I’m very pleased to welcome Charlie Laidlaw to Linda’s Book Bag today to tell me about his second novel The Things We Learn When We’re Dead which is a modern fairytale of love and loss.
Published by Accent Press, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead
On the way home from a dinner party she didn’t want to attend, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions.
It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident. Or does God have a higher purpose after all?
At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that she needs to find a way home…
An Interview with Charlie Laidlaw
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Charlie. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Things We Learn When We’re Dead in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I’m the author of two novels, The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) and The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press). A third novel, Darker Matters, is due to be published by Accent Press in January 2018.
I was born and brought up in the west of Scotland, which really wasn’t my fault, and am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. I started in Glasgow and ended up in London.
Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then. However, it turned out to be very boring and, craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and which is what I’m still doing.
I am married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian. And that’s about it.
(I think that sounds like a very eclectic CV!)
Why do you write?
Partly, it’s a compulsion; partly, it’s simple recognition that I’m pretty useless at everything else. I also believe that, whatever you’re good at, you should pursue it. It’s a kind of duty on all of us. Be the best at what you’re good at.
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, if not a published author until recently. But I still don’t consider myself to be a proper author, because my main source of income still lies elsewhere.
(I think with three books under you’re belt you’re definitely a writer Charlie!)
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
Getting started! I’m a great procrastinator and will always find all sorts of excuses not to write. I suppose that writing is always time spent when you should be doing something else. However, once I do start writing, my brain usually slips into a creative gear, and the words tend to flow – sometimes in the right order.
Once you get started, what are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I write in a home-office. But that’s just to get words typed. The creative side of deciding what gets written can be thought through on a bus, or train, or car. I now only write when I have a clear idea of how that paragraph or chapter will fit into the overall narrative. I’ve very jealous of those writers who can produce a novel every few months. In a future life, I will come back as Barbara Cartland.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Things We Learn When We’re Dead?
It’s a retelling of a universal and recurring story; how you can have second chances in life and, in doing so, look back at your life and find a new beginning. More prosaically, it’s the life story of a young woman who is complex and feisty, but who is also a little damaged. The book tells her story and how she glues back her constituent parts – and, I suppose, finally grows up.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead takes its inspiration from The Wizard of Oz. Why this book in particular?
The Wizard of Oz is all about second chances and many, many authors have written the same kind of story, before and after. It is a story that resonates because we all do silly things, or lose our way. The premise within The Wizard of Oz is that a second chance can be just around the corner.
The idea for the book came to me on a train from Edinburgh to London, which is apt because Edinburgh is a civilised place and the only city in the world to have named its main railway station after a book. So powerful was the original idea that, when I got home, I write the first chapter and the last chapter. I therefore knew where the book started, and where it would end. The first chapter has changed a bit; the last chapter is almost the same.
However, having dreamed up an unfamiliar version of a familiar theme, I had a choice: either to recognise that it was loosely The Wizard of Oz, or ignore it. I decided to embrace it because, I figured, it’s a story that everyone likes!
You’re inverting the familiar in The Things We Learn When We’re Dead. What do you hope readers will get from this effect?
Everything in the known universe has been written about many times. Even Shakespeare used older sources such as Chaucer for inspiration, and even further back to Roman writers. So, as far as I’m concerned, nothing literary under the sun can be thought of as truly original. Love, sex, marriage, war, peace, betrayal…you name it, it’s all been done to death.
My approach is therefore to take a familiar theme, and give it originality. In my book, the reader will understand the overall familiarity and tradition of the narrative and why the central character, Lorna Love, will be given her second chance. It does therefore fulfil familiar expectations, using an oblique construct to provide a new perspective on a well-worn theme.
But it also makes the familiar unfamiliar, and therefore makes the readers’ journey worthwhile. That is the best that any author can hope for.
You also explore the concepts of utopia and dystopia in The Things We Learn When We’re Dead. Which is the most likely outcome for us in today’s society do you think?
You’re right, the book does pivot on a balance between utopia and dystopia. That balance was evident in the original Wizard of Oz – the Emerald City might have been paradise, but it was bounded about by evil witches and ruled by a false god.
I suppose it’s a question I address in the book, because it’s also a satire on religion. The book does ask whether the world would be a better place if we all stopped believing in God. It’s not a question I can answer but, in the current state of the world, it’s a question worth asking.
If you could choose to be a character from The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, who would you be and why?
None of them, because becoming one of them seems a bit creepy! I don’t know about other writers, but my characters become real people to me. They tell me what to write, and they tell me if a piece of dialogue isn’t what they would say. So, because they’re sort-of real, I wouldn’t want to take over their lives.
That said, I’d love to peek into what they’ve been up. As the book ends in 2007, I do sometimes wonder what’s happened to them and whether they’re all happy. I’d love to know what life has thrown at them and how they’ve responded.
(You’ll just have to write a sequel to find out!)
If The Things We Learn When We’re Dead became a film, who would you like to play Lorna and why would you choose them?
Part of Lorna’s attraction is that she’s a nobody trying hard to be a somebody. She wants to make something of her life, but isn’t entirely sure how to go about it. In that spirit, I’d like her to be played by an unknown but up-and-coming actress.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
Mostly contemporary literary fiction. Joanne Harris is my favourite author, with the likes of Kate Atkinson not far behind. As a contemporary author, it’s only sensible to read other contemporary authors. I would encourage anybody thinking of writing a book to read anything and everything in their chosen genre. If you don’t read, you can’t write.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Things We Learn When We’re Dead should be their next read, what would you say?
Let Jodi Taylor, the best-selling author answer that from her review of it: “Intriguing and compelling…a tale that grips until the very last page.”
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions Charlie.
About Charlie Laidlaw
Charlie Laidlaw was born in the west of Scotland and is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. He has been a national newspaper journalist and worked in defence intelligence. He is married with two grown-up children.