Jeff Phelps was born in New Brighton. His stories and poetry have been widely published, most notably in London Magazine, and he was winner of the Mail on Sunday novel competition in 1991. He is married with two grown-up children. He lives in Bridgnorth, Shropshire and works as an architect in Wolverhampton. Box of Tricks is his second novel.
How did the idea for your recent novel come to you?
My memories of New Brighton in the 1960s were very strong, but confined to a few events and many sensory things – smells, half-remembered scenes and conversations, family stories, lots of laughter. There was the usual teenage confusion mixed with an understanding that the place was changing and so were we. I wanted to write about it, to see whether I could put together a story that would make sense and appeal to other people.
How has the place you live in / grew up in shaped your work?
Places are important to me. I’ve written about most of the places I’ve lived or worked in – Birmingham, Shropshire, the Black Country and now New Brighton. I spent an important eight years of my life in Swansea and another five years in Oxford so there’s scope for writing still to come.
How has your job informed your writing or affected it in any way?
I’m an architect. That can help in obvious ways, but in surprising ones, too. For instance, I understand the structure of a story in a similar way to the structure of a building: a story needs to be strong, I think, and recognisable. Designing a building is about imagining in all its detail something that doesn’t yet exist, so there are similarities there, too. Also, I think I have a visual eye for people and places and for words on the page. Finally, the people I’ve met through my work have provided me with ideas and characters. It’s good to keep one foot in a practical world.
What drives you to write? What keeps you going?
Knowing that I’ve got something to say and that I’m reasonably good at doing it. Encouragement keeps me going – from readers, family or from my writing group friends. Inventing worlds, being imaginative, knowing that words are the way I express myself most naturally. Reading keeps my going, and a story that needs to be told.
Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write? If so, who do you write for?
I do try to make my writing accessible and understandable and I’ve become more aware of a writer’s need to keep his/ her readers engaged, but it’s a very personal link between author and reader. I know the guide books say you should know your audience, but it almost seems arrogant to include some readers and not others. I’m delighted by everyone who enjoys what I write and I try and learn from the others.
Are there any writing ‘rules’ that you follow? Any that you break?
I follow most of them and stray from them all, intentionally or otherwise. I’ve always liked Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules for writing: keep your hand moving; lose control; be specific; don’t think; don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar; you are free to write the worst junk in the world; go for the jugular. These are writing rules, though – to get the words flowing. Sooner or later you have to look critically at what you’ve written, but that’s a different process. I love the unexpected nature of research, too. For Box of Tricks I visited the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and was allowed to open a box of shipping tickets and dockets. I’m sure I could still smell the coal smoke. Handling them was more revealing than any amount of reading.
Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any particular habits?
I’m much better in the mornings, so I try to write early. I really like those quiet hours before the distractions of the day have started. I sometimes manage to get a couple of hours in before I drive over to Wolverhampton where I work. I’m not very good at settling down for long periods to write – especially at first draft stage and after a while I need to move around and do something quite physical – perhaps go for a walk or dig the garden or walk down the hill into Bridgnorth if it‘s a weekend. These can seem like distractions but I like to think the fallow times are helping a story develop and mature. Once it’s committed in first draft I’m able to spend longer at the page. I actually enjoy the editing process and can work later doing that.
What are you reading at the moment? Which books or writers have influenced you the most?
I’m reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift, and a couple of manuscripts that friends have asked me to look over. I’ve been influenced by so many writers – Orwell, Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Raymond Carver, Dylan Thomas‘s lyrical word magic, American women writers like Carson McCullers and E. Annie Proulx. I’d like to think I’ve absorbed their words subtly and that their influence isn’t too obvious.
What are you working on now?
I’m starting a novel about memory. I’ve done some research and have written around half a dozen separate openings – all of which I thought worked at the time, but none of which were quite right. It was a great initial idea, but I’ve struggled to know how to develop it, how to make the best of it. There seemed to be one ingredient missing. Now I think I’ve found what I was looking for and I’m enthusiastic again. I hope it works.