Q & A with Michael Yates by Halima Mayat

Halima Mayat interviews Wakefield-based poet, writer and playwright, Michael Yates, for this week’s Big Bookend blog.

Michael Yates 300Why did you decide to write a play about Branwell Bronte?
I have a friend Colin Lewisohn who directed a play about Charles Dickens. When it was performed at Bradford Cathedral, a member of the audience suggested he produce a play about JB Priestley. Colin asked me to write something about Priestley but my wife Pam said if I wanted to write about Yorkshire writers, I should write about the Brontes. And I said if I wrote about the Brontes, it would have to be Branwell because he was a failure and failures are more interesting.

Branwell was living this 19th century lower-middle-class life with great pressure on him to succeed and support his family. His sisters had no obvious future apart from getting married. In the end, he failed because of the pressure of expectation and they succeeded because there was no expectation. I liked that idea.

The play toured Bradford, Leeds and Halifax in 2011 and was chosen for the Wakefield Drama Festival where my lead actor Warwick St John won Best Actor award. Then in 2013 The Bronte Society sponsored a new production for their international AGM weekend.

Did you have to do a lot of research for the play? If yes, how did you go about it?
I simply went to the public library and got out two or three books – there is such a thing as too much information and I’m not afraid to make stuff up. The best book for me was The Bronte Story by Margaret Lane. It’s based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell, a friend of the Brontes. But Lane has her own narrative and isn’t afraid to point out where Gaskell was wrong. Another book was The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte by Daphne Du Maurier, who was a lesbian but married with children. I think she understood the complexities and conflicts of the feminine and masculine and was able to identify with the Bronte situation.bronte boy 300

On your website you have links to Facebook and Twitter. How useful are these and do you have different uses for them?
They usually get a reaction so I assume they’re useful, though it’s difficult to measure. I use Twitter for snappy print bites and publicity notices and my Tweets always link up to Facebook. It’s a good marriage. However, I do find social media difficult because it’s hard to convey nuance. I now have a principle never to make jokes on Twitter and Facebook because people always take them seriously.

Readers these days can see the first few pages of a book before buying it on Amazon. What do you think of Amazon?
For me, Amazon is brilliant. Pam looks after the technicalities and every week or so she’ll say: “Hey! You’ve just sold a couple of books in America and one in Germany.” I love it.

On Twitter, you describe yourself as a would-be novelist. Do you have any plans to write a novel?
I’ve written four novels but – alas! – nobody wanted to publish them. Shame on such people! Right now, I’ve got two of them being looked at by possible publishers. But I intend to self-publish a novel later this year anyway . It’s a dark comedy thriller and I can’t tell you the intended title because Pam hates it and threatens to divorce me if I don’t change it.

Do you have a routine when writing?
I like to write in the morning because that’s when I have most energy; in the afternoon, I’m tired and have plenty of other routine things to do. I work at home in a bedroom converted into an office. It has a computer, printer and the usual office stuff, including a stapler. I don’t see how any civilised person can live without a stapler.

You write plays, short stories and poems. Do you have a preference?
I set out to write short stories and novels. My interest in poetry came as a result of accidentally coming across The Albert Poets selling their anthology in the Albert pub in Huddersfield, where they held meetings. I joined the group. Then I thought,  I could do the same sort of thing in Wakefield where I live. So I set up The Black Horse Poets.

The drama came about because, as part of the 800th Anniversary of Pontefract, I was commissioned to write a play by Wakefield Libraries. The idea of Pontefractions was to have a celestial court debating whether Pontefract should go to Heaven or Hell. It was performed for five nights in Pontefract Town Hall and we rigged the vote on the last night so Heaven finally scored three against two for Hell.

What is your favourite part of the writing process?
The physical act of writing. The process of letting it move from brain to computer. That’s where my imagination comes into play.

What is your least favourite part of the writing process?
Getting rejection slips.

When did you first begin writing?
I’ve always written stuff. I also used to draw; and there came a point when I had to choose between drawing and writing. I decided drawing was only a minor talent.

I worked in newspapers for 20 years and one day I calculated that I was writing 120,000 words a year. I thought, gosh, that’s the equivalent of two novels. So I got myself voluntary redundancy and set out on my present precarious life.

I love writing because I like the idea of inhabiting other people’s consciousness and seeing the world through their eyes. Just like God, I allow my characters free will, so they have the power make wrong turnings, to reject and disappoint me.

What authors have inspired you to write?
When I was a child, I loved Richmal Crompton, the author of the Just William books, and Anthony Buckeridge who wrote Jennings Goes to School and was a great inspiration for JK Rowling. But the shattering experience came when I was seven or eight,  I read Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. For those who don’t know it, it’s about a horse who is cruelly treated by its many owners. It was my first encounter with cruelty and I can’t overestimate the effect it had on me – and still has.

As an adolescent, I liked sexy, hard-boiled American crime novels. Raymond Chandler influenced my ideas on fiction – that you don’t create character by explaining why people do things; you just catch them at it. During this period, the greatest single influence was From Here to Eternity by James Jones. It’s a massive book crowded with great characters but it’s so graphic and accessible. It seemed more real to me than any other novel.

Nowadays I’m influenced by Raymond Carver, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Somerset Maugham. I know Maugham is unfashionable because he writes about the old British Empire and his attitudes are seen to be reactionary and racist. Like all writers, he had to be first of all a writer of his time. But in truth, he’s also a writer for all time.

I’m currently re-reading Maugham and Ross Macdonald, who writes stories in the style of Chandler. Finally, I’m reading the novel Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout because James Nash recommended it on Facebook.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Just sit down and write. Or stand up and write. Just do the work. No point worrying about being published unless you’ve written something. And don’t write for your friends. Don’t even ask your friends what they think of it. It doesn’t matter.

What are your current projects?
I mentioned self-publishing my novel. I’m also involved in producing a CD of my play Wakefield Wireless Mysteries which is a modern version of the Wakefield Mystery Plays. This follows a recent live performance of the work at the Wakefield Literary Festival. And I’m putting together a new book of poems.

Michael Yates 300Michael Yates will be performing with the Black Horse Poets as part of the Big Bookend Festival on Tuesday 2nd June at Outlaws Yacht Club, Leeds. Details to follow soon.

You can follow Michael on Twitter @yatesman and Facebook .

His website is at http://www.michael-yates.co.uk/




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