Writing? It's about Listening; Lorne Jackson Talks to Author Helen Cross about Her Creative Process - More a Case of Sly Observation Than In-Depth Research

The Birmingham Post (England), September 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Writing? It's about Listening; Lorne Jackson Talks to Author Helen Cross about Her Creative Process - More a Case of Sly Observation Than In-Depth Research


Byline: Lorne Jackson

Helen Cross - novelist, scriptwriter, teacher - has a terrible and thrilling secret that she is moments away from divulging. Is she hesitant? Not a jot.

As she leans across the pub table where we're chatting, a rebellious schoolgirl grin hop-scotches its way across her face.

Then she confesses all: "I never do research.

Never! I make it all up."

She laughs delightedly. At first I think the remark is a sarcastic reproach to my last question. Maybe it was too obvious to enquire about the author's working methods. I should have taken it for granted that she does oodles of background study.

Isn't that what professional novelists do, after all? If you choose, for instance, to write a novel set on a farm, then you must interview a farmer. And the farmer's wife. Then prepare a series of hard-hitting questions for his pigs, geese and Friesian cows to answer.

Plus, it wouldn't hurt to spend a month in a chemist's laboratory, analysing the molecular compounds lurking deep within the caked mud of the farmer's Wellington boots. It all adds up to that highly prized aura of authenticity, you see.

Tom Wolfe swears by research. He spends years unearthing facts that might prove useful. Sometimes he immerses himself so profoundly in his subject he neglects to write the novel.

Martin Amis is another true believer.

At the end of an Amis novel there is usually an exhaustive and exhausting list of nonfiction tomes he scanned before getting on with the business of making stuff up.

That's not the Helen Cross way. It turns out that the Moseley-based author - who will be leading a short story workshop at this year's Birmingham Book Festival - isn't being facetious.

Research really is a no-no. Which I find especially surprising since her latest novel, Spilt Milk, Black Coffee, is about a white single mother who has an affair with a young, religious Muslim man.

A subject that requires delicate handling, I would imagine, and a certain amount of background info.

However, there is method in Cross's absence of method. Her way is not an excuse for waywardness.

"Research is an obstacle," she says breezily.

"I don't want to be one of those writers who's thinking all the time, 'Did they have chimney sweeps in 1930? Ooh, better not put them in my book, just in case.' "I just go, 'Chimney sweeps? Why not!' "Afterwards, I think, 'Oh, I'm not sure about that. I better check it.' But the danger is that now you're at the whim of lots of unreliable evidence. Google or Wikipedia can be completely wrong. So I tend to just press on with the energy of the writing. When you start amassing lots of facts, like a big fortress round your novel, it can kill it, really "Besides, does anyone really know if I've made certain little things up. Or forgot to check? "I write a lot in the first person. Characters are unreliable by their very nature. Elle, the twelve-year-old daughter in Spilt Milk, Black Coffee, for instance, tells part of the story. She's very unreliable.

She's quite a racist girl at the start of the story, and she doesn't know what's right or wrong."

It makes sense that Cross doesn't want to get bogged down by a swamp of stodgy stats. The female struggle to be emancipated from a life of drudgery and convention is a theme traced through all of her novels. So why would she want to be shackled to a rusty chain constructed out of dull details? Besides, it's not really the case that Cross doesn't do her homework. It's just regimented research that she dodges.

Like a particularly insightful sponge, she absorbs what she needs from what is going on around her.

Spilt Milk, Black Coffee is set in her native Leeds, though it was influenced by Asian students she met while teaching creative writing courses in Birmingham, where she has lived for the last twelve years.

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