Paul Letters studied history, education, global affairs and literary journalism at the Universities of Cardiff, Oxford and Hong Kong, where he stayed on as a senior researcher. He teaches part-time and writes regularly, as a freelancer, for the South China Morning Post.
His first novel, A Chance Kill, published in 2015, was inspired by his grandmother’s escape from Poland in 1939 and the heroics of RAF crews sent to war in obsolete technology.
Why I write
Of Orwell’s four reasons, perhaps what he terms ‘historical impulse’ is the most relevant for me – a ‘desire to see things as they are,’ to look at real situations that would otherwise be distant and put myself, and the reader, in the centre of them.
Nonfiction writing exercises my intellect, and fiction writing gives my creativity a workout – and it’s great fun to take your head out of today’s world and into another time and place. Writing (or reading) about exhilarating experiences is vicariously thrilling. It’s not possible to be bored amid wartime escapes, snatched love affairs, RAF derring-do and young female spies parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe.
What writing habits do you keep?
It dawned on me that I must now be taking writing seriously when on Christmas Day I got up at 5.45am to do a little writing while the house was still quiet (I beat my four-year-old by several hours). I’m not an early riser, yet it seemed utterly natural.
I write for up to seven hours a day on three days per week, and I teach three days per week. I take Sunday off and spend it with my family. But at some point every day I try to sneak in something related to my writing – that could be some relevant reading or simply jotting down ideas. To go 24 hours uninvolved with writing is almost like going 24 hours without seeing my son: either would be a bad day.
I can write any time of day, as long as it’s quiet. Editing and proofreading can’t be done late in the day, but creative ideas can come any time – often at night (my iPhone is my notepad).
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
My desk is under a bedroom window fronted by a steep hillside; the view pushes the eye up towards the heavens – it often feels like that’s where I’m looking for inspiration.
Sometimes I wander out to a picnic table with a sea view to proofread printed chapters, but the heavy lifting gets done at home.
One of many things I don’t share with Hemingway is the compunction he had never to mix alcohol with work; I occasionally multi-task. One afternoon a week I’ll take some easy work to a quiet pub for a slow pint. ‘Easy work’ could be the typing up of notes I’ve already annotated on printed chapters – or completing this interview (just now I’m enjoying a nutty ale).
How often do you get writers’ block, and how do you overcome it?
I’ve been writing with a view to publication for about five years, but I’ve not yet experienced this. It helps that what I write about is entirely of my own choosing. If a newspaper editor told me he/she wants 1,000 words on the mating habits of pandas, I’m sure I’d meet writer’s block.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Perhaps because I got into writing relatively late (mid-thirties) – when I was old enough to realise life doesn’t last forever – I’m not one for procrastinating. Unless you count reading: whether I’m writing an international affairs op-ed or working on my World War II fiction, reading feeds my hunger for research – and only when I’m sated can I write.
But if I may swap ‘worst’ and ‘best’ around in the question, the answer to both would be my four-year-old son. He is the best source of distraction, but his potty mouth of ‘poopy bum-bum’ and ‘smelly fart-head’ doesn’t inspire my writing.
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
In a sense, always. I believe I’ve just begun my writing ‘career’, but I have no idea how far it will or won’t go. I felt like a real writer when I did a research tour for my novel-to-be and visited expert historians in Warsaw, Prague and London’s Natural History Museum. They took me seriously, and I guess I began to too. My novel research has a section of my website dedicated to it.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up, I had vague notions of writing – although not necessarily of ‘being a writer’, however we may define that. In my twenties I had equally vague intentions of writing a novel one day, but I was aware that I hadn’t experienced enough of life to give it a go.
How did you get started writing?
Five years ago, I was on holiday in Crete and couldn’t get to sleep one night. Ideas for a novel had been pinballing around the back of my head for years, but at 2am that night the beginnings of a plot – inspired by my grandmother’s escape across Europe in 1939-40 – poured out onto the page. I had recorded an interview with her about a decade earlier; I hadn’t looked at it for years, but I guess at some level I had long-intended to do something with it. Although I took a year off teaching, a combination of my baby son, a Masters’ Degree (in international affairs and literary journalism) and a job as a university researcher all competed with the would-be novel for my time.
My first published and paid article was a 2010 travel story about a date with Alicia at the Umbrian Jazz Festival. Since I completed my Masters (2011), I’ve had op-eds published with increasing frequency, from Orwell’s prediction of the current rise of China to taking on academics who avow that the world in 2014 resembles 1914.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I had good sub-editors.
Does writing change anything?
Yes, lots. But I’ll keep it brief. For readers, the best writing will emotionally move us, inform our views and make us rethink assumptions (often but not always for the better).
It’s similar for the writer. For example, researching an article on the effectiveness of aid in Africa or humanitarian intervention in Syria forces me not only to empathise but to unearth what I truly believe, to find a definite viewpoint.
Researching historical accounts, engaging with people who were there and historians who live and breathe the minutiae of past times, draws me in – and, by default, my characters. For me, writing (and reading) historical fiction is a quest to get closer to dramatic events and to the individuals involved in them. In that sense, it’s a search for truth about a world that’s only disappeared if we ignore it.
I love variety, so I’m in pain making these singular choices for the next few questions:
Contemporary writer you always read?
Novelist – Ian McEwan.
Columnist – Nicholas Kristof (The New York Times).
Graham Greene. He draws me into a certain place and time via the emotional quagmire of his characters. He also plays masterfully with dialogue and distance (particularly a character’s thought process).
A Moveable Feast – Hemingway takes us on a ride through his years in 1920s Europe as he finds his way as a writer based in Paris. One slim volume shows many sides of Hemingway: the self-destruction of his marriage; alcohol-fuelled road trips with F. Scott Fitzgerald; bullfighting machismo; and clarion writing tips (boy, does he hate unnecessary adjectives). His ‘Author’s Note’ declares A Moveable Feast to be ‘fiction’ – which allowed it to be more truthful than any ‘I-don’t-want-to-be-sued’ nonfiction memoir.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
What are you working on and when is it out?
In addition to preparing for the launch and promotion of my first novel, I’m writing my second – about forbidden love, clandestine resistance and a mass escape during the war in Hong Kong. That should be out in 2016. Journalistically, recently my focus has been on the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, which, for me, has been a moving experience.
Posted: Monday, January 27, 2014