Clare Wigfall: Our Writer In Residence Speaks

We thought it was high time you got to know our current writer in residence, the award-winning short story writer Clare Wigfall, as we know her.

So expect stories of travel, favourite writers, how she writes, how being a new mother has affected her work and an immaculate taste in music.

> Hello, how are you and set the scene for us… where are you currently and what is on your desk?

I’m sitting in my study in Edinburgh, looking out onto the Royal Terrace Gardens. Our flat is on the third floor and the gardens are on a hill, so all I see is trees, grass, sky, the occasional dog or passerby, and one solitary lamp post. I have a large trestle-table desk from Ikea and there are papers spread all over it including notes from the screenwriting and German classes I’ve been taking. There is also an anglepoise lamp, my diary, and a pile of books: two library books about the history of collecting, the Faber Book of New Irish Short Stories, a book of essays called The Good of the Novel and a copy of Where the Wild Things Are that I was reading to my daughter.

The only personal items are a photo of my siblings and me taken in Hampshire, a tiny framed photograph of my grandfather as a boy, and a small wood and brass religious icon an ex-boyfriend once brought me from Greece. The latter doesn’t have any particular significance, it’s just one of those things that has somehow travelled around with me for years. The other thing I have on my desk is a music box. It plays Berliner Luft and I bought it in Berlin shortly before we moved there. When I pause to think I pick it up and turn the handle.

> What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a story commission connected to the rejuvenation of Exhibition Road in London. My story is inspired by the Natural History Museum. Other authors are writing about the other institutions on Exhibition Road and it will be published in an anthology next year. The library books mentioned above are research for the story.

> Your blog has featured a lot of images. What is it about pictures that inspires you to write and where do you find these images that inspire you?

I’ve always been interested in visual things. I started to draw when I was very young and went to art school after finishing school, so it feels natural to want to illustrate my words, and likewise when I see a picture I find it hard not to start imagining the story behind it. I find pictures can be like a springboard to trigger thought. In terms of where I come across these images: books, galleries, newspapers, stashed in old shoe boxes in junk shops, on the web, in museums - all over the place, really.

> You’ve travelled about a bit. What have you taken from each country in terms of your art and your writing?

Places I’ve been to have definitely made their way into my writing, and each time I travel, even the most mundane of journeys, I like to think it might inspire new story thoughts, or be an experience I can file away for future use. The one thing I rarely do is write about the place I’m living in. I write very much as a means of escape, to take myself somewhere different, so I’ve never felt a need to write about what is around me. Only when I leave a place might I want to write about it, as a way of taking myself back - for example, I'm planning now to write a story set in Prague, the first time I'll have written about the city despite having lived there for nine years. I write often about places I’ve never been to as well, although I think I do it with a little more wariness now that I've published a book as I’m more conscious that people are going to read what I write, people who very possibly come from the places I’ve been imagining.

> The Loudest Sound and Nothing came out 3 years ago. Do you look back on it with affection or is there anything you wish you could now go back and change?

Actually, it really surprised me how easy it was to let the collection go. While I'm working, I'm obsessive in terms of how much I go back and revise and change and rework sentences over and over and over again (this is probably why I am so slow with my writing), so I thought that it would be very hard not to look at it in print and want to change things, but in fact quite the opposite is the case. It feels like something I created, but which stands now quite apart from me.

I do feel a lot of affection for it, I think especially because it was a book I was working on for such a large part of my life (the best part of my twenties) and in so many different locations. Although I wasn't writing about my experience, looking back on it brings back a lot of memories in terms of where I was living when I wrote each story, the music I was listening to, books I was reading, the people I was hanging out with, as well as the things that were inspiring me and occupying my thoughts.  

> Describe your writing day for us.

Mostly I write at night. I find it almost impossible to write during the day. My best hours are between 10pm and 2am, although if I'm working hard on something I can push myself beyond that and work right through, usually only stopping when the birds come out and the sky begins to lighten. I love the focus I can attain at night when the rest of the world sleeps. It feels like private time, lacking the distractions of the day. Having my daughter has been hard on my writing schedule because by the evenings now I find that too often I'm too exhausted to sit down to work, and when I do stay up late I no longer have the luxury of sleeping in the next day as I used to. But hey, I'm not complaining, she's wonderful.

> Who are your favourite authors?

I always find this question difficult to answer, largely because I have so many favourites. Here are a few who spring to mind: J D Salinger, William Trevor, Alice Munro, William Faulkner, Philip Roth, W G Sebald, Paul Bowles, Virginia Woolf, Yiyun Li, Claire Keegan, F Scott Fitzgerald, Milan Kundera, Molly Keane, Jhumpa Lahiri, E M Forster, Jane Austen, Vladmir Nabokov, T S Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Mikhail Bulgakov, Antal Szerb, Tod Wodicka...

> What was the first story you ever wrote about?

I think one of the first stories I ever wrote was about the zoo and all the animals in it. I was maybe five or six. My parents probably have it in their attic somewhere. 

> Music features heavily in your work. What are you currently listening to? What do you get out of music when writing?

Again, since having my daughter, I no longer have as much time as I would like to find new music. It's been a while since I've found a new album that I've wanted to play over and over again. However, on my ipod this morning was a Berlin-based Danish singer called Agnes Obel who I recently came across. The album is called Philarmonics and it's quite pretty. I've also recently discovered an internet folk radio station which is good: Folk Radio UK

My daughter is crazy-keen on dancing, so we play a lot of stuff for her - 70s Ghanaian funk, reggae (as a baby, Bob Marley’s Hammer always worked like magic to calm her), klezmer, 80s hits... That’s not the kind of stuff I write to, mind.

In terms of my writing, music has definitely been very inspirational, and often I'll tailor what I listen to specifically to fit with what I'm working on in terms of the time and place or mood. I think it also helps in enabling me get to that private space of focus I was talking about above, it helps cut out the everyday world. I can't really imagine writing without music. It's very essential to my working process.

> What should every story have?

I think a story must cause a reaction of some sort in the reader, be it to move them, surprise them, terrify them, inform them, make them laugh, or just cause them to think. The story should have the power to resonate beyond its conclusion. 

> How has being a mother changed your outlook on writing?

I wouldn't say it has changed my outlook on writing, it's just made a massive impact on the amount of time I have to write and the space I have within my head to focus on writing. Since her birth, so much of my thought has been consumed by my daughter and about what it means to be a parent, and I think only now, as she comes up to two-years-old, am I beginning to find space again to think about stories. I've actually noticed just recently that quite instinctively my thoughts have begun leaping again to writing ideas more and more. I'll see things when I'm out and about or read about things and want to weave them into stories, and I keep coming up right now with ideas that I want to write about. It’s exciting.

> How much of your writer’s world/imagination make its way into your everyday life?

I like to keep my writing and my life quite separate, but what I'm writing about does tend to enrich my everyday experience, almost like you're wearing a big invisible cloak that only you are aware of. I think this is why I don't like talking about what I'm working on. It feels like something I want to keep private, a secret I want to keep to myself. I like the fact that when I'm working on something my brain can be very overwhelmed by thoughts and subjects that are unique to me and which are buzzing away while I get on with everything else, unbeknownst to the outside world.

> How much of your everyday life makes it into your writing?

I used to say that very little of my everyday life went into my writing, and on the surface I would say that this is still the case, but following the publication of the collection I've come to realise that there is a lot of myself that goes into my work on quite a subconscious level. I am aware now that my writing is often a way of working through thoughts and issues that are preoccupying me, even when I might not be conscious of them at the time. Certainly very little from my everyday life would be externally recognisable; if I use my day to day experience, it is usually transferred and transformed in some way.

> What should we all go away and read right now?

Well, if you haven't read it already, you could start with The Loudest Sound and Nothing. That would be nice. I hope you'll enjoy it.