Tom Darling’s Summer
Oxford-born writer Tom Darling has just released his second book,Summer, to much critical acclaim both in the U.K. and Ireland. Freelance journalist Marése O’Sullivan spoke to him about how he established his writing career, what it was like getting his first screenplay made by an award-winning director, and what inspires him creatively.
Growing up in Norfolk and Cornwall (he now lives in Dublin), Darling had never planned to write bestselling novels or have a literary agent. In fact, he rather gravitated towards literature naturally, and with it came his love of writing.
“I didn’t grow up in a particularly bookish family,” he says, “but I did have an older brother who was an avid reader, so there were usually good books about. I remember reading To Kill A Mockingbird, when I was around ten or eleven, and loving it. At school I was good at English and fairly average at everything else, so literature sort of became my passion. But I don’t think I ever thought of becoming a writer; no one I knew did anything like that. It wasn’t until I came to Dublin and studied on the [Masters in] Creative Writing course at Trinity that I began to wonder if it was something I might be able to do and, even then, there was still a long way to go.”
His first novel, a limited collectors’ edition entitled Glass People, was published in 2008 by To Hell. He reveals that the process of getting his first novel published was very difficult: “You finish the book and you think the hard work is done – and in some fundamental ways it is, because nothing will ever compare with working alone on a novel without any idea if people will be interested in this world that you’re creating – but then you have to find an agent who believes in the book. Then you have to do the rewrites, and then the submission process begins.” Securing a publisher was tougher than he had anticipated, even with the backing of his agent. “We had a couple of near misses with well-known publishers. Glass People received a lot of rejections. In the end, it was a very small London publisher who took it. It was a bit of a baptism of fire to be honest, but I developed some useful thick skin as a result.”
Since he wrote his début novel, though, his development as a writer has gone from strength to strength. “Sometimes, when whatever I’m working on is going well, I ache with embarrassment about my earlier work,” he states. “But all it takes is one bad day and I’m soon clinging to what’s gone before like it’s a life raft, in a desperate bid to stay afloat. But hopefully I am improving: if I didn’t believe that, I don’t know that I would carry on. As you get older you read and write more, and you get to know yourself and your craft that much better.”
Darling published his second book, Summer, in January 2012 to positive reviews from The Guardian and the Sunday Times. “The story is about a teenage girl, Grace, and her younger brother Billy, who are orphaned by a freak accident at the start of one summer,” he says. “They end up going to live with their grandfather, who they don’t really remember, on his farm in the middle of nowhere. Having lost everything they loved and that was familiar to them, they suddenly have to try to work out their place in the world all over again…and not everything on the farm is as it seems, either. It’s a story about loss, but it’s also a story about regeneration and the relationship between man and nature.”
His inspiration for the story was in part the younger generation’s slow separation from the natural world. “I think that’s a real loss, a real sadness. The proliferation of technology is definitely partly to blame: I think one of the regrets of even my generation will be that we spent so much of our lives staring at digital screens, and not looking at our loves ones or the beautiful, natural, amazing things that surround us.”
The family farm features very heavily in his novel. Darling was quite conscious of the impact of this setting on the characters. “The farm is crucial. Stranded in such an isolated place, where there are only the natural rhythms of life and death, Grace and Billy are forced to discover their true selves.” The biggest challenge for him during the creation of Summer was the fact that the farm became a character in itself. “I had to be careful that it didn’t overwhelm the human characters; in the end, it’s the story of Grace, Billy and their grandfather. On a more practical note, finishing the book wasn’t helped by moving house twice in quick succession.”
Not only does Darling have two published novels behind him, he has also experimented with screenwriting. His 15-minute short film, Maria, premiered at the Stockholm International Film Festival in November 2011 but, according to Darling, it only came about thanks to “a stroke of luck”. A friend of his introduced him to the Swedish director of Maria, Erik Bostedt (London Film School graduate and winner of the Trailblazer Award at the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival), who at the time was searching for a writer to work on a new project with him.
“Erik and I met up and talked it over, and then I went away and wrote the script, which luckily he liked. I have written a feature length screenplay since then, also for Erik, so we’ll see if anything comes of that. As everyone knows, the trouble with films is the money it costs to make them. Whereas the beauty of writing fiction is all you need to produce [a composition] is time.”
While he enjoyed his involvement with the creation of Maria, he mourns the lack of the writer’s direct connection with the reader in screenplays, declaring: “It’s the director, the cinematographer and the actors who make films beautiful; the writer plays a lesser role.” Darling is planning to concentrate mainly on his fiction in the near future. “I would like to write more screenplays, but I find them strangely unfulfilling compared with writing prose. However, what’s fun about film is that it’s collaborative. There’s lots of discussion, and it can be very rewarding to watch your story take shape onscreen. The other bonus is that screenplays are tiny compared with novels, so the writing process is much faster.”
His creative process begins at about nine every morning, when he works until after midday. He includes a brisk walk in his routine before heading back to writing after lunch. “My actual writing happens on a laptop, but the notes and gathering of material happens in notebooks. I used to write to music but I don’t anymore. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because if what you’re writing is any good then you’re not really aware of what you’re listening to anyway. And I’m a lover of silence. I’m lucky in that I live in a very quiet street, and I can easily pretend I’m in the middle of nowhere.”
In his younger years, he was inspired by American writers like J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. The short stories that he wrote at Trinity College used Salinger’s For Esmé – with Love and Squalor as “very much [a] blueprint of how it should be done, though of course I never came close to writing anything even half as good”. He also mentions that he has huge respect for J.M. Coetzee’s work, particularly Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians. “Also David Mitchell, for the sheer exuberance of his imagination. John McGahern and Penelope Fitzgerald have both been relatively recent discoveries for me.”
The most vital advice he can give to prospective authors is to tell the truth in their writing. “When starting out, it’s easy to think that fiction is centred around artifice and cleverness. That’s not to say that you can’t be clever, or make great leaps of the imagination, but don’t let it get in the way of the truth you’re aiming for. Also, write for yourself and no one else. Better to fail at what you want to do than to succeed at something you do not.”
Darling has many plans for his literary career: he is currently finishing off the first draft of his next book – “a kind of exotic, mythic love story” – and he’s adapting Maria into a short story. “I know: it seems like the wrong way round, doesn’t it! But although Erik made a beautiful film, the story was altered a bit, so I want to write it as I originally conceived it. And after that, who knows.”
(c) Marése O’Sullivan March 2012