Fran Heath’s Debut Novel: Pencil Lead
James Nye: I often feel I don’t have much to show for the years of (mostly unpublished) writing I’ve done, so it’s always nice to be asked to help out with a little advice and proofreading for a friend and see their project come to fruition. Fran Heath’s debut novel Pencil Lead concerns the lives of two ex-students in their early twenties who attempt to negotiate their relationship while finding excitement and distraction in hiring escorts. They are ultimately confronted with the moral complexities of what they are doing and must find ways of adjusting to the demands of adult life. All this is told with winning wit and a flair for dialogue.
I met up with Fran Heath recently to ask her about the novel and life as a writer:
Had you always thought about writing a novel, or did the idea arrive later in life?
At 17 I had an after-school cleaning job. I’d often think up ideas for stories as I vacuumed and dusted, and have to stop to note them down. The writing ambition started from there, but I didn’t take it seriously at the time and went on to study Environmental Earth Science at university. I think I was around twenty-two – after I graduated – when I realised I’d chosen the wrong degree course.
What was the hardest thing about writing the novel, and what did you learn while doing it?
It took a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would! I spent far too long continuously editing the early chapters when I should’ve just been getting on with the first draft.
So how long did it take?
About 10 years – I’m a procrastinating perfectionist! In my defence, life was happening at the same time – I ran my own business, got married, had two kids, got divorced, moved house three or four times… But actually, I think it took as long as it needed to take; the time was necessary for me to learn and improve.
What tips do you have for other aspiring writers?
Write down all your ideas immediately before you forget them. I have notebooks and folders full of potential stories, descriptions, characters and dialogue, and I frequently look back through my notes to see if any of it can fit into the story I’m writing. It’s useful, if not essential, to have a bank of ideas you can refer to.
Some writers are cautious about writing in the first person in the voice of another gender. Did you have any qualms about this and did you find it an easy or perhaps liberating thing to do?
I prefer reading novels in the first person – to be in someone’s head – so it was never a question for me not to write that way too. I’m drawn to stories which feature a male anti-hero, so I wanted my protagonist to be a man. Writing from a male point of view was surprisingly no more difficult than writing from a female’s. In many ways, I don’t think men are much different to women.
Your novel has adult themes, particularly with the main characters’ involvement with the sex industry. Why did you choose to write the story?
Yes, it definitely has adult themes and quite a few sex scenes…but it’s not meant to be an erotic novel. It’s a coming-of-age story – if you can still call it that with the character being in his early twenties. It’s about having expectations that don’t match up to real life. The anti-hero, Lyle, is lazy, self-entitled and pre-occupied with sex, but I hope readers can sympathise with him too – with the situation he finds himself in after university, being disillusioned and lost. He uses escorts to distract himself, and I’ve explored the sex industry from different perspectives to address his, and others’, objectification of women. I’ve tried to do this without being overly moralistic.
How did you conduct your research?
Ha! Well, I’m not going to say that it was ‘method writing’. The internet is a great place for research and I discovered many interesting characters there.
How did friends and family feel about the adult content of the book?
Well, my mum found it a bit uncomfortable to read. She’s requested I write something more like Anne of Green Gables for my next book!
After several rejections, you decided to self-publish. Are you happy with this decision, and what are the advantages? Is it something you would recommend to others?
It was disappointing to receive rejections from agents – if they responded at all – but it’s great that authors now have the option to easily publish independently, and I honestly enjoyed the process. Luckily, I knew other writers who’d already self-published, so I was able to ask their advice. But it’s not that difficult to do, and can be free. You still need to present the best product you can – including the cover. I designed my own cover, but enlisted a professional for the photography as it’s worth paying the money to get it right. I’d definitely recommend self-publishing.
How do you feel now that the book is launched and starting to get noticed?
It’s exciting and daunting! You never know how a book will be received, but I’ve already had some good feedback and some great reviews. But I’ve now got the huge challenge of getting more people to know about it and read it. I don’t really have a marketing budget, so I’m mostly relying on social media.
What are your future writing plans?
I’ve written a children’s rhyming picture book – How We Choose To Play – about a brother and sister who reject traditional gender roles. I’m in the process of illustrating it with photos in a 1970s dolls house; it’s quite a change from Pencil Lead! I’m also working on my next novel – Mind Full – about modern-day anxieties.
Interview text and pictures Copyright © Fran Heath and James Nye 2016.