Please welcome Jeremy Page to the blog! His new novel, THE COLLECTOR OF LOST THINGS, is now out in the US, and he stopped by to chat with me about it!
I’m so excited that The Collector of Lost Things is now out in the US! Will you tell us a little about the book and what inspired you to write it?
I’ve wanted to write about the arctic for a long time. Like many writers, I’m drawn to its sense of frontier, its vastness and its contradictions – a place of extreme beauty or desolation, depending on your point of view, sometimes teeming with wildlife and in the next glance totally empty. The extinction of the great auk – which happened in 1844 – seemed a particularly pertinent story of what is happening right now in the arctic: it is vanishing at an unprecedented rate, summer sea ice will likely not be there within a couple of decades, and the extinction of the polar bear (in its natural habitat is a given). So far the only concerted response to all this is an international rush and drill or frack for oil. Historical fiction is best when it’s actually writing about modern concerns. So having a collector traveling to the arctic in 1845, awakening his sense of environmentalism in an age where the environment wasn’t an issue was a powerful incentive.
A ship traveling up there, with its confined cabin space, was especially appealing. The ‘Amethyst’ is a narrative hothouse, surrounded by the cold – the ship is really the equivalent of a 19th century spaceship – with all those cooped up passengers surrounded by a void. I had the sense that characters traveling up there in this pressure would have to reveal things – and with the arctic behaving in unexpected ways it gives all the opportunities for a ghost story too, or at least a story that has its own ghosts.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
It’s the first time I’ve written a historical novel, and I found out fairly early on that I couldn’t just land in the middle of the 1800s and expect to know where I was. For me, writing has to feel authentic for the writer if they are going to have any chance of conveying it to the reader. For this novel I researched aspects of contemporary history, ship design, maritime practice, clothing, supply lists, arctic meterology, flora and fauna of the arctic regions, migration patterns, hunting, gun design, vocabulary etc. Once you start it’s hard to stop. I discovered I really like doing long-haul research. Sitting in a rare book section of a specialist library, reading a diary account written by a ship’s surgeon on an 1820s surveying ship, which he wrote on a dismal drizzly day rounding a promontory in the Canadian arctic, and which has possibly only been read a few times since, is a rare privilege.
Of course, the process of research is only about becoming comfortable with the world of your novel. After you’ve done all the research, it’s best to try and forget it, otherwise you might just end up writing a Wiki-novel about all you know, instead of doing what you should be doing – telling a story. Research needs to serve story, not the other way round. But you do have a duty to get things right. Every writer fears the letters from readers where a passage is pointed out: “On page 22 your characters eat biscuits, but I’m convinced that, in actual fact, at that time, the characters would have eaten a scone.” You know the thing. You can feel told off, and unprofessional. But at some point you have to hold your hands up and say that you did your best.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’ve never quite heard it put that way! Of the two, I’m more of a pantser, in that the best passages of my writing have always been those that are written in one sitting, when I’m gripped by the process of writing and feel totally lost in the moment. At those times writing feels immensely satisfying, because everything seems to be at reach and possible – it can be quite a high. And generally you deserve those moments because the rest of the time writing is often a frustrating and sometimes thankless task. Working for an hour on a sentence which is then going to be cut is dispiriting. For me, writing shouldn’t be about following a pre-planned list, because most of what turns up in a book tends to emerge during the journey, so I’m definitely not a plotter. Over plotting tends to kill the creative process for me. But being a pure pantser can be equally scary, as it’s essentially going on that journey without a map.
As far as the when and where I do it – I tend to write in the mornings, and often in the shed at the bottom of my garden here in London.
Do you think your background in film and tv, and your teaching have helped you in your writing?
I tend to write very visually – when I sit down to write I tend to see the scene first and then try my best to transcribe it. It’s quite hallucinatory at times, and if the characters are doing something that I want to do – like having lunch – then I get hungry alongside them. In that way, working in film and TV and working on novels seems to have a visual similarity. But in other aspects it’s vastly different, namely, film and TV is collaborative and sociable, whereas writing novels is solitary and often anti-social. In film and TV the team itself can be wonderful, because everyone brings their own creative expertise to the process – and when it works, you can feel your brainpower is multiplied. When it doesn’t work however, it’s often because the team has multiplied the power of procrastination or distraction, and that’s when you long for the purity and solitude of being an author.
Teaching creative writing is a curious business, because you mostly teach things that you don’t end up doing yourself, like proper narrative structure, character arcs and the like. I’m very often teaching and in my head I’m thinking “mm, this sounds convincing, I should give it a try myself.”
What are a few novels, or authors, that have really influenced you, in life, and in writing?
I tend to swerve this question, as it seems a disfavour to highlight authors in preference for others, especially as there are so many authors I’ve not come across yet. Also, favourite books are like favourite meals – your taste changes. Certain authors should always be on the menu – maybe Updike, Fitzgerald, Monroe – but I always like to mix them with new voices.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just had a look – by the side of my bed is Alain de Botton, Sam Shepard, Seamus Heaney and Richard Ford. That’s not a usual list of bedfellows.
When you’re not busy at work on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
I have three children, all boys, so my free time is theirs. If I’m by myself, I’ll do anything to find inspiration – which is often an allusive and unpredictable thing to find. I can think of nothing better than walking all day and driving all night.
What’s next for you?
For the first time I’m writing two full length projects, going between them when the mood suits. Both of them are contemporary projects, and I’m trying not to listen to publishing chatter abut what I should really be doing, because it can get very confusing out there. I’m assuming one of these projects will wither on the vine and the other might turn into a fourth novel.
Keep up with Jeremy: Website
About THE COLLECTOR OF LOST THINGS:
The worlds of ocean and ice were meeting in a frontier of rage, as if the
Earth had torn in two along this line. This was a place, if there ever was a place, where you could disappear . . .
The year is 1845 and young researcher Eliot Saxby is paid to go on an expedition to the Arctic in the hope of finding remains of the by-now-extinct Great Auk, a large flightless bird of mythical status.
Eliot joins a hunting ship, but the crew and the passengers are not what they seem.
Caught in the web of relationships on board, Eliot struggles to understand the motivations of the sociopathic Captain Sykes; the silent
First Mate, French; the flamboyant laudanum-addicted Bletchley; and most importantly of all, Bletchley’s beautiful but strange ‘cousin’ Clara.
As the ship moves further and further into the wilds of the Arctic Sea,
Eliot clings to what he believes in, desperate to save Clara but irrevocably drawn back into a past that haunts him—and a present that confronts him with a myriad of dangers.