on purpose to send any kind of message, it just seemed to me that they were the right lens through which to see those scenes, but upon reflection I see I’ve taken away power from someone who would traditionally have it.
Q: I just want to end with an absolutely ridiculous question! What is the significance of the title; The Last Wave?
Not a ridiculous question at all! So, as I said in a previous answer, the book was inspired by a painting, and the title of the painting is ‘The Last Wave’. I like the way wave could be seen as someone waving goodbye (which is nice in the context of the last scene), and also waves as in the water and the sea. The play on words works well, I think.
It was a lovely experience delving into the inner workings of The Last Wave and interviewing Gillian. This novel both succeeded in being highly emotional and yet thought provoking for me, providing a read that was a completely fantastic experience. Truly, Gillian shows us emotion is what is vital in a developing character, worlds and even your own empathy.
Albie Fasseau is a first year Creative Writing and English Literature Student at the University of Surrey. He will be chairing Sunday afternoon’s novelist reading session with Gillian Best, Michael Donkor and Alex Reeve.
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