Danny Rhodes Interview
by Shanta Everington
Novelist and short story writer, Danny Rhodes, grew up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, UK, before moving to Kent in 1994 to attend University in Canterbury. He has lived in the Cathedral city ever since.
After a number of his short stories appeared in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic his debut novel, Asboville, was published by Maia Press in October 2006. Well received by critics, it was selected as a Waterstones Booksellers Paperback of the Year and long-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award. It has been adapted for BBC Films by the dramatist Nick Leather. Rhodes' second novel, Soldier Boy, was published in February 2009. He is currently working on his third novel, set in the Midlands during the 1980s, and continues to write short stories.
I caught up with Danny to talk about writing, teaching and his latest venture into e-publishing.
Hello Danny and welcome to The View From Here. How did you get your first 'break' as a writer?
There are things I can look back on and recognise as my first break. I had a break when I was a finalist in a BBC Writing Competition, a break when I got my first agent (despite the fact she didn’t sell any of my work), a very important break when I sent Asboville to Maia Press unsolicited and they accepted it. But the curious thing is I sometimes feel I’m still waiting for it. We raise the bar in life. I’m not satisfied with what I’ve achieved. I want to write more books, be read more widely and be successful in all areas of my writing life.
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
My short stories are far less easy to pin down. They come from little things I see and read and think about. I make a few notes and see where that idea takes me.
Your novels, Asboville and Soldier Boy, deal with gritty topics, and the teenage protagonists feel very authentic. How did you step inside the worlds of a boy with an ASBO and a boy off to fight in a war?
I work with young people every day and feel I have some sort of understanding of how they tick. I certainly ought to have. A lot of it also comes from my own life, growing up on the edge of a council estate, having a set of mates, larking about. A writer stores things without realising it. I have a very vivid memory of events and how my friends and I used to interact with one another. When I go back to my hometown and catch up with them, all fathers now like myself, we slip very quickly back into our individual roles…
'A tender take on modern youth. Rhodes dramatises their sense of exclusion with freshness and insight' - The Guardian
Did you do a lot of research for Asboville and Soldier Boy?
I didn’t have to do much for Asboville, save for gathering a basic idea of how ASBO’s worked and what role social services might play in a young man’s life when he is heading off track. Soldier Boy was more challenging. I had to read a few first-hand accounts of army training and army life. I also watched a number of documentaries and one or two movies. I’d always encourage new writers to use documents like memoirs and diaries for research purposes, particularly if you can unearth some less visited sources. The information in some of those things can be truly priceless.
Who do you credit as your influences?
I like writing where the writer is barely present and find books where that isn’t the case very hard to stomach. I read widely across all genres so wouldn’t like to credit any one writer/artist but I ought to mention Bruce Springsteen as I probably wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for the influence his music has had on my life. In terms of writers, I’ll mention one that your readers might not have been over exposed to and that’s William Maxwell. A beautiful writer.
‘Danny Rhodes returns with a soldier's tale that delivers a late, and startling, ricochet. Rhodes does the urban listlessness that drives his naïve hero to the colours with an unaffected grace and low-key empathy’ – The Independent
Can you tell me a bit about how you write? (e.g. whether you follow particular routines, whether you plot in advance etc.) Do you have any unusual writing habits?
My eureka moment as a writer came when I realised a writer doesn’t have to write a novel from beginning to end. I had a couple of notebooks full of random observations from living by the sea and started pulling them together. I had no clear idea where I was going but slowly a plotline started to emerge about a teenager who was seeing all of these things for the first time. That’s why Asboville has so many short segments, because it wasn’t written in sequence. I did the same for Soldier Boy. Imagine it as a deck of cards. Write on each one, throw them in the air and then try to create a story from them…
In a practical sense, because I have a number of day jobs, I try to get up and write before heading out to work. Even if I only manage 45 minutes I can then go to work knowing I’ve done something to keep things ticking over.
I understand that you teach English at secondary school. Do you discuss your own novels with your school pupils?
Not really, though I am fortunate enough to occasionally visit schools where my books are being taught and that is very rewarding. Sometimes, in my own school a student will surprise me by whispering that they’ve read my book, or risk peer humiliation by telling the group, but a teacher’s relationship with their students is a strange one. They can’t imagine for one moment that you might have done anything cool…and writing to them is not really considered cool anyway. Of course, if I was Stephanie Meyer…
You also teach Creative Writing to adults with the Open University. What do you say to critics who argue that creative writing cannot be taught?
What a tutor can do is foster raw talent, polish it and point a writer to new ways of doing things, or take a writer that is struggling and help them to create something far stronger by the end of a course than they might ever have dreamed of producing at the beginning.
I teach numerous very talented writers every year. I’m convinced that the only thing that has prevented them from publication has been their own lack of self-belief and/or a lack of determination to put in the hours on researching and submitting to markets/publishers.
My feeling about writing is that it is down to hard graft and endless editing. Perhaps that is something that can be taught, discipline.
So overall, the answer has to be 'yes' but with some caveats. If a new writer is willing to work hard on drafting and willing to listen to advice, their work can certainly be improved by a writing course.
But I’m not sure you can teach someone to be a writer. For me, writing is an obsession. I think about it all the time and I have done for about twenty five years.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?
Write, write, write, every single day if you can. And read. Sometimes, when I’m really stuck for what to write, I can read for five minutes and get an idea.
For those that are already writing and reading and getting stuff finished, it’s about having the tenacity, self-belief and determination not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Get a raft of short stories together and keep sending them out. Each time a rejection slip arrives (or e-mail), send the story straight back out there. I’ve had stories rejected 15 times or more and then accepted and positively reviewed. The same goes for novels. Pitch professionally. Do your homework. Write something that people might want to read.
If all else fails, consider doing it yourself. The publishing world is about to go through a massive period of change with the rise of e-books. Get on board now and get your work out there. The power base is shifting.
What’s next for Danny Rhodes?
Thank you, Danny, and the very best of luck with all your writing.
The Knowledge and other stories will be hitting Amazon Kindle, Smashwords and various other e-book retail sites in October 2011.
For more information on Danny and his books, please visit www.dannyrhodes.net