A Ten Question Interview With The Artist…Bethany W. Pope.

Why do you write? Because I have to? Does that sound too pretentious? In any case, it’s true. If I don’t write, if I don’t have time to do the kind of thinking (the purposeful thinking) that leads to poetry or prose I get headachy and irritable. Back in the dawn of time, when I was attending University, one of my friends would ask me if I’d written anything that morning and if I said ‘no’ she wouldn’t let me eat lunch with her. In order to write I must be able to think in a way that is useful. My mind must have the space to wander, but along real, traceable lines of inquiry. I ask myself questions, about myself, about the world and the people in it, and then I try my best to answer them. I’ve found that exercise, cycling or using the stepper in the gym, can help get the blood flowing, bring on that wonderful focused-yet-relaxed state, and direct my mind down profitable pathways. When I write, I crystalize these ideas in a tangible way. When I was a little girl, I would try to work out the mysteries of the adult world by telling myself stories. I would re-enact parental conversations in ways that reflected the truth, but in a slightly slanted way. Daddy was a bear, mommy was Tatiana. On the surface of their conversation they were arguing about whose turn it was to do the dishes, but really they were talking about their careers and, as a child, I could sense those struggles, so I clothed them in a more appropriate skin. I’m still doing that now, only they are printed out on paper and published in books. The problem with this sort of thing is that it is terribly addictive. If I don’t get enough of it every day it can feel like caffeine withdrawal. Basically, writing is what allows me to be an amiable human being.

What books do you read? Everything. Psychology, poetry, fiction (in a wide variety of genres), biology, anything, basically, that has quality. Generally, I read one book of poetry and one novel a day. I think that if you want to write you have to read. You need to read five-hundred words for every one you set down on paper. And it is important to never turn down a book because of preconceptions that you have about the genre. I read two books yesterday. One was Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. It’s high literature, and anything but dry. Illicit sex happens within the first five pages. The narrator’s grandmother hides a criminal under her four (very dirty) skirts and (while the police hang about for an hour, poking potatoes with sticks) the criminal occupies himself, creatively. I can see why this hit like a cannonball in the 50’s. I also read China Miéville’s rather hit-or-miss collection of dark-fantasy short stories Looking For Jake. The writing was uniformly good, but the plots occasionally flopped. Whatever I read, I read for enjoyment, but I’m also reading analytically. I take great pleasure in understanding how the authors achieve the effects that they do. Tomorrow I’m going to finish Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane and Charles Simic’s collection The Monster Loves His Labyrinth.

What inspires you? Family history, mythology, theology, philosophy, nature, and the odd turns of human behaviour which encompass them all. We are a very weird species, really, full of quirks. We’re fun to watch.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when? Well, when I visited my family in Florida this Christmas my mother showed me my first poetry collection. I wrote it when I was five years old and it’s been in her jewelry box for the last twenty-six years. The poems are all either religious or weirdly sexual in tone (a poem about how it felt for Jesus to be crucified is right next to an ode to a lady’s beautiful bottom, cased in tight blue jeans) and they were illustrated with crude drawings depicting the subjects. So I guess that I have always wanted to be a writer, although I had repressed it for a while. I wrote poetry obsessively between the ages of twelve and fifteen while I was living in a children’s care home, but I wrapped those poems inside of a plastic bag and hid them inside the mouth-shaped bole of an oak tree whose roots were shaped like a giant frog. Who knows? They might still be there. After fifteen, I wrote more sporadically until I started university and it all flared up again. God willing, I’ll never stop.

How Do you deal with rejection? Not well. I get very dejected. I might cry a bit. My husband will generally have to put both of his hands on either side of my skull and apply pressure until the inside and the outside ache reach a bearable equilibrium. Then I will get back up on the horse and start sending things out again. It’s important not to be too self-pitying, or too self-indulgent. Thank goodness, the rejections are becoming much more infrequent than the acceptances. Hopefully soon I’ll get to the point where rejections are rare things indeed. But I think that’s the dream for everyone.

Who are some writers you admire? How much time do you have? Sticking to contemporary (currently living) authors; Helen Ivory, Martin Figura, Carly Holmes, John Langan, Joe Hill, George Szirtes, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, JM Coetzee, Jo Mazelis, David Morley, Robert Pinsky, David Harsent, Helen Oyeyemi, Kei Miller, Vicki Feaver, and Sharon Olds. But keep in mind that I read an equal amount of the classical cannon.

Is writing the only artistic medium you do? I do sketch a bit. But I am bad at it.

What would be some advice you would give to your younger self? Keep going. Keep working. You’ll like who you eventually become. You’ll make it as a writer. You’ll get out of America. You’ll marry well. But, for the love of God, don’t allow yourself to become entitled or complacent. Be your own gadfly, shocking yourself to action.

Do you have any advice for other writers? Frustration is natural, especially when you are just starting out, but things do get easier. Sometimes, it will seem like everything you send out gets rejected, sometimes you’ll have an acceptance once a week, or more. Whatever happens, keep going, keep reading, keep writing, keep drafting, and do not give in.

What is your writing process? I do a lot of work in the gym. My husband and I wake up at 6 in the morning on weekdays. We have breakfast, then I cycle to the gym. I stay there for three hours, working out on the stepper, reading a novel, and writing a draft of a poem or short-story. Then, I go to the grocery store for the day’s shop and think about what I’ve gotten done. I return home, eat lunch, then draft, draft, draft, read some more, and write submissions. Sometimes, if the weather is nice, I go outside, climb my favourite willow tree, and get some work done up there, cradled in the branches. I pause at 530 when my husband comes home. We have dinner together. We talk and maybe watch an episode of Archer. Then I read and write for another two hours after dinner. At 11pm we go to bed and the cycle begins again. I do the same thing at the weekend, but we start a little (or a lot) later. I write quickly, and draft extensively. I wrote the first draft of the novel (Masque, Seren 2016) in one intense week, but then I spent about six months redrafting it. My formal poems tend to be drafted on paper and then transferred to my tablet or y laptop. Working on a stair stepper machine might be odd, but it works for me.

Bethany W Pope is an award winning writer and the author of four poetry collections; A Radiance (Cultured Llama), Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing)

Bethany W Pope is an award winning writer and the author of four poetry collections; A Radiance (Cultured Llama), Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing)


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