Simon Edge, author of the atheist comedy The Hurtle of Hell, talks to Bury & West Suffolk magazine about getting God confused and re-imagining Thomas Gainsborough
When did you decide to become an author? Was it a sideline from your work as a journalist?
Like many journalists, I always thought I had a novel in me, and I started work on my first one nearly twenty years ago, between jobs at the Evening Standard and the Daily Express. It wasn’t very good, and nor was the next attempt. I eventually realised that was part of the learning process. By then, the newspaper industry was in steady decline, so I redoubled my efforts to become a novelist, taking an MA in Creative Writing at City University. I eventually took redundancy from my newspaper job three years ago, and my first novel was published shortly after that.
A friend, also an author, says it is very difficult to break into the world of writing books and becoming successful. Is it about luck as much as writing talent?
In a sense it is about luck, although not quite in the way you mean. To write a decent novel you have to master a wide array of skills – plotting, characterisation, dialogue, pace, as well as crafting readable prose – and if you can get all of them right first time, you’re in luck. For most of us, the learning process is much longer, and that’s why it feels hard to break in. Luck certainly plays a part in whether success follows publication: in a very crowded market, many good books disappear without trace.
Your books seem to be a mix of history, religion, comedy and a lot of other subjects in-between. How do you start a book from the planning point of view?
My first novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, was about the Victorian poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who led a frustrated life and died young. I also wanted to dramatise the shipwreck he commemorated in his most famous poem. I then realised it was all too grim, so I decided to lighten it up by setting those two stories in a comic modern frame. I enjoyed the challenge of making that work, and it remains a guiding principle: mashing up apparently incongruous elements to make something surprising and entertaining.
In 50 words outline the plot of your latest book The Hurtle of Hell.
My new novel is about a young atheist who has a near-death experience and thinks he sees God. It turns his life upside down – and it’s also pretty confusing for God. The creator ends up travelling from the centre of the cosmos to Earth and is amazed by what he finds.
How much of you is in the Hurtle of Hell? And perhaps there are characters in your books based on people you know?
The book aims to discuss weighty ideas in a light way, and that approach owes a lot to my own history: I have a degree in Philosophy from a grand university but I wound up on a tabloid newspaper where I learned the value of making complicated subjects accessible. I’m not much like my main human character but I can identify with his strained relationship with his family – much of which is his own fault. When creating characters, I sometimes have a real person in mind initially, just so that I can picture them. All being well, they then take on a life of their own. A case in point is the nice Christian lady who unwittingly has God to stay in The Hurtle of Hell: she was initially modelled on a very serious writer whom I knew slightly, but she is nothing like her now.
How long does it take you to write a book and when do you write?
This one took fourteen years! I was trying to write a believeable, affecting story set both on Earth and in the outer reaches of the cosmos, and it took forever to get it right. I hope the next one will be faster. I write long-hand in a notebook, which can be done anywhere, and I tend to do it in short bursts whenever I’m in the mood.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
To me, writer’s block is a fancy term for being stuck. As with any task where you get stuck, going away, doing something else, and then coming back for a fresh look, tends to work.
You live in Long Melford – do you enjoy life in West Suffolk and how did you come to be here?
I was a student at Cambridge in the mid-Eighties. I barely left the confines of the university, but East Anglia felt like unfinished business. I began visiting friends in Sudbury about fifteen years ago and then I bought a very old cottage there – built in 1380 – as a bolthole from London. I have now cut my ties with London completely and moved to Long Melford. I live in three Tudor cottages knocked together. I love the history and landscape of this part of the world, and I feel very much at home.
I believe there might be a book on Thomas Gainsborough on the way – tell us about that please.
My next book is based on the life of Gainsborough – inspired, obviously, by his local roots. I’ve spent a couple of years reading biographies and nursing ideas, and I’m now about quarter of the way through my first draft. It will have a modern strand as well as a period one, and I hope it will make people laugh without distorting the history. Watch this space!
The Hurtle of Hell is published by Lightning Books, price £8.99