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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Author Interview: Penelope Wilcock

Penelope Wilcock is a Methodist minister who served as a full time pastor to no less than six rural congregations simultaneously. Author of more than half a dozen books of fiction and poetry, she believes, “...that God speaks to us through every smallest circumstance of life,” a life she now makes with a new husband, and new duties in the Aylesbury Circuit in Buckinghamshire, England.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

My novel The Clear Light of Day has just been published by David C Cook. It’s a story about personal searching, exploring where the wellspring of spirituality may be – in the institution of the Church, in personal relationship, in lifestyle. It considers what it is that makes us whole, what heals our souls; and asks a few questions about the priorities we might choose for finding the way of the spirit in today’s world.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

I have been writing work for publication since the end of the 1980’s; mostly fiction, also some poetry and pastoral theology. I was delighted to enter a new contract, because writing fiction is one of my favourite aspects of life, and it is always so affirming when a publisher says ‘yes, we like what you do.’

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

I’m not sure ‘self-doubt’ is exactly it. Not everything I write works; sometimes I have nothing to say, or have trouble getting focused enough to produce writing that meets my own standards – but I always know I have the capacity within me, and I can recognise when something I have written hits the target. It is also helpful for me that the projects I engage in are about communicating what I believe at a very deep level. Living in the light of something greater than myself, and resting the work I do in that bigger context, generates peace and confidence that what I have to say is worth hearing.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

Well, I never really have had any particular strategies. I just follow my nose and offer up my work on the altar, and the right opportunities somehow come along.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that though my agent (Chip MacGregor, who is a wonderful agent) sends me lots of helpful tips and information, I still prefer to trust him and trust the publishers, trust the way life opens up a path and sends along opportunities. I think the best advice is probably ‘Write, and write well’; after all publishers are always keen to find new work and new authors all the time.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

Hmm… I know I deeply distrust anyone who is saying ‘Give us your money and we will make you famous’, ‘Pay hundreds of pounds to go on our course and we will make you rich’, ‘Buy our book and it will make you successful’.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some
time/frustration in the publishing business?

When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea how much time lapsed between the manuscript being accepted and actually having a real proper book to hold in my hands. I think it maybe took about a year, and I was probably imagining it would all be done and dusted in about 3 months. So by the time I finally had a copy of the book, I’d got a bit bored of thinking about it and started to write something else. At the time that felt disappointing. Also, so much of myself goes into one of my novels, that it is wonderful to receive lots of feedback and responses to what I have written: and again it was hard at first to live with the silence of waiting before people began to write to me who had read and enjoyed my stories – and how I treasured their letters when they came! So a writer can save a lot of frustration by learning to detach emotionally from a manuscript that has gone to a publisher.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

My set-backs as a writer arise primarily from lack of discipline. I wander along just being alive when I could be setting aside regular scheduled time for writing. I call it research…

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

I actually have very few books on my shelves, because I have a passionate belief in simplicity and travelling light, and refuse to get my life tangled up in possessions. So I have one big old pine bookcase that my mother gave me, and once that’s (crammed) full I prune ‘em out. But there are some books I never part with.

There is a book still in print after all these years (first published in the 1950’s) by Munro Leaf called The Story of Ferdinand about a peaceable bull who refuses to fight. It is a story I have loved all my life.

David Whiteland is a stunningly good writer. It is a total outrage that his wonderful story A Book of Pages was remaindered, for it is one of the wisest books I ever read; and his delightful martial arts spoof Fudebakudo: the Way of the Exploding Pen never fails to make me laugh.
Ina My Gaskin’s brilliant Spiritual Midwifery was my companion on the journey through the years when my 5 children were being born, and inspires me still; so does Juliette Bairacli Levy’s work, particularly her Wanderers in the New Forest that tells of the time she lived in that part of England, collecting her herbs and chronicling her observations of the countryside.
Tove Jansson’s work is beloved – as well as all the Moomintroll books, her classic novel of such perception and beauty The Summer Book.

Eleanor Farjeon’s mind produced work of such originality; she was a born story-teller, helped along I think by having been educated not at school but at home. The Little Bookroom is a good one.

Two books I have come across recently and really enjoyed are Ann Lamott’s honest and very funny revelations in Travelling Mercies, and Julia Butterfly Hill’s extraordinary courage, purity of spirit and tenacity that unfolds in her entirely gripping tale The Legacy of Luna, telling of the two years she spent living high in a giant redwood tree to save Luna (the tree) from being felled by loggers.

And finally, I will never part from my by now old and rather battered copy of The Family of Man, the book of what is probably accurately described as ‘the greatest photographic exhibition of all time’, celebrating human life and experience from the cradle to the grave.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I am still especially proud of the novel I wrote called The Long Fall. It grew out of noticing that chronically sick and terminally ill people sometimes get marginalised in their own lives: medical procedures and nursing requirements can sometimes take centre stage where a person should have been. And the fear that surrounds disability, sickness and dying can be very undermining of personal relationships. So I wrote that novel to give people in such circumstances a voice, and give them back centre stage, not as patients or victims but as people. I wrote to show that love and honesty can prevail in the most difficult and challenging daily circumstances: and the responses that have found their way to me let me know that I did what I set out to do. I’m proud of that.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Writing, especially writing fiction, generates such energy for me, it’s a real buzz; and through writing I have met some amazing people: it has brought me much to be grateful for and nothing to complain of. Just the tiniest peeve then: it always feels disappointing when (as happens from time to time) people beat their way to my door to ask me what is the ‘trick’ of getting published. I tell them there isn’t a trick; you just have to write well – but I always feel a bit disappointed to realise that they obviously think I had to work some kind of a number to get my manuscripts past the publishers!

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

First of all, I have to have something to say: an actual idea to communicate – I never churn it out just to make money. Then I create my cast of characters and live with them a bit, get to know them. Then I create the basic landscape of the story; its shape. I establish a word length and decide on the number of chapters and allocate the basic events of the story to their chapters so I know where I’m headed. Next I write whichever of those events I feel most drawn to, and continue this until the story is beginning to form, at which point I go back to the beginning and write straight through, incorporating the sections I have already worked on, into the flow of the wholeI read and re-read as I go, checking methodically for details like unwitting repetition of ‘favourite’ words or unusual words that have caught my fancy and been over-used.
As I am rather given to long passages of descriptive writing, at some stage in the process I re-acquaint myself with the work of Raymond Chandler, reading a few pages of (any of) his work to remind myself that it is possible to conjure up a place or a character with the tersest description, relying almost entirely on dialogue and action.

Finding exactly the right word for what I mean is very important to me, so I always have to hand a thesaurus, on the very top of the stack of books I have gathered for background research information.

I am careful to write nothing I cannot authenticate from my own experience (ideally) or at least from the testimony of others’ experience. I watch and listen and look. A novel was once completely ruined for me by a passing reference to the main character being asked to drink a bowl of ‘rich yellow goat’s milk’. I kept goats myself, and therefore knew that goat’s milk is always pure white – it broke the spell and I just couldn’t finish reading the novel: so I have always been particular to avoid that trap myself.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

My dream is that what I have written will make a difference: that my endeavour, to hold the truth of life as I see it before my readers’ eyes like a quiet light, will find its way into reality.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

I quit every time I finish a project. I never, ever know if I will have it in me to do that again.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

I quite like the part where I pay in the cheque for the royalty advance…
I enjoy the actual crafting of a book, the challenge & the focus, the creative buzz.
I love it when a publisher says ‘yes’ – it’s so affirming.

What I find really uncomfortable (I’m living this bit at the moment) is the time that goes on for ages when I’m just thinking: just mooching around and thinking; just trying out a bit of this and a bit of that and thinking, nothing to show for it but thinking. You see, I am married to a publisher, and his end of the business is fast and furious, knocking out projects like a machine – I find it a bit embarrassing sometimes, just wandering down the track thinking… until finally an idea starts to flower, and at last I know ‘yes – that’s what I want to say’.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

Ah. Now, I am a bit funny about this. You know I said I am into simplicity? Well part of my commitment to a life of simplicity involves not promoting myself. I don’t do myself down, but I am very wary of the push and shove and inherent anxiety of chasing success. So I don’t do it actually. I offer what I have to give, and leave it at that. I believe that all of life is God’s good gift, and all its benefits are a kindness and grace, including any talent I may have or ability to earn and provide for myself. I believe I have a responsibility to contribute my own light and hope and strength, and I trust that it will find its way to where it needs to go.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

It is more welcome than I can express when someone takes the trouble to write to me in response to what I have written – as though someone has found my message-in-a-bottle washed up on the shore where they are, and got in touch. But of all the responses that have come to me, it meant so much to hear from monks and nuns who had read my The Hawk & the Dove trilogy, letting me know I had got it right, I had understood the life: and to hear from people struggling with disability or bereavement, letting me know that what I had written had found them where they were. It means so much.

Parting words?

I think writers of fiction do themselves a favour if at least some of the time they travel by public transport. The car is a very isolating invention; and chancing upon human interaction, overhearing conversation, witnessing encounter are so important to stimulating imagination and creating believable stories.


  1. It is so encouraging to read that others have the same struggles. My husband is a work-a-holic-- full time fireman, part time volunteer, runs his own landscaping business... and here I am staring out the window, lounging with books, gazing at the computer screen. I know I LOOK lazy. And I feel lazy. But this is what being a writer looks like sometimes.
    I love your answer to the "have you ever thought about quitting" question. I always think I probably have no more stories in me. Wonderful interview. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this interview. I enjoyed it so much. I'll be interviewing Penelope in the future so it was great to get to know her a little bit. (I know her husband because he acquired and edited my novel.)

    By the way, I loved Ferninand too!

  3. I'll always love Ferdinand, too. I need to get your novel. I love British fiction, I suupose since my hubby is a Brit. :o)

  4. I absolutely love The Hawk and the Dove trilogy. It is one I re-read every year or so. I love Peregrine's wisdom and humility so much, and cry for him that it comes at such a price. I love every monk in the place, and I love the girl and her mother as well. I want to take tea with them and curl up in front of the fire and hear a St. Alcuin's story! THANK YOU!

  5. I love love love the Hawk and the Dove trilogy. I read it every year or so because I want to visit the characters again. I love Peregrine's wisdom and humility, but I cry for him that it came at such a price. And I want to curl up on the sofa for tea with the young girl and her mother, and hear a story from St. Alcuin's. Wonderful books.


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