In conversation with Ian Riddle
– Alex Pearl
It gives me great pleasure to welcome Ian Riddle onto the website today. Ian has written three collections of short stories and his debut novel Midsummer Dreams was published in 2020.
Alex: Tell us a bit about yourself, Ian.
Ian: I married a girl whom I’d met at uni, and we did a short stint in London after graduation. It didn’t really work for us and, by our mid-twenties, we were settled into the small, once fishing, now touristy, village of Polperro in Cornwall where Annita originally comes from.
We lived there for 42 years, in the same house, before recrossing the Tamar to settle in Devon only a little while back. It was my time in Polperro that provided a rich source of material for my first novel, Midsummer Dreams, a lyrical history of the lives, loves, and, in particular, the dreams of several of the inhabitants of a small Cornish village. The experience is also responsible for my novella, Legend.
I’ve harboured literary ambitions right from my university days; they’ve just been slow in coming to the fore, that’s all. Well, that’s how I like to think of it anyway.
During my three years at uni I wrote quite a plethora of poems, all of which, fortunately for both myself and mankind in general, have been lost. In all honesty, they weren’t that good even if I did think they were at the time.
Between then, and recently, I’ve made a couple of half-hearted attempts at writing a novel, but nothing ever came of them which wasn’t all that surprising. I never gave them the attention they demanded but then, I was preoccupied with other things such as the day job and children, not to mention several cats, oh, and being flooded. Twice. Things like that.
I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was a couple of weeks short of my 69th birthday. Still, better late than never, as my mother used to say.
Annita had put the idea of me writing a novel into my head twelve months or so earlier but as I was still working at the time, I left it to roll around for a while and then a while longer.
It wasn’t until January 2017 that I began work on my first, serious piece, the novel, Midsummer Dreams, and eight months later had a rough draft ready although it still needed a lot more work to complete it.
I felt mentally exhausted with it and needing a break from it I put the manuscript to one side and thought to write just a couple of short stories. Twelve months and fifteen stories later it became clear that I had my first volume, Collected Writings Vol I which was published at the end of 2018. Vol II was published at the end of 2019 and Vol III at the end of 2020. Vol IV is well into the making.
Midsummer Dreams was published in March 2020, not the best time to have chosen considering we were heading into the first lockdown which proved a bit constraining, to say the least, in terms of being able to physically promote the work.
These days, I’m retired from the day job although writing has become a part-time occupation.
Alex: How would you describe your writing and are there particular themes that you like to explore?
Ian: Style-wise, my writing can, I suppose, be best summed up as being in the literary genre, if only by default. It’s most definitely not crime, fantasy, horror, chic lit nor any of the other more popular types. It’s also not epic; far from it in fact. It tends to be brief and to the point.
Having exhausted all other possibilities it would seem then that only ‘literary’ is left open to me. It certainly seems to fit under one definition of the term, suggested by Wikipedia, as being writing that’s concerned with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.
Literary fiction is also considered as typically being character-driven rather than plot-driven. If that’s the case then my writing is definitely in the literary genre as I’m not that great on plot, especially one that’s in any way convoluted.
As far as themes are concerned, I do like to explore that space where fact and fantasy collide, combine, embrace and finally entwine themselves until they re-invent as stories in their own way. Apart from several short stories being like that both my new novel, Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered and the novella, Legend, fall very much into that bracket. The latter in particular, as it’s set amongst the dead of a Cornish, coastal cemetery.
Legend, like Midsummer Dreams, also features a very assertive cat!
Alex: Are you a writer that plans a detailed synopsis or do you set out with a vague idea and let the story unfold as you write?
Ian: Definitely the latter. I never have any idea where a thought’s going to lead me; sometimes just to a dead end in which case, I find it best to leave it there and move on. Some, fortunately, do mature.
Alex: I find this really interesting, Ian. I know what it’s like to hit a dead end. That happened when I attempted my first novel, and it took about 15,000 words before I hit it. Since then I have always planned in detail. But I really envy authors who can just write and let their characters take over. Anyway, tell us about your latest novel.
Ian: There are two, Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered and Our Rose, My Reg and Me although Our Rose is best described, I think, as a quasi-novel.
Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered began life as the short story, Tea at Raffles, published in Collected Writings – Vol I.
Kenver McDonald, the main protagonist, is desperate for an idea for his second novel. On a whim, he flies to Singapore and Raffles Hotel once home to the writers Miller, Maugham, and Kipling whom he meets, or thinks he meets, over afternoon tea. The trio suggests that the girl in the blue hat, whom Kenver has seen in the hotel swimming pool, might prove an inspiration for his second novel. At that point, the girl had no name.
That was where I left the story but when I was questioned, what was the story of the girl in the blue hat? I had to confess I didn’t know. I set out to discover it for myself and Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered is the result although it has progressed somewhat beyond its original brief.
Like Tea at Raffles, Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered was also intended to be written as a short story, called The Girl in the Blue Hat. From there it grew into a long story, before combining with Tea at Raffles to become a novella. It’s finally, ended up as a novel. As I’ve said, I never do any planning. It turns out that the girl in the blue hat is called, Angelique Dubois, by the way.
Together, with the aid of Angelique the dead trio endeavour to help Kenver move on with both his life and his career but rarely does anything ever fully turn out as planned. For one thing, no one had factored in the exquisite Eloise.
To quote, “Eloise is lovely, adorable, a femme fatale. She’s an enchantress, a poetess, a lover, and all gathered so exquisitely into one, certainly to Kenver’s way of thinking. As may be guessed from her name, Eloise is also French.”
Our Rose, My Reg and Me is a bit of a weird one in that it is, ostensibly, a set of ten, half-hour monologues which can all be read, or performed, quite individually. However, when read together in sequence, they form something of a quasi-novel.
The Me, June by name, is the narrator, Rose is her sister, and Reg June’s long-suffering husband. These three retirees are the main protagonists in each of the ten stories which span a period of twelve months.
Legend, or The Tale of Tommy Tattle as it’s subtitled is, at 32k words, a Novella. The storyline didn’t have the legs to make it as far as a novel, much as I might have wished.
Legend is something of an Alice in Wonderland type tale for adults, in that the narrator falls asleep, in this instance in a cemetery, and has an imaginary conversation with several of the interred, including the now legendry Tommy Tattle himself.
Tommy Tattle, a local icon in the vicinity of Poleryn, a Cornish coastal community, was and is a philanderer though death, he has had to accept has imposed limitations to his physical activity even if still not to his mouth.
Hopefully, the story’s lyrical qualities, if not the storyline, are its saving grace!
Publication dates have yet to be set for all three works. They’ll be announced on my website https://ianriddle.co.uk
Alex: What was the first book you read?
Ian: Probably Thomas the Tank Engine at primary school. Does that count? And are we still allowed a Fat Controller, by the way, or is that not PC any longer?
When I was about 9, I was sent for extra English lessons, both written and oral, twice a week after school. The teacher, a Mrs Coxon, insisted we had a good grounding in Shakespeare before we read anything else so Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare was compulsory reading with her before we moved on to the plays themselves.
Outside of all that, the first book I really remember enjoying was Swiss Family Robinson. I loved the adventurous aspect of it. It led me on to writers such as Rider Haggard and Thor Heyerdahl. They really fed my imagination. You must remember, back in those days, we never travelled very far at all.
Alex: I’m sure you’re right about the Fat Controller. I suppose he’d have to be dubbed The Ever-so-slightly Rotund Controller. LOL! I digress. How much research do you do and what does it usually entail?
Ian: I don’t do a huge amount of research, only where necessary, such as when I needed the names of writers who’d stayed at Raffles in Singapore in the past. Miller, by the way, as far as I’m aware never did, but I needed a brash American to compliment the other two characters, so I used a bit of licence there.
Wikipedia is usually more than sufficient for my needs.
Alex: Do you ever base your characters on people you have encountered in real life?
Ian: Essentially no, although I do sometimes use traits of people I’ve known and weave them into a character of my imagining. Most of the time, though, my characters are straight out of my head.
Alex: How do you market your books?
Ian: With difficulty. I’m not very good at self-marketing and I seem to struggle with getting likes’ if that’s the correct word to use. Social media’s something I wrestle with. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood it, which isn’t helpful, I suspect if you want to sell your writing.
Alex: What are your interests aside from writing? And what do you do to unwind?
Ian: One of my main interests these days which combines with how I like to unwind is cooking. Nothing fancy, you understand, just plain simple, basic food. As far as I’m concerned, wherever a woman’s place might be, it’s not in the kitchen, certainly not in our house. Cooking dinner, in particular, with some background music, is when I do much of my writing, at least the thinking part of it. Dinner often gets delayed while I stop to make notes. Fortunately for me, my wife’s very tolerant.
I also like to get out on my bike when I can. I find the physical exercise welcome after the mental exercise from sitting at my desk of a morning. I’m aware that I am lucky, living on the edge of the countryside as I do. On the downside though, Devon’s a very hilly county.
Alex: Which authors do you particularly admire and why?
Ian: There’ve been loads, over time, and for different reasons. Amongst the earliest were writers such as Kingsley Amis, Edna O’Brien, J.P. Donlevy, and Leslie Thomas. Lucky Jim was probably one of the first anti-hero characters written post War. Nell Dunn was one of the more gritty writers of the day.
I could go on but the ones that stand out the very most for me are those writers who have written extremely lyrically. If I had to make a choice, I do prefer words over plot.
First and foremost, of course, it has to be Shakespeare. I don’t think that any writer since has mastered his use of the English language to such a degree, not even Dylan Thomas, another hero of mine. Again, his writing is so poetic.
I visited Laugharne, where Thomas spent much of his life, just before the pandemic and walked most of his trails. When I returned, I wrote a short story, A Tar-Dark Night, which I subtitled, In Memorium. This is another example of my writing where fact and fantasy collide.
‘It’s night-time in Laugharne but unlike most other nights, tonight’s all dark; total dark. Tonight’s tar-dark, in fact, or bible black as it might once have been described.
There’s not even the slightest punctuation to all this dim from the streetlights perched high on their pencil-thin poles, positioned at strategic intervals around the place either. For whatever reason, the streetlights are switched off tonight though no-one in the little Township knows why. For the most part, they can only guess although there are a few who say they have the knowing of it for tonight is October the twenty-seventh.‘
I’m not sure if you’d class them as authors but another two poets, I’ve always admired have been Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Again, for me, their writing has always been so imaginative, and their use of language quite powerful.
These days, I’ve given up, pretty much, on reading anything that might be considered thought-provoking in favour of works that are pure entertainment. I think this, in part, also helps answer your earlier question, what do you do to unwind? and is the result of me having spent most of the morning writing and the early evening thinking of what I’m going to write the next day.
Alex: Thank you so much for such wonderfully detailed and thoughtful answers, Ian. I love the sound of your writing, and the fact that your latest novel evolved from a short story. Good luck with this. I shall keep an eye out for it.
Ian: Thank you Alex. It’s been great to chat.