In conversation: Richard Pelletier and John Simmons

In which John Simmons and Richard Pelletier chat about a new novel from John, staying productive as a writer, social media, and reading.

Richard:
John, you’ve just published The Good Messenger. Early reports are highly favorable and congratulations are in order. You’ve got another in the works. How do you stay so productive in the age of social media? What’s your schedule? Do you write every day? Do you set word count goals?

John:
I suspect my answer will disappoint those creative writing gurus who seem to recommend a monastic approach with set hours and recommendations of ‘get up early, do two hours before the rest of the household wakes up’. I am far less disciplined in my writing habits – with one exception.

First, I don’t impose a daily requirement to write on myself. That doesn’t mean I forget – a new book is always in my head, but forcing words out is not productive. I carry a notebook around and I make notes. That can happen at times when a notebook isn’t to hand, for example when I’m out running. I find my Sunday morning run (about an hour) is always a good space for thinking about my novel. It requires memory and instant resort to the notebook as soon as I reach home. The one exception I mentioned is that I always work for a few hours on Friday evenings – it’s a habit that dates back 30+ years. I look forward to it as I write better then than any other time of the week.

Most of the week I’m working on other projects: copywriting, running workshops, brand consultancy, organising projects for 26 etc, etc. Social media is a natural part of that world. I like a lot of it, but try not to get caught up in unproductive encounters.

Richard:
Despite the fact that you say you are far less disciplined than the tyrants who tell us all what we should be doing, you’re doing something right. You keep kicking out new books. You’ve made a huge contribution to the lives of many writers on matters of language and constraints and creativity. I think you have something else to offer your community of writers—how you, John Simmons, work.

John:

John Simmons, at work, surrounded by Dark Angels.

Much of it, I think, comes down to experience. The more I write, the more I can write. The more I write books, the more books I can write. Many people are daunted by the thought of writing a book, so it looks like an enormous obstacle to overcome. I want people to get past that obstacle so, as well as my individual books, I’m proud to have made it possible for many (hundreds?) to become published authors as contributors to books for Dark Angels and 26.

There’s also ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’. I rarely turn down any invitation to write. I have terrible work habits – I’m rarely unavailable. I take holidays, but I stay in touch through emails, Twitter etc. I’m an electric plug always on. Things happen, invitations come in, I respond. I don’t have an ‘out of office’ message. When I’m doing something that I love, why would I want to avoid it? It’s an aspect of my mantra ‘Only connect’.

Part of this is working on several projects at the same time. Diversity of work stimulates me, and I often find that projects magically feed into each other, and they spark new ideas.

But we’re all different. I wouldn’t recommend my way to anyone and I’m sure you have a completely different approach. We each have to find our own way. What’s yours?

Richard:

Richard Pelletier in his new writing shed, not writing, paralyzed by the appearance of a new book by John Simmons.

I’m pretty undisciplined myself, except when I’m not. As far as my own writing goes, depends on the project. For our book Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies, I was so head over heels in love with that story, and I was so determined to tell it well, I wanted to work on it all the time, and so I did. As you know, I’ve been working on a novel since before the Big Bang. Once I’ve decided I’m back into it, I can hit it hard and consistently for long periods and get a lot done. Where I get stuck on that project is that I want separate and special blocks of time only for that. And if I have set that up and I begin, I’m good. But when that bridge falls, as it inevitably does, it’s hell getting it back up again.

I’m not a word count person, but I often work in three or four hour spans. I use an app called Focus Booster. It clocks your working sessions in 25 minute chunks. Then you get a five minute break, then you’re back on the 25 minute clock.

So I’m curious about you and social media. Only (and always!) connect. I’m interested how it affects your reading. All of us, are more or less struggling to read as much as we once did. How are you faring in these distracting times? When do you fit reading in?

John:
Your app sounds like my idea of hell. Which just proves ‘We each find our own way’. I find my own way with social media and I’ve found twitter useful for marketing, occasionally research, and some serendipitous connections that I always love – for example with the Basque community about my Spanish Crossings novel and the story behind the story.

I wish I were a better reader, I wish I read more books. I did most of my reading when I was young and no longer have the attention span for reading that I once had. But I believe in the importance of reading, more than ever. In recent years I’ve been reading with the purpose of informing my writing.

So, for example, three important works of fiction behind The Good Messenger are The Wind in the Willows, The Go-Between and Mrs Dalloway. They’ve all been important books earlier in my life (such a joy to reconnect with them); they had stayed in my memory, like old friends, and now they’ve inspired my latest writing.

Richard:

Reconnecting with beloved books is one of life’s most sublime pleasures. I’m about to reconnect with Foster, a beautiful, beautiful novella by Claire Keegan. Gillian Colhoun gave me her copy of this book (along with a hair-raising tale of the author) when we were at Moniack Mhor. I see this young girl, in a house that is not hers; I see her in the kitchen helping with chores, I see the fields, and the garden, and her father in the kitchen as he leaves his daughter…

Postscript: In poking around the Simmons twitter feed for this conversation, I made the startling discovery that not only do John and I have wives with the same name, worship Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, cook from the same cookbook, we also both revere the last Raymond Carver book, A New Path to the Waterfall.

In conversation: Craig Watson and Therese Kieran

[Having recovered from a boisterous and wonderous gathering of Dark Angels at Hawkwood College, Craig Watson and Therese Kieran discuss the lighter side…]

CRAIG:

The incomparable Mr. Watson

When we did the Oxford Masterclass together last year, Gillian Colhoun introduced you as a poet. Later that weekend, when you shared your ‘personal piece’, I understood why. After three days of intensive writing and a hearty supper at High Table, I only recall that your poem had more snap, crackle and pop than a bucketful of Rice Krispies and that I fell a little bit in love with you as you read it!

But it was your other poem – the one John asked you to reprise at Hawkwood as an example of some of the great writing produced on Dark Angels courses – that really struck me. You wrote the first section before you flew to Aracena for the Advanced course and, amid the comedy, you convey a clear sense of trepidation for what might lie in store.

So, with reference to your own experience of Dark Angels, and for the benefit of anybody thinking about attending a course, can you tell us why we ought to be afraid?!

THERESE:

She who is always in the light, poet Therese Kieran

Hah! Great opening question Craig. The obvious response is that one ought not to be afraid, and I’m sure not everyone is. In fact, there must be lots of Dark Angels newbies who bound up to their first course like excited puppies.

Think about it: there’s a certain mystique about the courses. Advance information is kept to a minimum and relates mostly to where, who and why, with little indication about exactly what you’ll be doing. This is one of the key strengths and I’d urge anyone thinking of doing a course to arrive curious and eager for the blank page. And there’s another anxiety. What will you fill your blank pages with? How will you fare? Will you be outranked and face the imposter syndrome plank? Will you buckle under pressure and run for the emotional-wreck-step? Will you survive the nightly imbibing, the communal set-up, the pairings and sharing of words?

Well the truth of the matter is not only did I survive, I thrived. And I’m not going to lie, I carried a lump in my throat sometimes, shed the odd bucket of tears too, but that’s me – my mother used to say that my bladder was too close to my eyes…!

But what about you, Craig? Did you have any pre-course anxieties? As I asked in my Hawkwood poem, ‘What did you expect?’

CRAIG:

It wasn’t so much pre-course as just after I got there: everything’s alien and I’m trying to suss out this bunch of weirdos – probably literary-genius-weirdos – that I’ll be spending the next few days with. I start to relax when there’s no crummy corporate icebreaker demanding some ‘interesting fact’ (these were always a trial for me until I had a pee with Suggs). Before long, my ‘vert’ decides it’s okay to lean extro, but the chitinous armour stays fastened. As the exercises progress, civility cedes to vulnerability until, about two courses in, I’m finally prepared to expose the wizened lump of gristle that serves as a heart.

How would you describe the peculiar brand of magic that is Dark Angels?

THERESE:

There’s no hard sell, simply the promise of something special. Introductions are gentle, no fuss; employ a ‘come sit by the fire’ approach that puts you at ease almost immediately. Place plays an important role in every Dark Angels course and adds to the adventure. From Moniack Mhor’s remote hill-topped croft above Inverness to the brightly coloured Finca el Tornero in Aracena; then to the time-worn grandeur of Merton College, Oxford and more recently to savour mid-summer like never before at Hawkwood College, a giant beehive nestled among Cotswold valleys. Each one offers specialities of the season and locale designed to support the transition to an immersive process that is completely different from everyone’s day-to-day. So that’s the first spell.

Next there’s the informal manner in which we are invited to partake in proceedings. And yes, the ‘crummy corporate ice-breaker’ is banished! There’s no platform upon which to assert one’s literary or business accomplishments; no CVs, just BE – be who you are. There are a few common denominators – that we share a love of words and a goal to be better writers – but there’s never an agenda, a pack, a name badge, a PowerPoint presentation or an evaluation questionnaire. These seem alien to Dark Angels’ ethos. But in the absence of such corporate norms lies a clue to expect the unexpected; be prepared for surprises – which is also how and why the magic happens. None of it would have been possible without the combined talents and individuality of its founding triumvirate – aka John, Jamie and Stuart – whose ingenuity, attention to detail, respect for everyone and general bonhomie drives writers to aim for the very best they can deliver on each task.

So yes, there’s magic – in people, place, purpose and play. But how do you resurrect the magic once you’ve returned to ‘normality’? Do you have a little piece of Dark Angels gold that sustains you?

CRAIG:

Actually, it’s bronze: a small statue, like the three wise monkeys – but with John, Stuart and Jamie – all sitting together cross-legged on my writing desk. Most nights, I’ll stay up till 4am tidying away the leftover wine, then I’ll rise at dawn and sing a few rounds of Ubi Caritas before knocking out a couple of screenplays, a short story, three haiku, a sonnet and six minutes of automatic writing; all before showering, shaving and shouting at the kids…

Aye, right! But I’m not sure I ever quite got back to ‘normality’, even before I got roped in on the business side of things. Our three founders certainly conjured up something special and, frankly, the magic deserves to be spread more widely than they can manage by themselves between book launches, festival appearances and the like! So, we’re making efforts to offer and fill more courses (which is a sure-fire way for folk to maintain the Dark Angels buzz) and we hope to get a bit less haphazard in how we keep in touch with our ever-expanding choir.

A consequence of this corporatisation is that we’re obliged to track our ‘net promoter score’, which means you’ll have to finish up by completing a short evaluation form summarising your Dark Angels journey as pithily as possible. The choice of form is up to you.

THERESE:

Craig, ‘corporatisation’, ‘net promoter score’?! I sense some slippage. Quick, get yourself signed up for a Dark Angels one-day refresher course!

I’ll give you a freshly-brewed sestude, exactly 62 words, that sums up where I think the journey has taken me thus far, but not before saying how wonderful it’s been to chat about Dark Angels with YOU and to thank you for making me laugh (again and again). Were it not for Dark Angels, this would never have happened.

Out of the Dark, This

To consider my purpose
to discover I am not the main event
but a conduit, the glue, a bridge
an unmarked crossing left off a map
vital to those who find it
useful, reliable, secure
fit for purpose and more
A brilliant misnomer
for there is light, always
in sign or slight suggestion
in head and heart connection
in conversations held, dear