MC Interviews Novelist Diane Chandler

We caught up with Diane Chandler, novelist, Merit Club contributor, and all round lovely lady, to chat writing, inspiration, critics, and womanhood, and what it means to blur the lines between the personal and the fictional. Winning The People’s Book Prize for fiction in 2016 for her first novel The Road to Donetsk, and with the recent release of her second novel Moondance, the future is certainly a creative and exciting one, and we were so delighted to have the chance to find out what it’s like to be living life as a writer in 2017, and the successes it can bring.

MC: Your enthusiasm for literature and writing is infectious, so first of all, we have to find out what it is about writing that you love so much and why have you decided to pursue your passion for it?

DC: I’ve always loved reading but only began writing my first novel about twenty years ago. I guess you could say that I cut my teeth on that one – it’s still in a drawer and will never see the light of day! Since then, writing has become an absolute passion. Something which absorbs me so totally and with such joy, that I am totally unaware of time passing. It’s like wearing a visual reality helmet and entering a scene, walking around within it and bringing all your senses to bear – how does it look, feel, smell, taste, sound? I may be sucked into writing for hours, with no notion of life happening around me. Just the best thing ever!

MC: Wow! What an amazing passion to be able to absorb yourself so fully into. It certainly seems that there is a powerful intensity with your work and a personal attachment to your writing. Would you say this is the case? You bring to light such personal and sensitive issues in Moondance, so we were wondering how you may find that experience, and translating so many people’s realities into fiction?

DC: Moondance does draw on my personal experience of fertility treatment. I wanted to write a novel which pulled no punches on the tests and treatment, the hope and despair, and I did pour my own journey into the book – even though it is fiction and the story itself is not at all my own. I have found so many readers have identified with the novel, telling me it has helped them bring a voice to their own fertility experience, and also understanding among their family and friends. Some of the factual scenes are so graphic and emotionally raw, that I kind of deal with them as an out-of-body experience – as if they didn’t really happen to me. But they did…  

MC: With this intricate relationship between the personal and the fictional in mind, could you let us know a little bit more about how you create and develop your characters?

DC: Character is key to a good novel. Your main character must go on an emotional journey, which brings about some sort of change within them at the end of the book. Take Girl On A Train, for example, where she starts off unhappy, out of shape and an alcoholic, whereas by the end, having come to terms with her demons, she is serene and tee-total! Slightly simplistic, but you get the picture? I also believe that characters with some kind of an edge to them, or even those harbouring dark secrets, are more satisfying. In my choice of Cat, I avoided a fluffy female protagonist at all cost...  

I try to build as rich a profile of my characters as possible, even if I don’t use all the detail, and I tend to put them into situations I myself have been in, and see how they might react. For example, Cat is in control and entitled – some might say she’s ‘a bit of a madam.’ One day I watched a woman driving in front of me park on double red lines to drop her dry-cleaning off, blocking us all. And I thought, ‘yes that’s what selfish, egocentric Cat would do.’ She never actually does this in the novel, but that’s her nature. I did enjoy writing her – some of the time with a tiny purple devil on my shoulder!

MC: We couldn’t agree more, that this darker sides to protagonists can be so captivating. It can make you question your allegiance to them, and your own decisions too. It’s so great when a novel can make you question your own beliefs! Do you feel a responsibility in any way to tap into this, especially when conveying female characters in your novels?

DC: I try to dig deep, to make my characters as rounded and believable as possible, flaws and all. And don’t we all have a darker side? Can’t we all see something of ourselves in unlikeable characters, even if it’s well hidden inside us? Having said that, I did anticipate that many readers would not like Cat, at least at first, and that some may even put the novel down. However, for me the challenge was steadily to create empathy for her, by dragging her through such awful times in her quest for a baby, and seeing her humbled. As one reviewer put it, ‘At the start I wasn’t that keen on Cat. By the time I was two thirds through I was rooting for her as if she was my difficult but beloved friend.” In contrast, with my first novel, The Road to Donetsk, my female protagonist, Vanessa, was a lovely young idealist, a bleeding heart who wanted to save the world. Nonetheless, at one book club event, a woman banged her fist on the table and told me she was patronising and arrogant! I hadn’t expected that…!

MC: And that must be a crazy feeling… putting your work out there for people to scrutinise and judge! It must be difficult anticipating everyone’s reactions as everyone is so different… but exciting too! Thinking of just how different everyone’s responses can be, is there an approach you take when you are working on the authenticity of your writing?

DC: Well both my novels are a mélange of memories, research and imagination – with imagination making up the lion’s share. To date, I have drawn on my life experience and fictionalized it. However, it’s crucial to weave memories and research carefully into the fiction. Otherwise it can stick out like a sore thumb, sitting starkly and awkwardly in the story, without adding any value. For example, I needed to put some IVF facts and figures into Moondance, so I wrote a scene where the consultant is explaining to a nervous Cat her chances of conceiving, while she is writing it all down in a suede notebook which is grubby from her sweaty palms. This way, I try to get across her feelings as key and hope that the reader absorbs the facts subliminally.   

MC: Thinking of this idea of the subliminal, and messages through fiction, would you say that you set out with any particular intent when you are writing your novels… say, do you think about any kind of impression you would like to leave on the people reading them... or do you just write in the moment and let the process absorb you?

DC: The Road to Donetsk definitely had a political goal at its heart. I wanted to bring to life the daily realities of an overseas aid programme and the people who work in aid. Let’s just say that it’s not always as benign as many people might think. In Moondance, again, I wanted to explore a reality. This time the blitz on a relationship and how the couple react to their  problems. I chose fertility issues, but the onslaught on them could also have been caused, for example, by acute financial pressures or perhaps an affair. The novel’s themes are universal really – love, trust, sex and marriage. As to a lingering impression for my readers, I would like people to be left thinking they’ve just read something a little unusual.  

MC: Looking to your life as a writer and your own experiences, how do you deal with the challenges of the cut-throat publishing world?

DC: My amazing publisher, Blackbird Books, is beside me every step of the way in nurturing and promoting my two novels. Blackbird is a small, independent publisher, however, and we have fun and games trying to get the books out there alongside novels from mainstream publishers. My local Waterstones in Chiswick is very supportive, and recently we did an event at Waterstones Brussels, where a chapter of Moondance is set.  

MC: That’s really encouraging to hear! And with this positivity and the great responses you have had so far, we hope there is another novel on the way? Can you give us any hints at what you will be working on in the future?

Well I’m about 30,000 words into a new novel, which is set in Chiswick! It’s about a woman in her mid-forties who is wondering what to do next with her life, now that her daughter is about to fly the nest. This novel does not draw on my personal experience, as my own daughter is much younger, and I’m quite happy with my life, but I’m having fun researching the relationships of mothers with their late-teenage daughters!

We are so excited to see how this novel evolves! Women have such powerful stories to tell, share and communicate, and we couldn’t encourage any woman enough to give any form of writing a go, for expression... for confidence... for insight. With Diane as inspiration, there’s such space to be creative, to strike at sensitive topics, and to spark discussion. You’ll never know how other people will react to your creativity in any sphere, be it writing, art, in the work-place... any form of artistic expression… but that’s the power of it. There lies the excitement.