Language. War. Humanity. The Spare Room is a book that will get you thinking about humanity and the world in which we live.
The book encourages readers to ask questions we might not have considered before. Take language for example. Phillip points out that there is ‘a serious statement about language’ within the book, despite the humorous tones. As he explains, ‘The humour in the book is connected with the misunderstanding of English idiom and figures of speech. But the deeper statement about language is that language should be respected and looked after since it is the essential means of communication between people. When language is mistreated, the social and moral decline can be expected to follow, or perhaps such decline is a major cause of the mistreatment of language – cause and effect feed upon each other.’ Language is just one of the subjects within the book that has significant resonance in the world around us today. Read on to find out what factors have influenced Phillip to delve into such stimulating subjects, the inspiration behind the eccentric Mr Potts and much more.
What factors in your social and educational background have most influenced you?Most people believe, as do I, that childhood helps shape you. My childhood was very reflective. I was a thoughtful child. I wasn’t interested in football or cars. I was something of a loner and inward-looking. The loss of my father when I was 12 was a most tragic, traumatic and formative event. He too was quietly reflective and no doubt became my heroic role model. (I remember, when I was about 8 years old, I annoyed him by asking ‘But why?’ after every statement he made.) Even in my early teens, I was trying, much of the time hopelessly, to understand books on popular philosophy. But I was fascinated by the questions posed rather than by the answers given, answers I could barely understand anyway! Undoubtedly this early interest developed and drove me to study philosophy at university and ultimately led to my doing a PhD at Cambridge. In all my teaching I have taken every opportunity to encourage my students to ask good questions and to explore more than one side of an issue and to engage in critical thinking, for the intelligent exercise of the ‘grey matter’ is what education should be all about.
What is your motivation for writing?One of the most important motivations for writing to me is that it opens up channels for critical reflection, for self-reflection. Critical thinking is what education is all about. And for me, it’s also what good writing is all about. Writing is thinking on paper. Thinking isn’t easy, which is why good writing isn’t easy, either.
If someone asks your opinion about an issue, you may have no immediate answer. Sometimes writing about it enables you to form an opinion. So, writing is also a kind of discovery or self-discovery. Or you may begin with a clear opinion, but during the process of writing you may
modify that opinion or even reject it completely. How? Because writing is thinking on paper!
With regards to motivation, the book is about this desire to ask the fundamental question:
In the light of man’s unceasing inhumanity to man, should the future of
humanity be viewed with stubborn hope or with grim resignation?
The book is the outcome of posing such a question, the same question, incidentally, that runs through the preceding book Diary of the Last Man. It’s about measuring human
achievements against human failings and asking whether we come up with hope or despair for the future of mankind.
I find reading difficult now. But I can’t stop writing. As Quentin Crisp once wittily remarked, books are for writing, not reading.
Which writers have influenced you most?Classic authors like Charles Dickens, George Orwell and John Steinbeck have influenced me most. They are all ‘serious’ authors in that they all have ‘something to say’. They are, as it were, ‘writers with a mission’. They have all addressed issues of socio-political importance. The issues they all address are discernible in their stories and characters. They are, I think, very good examples of how fiction and non-fiction can be blended.
Some critics have even said that Charles Dickens was not a novelist at all but a journalist! But, for me, the best examples of so-called ‘fiction’ may indeed be a species of journalism or contain strong elements of it. Although the issues Dickens addressed are extremely important, the characters and situations he created are extremely entertaining and unforgettable.
What was the inspiration behind Mr Potts?Mr Potts is a collection of things. He is a composite figure. He is made up of different people I’ve met, and most likely parts of myself. He is a creature of my imagination in that he is not based on any one person in particular. He is created from bits and pieces of people I’ve met.
I imagine this is similar to any writer and the character he creates. Some of the characters in Dickens, for example, are completely over the top, and this makes them humorous. If they were real, they would be intolerable, but, even so, bits and pieces of them can be seen in real life, in real people.
Can you tell us about something that you edited out of the book?When you have written something, you want to say goodbye to it once and for all. I could not read the book myself. Editing is not easy. I don’t look forward to playing my part in it. The Spare Room consisted mainly in correcting spelling mistakes. Editing is mostly about correcting spelling and the occasional grammar slip. It’s all about the bits and pieces of language.
With this book, the style is more conversational, and this is done on purpose. The Spare Room is written in an avuncular style, easy and conversational as opposed to dry and academic, for this is the style that’s required in this case. Circle Walker was also written in a conversational style. For
example, for ‘nevertheless’ I would say ‘anyhow,’ or ‘maybe’ instead of ‘perhaps.’ A formal style would have ruined the book.
Sometimes, uninformed editing can spoil the book and change its intended character.
Which type of writing do you prefer or think is more effective, fiction or non-fiction?Before writing fiction, I completed a trilogy of non-fiction books (The Gods of Our Time, Dreams and Illusions Revisited, and The Mountain Dwellers). I felt that writing novels may be a good way of illustrating many of the things I wanted to say in my non-fiction books.
Novels can be a way of making it easier for readers to relate to points made in non-fiction prose. Non-fiction can be a rather ‘dry’ read, while stories and the characters in them can make ‘serious insights’ more memorable, more ‘personal’ in a way and therefore more ‘effective’. I like to think that fiction and non-fiction complement each other and that both are necessary for the art of creative writing.
What is your view of 'celebrity' publishing in the UK?In regards to celebrity publishing, it’s a bit sad. With a well-known figure, there’s nothing to the marketing. It’s all in the name. Young writers starting to have the problem that nobody knows them. There is nothing more soul-destroying than approaching a publisher who tells you they
won’t be able to look at your book for six months. They don’t have a suitable list for your work, or their lists are full. Celebrity publishing is understandable but sad. It’s unfortunate for people starting, who have no name to boast.
What advice would you give to new writers?My advice to new writers is to keep going. Be persistent. If you think you’ve got something to say, then say it. Don't be put off. New writers have the problem of getting their work published. Their work is usually not given much attention by publishers, and this is a great pity. Experience and persistence should enrich your writing. Don’t be discouraged if you feel you need to try to express the same thing in different ways if you have to scrap something and start again. Hitting the target takes time, practice, and effort. Remember that writing requires thinking, and there is no earthly reason why thinking should always be easy or come naturally.
Reflecting on the question at the centre of The Spare Room, Phillip explains that ‘There is much that is regrettable and downright evil in life, but there is also much that is beautiful. There is also a kind of beauty in the person who is forever curious about things, who asks questions and is not ready to take everything at face value, a little like the philosopher Socrates – a little like Mr Potts, perhaps?’
- The Spare Room Of Elves and Men is available to order from JMD Media now.