How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

straight-from-the-horses-mouth-idiom

 

‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300

 

Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

The art of being interviewed

I’ve been waiting to write this post until the most recent interview I did on local radio was able to be linked in, but it’s not ready yet so I’ll go ahead anyway. It made me think about the Q&A of a good interview, and what I learned from from the many oral Q&A occasions in my recent working life, most of which have been to do with my education work rather than writing, although the process involved is much the same. Here some points from what I’ve learned:

1.The first of the points I’m going to make here apply to any interview, whether it’s oral or appears in written form, and it’s about preparation. You can’t assume that the person who will be interviewing you knows anything at all about you. Why should they? They work in a different world, with different concerns. They will know all about many people in that world, their world, but may not have met anyone like you before. So tell them beforehand. Give them something to work with. A week before my most recent radio interview I sent a copy of my book, which would be the main subject of the interview, and a little about myself as well. The interviewer, whose name in this recent case was Paul, could then glance through the information, read the back cover blurb, and dip into the book at various points to get a feel for what we might talk about. I didn’t expect Paul to read the book, but he obviously had a pretty good look at it, which added to the quality of the questions he asked me. It wouldn’t have been fair to assume he would get hold of the book for himself, or be able to salvage anything useful from it without proper notice.

2. This advice also applies to any interview: before it starts, take a few minutes to clear your head. Focus on the topics that might come up and leave everything else behind. If you’re lucky enough to be on radio, it doesn’t matter how you look or what you’re wearing. The interviewer will probably notice if you’re flustered. or late, or pre-occupied, so do whatever it takes to reduce those distractions. My interview last week was live on the radio. I knew I wouldn’t be actually in the studio until a minute or two before we started, so I sat quietly outside for ten minutes before I was called through, just opening my head up and getting rid of the clutter of the journey, the weather, and anything else that would get in the way.

3. For a live interview, try to be there in person, however tempting it might be to save time by using the phone. It took me one and half hours to drive to Carlisle for my fifteen minutes in the studio, but it was worth it. The first time I was interviewed I didn’t understand this and accepted the option of going to an outreach studio closer to my home. Mistake. The sound quality was better but it’s still like the phone because you can’t see the person you’re talking to. I realised how important it is to see and respond to the person asking the questions and listening to what you say. This time in the studio I shifted the mike a little so I could see Paul clearly, and wore the headphones so I could hear him and myself really clearly too.

4. Being there in person helps, especially on radio, but be careful. In normal conversation you sometimes murmur a few things while the other person is talking, saying ‘uh, huh’ in agreement, for example. It’s like the oral equivalent of smiling or nodding your head. Or you might disagree with what’s being said and let out a murmur of dissent, saying ‘Well…’. Not really interrupting, just responding. It’s only when you hear the interview again that you realise how distracting this is for the listener. Even if you’re on TV you may be out of shot, with the camera trained on the person who’s speaking not the person who’s listening and trying to respond. In a TV interview they’ll do a few ‘nodding shots’ to edit in afterwards, so that the viewer can see both the people in the interview at once, although there’s only one camera. On the radio, all you hear is an indistinguishable noise: if you could see the person making the noise it might make sense, but you can’t and it doesn’t. I know that I should keep quiet when the other person is speaking, but even this time I didn’t. At one point you can hear a funny sound that was actually me laughing when Paul said some thing funny, but I should have smiled instead. I’ll remember next time.

5. This point follows on from the previous one and is especially pertinent to radio, live or recorded. Don’t interrupt or talk over someone. I know that early morning news people do it all the time, but that ambiance is sometimes rightly adversarial and that’s what adversaries do, even though it’s annoying even then. An interview about your latest book is unlikely to be adversarial. The interviewer may have an axe to grind, but you gain nothing by trying to interrupt or talk over him/her. Letting them finish what they have to say gives you more time to think about the best response: interrupting probably means the listener will not be able to make sense of what’s being said. Radio hates both no sound and two voices at once. If the question is a good one and makes you think, don’t think in silence for too long without saying anything. ‘That’s a really good question’ you say with the front of your brain while the rest is working out a response. ‘Dead air’ they call silence in radio, and it will probably make your interviewer speak again just to fill the void, and the flow of the interview is lost.

6. The interviewer will probably control the time you have, unless you’re a real big shot with a press agent who sits in and insists on the interview running to schedule. Most of us don’t have a ‘minder’ and we are in the hands of the person asking the questions. This means you can’t choreograph the interview as you might like, If you’re saving your best line until the end, it may never happen. Part of your preparation will include some anticipation of what you might get asked about, and the most interesting or memorable phrase you might use in response, and you use any of those that you can, obviously, but not if they don’t fit. I’m sure some media training might suggest ignoring the question and just ploughing on with your prepared responses, but my instinct and limited experience suggests otherwise.

7. For the interview to flow along well, you need to listen really carefully to the questions that are asked, and see how to respond in a way that steers the conversation towards the things you really want or need to say. It’s quite subtle, and hard to do if your mind is in a whirl, hence the need to gather yourself ahead of time. If your mind’s relaxed the responses will flow. It helps to have rehearsed some of the things you want to say if you get the chance. Don’t just think about the words to use, say them out loud a few times so that they are more likely to come to mind quickly when the need arises, especially if the wording needs to be fairly careful.

8. If you can see the interviewer, he or she can see you. They may not look at you regularly, but that’s because they’re busy, thinking about the next slot or the next music, not because they’re being rude. On TV a distracted interviewer is less likely because it looks so rude, but on live radio it will happen, so don’t take it personally. Smile, focus, nod, but don’t mumble, tap the table, or fiddle with the mike. Think of the sound man, sitting in the booth, trying to make sure that the listener has a good audible experience. By the way, if you get the chance, say hello to the technical support person on your way in to the interview. You’re relying on them to make it go well.

That’s probably all the guidance I can offer from my limited amateur experience. I’ve been interviewed on live radio maybe a dozen times over the years, and I’ve always really enjoyed it. The main thing for me is that on radio appearances don’t matter at all: all that matters is what is said, not your hair, or make-up or clothes or the pimple on your nose. I think I have what’s called a ‘radio face’! I’m also told I have a radio voice, unaffected and clear: you can hear my expression it, which is why I try to let my voice reflect my mood and the energy in my head. If I’m feeling warm, I sound warm, and vice versa.

Your interview can be a great way to present your work in a different medium and encourage people to take an interest in you as well as what you’re written. Prepare, focus and enjoy it. Come back to the blog in a few days to see if the live radio interview I did last week is available, listen to it and see what you think. I thought it was a good one, and have told the BBC Radio Cumbria interviewer, Paul Braithwaite, how much I enjoyed his questions and the whole experience.