In the autumn of 2014, I read the first pages of The Gift of Looking Closely and fell in love with Al Brookes’s way of looking at the world. Two years and hundreds of hours of work later, my translation of her novel is slowly finding its way to Swedish readers. A few weeks ago, I did a short interview with Al for a book club guide, and I thought I might share it with you.
You wrote The Gift of Looking Closely in second person, daring the reader to really look at the world through Claire’s eyes. In which ways was it different to write a story from this perspective? Did it make the story more intense for you as a writer as well?
It felt like a very natural way for me to write, much more natural for me than the more common first or third person. As for making it more intense – yes. Writing ‘you’ all the time made me feel intensely connected to the reader as I was writing it. Like I was telling the story intimately, to just one person.
The forest and the nursery where Claire works are important settings in the novel. What does nature mean to you and how has it influenced your writing?
There is nothing more beautiful than nature, is there? Especially close-up. So I’d say nature has challenged me to find the words to share how I see it. I want you to see what I see.
When did you decide to include the element of ghosts in the novel? Did you plan this from the beginning or did they turn up along the way?
I hadn’t planned the ghosts. Nanny Bee turned up first and then the others followed. To be honest, even after finishing the novel, I am still undecided about whether Claire actually sees the ghosts or simply invents them – might they be the strange imaginary friends of an only child? I don’t know.
What were the greatest challenges and joys of writing The Gift of Looking Closely – and why did it take ten years to finish it?
The hardest challenge was that I was already working as a freelance writer, meeting deadlines, often under pressure. It was often very difficult to summon up the creative energy to do even more writing in my free time. That’s one of the reasons it took so long to write. Another was that as it was my first novel – and I had no experience of finishing a novel before – I don’t think I ever really quite believed it could be finished… Or perhaps I wasn’t ready to become the person who had written a book, rather than the person who was still writing one. Finishing it was a great joy. Hearing from people who loved reading it is a great joy.
Around the time you finished The Gift of Looking closely, you were given a diagnosis of cancer. What was it like to release a book while fighting cancer?
Having cancer was a big motivator for me. I didn’t want to leave the planet without making my book real, without sending it out into the world. I’m grateful for the way the diagnosis focused me on what was important. I’m grateful to be completely well again now.
Could you tell me about your writing group and in which ways you support each other?
The group came together because we had all been studying creative writing together on a two-year course at Sussex University. When the course ended, we were very keen to carry on supporting one another, and we’ve been getting together now for about 15 years. We write together, taking turns to come up with exercises. And we listen to one another’s latest work. I have to admit that we don’t work as hard at it now as we once did – we used to rigorously critique each other’s work. Now we tend to provide encouragement more than criticism, cheering each other on to write as much as possible!
In which way has your relationship to writing evolved over the years?
I remember writing as a child as a much easier process – the words came readily and I was unself-conscious. Writing for a living really stifled that spontaneity. Every word had to be considered and reconsidered. I managed to unlearn some of that whilst writing The Gift of Looking Closely, but I feel I have some way to go in the process of reclaiming a more risky, less considered voice. I’m hoping to give that freer reign in the second novel.
What are you looking forward to right now?
I’m excited about the next book – I love the plot that is revealing itself and the quirky characters. I’m looking forward to finding it easier to write than the first one!
You can read more about Al Brookes on her website and The Gift of Looking Closely can be purchased as a paperback or an e-book on Amazon. My Swedish translation of the novel, Det som andra inte ser, was published in September 2016.
Next week, I will share an interview with Finish photographer Joni Niemelä, who shot the beautiful cover photo for Det som andra inte ser.