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A L Berridge Interview

Posted on 15 April 2010. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

WriteWords talks to A L Berridge, aka Chevalier

Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re currently writing

Writing was in my family. My father was the historian David Newsome, who published six academic books with John Murray – one of which, ‘On the Edge of Paradise’, won the Whitbread Best Biography back in the late 1970s. He always pressed on us the importance of crafting a decent piece of prose, and continued to write a beautifully literary diary up until the day before he died.
He also taught us the joy of storytelling. I was one of a family of four girls, and whenever we were bored he always told us to ‘go and tell a story’. So we did, all four of us, belting up and down the sitting room while we each ignored the others and told our own story out loud. We all wrote little books, pressing copies of handwritten ‘Zulu Weekly’s on our rapidly diminishing number of schoolfriends. We were truly foul children.
I was about six when I wrote my first ‘book’, a really hideous attempt at an Enid Blyton mystery. My sisters still kindly remind me of the story, which finally exposed the greengrocer as the robber because he’d conveniently left a cabbage at the scene of the crime. I continued to write well into my teens, churning out appalling romances and mystery thrillers right up until I went to university and began to study great literature for real. I looked at what I was writing, thought ‘Ewwww,’ and put it aside for three decades.
I found other ways of telling stories, first as a teacher, then as a script editor and producer in television drama, and as long as I was getting them ‘out’ somehow I was satisfied. It’s only when I left television and had no other outlet that I was forced to try writing for myself. Even then I struggled with the unfamiliar format of a novel, and ‘Honour and the Sword’ went through four drafts before I submitted it.

It’s a historical epic set in 17th century France, about a young nobleman trained to the rigid code of honour but who loses his family in the 1636 invasion of Picardy and is forced to live among ordinary peasants in order to survive. In the process he learns something about real humanity, while the peasants learn his concept of honour, and together they band together to do the unthinkable and fight back.
It’s published by Penguin under the Michael Joseph imprint and comes out in April 2010. I’ve just finished the second book, but we’re planning a whole series about André, Chevalier de Roland, and how this curious honour/humanity hybrid will survive in the reality of a politically riven and war-torn 17th century France.

Other work besides writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your own writing

Everything I’ve ever done has been about either writing or storytelling. Studying the masters at university taught me the basics of narrative technique, and when I became an English teacher I studied a lot more for myself. Through wonderfully old-fashioned tomes I picked up at second-hand bookshops I learned all the things I was never taught at school, such as grammar or the principles of metre, and proceeded ruthlessly to pass them on. My poor students were probably the only ones of their year who knew the difference between an anapaest and a trochee, but I still believe an appreciation of rhythm is important to understanding good prose as well as good poetry, and it’s certainly helped me enormously.

Teaching also taught me about speaking directly to an audience, which is probably the single most useful skill a writer can acquire. A novel, like any kind of writing, is ultimately just a form of communication, and I’ve always seen that as a two-way process. Writing just for myself and the glory of my own cleverness is pure self-indulgence and nothing to do with the purpose of the medium. I write for someone else to read, and try to always keep them in mind as I write. Am I boring them? Am I telling them too much or too little? Have I given them a reason to turn the next page? What do they want to see happen next – and is it better to satisfy that desire or delay it, or subvert it altogether? I don’t feel the process of writing ‘Honour and the Sword’ will actually be complete until it has readers; until then it’s almost as meaningless as one half of a telephone call.

In 1991 I moved into television script-editing, and that was even better. I had no formal training (though I thoroughly recommend Linda Seger’s ‘Making A Good Script Great’ for people starting in this field) but learned on the spot from working with top editors like Julian Murphy (currently Creative Director at ‘Shine TV’) and with wonderful writers like Andy de la Tour and Tony Jordan. The techniques are different, of course, but many of the principles are the same. I still employ the ‘three-act structure’ I learned working for ITV where a one hour episode was divided into three for the ad breaks.

But it was when I became a producer in 1995 that I learned the storytelling technique that’s affected my writing most. Working in the cutting room alongside the brilliant Sally Head I began to understand the importance of the ‘cut’, and the ways in which images can be juxtaposed to create something greater than the sum of the two parts. Sally taught me how to ‘clump-structure’ different story strands, so we never took the audience away from what they were most interested in until it had reached an acceptable ‘hook’. I learned when the camera goes in for close work and the effect that has on pace, I learned when to pull back to pass time.

I also learned ruthlessness. As a script editor I already knew one had to be prepared to put a script through anything up to seven drafts to get it right, but as a producer I learned that the process doesn’t stop even there. Even in the cutting room we’d realize a story didn’t work as we’d hoped – and send people out to rewrite and reshoot. As a writer now, I don’t hesitate to take an axe to my own work. A ‘rewrite’ for me is just what it used to be for my hapless script writers: if it doesn’t work it has to be fixed till it does. When I spot something that could be improved I know it’s no defence to say ‘but that would mean changing the whole of act 2!’ I know now the only possible answer is ‘So let’s do it.’ Why not? Why make your work less good than it could be?

How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’d tried to write a novel before, back in 1999 during one of those long periods of unemployment that are so scary for a freelance. I thought I could do it. I knew a lot about writing and storytelling, I knew the market, I thought it was going to be easy. I did a careful outline, sat at the computer and started.

It was dreadful. I want to blush even thinking about it. It was cynical ‘let’s write a bestselling novel’ at its worst, and the best thing I can say about it was it ground to a merciful halt in the middle of chapter 2. Yes, I had the necessary skills, but I’d forgotten the really important thing. I didn’t have a story I was burning and desperate to tell. I was a writer without anything to say.

Fast forward to 2005. I’d resigned from my high-profile job on a leading soap and retreated right away from anything to do with that kind of politics. I desperately needed a break. What I hadn’t realized was that if the story-telling urge is balked in one direction it always finds another. A story came into my head, just as they used to when I was a child, but now there were no writers to take it and make it real. In frustration I walked up and down the sitting room telling it to myself, and the only difference between what I did now and what I did at seven years old was that I’d finally learned to do it with my mouth closed. But it grew too big, and I needed to write some of it down before I could go on. I did that, went on with telling the story, then wrote a little more. I was 40,000 words in before I realized I was writing a novel.

That nearly frightened me off, and it took an outside event to take me over the hump. I’d had a nasty experience with an online stalker, but the day he was finally convicted gave me closure on my television days and restored a lot of my confidence. When the policewoman who dealt with the case asked me what I was doing with myself now I heard myself say ‘I’m a writer.’

I went back to the computer, opened a fresh document and typed a new opening line. The words were ‘You can trust me’, and after a while I began to believe them. I went on typing more and more, faster and faster, the lines filling page after page, and what I was writing became the first proper draft of ‘Honour and the Sword’.

How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?

Through being an idiot. Although I’d dutifully read The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook, the one crucial piece of information missing from its pages was the maximum length of a first novel. I assessed the length of equivalent historical epics on my bookshelves and happily submitted ‘Honour and the Sword’ at 520,000 words long...

Unsurprisingly, I had two speedy rejections – though neither gave any kind of reason. I think that’s a pity, actually. I quite understand that agents can’t waste time giving advice to writers they don’t plan to represent, but how many seconds of their time would it have taken to say ‘This is way too long for anyone’?

But they didn’t, so I ploughed on. I looked at the next agent on my list, consulted their website submission guidelines and saw a sentence that brought me up rigid with horror. ‘Manuscripts must be of acceptable novel length,’ it said. ‘Anywhere between 80,000 and 150,000 words’.

I won’t describe the sensations of the next few hours. I finally got a Google search result that gave me more information, and found it on the Free Advice section of the Writers’ Workshop Literary Consultancy. They also had a ‘contact us’ option – so I took it, subtly implying I was going to throw myself out of a window unless they agreed a novel of 500,000 words was perfectly acceptable. They didn’t, but they did talk me into sufficient calm for my ex script-editor self to kick in and say ‘Come on, it’s just another rewrite.’ So I rewrote it, all of it, and got it down to 220,000 words.

A cut that deep is likely to leave horrible cracks and fissures, so I scraped together my savings and sent the final MS to the Writers’ Workshop for an objective opinion. They gave me a fabulous report suggesting a few changes, passed it on to the head honcho for a further free read, then offered to get me a recommendation to an agent. It was one so eminent I’d never have dreamed of submitting to her on my own, but I croaked out a ‘yes’, and two hours later there was an e-mail from the agent wanting to see the full MS at once. My husband hand-delivered it next day and by the end of the week I had an agent. Victoria wanted a few changes herself, of course – all for the better – but two weeks after that I was out at auction and got my deal with Penguin.

I sometimes wonder about it all. If I’d done my research in the first place and written the book to the right length I might never have gone near the Writers’ Workshop. I might still be looking for that elusive agent. Maybe I’m not just the most idiotic but also the luckiest writer in the world.

What's the worst thing about writing?

The compulsion. The not having a choice whether you write or not, but being totally bloody forced to do it in order to get the story out of your head before you go mad.

And the best?

The release.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

saturday at 13:12 on 16 April 2010  Report this post
Really interesting, Louise, thank-you. I enjoyed your talk at York last weekend. In fact, one of the things you said has probably stayed with me more than anything else I heard. Following my one-to-one with an agent I have been asked for the full mss of my novel. I am currently working on it with your advice about 'narrative pace' burning through my brain and (hopefully) onto the page.

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