‘I write anywhere and everywhere except where and when I’m supposed to’
RB Kelly on her literary life and loves: Mark Anthony, Anne of Green Gables, Terry Pratchett, Ben Elton, observing everything, and the right kind of feedback
RB Kelly: The great irony is that, for all that I’ve spent hours and days and weeks and months trying to understand what the technology of tomorrow will look like, I can barely work an iPhone
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
I have a vivid memory of sitting up in bed reading The Hobbit in bed one bright summer’s evening when I was about seven years old, and being terrified down the stairs and into the safety of my mother’s arms by the scene where the trolls are talking about eating Bilbo. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards, and, to this day, I have still never managed to finish that book. I’ve read (and loved) the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I loved the Anne of Green Gables series, and my favourite was the fifth book, Anne’s House of Dreams, which follows the first year or so of Anne’s marriage to Gilbert Blythe. I haven’t opened it in years – I think I’m probably a bit afraid that the reality won’t match up to the memory – but I remember it as being unexpectedly raw and affecting. There’s a lot of joy in the novel, but also some very dark moments and themes that LM Montgomery deals with delicately but refuses to sugarcoat. It made a big impression on me.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
I love all of Terry Pratchett’s novels, but my favourite is Moving Pictures. I really enjoy Pratchett’s ability to map the Discworld onto some aspect of our own society, and Moving Pictures is where early Hollywood gets the Pratchett treatment. As a film historian, I love all the in-jokes and references to classical Hollywood films: it’s the sort of book where you get an “Aha! I can’t believe I missed that!” moment on every re-read.
What is your favourite quotation?
I am a big fan of Mark Antony, and, though I have issues with the way Shakespeare portrays him in Antony and Cleopatra, I love Caesar’s line on hearing of Antony’s death: “The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack.” What an incredible way to describe the indescribable impact of a death, no matter whose: the world keeps turning, though it’s irrevocably changed.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Sam Vimes, from Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, especially in the earlier books. I think his character arc ran out of places to go in the end, but he’s such a great character – uncompromising and belligerent, but kind and principled almost to a fault – that it’s incredibly satisfying to watch him slowly start to mould the world into a better place in his first few appearances.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I’ve tried very hard to get excited about ebooks, mostly for convenience’s sake: I can get through a LOT of books on holiday, and they take up a lot of space in my luggage. But I just can’t get used to them at all – I think I’ll always prefer the traditional print version. And I love the way a full shelf of books just seems to warm any room.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
It’s not particularly aesthetically pleasing, but the book I’m most excited to own is Mark Antony: A Biography by Eleanor Goltz Huzar. It’s easier to get hold of these days, but when I bought my copy it was out of print and routinely selling for £300 or more. Biographies of Antony are relatively few and far between – though that’s changing – and this was the first one I read. He was a truly fascinating man.
Where and how do you write?
Anywhere and everywhere except where and when I’m supposed to. I have the most beautiful office at home, in a sunroom at the back of the house, surrounded by all my books and with a comfy chair to sit in… and if I’ve written a single word in that room, it was by accident. I am much better at writing just about anywhere else, and I tend to get my best writing done when I should be doing other things.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I usually put a lot of research into anything I write, but Edge of Heaven would probably represent the most research I’ve done so far. I wanted to make sure that the world I was building was believable, which meant getting to grips with what’s currently scientifically possible in order to try and extrapolate a future that could conceivably come to pass, at least according to the laws of physics as we understand them today. The great irony is that, for all that I’ve spent hours and days and weeks and months trying to understand what the technology of tomorrow will look like, I can barely work an iPhone.
What book influenced you the most?
Ben Elton’s This Other Eden. It was the first grown-up science fiction I ever read, and it changed the sort of stories I wanted to tell. Edge of Heaven owes its existence to This Other Eden.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
I’m not sure I would give anyone a book as a gift unless it was something they’d specifically asked for. The love of a book is a very personal thing. I’ll wax lyrical about books I love and I’m happy to lend or give copies to people to read, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable making a selection of a book and giving it to someone as a birthday gift. That feels a bit proscriptive to me.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
I wish I’d started reading Batman comics long before I did, but that’s mostly because (a) I’ve wasted a lot of time not reading Batman that could have been spent reading Batman, and (b) my goodness, there is a lot of Batman backstory to get caught up on.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write the book you want to write. Chances are, you’ll be living with it for quite some time (it took me 22 years from first draft to publication with Edge of Heaven) and you need to love it and believe in it, and be able to sustain that through the inevitable process of rejection and disappointments that comes with trying to move from aspiring to published author. And get plenty of feedback, but be selective about whom you ask. It’s very easy to get the kind of feedback that makes you want to give up and go home, but you need the kind of feedback that inspires you to make your book stronger.
What weight do you give reviews?
I try not to read them! I’m extremely grateful to anyone who takes the time to read and review anything I’ve written, but by the time something is published, it’s too late to make changes, and my first instinct when I see critique is to want to address the problem. I could very easily drive myself crazy that way.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
I’ve developed quite an extensive itinerary of places I want to visit after reading about them in novels. The God Of Small Things is one of the most emotionally devastating pieces of fiction I’ve ever read (and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it; just go in prepared, is all), but Arundhati Roy’s descriptive prose has left me desperate to visit Kerala.
What has being a writer taught you?
To observe everything. I have a mug at home, a gift from my best friend, which says, “I’m a writer. Everything you say or do may end up in my novel.” There’s nothing so small or so insignificant in one’s everyday life that it can’t add nuance or tone or even just that spark of recognition that makes writing feel rounded and real. Being a writer has taught me to experience life in all its glorious details. And to write everything down.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Terry Pratchett, of course. Ursula K Le Guin, too, and Margaret Atwood. Also JRR Tolkein and Neil Gaiman. And then I’d sit quietly in the corner and say nothing for the entire meal so as not to look like an idiot in the presence of geniuses.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
The sequence in Good Omens where the angel Aziraphale swears. I was in tears of laughter the first time I read it.
What is your favourite word?
Splice. I love the way it feels to say and I love the way it sounds.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Cleopatra VII. I’ve actually been planning the novel for years. She’s a heroine of mine: an extremely intelligent woman and a gifted ruler who managed to hold her own against the Roman Empire through a very sensible policy of appeasement, having observed the resistance and eventual fall of all her fellow Hellenistic States in the east. Her affair with Mark Antony is remembered these days as an epic love story – and they were lovers for 11 years and had three children together, so I do believe that love played a part in their alliance in the end – but it was primarily a political decision and, but for a series of unlucky losses in their final confrontation with the future Emperor Augustus, it very nearly set her up as co-ruler of the Roman Empire. Her story has been reinterpreted many times, but I would love to tell my version.
RB Kelly is the author of Edge of Heaven (Liberties Press)