Marika Cobbold's smash hit debut Guppies for Tea was one of the books that inspired me to try writing novels back in the 1990s. It has taken me a long time to get there, but my debut is now published and I am well ahead with the follow up. One of the huge benefits for me of being published now has been Twitter, where I have made friends with many writers I admire. I asked Marika, via Twitter, to satisfy some of my curiosity about her amazing career and she answered my questions below. Her latest novel, Aphrodite's Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, a poignant romp that visualizes the goddess of love intervening directly in human affairs via relationship counseling, is out now. www.bookdepository.co.uk sends anything worldwide for free.
How old were you when you started writing stories down - as opposed to spinning them in your head. And do you remember telling elaborate stories as a child and wanting them to be true?
I didn't have much luck with stories at school. I am mildly dyslexic - a problem that did not affect my ability to read but did affect my spelling quite severely. I never achieved the grades I wanted so I suppose I felt a bit discouraged and I stopped writing creatively. I did, however, spend most of my spare time reading, (if I ever wagged school it was in order to finish a book) and when I wasn't reading I was lying on my bed thinking up stories. Sometimes I told them to my friends. I remember at school when I was six, telling some horrid fantasy - and pretending it had actually happened - about me having had a grisly operation in the holidays, describing how my navy-blue trousers had turned so red with blood that everyone assumed they actually were red trousers. I seem to remember adding that the anaesthetic hadn't worked either.
Many are the writers whose work is enhanced by writing in a second language, such as Samuel Becket and Nobokov. Do you think not writing in Swedish has a creative power for you?
Writing in a language that is not my own has its problems obviously but I think I have also gained an advantage in that I don't have so many preconceived ideas of how English should be used. I think that can help to keep the writing fresh because I am discovering the language and experimenting with it, along the way.
Have you considered writing crime novels in Swedish? As this seems to be such a massive trend.
The Swedes are crazy about crime novels at this time and buy and read very little else. Several Swedish crime writers have also made it very big internationally. Although the novel I am working on right now does incorporate a crime it is not, in the conventional sense a crime novel. I might write crime in the future but only because I've often thought of doing it and only when I feel I have something to say. I think if you write something purely jumping on a bandwagon it becomes a rather sterile exercise.
Does your family write? If so, did this mean that writing was somehow normal for you. Like being a doctor's child makes being a doctor normal?
My grandfather was a writer and newspaper editor/journalist as is my father, so writing was just something one did. There was no glamour attached to it as far as I was concerned. I think we all go through a stage when we very much don't want to do, professionally, what everyone else in the family seems to be doing, and I was no exception. But of course respect for writing and love of reading was imbued in me anyway. Either way I didn't think about being a writer until I was in my twenties although all the signs were there; the constant reading and also the way of thinking of my life and everything that happened to me and around me, in the terms of stories.
Writers seem to have a particular itch they want to scratch, or often more than one. What thematic itches give you the greatest satisfaction to scratch?
I suppose my recurring themes are the usual ones; how to be a good person; how to atone for the bad things one might have done; how to come to terms with ones limitations; what to do and how to cope when reality collides with our dreams and expectations. And art ... the importance of art and creativity in our lives. I'm interested in how we carry on and why. Unless we have a faith we know everything ends with death and nothingness, oblivion. We know we have very little control or influence on many of the most important things in our lives. We are surrounded by horrors even if we, and those close to us, are spared. So why do we bother to live at all? In my novel "Shooting Butterflies" I made up something called the "Dumb-chip.' This is a special device that God installed in our brains at the last moment of creation when he realized that he could not allow us to be too clever. If we got to see the truth of our existence we would all run screaming back to the womb. So he gave us the dumb-chip.
I am currently reading A Rival Creation - a book you wrote about failure very early in your career. Indeed not long after Guppies for Tea. Why did you write about failure at such a young age when all was going so well?
I chose failure as a theme for my second novel as much as anything because when I was starting on the project my first novel, Guppies For Tea, still had not found a publisher. I began to think more and more about the irony of being someone with all the traits of an artist other than that one rather vital one, talent. How cruel it would be to burn to write, or paint, or compose, or whatever it happened to be that one was passionate about. To work tirelessly, to dedicate one's life to the project but then, never ever to achieve one's ambition. I know people who have been writing all their lives, all the time dreaming of publication and who still have not achieved this. I know someone who has painted all his life; living and breathing his art and who still has not achieved his dream of getting one of his pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition. That's cruel. And most people do need some kind of recognition and interaction, like being published, exhibited, seen and read. Art, after all, is about communication and without an audience it's becomes rather like standing in the middle of a desert calling out, 'Is anybody there?'
Your latest novel, Aphrodite's Workshop, features the most glorious relationship counselor in history, Aphrodite herself, with all the personality tics you might expect from the goddess of love. Have you ever experienced relationship counseling, and if so, what did you think of it?
I have never received relationship counseling myself but I have had some sessions with therapists for my OCD so I feel I know the jargon a bit. Also there are plenty of agony aunts around with columns in newspapers and magazines. I had a lot of fun with that part of the novel myself. To me, the Greek gods and goddesses became part of my 'fictional family' in exactly the same way as the more conventional characters. In fact they were almost more real to me.
Aphrodite's Workshop is about 'the one' - it illustrates what happens if you don't meet the right person at the right time and get distracted by others who are not right. What do you think of that in real life? Is there a one, or more than one, for each of us?
I believe that for most of us there is more than one person who would make a good life partner out there. However I don't think they are legion. If the person for you turns out to be someone you know from university or work or who moves in the same social circles as you do then you are likely to find each other in the romantic sense, sooner or later. But if the person who turns out to be absolutely right for you is someone you meet through pure chance; because you took that particular train at that particular time, or because you decided to stop for a cup of coffee after all, or because you decided at the last minute to go to that boring drinks party where you knew no one, then it's tempting to feel that some higher power, the fates, or the gods and goddesses of love had a hand in it all.
I am awaiting your next book with a great deal of anticipation. Can you give us a clue what it is about?
My next novel is about guilt. About a basically good person whose life is ruined by guilt and a not very good person who ought to feel very guilty indeed but doesn't.
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