Paul Magrs and Liz Dexter in Manchester in 2013

Paul and Liz in Manchester

As part of my Paul Magrsathon, in which I’ve been reading, and encouraging other people to read, the novels of Paul Magrs during the year, Paul kindly agreed to do an interview with me and here it is as a bank holiday bonus!

When I read “Exchange” (which I’m reading and reviewing next month), I got all over-excited when I came across its mention of BookCrossing, tracked Paul’s work (at the time) email address down and emailed him! Over the years, we’ve become friends, and I actually got to meet Paul back in 2013 (we had afternoon tea in the cafe of Manchester’s Art Museum and a poke around a few bookshops, of course).

I hope you enjoy this little view into Paul’s writing life …

Phoenix Court and beyond

Hello, Paul! So, what was it like revisiting Phoenix Court for the Lethe Press reprint?

It was very moving to return to them. I wrote them in my early twenties – and I felt so brave then! Mixing characters of all kinds of sexualities and bringing in magical realist effects, and writing about the streets and the towns in the North East of England that I grew up in. These books had wonderful reviews and they have fans, too – but like so many books they were allowed to drop through the net and go out of print – almost straight away. I thought they were gone forever, and I had resigned myself to that. But Steve Berman and Matt Bright at Lethe Press were determined to do nice new versions of them.

It was so exciting when they brought them back out and of course I rushed to take part in the pre-order! Did you change or edit the novels at all?

I decided not to alter the text of the books at all. I toyed with the idea, but it seemed somehow the wrong thing to do.

Fair enough! Who was your favourite character when you wrote them and how did that change?

My favourite character was always Penny, I think – the teen with the telekinetic powers. I brought her back as a grown up, years later in ‘Hell’s Belles’, and she joined the cast of the Brenda and Effie Mysteries. I love all my characters, though, and it’s hard to pick one out over another.

How did you decide which short stories to include in the reprinted volumes?

That was easy to decide on, but tricky to do. I dug out all the stories that were published in magazines and anthologies during those same years. Some of them complemented the novels rather nicely – ‘Nude on the Moon’ was commissioned by Lisa Tuttle for a collection of stories with an erotic theme, and it picked up Liz and Cliff’s story, so it was natural to put that in with ‘Does it Show?’  And ‘Patient Iris’ led to the publication of my first book, and it was obvious it should go at the start of ‘Marked for Life.’ Others have a more complicated history, for example the story ‘Jep’ – about the leopard-skinned baby – belongs to the middle of ‘Could it be Magic?’ It was cut (wrongly maybe?) at the edit stage, and finds its place now as a dreamlike flashback at the end of the book.

Oh, that makes sense. I think it should have gone back in but it’s great as a story, too. Tell us how “Fancy Man” got lost and how you reclaimed it.

It was a dreadful experience, having that cancelled. I was in the middle of various house moves and I was lecturing and writing and working too hard – and files and boxes of papers were put in the wrong place. What I thought was the complete manuscript of the book turned out to be only the first half – a very messed-up copy, ruined through rewriting. And I had no idea where the complete book was. I shrugged and moved on. ‘Fancy Man’ was clearly cursed. Books often fall by the wayside, and sometimes it’s for the best…  But then, years later – I found a fat folder of loose sheets. Foxed and spotted with damp and mould. And there it was! My lost novel. Just as Lethe was gearing up to do my first novels again. I think it was the process of looking out those ‘extra short stories’ that my missing fourth novel came back into my life…!

What’s your favourite book out of all the ones you’ve written?

This changes each time I’m asked the question. As of now – July 2020 – I would say it’s ‘The Story of Fester Cat.’ It’s so personal. It was so immediate and direct and a book that I had to write, there and then, working in a blaze of energy that’s quite rare. I was very proud of that book. Penguin US brought it out, and I was hugely disappointed it never came out in this country. It seems like it’s in limbo now, which is a shame. People really love that book.

Would you change any of the books you’ve written, looking back on them now?

Very interesting question! I’ve developed and changed in so many ways. I’d write all of them completely differently now. I’d be stricter with plotting, probably. I’d take fewer crazy detours and be less experimental. But I’m not sure that would improve them!  I think I’d make many of my books *longer.* I think, being slightly older, I find I want to stay in the story longer than I did. I don’t want to leave those stories.

Is there a book by someone else you wish you’d written?

Many! But then they wouldn’t be mine, or theirs, any more. I read to escape my own writing, and I write to escape other people’s.

I love that! What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Keep it on camera.’ From the tutor of my MA Writing Course, David Craig, in 1991.

That’s brilliant! And you do. You teach and write about writing: what do you think the best bit of writing advice is that you’ve given someone?

Write every day.

Good advice. Who are your top five favourite authors and why?

I love writers who feel as if they’re sitting down and telling me *stuff.* Who are saying to me: ‘Oh, it’s you again – hello! Here, listen to this…’  And I’d say – Anne Tyler, Armistead Maupin, Truman Capote, Natalie Goldberg, Alan Bennett.  Many, many others, too. I read a lot. And I’m always listening for that chatty, confiding, trusting voice.

Ah, I’m re-reading all of Anne Tyler next year! Is there anyone else who writes like you, who “goes with” you? Someone who “If you like Paul Magrs novels, you will like this”?

I really, really don’t know. Aspects of what I do you might get elsewhere, in other people’s books. But I’m not really like anyone. That’s what people in publishing often say – like it’s a terrible and difficult thing. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s a Tigger kind of thing.

And you know what? I think you’re right!

Thanks so much to Paul for taking the time to think about and write down the answers to these questions – very illuminating and interesting!

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.