David Matthews – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome David Matthews to the blog. David is the author of That They Might Lovely Be which was published by Top Hat Books on 8 December 2017.

David kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about That They Might Lovely Be.

Although I have set the book during one of the most turbulent periods of recent history – straddling the two world wars – it is a positive story. It follows the lives of four main characters from their early adulthood at the start of World War 1 and looks at how love can provide a redemptive force in the face of great trouble. Love, of course, is an over-used word. It can be seen as a trite emotion. To nudge the reader to think again about what love is (about how we might be lovely) I have therefore deliberately chosen to show characters loving in unconventional ways. The story begins in 1940 but, as it unfolds, we jump back in time, reliving crucial moments from the past twenty-six years and, as a result, come to understand the significance of what has occurred and how it has shaped the present.

2. What inspired the book?

Two anecdotes, related by two friends, first fired my imagination. One told me that his father had been conceived to help console his parents after they learned that their only son, whom they were expecting home having survived the war, had been killed on 11th November 1918. Another friend told me that he had been conceived by his mother, who was post-menopausal, after she had been buried in an air-raid, during the Second World War. Apparently, it was not unknown for women who believed they were past child-bearing age to conceive after some sort of shock. In addition, I inherited 70 A4 pages of closely hand-written notes from my aunt, who grew up, the daughter of a village schoolmaster, in north Kent during the first half of the twentieth century. These gave me an invaluable source for historical detail.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?

I do plan, usually starting with an idea or theme I want to explore and fitting a narrative around that. However, I find that, as I flesh out my characters, they grow into more nuanced, subtler personalities. It is then not uncommon for me to discover that, although my planned plot-line needs them to act in a certain way, this would no longer be true to the character they have grown into. I then take the view that it is the plot which has to be adapted; no-one wants to read about people who do not behave believably.

Most of ‘That They Might Lovely Be’ was drafted during the summer holidays (I was a teacher) over ten years. I never had a long enough stint, whilst I was working full-time, to ensure that the story was not fragmented and to develop stylistic integrity. Once I stopped teaching, it took me about nine months to knock everything into shape, involving two full re-drafts, so it was ready to submit to publishers.

4. Is there anything about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?

I was surprised and intrigued by the way my sub-conscious would be working behind the scenes. When re-reading what I had written, I would start to see patterns of words or extended metaphors which I had not been conscious of using. The thing then was to decide whether these were worth growing or whether they were a distraction and needed pruning. It made me aware that writing draws on my whole personality, dredging up from my own past those experiences and connections which have defined my thinking.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

Two years ago, my wife and I bought a house in south-west France, tucked away in a little village with views of the Pyrenees. It needed an enormous amount of work, having sat empty for nearly ten years. Renovating that house and designing a new garden has been a real delight. Home in Croydon, I am involved in two local charities but I also appreciate the time to see friends and family.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

I have no doubt that there would be a huge risk I would end up hating such a book! However something like ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot or Charles Dickens’ ‘Our Mutual Friend’ are so richly layered and multi-peopled, I can imagine that after a couple of readings, I might experiment with writing alternative versions where key characters make other choices. It would be fun to see how things turn out differently.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

Question: What made you an aspiring writer?

Answer: Fascinating question: all to do with the creative impulse, I think. I do not know what makes some people ‘create’ but I am immensely glad that I do have this drive. It seems to me to be something fundamental and quintessentially human, this urge to re-shape the way the world appears to us and make sense of it through art. I can think of no higher calling. As to why I have chosen words as my medium, that’s another imponderable. My parents were not particularly ‘wordy’. (My father, who was a Quaker, would happily slide into silence.) But I always enjoyed reading. It was reading which fired my imagination, allowing me to ‘live’ in other dimensions. And as a small child, my games were always about people, families and adventures. I even remember using the heads of dead daffodils, picked from the garden, up-ended so the trumpets were like skirts, as ‘people’. After studying English at university, being exposed to the best deployers of the language, it was probably inevitable that I would try to join their ranks. I shall never cease to write. What I hope, of course, is that others will enjoy what I write.

About the book

No-one thought Bertie Simmonds could speak. So, when he is heard singing an Easter hymn, this is not so much the miracle some think as a bolt drawn back, releasing long-repressed emotions with potentially devastating consequences… A decade later, Bertie marries Anstace, a woman old enough to be his mother, and another layer of mystery starts to peel away. Beginning in a village in Kent and set between the two World Wars, That They Might Lovely Be stretches from the hell of Flanders, to the liberating beauty of the Breton coast, recounting a love affair which embraces the living and the dead.

About the author

David Matthews was a teacher for twenty-two years and a head teacher for eleven. His play ‘Under the Shadow of Your Wings’ was professionally directed and performed in the summer of 2015, as part of Croydon’s heritage festival. David divides his time between family life in Croydon and renovating a cottage in south-west France.

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