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Interview with Michael Arditti: “My own process is one of constant refining and polishing.”

Michael Arditti is the author of twelve novels, including Easter, The Enemy of the Good, Jubilate and The Breath of Night, and also a collection of short stories, Good Clean Fun

He has contributed articles for the Dictionary of National Biography and was for three years a judge of the Somerset Maugham award. He was a Harold Hyam Wingate Scholar in 2000, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in 2001, a Hawthornden Fellow in 2005, and the Leverhulme artist in residence at the Freud museum in 2008.

Michael won an Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Award in 2003 and Arts Council Awards in 2004 and 2007. He has lectured on Swan Hellenic cruises around the world. He was awarded an Honorary D.Litt. by the University of Chester in March 2013 and appointed a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London, in February 2018.

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Hi Michael, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m the author of twelve novels and one collection of short stories. I’ve written about the legacy of fascism in the context of making a film about Unity Mitford and Hitler in 1970s Munich in Unity and about an editor’s efforts to sustain his provincial newspaper in Widows and Orphans.

However, a recurring theme in my work has been the nature of faith and the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, from my first novel, The Celibate, about the struggles of a gay ordinand, to the forthcoming The Choice (due out in June 2023) about an Anglican priest’s discovery that the panels in her church were painted by a sexually abusive artist.

Prior to The Celibate, I wrote several plays for the radio and the stage, with moderate success. I realised that such talents as I have are better suited to the expansive form of fiction than the concentrated conflicts of drama.

Can you take us behind the creative process for your latest novel, The Young Pretender

The Young Pretender tells the story of the Georgian child actor, Master Betty, who was a sensation throughout the British Isles, playing great Shakespearian roles, including Hamlet, Romeo, Macbeth and Richard III at the age of thirteen. After two years of unparalleled success, he fell from grace and retired from the stage. My novel is set during his brief comeback at the age of twenty.

It’s the first novel I’ve written with a theatrical background, although the theatre has played a significant role in both my private and professional life. I acted at school and directed at Cambridge. As previously mentioned, I wrote several plays, then, for many years, my day (albeit evening) job was as a theatre critic, first for the Evening Standard and later for the Sunday Express.

Many years ago, I went to an exhibition about the Georgian playhouse at London’s Hayward Gallery. It contained a small selection of playbills, caricatures and memorabilia on Master Betty. I was fascinated by the figure who had been such an attraction in his day and then faded into obscurity. He remained at the back of my mind until I found a way to write about him: as the very unreliable narrator of his own story during his abortive comeback.

The novel required extensive research, less into Betty himself, about whom there is only one biography, along with a couple of academic studies, but into the theatre and society of his time. From the start, I was determined that Betty’s voice should be authentic, so I read countless novels and memoirs of the period. Access to the Oxford English Dictionary was invaluable, since it not only records the first usage but the first usage of any given meaning of a word.

After the research came the writing and then the equally important – I might even say creative – cutting. The Young Pretender is my shortest novel by a good 40,000 words, since I felt that Master Betty’s story should be as brief (and, I hope, glittering) as his career. 

What does a typical day in your life look like when you’re in writing mode?

Like many novelists from Proust and Edith Wharton to, more surprisingly, Mark Twain, I write in bed. I am a ‘morning person’ and start work at about 7 a.m., continue until lunchtime, after which the rest of the day is my own to read, relax, see friends, do household and administrative chores and so on.

The precise number of hours I spend writing depends where I am in a book. When I’m writing a first draft, I work intensively and at speed for a maximum of three or four hours. When I’m writing a second, third or fourth, I work for longer. I’ve just corrected the proofs of The Choice and, although I’d have been able to work on them all day, I had to stop for ten minutes every half an hour or so, when a form of word blindness set in.

Do you have a word count that you like to hit each writing day? 

I never set myself targets. Once again it very much depends where I am in the writing process. At some points in the first draft, I’ll write two or three thousand words – many of which won’t survive the second one. When it comes to the final draft, I’m content with a couple of hundred. I’ve always been envious of writers whose intentions are so clear that they don’t make changes. I once sat at dinner next to Elizabeth Jane Howard, who told me that she never rewrote a word! My own process is one of constant refining and polishing.

If you could give just one piece of advice to a writer trying to get published, what would it be?

The most obvious one, which is to believe in yourself and never give up. I think I’m right in saying that a recent Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain, was rejected by more than thirty publishers. My own first novel, The Celibate, was rejected by seven or eight. While not achieving Shuggie Bain’s level of success, it remains in print and continues to attract readers. If a work is original, meaningful and truthful enough, it will find a home, although I’m the first to acknowledge that the publishing world is considerably harsher than it was in the early 1990s when I wrote The Celibate.

Could you talk more about that last point? What’s changed in the past couple of decades that has made the publishing world harsher for unpublished writers? 

My evidence is anecdotal, but I understand that publishers have become less adventurous. Sales and marketing teams and accountants now have a far greater say in whether to buy a book. Commercial pressures are huge and the space devoted to fiction in the press and mainstream media has been slashed.

I know from friends who teach creative writing courses that it’s often the most marketable (attractive, quirky) students who are taken on by agents, rather than the best. Even more injurious, to my mind, is the importance attached to a social media presence, although I accept that younger writers are more accustomed to it.

Just to wrap things up, can you describe what your writing workspace looks like?

I write in bed so it’s a king-size double, with lots of space on the unoccupied side for reference books, papers and essential supplies of chocolate. The room itself is airy, with wardrobes, a chest of drawers, night tables, paintings and one of the many bookshelves, which are distributed around the flat. I do have a study, in which I do residual work in the afternoons. It’s that which is pictured here.

Photo of Michael’s writing study (courtesy of the author).

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