Saturday 17 October 2015

A conversation with Lucy Cruickshanks

Lucy Cruickshanks was born in 1984 and raised in Cornwall, UK. She holds a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She lives on the south coast of England and divides her time between writing and caring for her two young sons.

Lucys’ love of travel inspires her writing. A great fan of the underdog, she’s drawn to countries with troubled recent histories, writing about periods of time when societies are at their most precarious and fraught with risk. She’s fascinated by their uniqueness and moral ambiguity, and in capturing the people who must navigate them.

Her debut novel, The Trader of Saigon, began life after she sat beside a man on a flight who made his fortune selling women. It was shortlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and the Guardian Not The Booker Prize, longlisted for the Waverton Goodread Award and named a Top Ten Book of 2013 by The Bookbag. If you want to learn more about Lucy's first book, Simon Savidge, the man behind Savidge Reads, reviews it here.

Patricia Highsmith, Amitav Ghosh and George Orwell have all influenced Lucy’s writing, but her favourite books are Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In an article for Writers and Artists, Lucy talks about the importance of setting in novels, and what it can tell readers about your characters too: Creating a Memorable Sense of Place in Your Writing

We wish Lucy oodles of good fortune with her new book The Road to Ragoon. Described by the South China Morning Post as “Exotic, dangerous, slippery, enjoyable, well-written…” This emotional thriller takes place in the heart of Burma's exotic Rubyland. Three lives are thrown together by the desperate choices they make to survive in a country gripped by civil war.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

My husband persuaded me to write my first novel, The Trader of Saigon. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I had been saying ‘I want to write a book for as long as I could remember, but without ever picking up a pen. I’d been bouncing between jobs that I struggled to get excited about, and travelling as far and as frequently as I could to try to escape them. He encouraged me to think about writing and travelling differently, and to see that I could make these things my career if I stopped procrastinating, took a risk and actually wrote something. I left my job, enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in the UK, and gave myself a year to write a novel and get a publishing deal. Of course, this was wildly optimistic, but at the end of the year I had a first draft, and real drive to see just how far I could go.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think of being a writer as a job. It’s a wonderful job, though maddening at times, but calling it a role implies some sort of higher responsibility, which I’m not sure I feel. I write the stories I’m excited and inspired by and hope others will be interested to read them too. That said, I love the sense of adventure at the start of a new novel, where anything you can imagine is possible. I love research. I love the detail of language, of choosing words to build sentences, paragraphs and chapters along the way as I try to create the most evocative places and people that I can, and provoke emotions in the reader, be they horror or joy. I love the sense of accomplishment when you look at the finished beast and think: YES.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Absolutely. If anything, it’s what I strive to do. My novels are set in morally ambiguous worlds – post-war societies riven by poverty, corruption and violence – where it’s far too simplistic to pitch ‘good’ against ‘bad’. Living in the West, it can become easy to see the world as very black and white – to filter what is right and wrong through a privileged viewpoint as we generally live such comfortable lives. My protagonists don’t ever have this comfort, and their decisions of morality are rarely clear cut. They have been described as ‘slippery’, but really they’re caught between opposing sides, stretching the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ behaviour and doing what they must in order to survive. It may not always make them most conventionally likeable, but I hope it makes them authentic too.

4. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I have two sons – a toddler and a newborn – so in truth I’d be happy with anywhere tidy and quiet. A sea view would be a bonus, though.

5. What is the one book you wish you had written?

There isn’t a single book I wish I had written, but there are certainly several authors I would like to emulate. One of my favourite novelists is Patricia Highsmith. I love the darkness of her wit, and the way she creates genuine anti-heroes and somehow leaves you rooting for characters that are utterly deplorable. Amitav Ghosh’s mastery of language is a joy. The way he can capture the essence of a time and place continually astounds me. I admire George Orwell for how he champions the underdog and his caustic judgments on the nature of power. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a triumph too. How he manages to make three hundred pages of a boy alone on a boat so captivating is a wonder to behold.

6. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Don’t romanticise it. Writing is a skill as much as it is natural ability, so the more you practice, the better you’ll get. Read lots. Research thoroughly. Seek feedback, but learn to separate subjective criticism from the things you really need to have a hard look at. Make sure you understand your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be precious. Draft and redraft. Persevere.

7. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The novel I’m currently working on is set in Cambodia, against the backdrop of the trial of Comrade Duch, the first senior ranking Khmer Rouge official to be charged with atrocities committed under the Pol Pot regime. It’s early days and a long road ahead of me, but I’m excited to be working on something new.

You can follow Lucy on Twitter: @LJCruickshanks

The Road to Ragoon is published by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus.

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