WORK/LIFE: Paul Mendelson

The British author of four crime novels chats to us about his writing life.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing is the brushstrokes of a piece of art. I am trying to create something which will transport my audience into a different world for a period of time, hopefully entertain and absorb them, perhaps excite, frighten or stimulate them.

If you meet me, you might well say that I am outgoing, gregarious and self-confident, but this is only half of my character. Writing allows the introverted, privacy-seeking, introspective side of me to tell stories.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a psychological crime novel set in the UK, having spent the last few years solely writing about South Africa. It features a new set of characters and a brand-new protagonist which, having written four books in a series (to which I will return) is liberating and exciting, if somewhat daunting.

After focussing on intense heat, water shortage, political turmoil and blinding sun, it is strange to be back in the dark, damp, dank world of England in the winter. South Africans love cloud, precipitation, dark – I hate all those things. However, the English countryside is an interesting setting and my characters also spend time in London around Christmas, with all its desperate attempts to look festive and bright. I find it all dismal, and therefore an ideal world for my disparate collection of witnesses, suspects and villains to inhabit.

Describe your workspace.

In London, a tiny spare-room study at the back of my house; in Cape Town the sofa in a beautiful little house, half way up the slopes of Table Mountain, with views for miles. Perhaps you can guess which I find the more inspiring place to work? However, for non-fiction writing which, for me, is just a matter of getting my head down and putting in the hours, London works really well. For creative writing, there are just too many distractions, as well as being under the flight path into Heathrow, surrounded by traffic, and coping with dusk at 3.30pm.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I don’t have a particular time of day although, in the past, it has certainly been after 9pm and into the early hours. If I have prepared myself the day before, I can sit down after a hurried breakfast and the words come. Again, there is a big difference between non-fiction – which just requires discipline and application – and creative writing for which I have to be in the right mood, with my ideas in order, my mind undisturbed by the pressures of the real word, and wholly absorbed in the world I am trying to create.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I try to work on non-fiction instead, or do something practical or physical. I have suffered from chronic depression my entire life and, for me, even tiny incremental achievements, which I can mark off in my mind, help to dissolve the threatening black wave that is rolling towards me. I treat being stuck with my writing in the same way. I try to achieve something, anything, and build from there.

I used to be very rigid when writing, and not allow myself to jump ahead or re-visit work until I had completed a draft. I find that a more relaxed approach seems to be working better now, so if I can’t move forward, I might review scenes I have written earlier and try to enrich the start of the novel with the legend of the character as he, or she, has developed in my mind throughout the process.

How do you relax?

With great difficulty. Half my brain is creative; half logical, deductive and never resting. So, I rarely relax, but instead seek to distract myself as much as possible. I love reading, movies, theatre, playing golf, dog-walking, even driving. In South Africa, I treat myself to a weekly massage. Even then, my body may be de-stressing, but my mind is racing

With so many non-fiction books under your belt, what inspired the move into crime fiction? 

I have always loved crime fiction, especially that of James Elroy, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais; Mark Billingham, David Peace, Val McDermid, so I have been inspired by reading them. The playwright, Sir David Hare, wrote that the form of a crime novel is a reassuring one: both author and reader know what, ultimately, they are going to get. Simply, however, I write books that I think I would enjoy to read, and I hope that others enjoy them too.

What has inspired you to set your novels in South Africa?

South Africa is an amazing setting for a crime novel because of its turbulent political past, and present, it’s recent history, the underlying crime rate, the proximity of rich and very poor. It also helps enormously to love the place you are writing about – it certainly makes it a hugely pleasurable experience for me – so there is the contrast between the Cape Town which visitors see, and some residents inhabit, and the dark underbelly which every city hides. Here, in Cape Town, however, the contrast is so great, because the city is so beautiful, the people so friendly and warm, to stay there so uplifting and inspiring. To contract with this, just read Jacques Pauw’s ‘The President’s Keepers’ to see the depths to which certain echelons of society have sunk.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

William Goldman writes in his seminal work, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ that no matter how diamond-bright your ideas may be in your head, when you try to put them on the page they become earthbound. This may not be advice, but it is a warning, and it is a battle which, I guess, all writers face.

My ‘literary’ editor, Martin Fletcher, advised me with my first novel – and I have tried to remember this advice from then on – that characters must live not simply within the confines of the novel, but have lives before it, and at least a hint of how their lives might be afterwards. For characters to be believable, to absorb and engage the reader, we have to try to make these two-dimensional beings seem truly alive, and that is what I strive to do.

Actually, I have thought of the best piece of advice: Never tell anyone the story you are writing. Once you do that, the urge to tell it on the page dissipates. Keep it to yourself, and reveal only when you are ready.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

I am sure that authors all have different aspects of the craft which they find hard. For me, it is maintaining interest in the story once I have written it, re-written it, honed it and submitted it. I react to the comments and observations my editors give me. This is all fine. Then, proof readers and copy editors ask me questions. At this point, I’m thinking about the next story, full of excitement and optimism, and I just wish they’d leave me alone. However, I am lucky to have very patient proof and copy editors, and eventually they get out of me what they need to do their jobs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

First and foremost: Write. All the time. Don’t agonise, or procrastinate, or make excuses, just write. One line, one paragraph, a scene, a chapter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rubbish or genius, one way or another, it will help you to develop as a writer. You may want to forget it, or you may use as the first line of your masterpiece. Just write.

Next, read. It doesn’t matter what, although I think it should be writing of the genre that you want to inhabit. Learn what you enjoy and try to analyse how your favourite authors achieve that effect. Then, try to emulate them.

Don’t fixate on others reading what you’ve written. If you like it, if you think it has merit, that’s wonderful. However, maybe wait six months or a year after finishing it before deciding your opinion on it.

Finally, don’t expect to make much money: do it because you love it.

Mendelson’s latest book, Apostle Lodge, is published by Constable.

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