Interviewing Mari

13 Feb
It was recently my pleasure to interview my friend Mari Biella about her latest e-book collection, Loving Imogen. It comprises a novella and three companion pieces. I’ve read it a couple of times now and can testify to the strength of the writing on offer. The title piece is a beautifully told story of damaged love, images from which remain in the mind long after reading it. The other stories are gems too, eerie tales told in shimmering prose. It’s available in all the usual places – Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Apple iStore and Smashwords. She hopes eventually to release it as a paperback. Mari is adept at producing e-books but has yet to contend with paper ones (I, on the other hand, have prepared the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag in paperback format – to be launched upon an unsuspecting and indifferent world in the very near future – but have been unable to date to produce an e-book of acceptable standard).
Here, then, are the answers Mari gave to my questions.
What had you written before this latest collection?

Most of my previous works constitute what I now think of as my apprenticeship. They were deeply flawed, and were by no means suitable for publication. They were, I suppose, failures by any conventional standards, and yet I’m reluctant to call them that because they formed a vital learning experience. It was only when I’d finished my novel The Quickening that I felt I’d written something that was up to publication standard.

Where did the idea for Loving Imogen come from? 

It all began a few years ago, when I was sitting in a departure lounge in an airport and overheard two women chatting about one of their neighbours. It was probably just malicious gossip, but the situation they were discussing appealed to me on an imaginative level. I kept on thinking about it, wondering how the people involved must have felt, and what kind of impact it might have had on their lives. Gradually, a story took shape in my mind – a story that departed from, and yet originated in, that overheard conversation.


Mari Biella

How long did it take you to write?

For a relatively short work, it actually took quite a long time to write. At first, I spent a while just turning the idea over in my mind, letting it gestate. The actual business of writing it down and polishing it took the better part of two years. While I was writing the early drafts I was very aware that there were some structural flaws in it, and certain things that I felt rather unhappy with, and it took a long time to smooth them out. The fact that it’s quite a short work made it no less important in my mind. I wanted to make sure that I got it just right, or at least as right as I could.

Without giving too much away, the novella concerns itself with some highly controversial relationships. What led you to explore this territory? How comfortable do you feel with it?

This is something that worried me quite a bit at the outset. I didn’t particularly want to offend anyone, and I certainly didn’t want the whole thing to be an exercise in titillation. Ultimately, though, people just do get involved in relationships that are unconventional or unwise, and I think that is as valid a theme as any. I wanted to explore what might lie behind such a relationship, and how it feels for the people who are involved in it. Gradually, as I wrote, I began to feel more comfortable with the subject matter; I think I’ve dealt with it pretty sensitively, and it’s certainly not explicit or obscene.

There are some vividly drawn characters in the book, Daniel, Imogen and my favourite, Alwyn Nevett. Are they in any way based upon people whom you’ve known? If not, where do your characters come from?

I often use real people as physical prototypes for my characters, as I find that this provides me with a useful starting-point. Daniel, for example, owes his physical appearance to a rather well-known British television actor. I also make use of the mannerisms and speech patterns that I observe in the people around me. There, though, the resemblance to real people ends. My characters evolve slowly in my mind. They start off as quick character sketches: Daniel, for example, was shy and kind, Imogen was reckless and impulsive, and Nevett was tortured and irresponsible. Gradually, they grew and became more like real, rounded people, with all the subtleties and contradictions that that entails. For me, this slow process of getting to know a character is essential. It allows me to understand them in a way that I couldn’t if I just based them on real people.

The protagonist, Daniel works in a school. How much did you draw upon your own experience when writing about this?

Daniel actually went through several different jobs in the early drafts, and it took a while for me to settle upon the idea of him being a teacher. It made sense to me, as teaching is something I have some experience of, and I think I can represent it quite realistically. It’s a career that seems to fit his personality quite well: he’s intelligent but lacking in ambition, kindly, and a little unsure of himself. At the same time, his job is, for him, an unfortunate necessity – he’d really rather be a writer or a university lecturer, for example – and I’ve met quite a few teachers who are like that. I tried to convey the reality of teaching as it sometimes is, especially for those who have no particular vocation – the boredom, the sense of dissatisfaction, of a life being measured out in lessons and terms. It’s an unromantic job, and for Daniel that lack of romance, that haunting sense of squandered dreams and disappointment, is quite far-reaching, and perhaps explains some of his behaviour in the novella.

I’ve remarked before that I admire your cool, formal writing style. What would you say have been the main influences on your style?

I think that perhaps my earliest influences have been the most fundamental. When I was a teenager, I loved the great Victorian novelists – Dickens, the Brontës, Trollope, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy – and I think that their formality and clarity of style has certainly had an influence upon me.

Twenty years on from the setting of the book, Daniel was sad and alone. By that time, do you imagine someone else loving Imogen?

Imogen is, whatever her faults, quite a lovable person, so I do imagine her being loved by someone. Essentially, though, she is rather lonely. She’s capable of forming very deep attachments to other people, but there is a sad, damaged core to her personality that nobody else can really share or understand. The same could be said of Daniel, but he is even more alone. He’s a gentle and rather loving person, but he becomes embittered. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a person’s one true love, but there are certainly relationships that are so intense and significant that they mark one’s life and personality, and for Daniel this was his love for Imogen.

How did you decide which other stories to put with the novella? 

There is no obvious link between the different stories, but when I put them all together they seemed to have a pleasing rhythm and a kind of underlying harmony. Loving Imogen is set in more-or-less contemporary Britain, and is fairly realistic in tone and content. The Song of the Sea represents a change of pace. It is, I suppose, a horror story, but ultimately it has a quiet and rather melancholy tone, and it shares the theme of being drawn to something that is dangerous. Summer is, on the surface, a ghost story, but it’s really about a passive-aggressive personality. With the final story, Fragile Things, I feel like the collection comes full circle; it has a contemporary British setting, and is also about a relationship that goes awry.

You’ve chosen to self-publish. Do you see self-publishing as the future of fiction? Did the fact that you’d written a novella influence your decision? 

That I’d written a novella certainly had a bearing on my decision in this instance, because British publishers do seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to novellas. I’m not convinced that I’d have stood a chance of getting it published through the traditional route. In general, things are changing so much and so fast that I’m reluctant to try to make any particular forecasts. I suspect, though, that the more extravagant predictions that are sometimes made are wildly inaccurate; my best guess is that self-publishing and traditional publishing will just continue to coexist. There are more and more “hybrid” authors, for example, who publish some works through publishers and self-publish others. Trade publishers are always going to do certain things better, and for many authors they remain the best choice. However, other authors are attracted by the freedom and self-determination offered by self-publishing. There are flaws and strengths in both systems, and my advice to any writers who were undecided would be to get as much information as they could, decide what they wanted and what they could realistically achieve, and make a choice based upon that.

I’d like to thank Mari for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope that this interview will have tempted some of my readers to buy a copy of Loving Imogen. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All text © PSR and MB 2014/Image © MB 2014


5 Responses to “Interviewing Mari”

  1. Mari Biella February 14, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    Thank you for hosting me, Paul! I’ll look forward to returning the favour when your book comes out.

  2. Mari Biella February 14, 2014 at 7:26 am #

    Reblogged this on Mari Biella and commented:
    A post from my friend Paul Sutton Reeves, who was recently good enough to interview me about my new book. Many thanks, Paul!

  3. the happy horror writer February 15, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    Paul, hi –

    Thanks for sharing this interview with Mari. I love hearing the stories of how novels are born, especially the little snippets of history that only an author can know: where the first germ of an idea came from, and how (and why) it took n-amount of time to complete the work. I agree with you that Mari has a cool, formal style and believe that the clarity of emotion she imparts to her readers is largely due to the careful (painstaking!) cultivation of her voice.

    I second Paul’s recommendation of Loving Imogen – beauty in prose, even when looking at the darker effects of love gone wrong.


    • Paul Sutton Reeves February 15, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

      Hi Aniko and thanks for dropping by. It’s always a pleasure to feature writing friends on my blog, especially when they’re as talented as Mari is.

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