26 April 2022

Abbie Greaves: ‘I’m still surprised by the strands which join together and provide me with original entry points into a story’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

We are delighted to welcome Abbie Greaves to the Curtis Brown Creative teaching team, she is the tutor of our upcoming Edit & Pitch Your Novel – Advanced course. Abbie is the author of The Silent Treatment and The Ends of the Earth. Her novels have been translated into over a dozen languages, selected for the Radio 2 Book Club and shortlisted for the RNA Debut Novel of the Year Award. Abbie worked in publishing for three years, including at Curtis Brown as literary agent’s assistant to Sheila Crowley, before leaving to write full time. When Abbie worked at Curtis Brown she was a regular visitor to our students, offering her perspective from the agenting side of the business, and we’re chuffed to welcome her back into the fold.

Here Abbie shares insights into her writing process. From finding inspiration to tackling the rewrite…

We’re very excited to welcome you to the CBC tutor team! You’ll be teaching our upcoming Edit & Pitch Your Novel – Advanced course. For you, what’s the most rewarding part of teaching creative writing?

Always the human connection. Writing is such a solitary endeavour, so making connections through creative writing teaching feels particularly special. You never know what small observation, made only maybe in passing, might unlock someone else’s story. It’s exciting!

Before becoming an author, you worked at Curtis Brown literary agency. Did your time working on the other side of the desk help influence your writing?

I always say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – tending towards a net neutrality. What was influential was seeing the nuts and bolts that go on behind publication from the writer’s point of view. No book arrives on the shelf fully formed and seeing the hard work and perseverance that every author puts in, first-hand, was hugely inspiring as well as influential.

You would think, then, that I’d be smart enough to dodge the writing bullet myself! But no, I also learned that when you have an idea that lights you up, it’s worth pursuing. It’s cliché, but so much of writing is the journey and learning to enjoy following that spark is the first step.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I was the caricature bookish child, reading everything I could get my hands on, but until I worked at Curtis Brown I’d never known an author – my parents’ friends had what I would (still) call ‘sensible jobs’ (!) and my school weren’t pushing people towards novel-writing either. Once I started working with Sheila (Crowley) in 2015 and meeting some of her brilliant clients, it started to make me think that real people could have their stories published. That was a game-changer.

You were inspired to write your debut novel The Silent Treatment after reading a newspaper article about a boy in Japan who had never seen his parents speak to one another before. Where else do you look for creative inspiration?

Reading is probably my number one source of creative inspiration – news articles, profiles, social media posts…Whatever I can lay my hands on, basically! But my inspiration is always fused with other strands, say a lyric in a song that gets me thinking about a specific emotion, a conversation with a friend or an old film that plays on interesting character traits. I have endless notes on my phone which I scroll through periodically. I’m still surprised by the strands which join together and end up providing me with the most original entry points into a story.

Your latest novel The Ends of the Earth has a brilliant hook. The story follows Mary, who has stood at Ealing Broadway station with a sign that reads: ‘Come Home Jim.’ every day for the past seven years. Do you have any advice for writers searching for a unique approach to writing a story?

Thank you! I’m always looking to write something a little bit different, a story that perhaps hasn’t been heard before, or pitched in a way that makes readers think: ‘that sounds unique.’ But it’s a hard task! My advice to other writers is two-fold: firstly, to keep their ear to the ground for novel, stranger-than-fiction situations in everyday life and secondly, to always think about a subtle, sixty-degree twist that they could put on their ‘hook’. Someone once told me that, with writing, we’re not looking to reinvent the wheel but to spin it in a slightly different way. I wish I could remember who said that now – because the wisdom has stuck!

What’s been your favourite book of 2022 so far?

May I have two? If so, my first would be The Golden Couple by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen – it’s a smart suspense novel about a maverick therapist who becomes involved with a seemingly perfect married couple who have been rocked by a recent infidelity. It has the most amazing page-turning quality to it. My second would be Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka which is about three women affected by the actions of a serial killer now on death row, Ansel Packer. There’s a crime vein there, obviously, but the novel is so much else too: a beautiful character study, a meditation on how women are treated by the justice system, an interrogation of capital punishment.

What does a typical day of writing look like? Do you have any routines or rituals?

I try to avoid rituals and routines because writing is hard enough as it is, without adding superstition into the mix! If you can manage half an hour’s head-down writing time in amongst all the other chaos and busyness of everyday life, then you’re already onto a winner in my books. I would add that consistency is key – if you can hit that half-hour every day then so much the better – but don’t forget that time away from the desk is important too. I can be guilty of forgetting this myself.

Can you share three top tips for those in the middle of rewriting a novel?

My first would be lists. For me, this helps keep the scale of the task in check. It can be so overwhelming when you’re trying to, say, fix a particular plot-strand but you keep noticing some dodgy characterisation or a piece of description that makes your skin crawl. Jot the other issues down somewhere else so you know that you won’t forget to come back to them – then revel in the little piece of brain space that’s been cleared by doing so!

The second would be layering. One of the greatest joys of rewriting for me is being able to ‘fill out’ my novel. And I don’t mean in word count! I mean by stretching into your characters, revealing their contradictions and their nuances, by rounding out scenes and scenery, adding flourish and finesse. Rewriting can be a total joy when you see these small additions bringing a whole manuscript to life.

And finally, because I’m on an alliterative jag, I’ll say: look back. Try and take a moment every (writing) day to think about how far you’ve come. It’s a monumental feat to finish a novel-length story and regardless of how bad you might think the content is, the commitment that takes is something that should inspire you to keep pushing forward.

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