Check out our interview with author Charlie Laidlaw, all about his book The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, and the inspiration for it.
Tell us about your books:
I’m the author of two novels, The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) and The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press). Assuming we don’t experience nuclear Armageddon in the immediate future, and I’m not betting against it, a third novel, Darker Matters, is due to be published by Accent Press in January 2018.
A little bit about yourself:
I was born and brought up in central Scotland and am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. I still have the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so it could say anything.
I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. I started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics.
Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then but, craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize.
I am married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian. And that’s about it.
What is The Things We Learn When We’re Dead about:
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is a modern fairytale of love and loss. It’s about the subtle ways in which we change, and how the small decisions that we make can have profound and unintended consequences.
On one level, the book is a simple story of a young woman’s life. But, for those readers who want to make the connection, The Things We Learn is also a retelling of The Wizard of Oz: how a young woman in ultimately tragic circumstances comes to reassess her life and find a new beginning.
But don’t worry: most readers won’t make the Wizard of Oz allusion, so it’s not as wacky as it sounds!
Why the Wizard of Oz?
The book is about second chances – a young woman looking back at her life, and realising what he really has, and who she really is. That theme has been written a million times before and is universal and timeless.
The simple truism is that every piece of fiction being written now has already been written many times before – mainly by Shakespeare, although he also leaned heavily on much older sources.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about love, war, betrayal, death, marriage, alien invasion or the zombie apocalypse, a lot of other novelists have already been there, done that and got the T-shirt.
In that sense, “no place like home” isn’t just a physical place but a state of mind. In thinking the plot through, I realised I could either do what other authors have done and ignore the Oz link or, in my own way, celebrate it. I chose the latter.
What were some of the things that inspired you?
Somerset Maugham once remarked that “there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” For me, that pretty much sums up what it’s like to write a novel. I really do struggle for inspiration.
But the idea for The Things We Learn was different. It came to me on a train from Edinburgh to London and so powerful was the initial idea that I hoped that the train would break down, or for spontaneous industrial action by the train crew.
I was therefore disappointed when the train pulled into King’s Cross, regrettably on time, but I did have the outline of a narrative – and, more importantly, a first and last chapter. The first chapter has changed out of all recognition, but the final chapter is still much as I first wrote it.
What was the first book that really inspired you?
The first semi-grown-up book that made a mark on me was Jennie by Paul Gallico. The central character is a small boy who is transformed into a cat. It echoed an Alice in Wonderland madness, but with adult themes. It was the first book I read that dealt with death and loss.
What are some of your favourite books now?
I only really read contemporary literary fiction, so I must be a bit dull. But I do like books with a distinctive narrative voice – for example, The Last Family in England by Matt Haig, as narrated by a Labrador called Prince. Or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, written by a teenager suffering from Asperger’s.
Or, even more recently, Anatomy of A soldier by Harry Parker, about a British soldier horrifically injured in Afghanistan. The impact of the book comes from a shifting narrative that is recounted by the inanimate objects that surround him – from a battery to a bullet, from a medical swab to a military drone. The overall effect is both distancing and weirdly intimate.
What advice would you give to other writers?
As a writer, I suppose you have to be a reader, and by a strange process of osmosis you do slowly absorb other authors’ wisdom – how to structure a book, how to create good dialogue and narrative, and pace and context.
Also, try to have a support structure around you: p
That’s entitled Darker Matters and is being published by Accent Press in January next year. It’s about love, loss and is, at least partly, a satire on the unexpected consequences of celebrity. It’s a dark comedy, I suppose, but I hope the smiles far outnumber any tears!
Thanks so much for checking out this interview with Charlie. Also take a look at this fab video trailer for The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, available here!