Ian Nettleton has been named as the 2014 Bath Novel Award runner up and the Peggy Chapman-Andrews (Bridport First Novel) Award runner-up. Ian is an experienced creative writing tutor, teaching with the Open University as well as other institutions. He has also written and presented for the BBC and co-written an independent short film. Ian is interviewed by Lesley Proctor.
Hello Ian and congratulations on your success with your novel, The Last Migration. Please tell us what it is about and what inspired you to write it.
Thanks. Well, the main plotline is about two naïve brothers living in an outback town who are asked by a retired gangster to bring back a cousin of his who has run off with a week’s takings from his nightclub. It’s an adventure/thriller novel, for the most part – the elder brother messes up and kills the gangster’s cousin, and the younger brother, Lee, has to go on the run to Melbourne. It was initially inspired by an anecdote about a friend of mine who hit a dead deer in his car, one night. As is often the way, the tale changed and changed till I had a couple finding a burnt out car with two bodies. I didn’t know why the car was there till I dreamt about these two brothers. That was a gift. The dream was like a film. I saw the brothers so clearly that it was easy to write about them because they already existed imaginatively for me.
The Last Migration is set in the Australian outback and was judged to be “is a well-crafted novel, using spare prose to evoke a powerful sense of place”. How integral was setting to the overall novel?
Very. I saw the location in a cinematic way. The outback is pretty raw. There are roads that lead into the desert and it’s easy to get lost out there. This seemed to fit with the awful moral situation the brothers find themselves in and since the novel is like a road movie, I needed the long roads between towns that you don’t get in the UK. The sandstorm at the end is also a way of adding a dramatic, elemental finale. Well, I hope that’s what it does.
How long did the novel take to write?
I’d been writing scraps for a while, but it really got underway in 2006, after I revisited Australia. So, aside from some additions last year, the novel took around five years to write.
Are the names of your characters important? Do you find names easy to come up with?
Sometimes, but sometimes not. Sometimes a name will just seem immediately appropriate. It’s easy to name someone in a way that undermines plausibility.
Which Open University courses have you taught, and what do you find rewarding about teaching this subject?
I’ve taught the now-defunct three month introductory course (A174), and currently teach on A215 and A363. Teaching on A363 has been very interesting, because it opens the writing process up to other genres – screen, stage and radio. This has helped with my writing. Meanwhile, there is a lot of satisfaction in seeing writers develop their craft. I get to be involved in people’s development and their pleasure at achieving new levels of creativity. That’s a very rewarding experience for me.
Many Ink Pantry readers are aspiring writers. What do you find is the most common mistake made by new writers?
One of the most common ones is beginning in the wrong place. New writers’ stories often start with an everyday situation, like waking up in bed or looking in a bathroom mirror. There’s nothing wrong with establishing the everyday, but the reader wants a reason for reading on – the promise of a story. I often find a story submitted to me really gets going half way down page two. My advice is to lop off those first paragraphs and drop the reader into the events. Then worry about establishing the everyday once you’ve got the reader’s attention.
Creative writing students are often encouraged to keep a daily journal in order to develop the writing habit. Do you keep a journal, and do you use it daily?
No, not really. I use a small book to write fiction in and I carry it about with me and I occasionally note things I observe and overhear. I should do more of this. To be honest, though, I think every writer has to find their own route to effective writing.
Please tell us what you are working on at the moment.
I’m having fun at the moment working on a novel about a boy whose father is an exorcist’s assistant. It’s actually inspired by some of my childhood experiences, and I’ve thrown in a dangerous escaped criminal and a satanic cult. The usual, everyday stuff.
Finally, which books do you enjoy reading?
This varies. I enjoy books that are full of jeopardy and really rattle along but more than that, I need the writing to be beautifully phrased. Plot is only one element. Excellent descriptions, layered dialogue and strong characterisation are what keep me reading. So I’ll enjoy a Cormac McCarthy as much as a John McGahern or an Annie Proulx. Ultimately I love fiction that is somewhere between literary and popular.
Thanks your time and the helpful weblinks, Ian. We wish you continued success with your writing.
Picture by Martin Figura