Eleanor Updale: The Last Minute
We talk to author Eleanor Updale about her latest book, The Last Minute
Tell us about your new book, The Last Minute. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
The Last Minute is the story of the final 60 seconds before a series of explosions devastates a small town. The reader knows from the very beginning that disaster will strike, but for the characters whose lives are going to be changed it is just another day. My hope is that as the clock ticks on (with each chapter covering just one second) readers start to worry about some of the characters, willing them to move away, or even secretly to hope that some of the less attractive ones get what they deserve.
The inspiration for the book came from the welter of disasters that have featured in the news in recent years.
At the end of the book, you do find out who lives or dies, but you can also go online and visit www.eleanorupdale.com/minute where you will discover even more. There's the official government report on the disaster, radio and press reports from the day, and tribute sites celebrating some of the victims. Just as in the real world, the portraits of the dead are sometimes unduly flattering. People who have read the book will be able spot inaccuracies and injustices I've written in to the web material.
The inspiration for the book came from the welter of disasters that have featured in the news in recent years. The cliched way in which they are now reported gave me the idea for showing that the range of people involved in big events is far wider than the press would have us believe. Not every dead schoolchild was an angel in life. The reality of victims' lives is much more interesting than the glorified characteristics imposed on them after death.
Plotting and constructing this story must have been incredibly challenging. How did you approach it?
It was like having a complicated film running constantly as a background to my life
At first, I drew up a big plan. After a few false starts, I decided that rather than writing each second in full before moving to the next, I would write one character through from beginning to end, and then paint on the others, one by one, building up the layers as I went along. This soon led to great deviations from the plan, as new ideas affecting one character led to changes for all the others. Before long, I just abandoned my chart, and kept the whole thing in my head. It was like having a complicated film running constantly as a background to my life. I got ideas for new characters and events all the time - often when there was no chance to write them in straight away. Each change could make the whole thing fall apart - a bit like a game of Jenga. It was not easy, but I hope the difficulty I had doesn't show in the finished book.
The majority of your previous books, including Johnny Swanson and the Montmorency series, have historical settings, whereas The Last Minute is set in the present day. What are the differences between writing historical fiction and contemporary stories - and which do you prefer?
Funnily enough, there are many similarities. The key to historical writing is to do masses of research, but then to set it aside and let the plot take over. Don't flaunt your hard work, and be prepared to leave out things you spent a long time researching if they don't serve the story. For this book I spent ages timing everyday activities, but I hope the book doesn't clunk like a machine.
In both cases, what you are trying to do is to paint a convincing picture of a world without dumping information in the way of the plot.
It was interesting for me to write this book in the present tense. It seemed to me that it suited the setting, mood and pace of the story. People who know me well may be surprised by that, because I often complain about the current literary and broadcasting fashion for using the present tense at all times. I think it works here, but I would never write an historical story in the present tense. I will continue to moan about historical writers and commentators who insist on saying things like 'The king is detested. His admirers are in hiding' when there is perfectly good grammar for placing those events clearly in the past. Why write in confusions, and deprive yourself of shades of meaning? It seems barmy to me, and rather insulting to the reader, as if they don't have enough imagination to get close to any character surrounded by the the words 'was' and 'then'. It's particularly irritating when people swoop between the present and the past when they are talking about the same time.
When it comes to writing about the present, I think the biggest trap is to try to be too precisely 'modern'. It's a mistake to force in slang or gadgets that might be incomprehensible, or obsolete, within months of the book coming out.
Which other authors for children and teenagers do you particularly admire?
In my ideal world, books would not have the authors' names on them: they would stand or fall on what is between the covers
I really don't like naming names, but I admire anyone manages to avoid the temptation to keep waving a flag saying 'look at me, I'm writing'. In my ideal world, books would not have the authors' names on them: they would stand or fall on what is between the covers. I accept that that is never going to happen. I have a lot of time for people who don't see themselves primarily as writing for 'children' or 'teenagers' as such. My aim is to write books that young people will enjoy, but which can be read with satisfaction by people of all ages.
I'm a bit impatient with people who think that the only things children can relate to are naughtiness and poo, and that they can only 'identify' with people exactly like themselves. Those things have their place, but all readers deserve richer fare.
Do you have a 'writing routine'? When and where do you prefer to write?
The only regular thing about my writing pattern is interruption. I used to get upset about the way family commitments and other work kept me away from my writing, but now I accept that a lot of the creative part of writing takes place away from the screen, and that being forced to deviate from a regular routine is a blessing. Our brains do a lot of their work unsupervised.
When it comes to the business of putting words on the page, I tend to work in very long bursts - often all night long.
Once the first draft of a book is done, I work very methodically on revising, revising, and revising. That's the real work of writing, and failure to do it is the reason so many people fail.
You're one of the contributors to group blog The History Girls. Tell us a bit about the blog and what you like about being a contributor.
In just over a year The History Girls blog has become quite an institution. Writers of historical fiction take it in turns to produce a fresh post every day. We are each assigned a regular day of the month - mine is 25th, which means I get Christmas Day. We can write about whatever we like: what we are researching, books we've read, exhibitions we've seen, or our own family history, and so on. The standard can be frighteningly high. It can be a bit intimidating be in such company, but it's good for me because I keep away from other Internet activities such as Facebook and Twitter. I know that if I started dabbling in them I would never stop. Having the 'homework' of doing my History Girls blog every four weeks wires me into the electronic world.
I also do a blog for David Fickling books -- that's a bit jollier. Do take a look at both of them:
It may sound odd to have to say this, but don't do it unless you enjoy writing. I'm amazed by the number of people who say they want to be writers, but really mean that they want to be interviewed on TV, earn lots of money, and sit in bookshops with long queues of fans clamouring for their autograph. Apart from the fact that there is hardly any money in writing these days, those things aren't what it is all about. The joy of disappearing into the world you are creating on the page exceeds any recognition you could get for it afterwards (which is just as well for most of us).
The joy of disappearing into the world you are creating on the page exceeds any recognition you could get for it afterwards
There are a few practical tips I could give:
- Never break off at the end of sectIon - always write the first few words of the next bit, so that you can pick up quickly when you get back.
- If you think you are writing rubbish, keep going, but change the colour of the type, so that you can see that you need to come back and fix it later. You may find it isn't that bad anyway, just as you may have to accept that bits you thought were inspired genius are actually complete piffle.
- Never be frightened to throw out something you have worked on really hard. It may have been difficult because it was trash.
- Don't talk to people too much about what you are writing. There is nothing worse than a book written by committee. When you have finished the first draft - and have something to share with someone you really respect, and who won't flatter to you - try to be open to constructive criticism. You don't have to make the changes people suggest, but their observations may set your mind off in a way that will enhance your work.
- Steer clear of creative writing courses unless you have reason to suppose that they are exceptionally good. Don't believe anyone who tells you that if you obey certain 'rules' your book will be a success. You will notice that none of the people who peddle that line have actually written readable (or successful) books.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing the fifth episode of Montmorency. It is going to be published online first, so it may not be long before you can read it. The working title is Montmorency Returns. I have a few secret projects on the go. One of them is a play (on an historical theme).
Many thanks Eleanor!
Eleanor Updale has been writing books since the turn of the century. Before that, she worked in radio and television: mainly on news programmes including The World at One and Newsnight. She is a governor of the children's charity, Coram, and a member of the Clinical Ethics Committee at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She also has a PhD in History. All those interests have influenced this book. Eleanor's Montmorency series has won awards on both sides of the Atlantic.