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Wright to Writer: Damian Barr & Sam Kenyon on writing and the formidable editing process

'I loved the idea that he could become a sort of curious, haunting cult figure, later on in the story.'

DB: You just met Raymond Wallace for the first time. He made quite the impression on you. I am your best friend and you ring me up to tell me all about this man you met, how do you describe him?

SK: He dresses like someone from twenty years ago. He’s cute, in a geeky sort of way, and can be very, very funny. But there’s also something sad in his eyes that I can’t put my finger on. I get the feeling he’s not going to call, but he did let slip where he worked, so I’m going to drop him a line.

I’m a bit fascinated by him. He’s a really charming combination of confidence and shyness.

You’re not afraid to use humour to make a serious point as here:

‘You’re not a homosexual, I take it.’ Raymond blinks slowly. ‘I am a virgin, but that’s not the same thing.’

A lot of writers shy away from funny on the page… why?

Humour is so subjective, and so hard to pull off as humour, per se. So I can see why some writers might avoid it. But in this example, as with others in my book, Raymond is being tactical with humour: he’s deflecting. So his ‘joke’ is a tool for self-protection. The pressure is less about being funny, and more about disarming Doty. He does the same with Dolores - he takes the assumptions he (correctly) guesses his colleagues have about Brits, and upends them, often to protect and preserve his own privacy. I think I’d find it very difficult to ‘guarantee’ making someone laugh, whereas using it as part of the story (and having other characters be amused) is a different story.

I love stories about writers and Raymond is a writer, of sorts. Why did you choose this job for him?

I wanted him to have to reflect on his experience in the context of a broader perspective - ie the article for the New York Times. In then deciding that he would be our narrator for Part One, I gave myself the possibility for the older Raymond to interject in the narrative of his younger self. So it was just a terribly rich seam to mine, and I loved the idea that he could become a sort of curious, haunting cult figure, later on in the story. There’s also an authority to a ‘published’ novel-within-a-novel, and I relished having other characters reflecting on their own engagement with Raymond’s work.

This book takes place in different timelines…how did you manage them?

A lot of Post-It notes! I did a timeline from Papà’s birth onwards, wrote individual notes, and stuck them all up across the back wall of my shed. I wasn’t religious about it - changing dates and sequences as I wrote - but if I got stuck, I usually found the solution in that timeline. Older friends and Google are magnificent resources, too - some benevolent figure uploaded the entire radio broadcast of the minutes surrounding Kennedy’s assassination to YouTube, for example, which was a gift to me. I researched the periods and – for the later period – used my own memories to be playful with what would have been possible.

As writers we don’t talk enough about editing…what was your process for this book?

I LOVE editing. I love cutting stuff that served a purpose in the previous draft but which is now obsolete or distracting.

I was fortunate to have the perspective on nearly 20 years when returning to this book, so I relished both appraising and rigorously editing my younger self.

Through initial conversations with my editor, Nathan, various decisions were made - for example, that part 1 would be positioned as part of a book published later in Raymond’s life.

What did you lose that you loved?

I can’t really remember losing things I loved, because, whilst I may have loved them at the time, I either agreed that their excision made a better narrative, or replaced them with something I loved even more. For example: I initially had the title of the book as the final line of the novel. Nathan suggested I take another pass at the final scene. So I ‘hid’ the title elsewhere, which opened up very different - undoubtedly more moving - possibilities for those final moments.

What did you fight for?

The sex scenes. Nathan was highly sceptical about an early draft of the first one, so I just reworked it until he was satisfied. He was also unnerved by my use of vocabulary, at times - “obliquity” being the one that springs to mind. So - a bit like with the title of the book being used in a different scene, I put this word way earlier in the novel, into Doty’s mouth, which allowed me to give a definition of it within the dialogue, and thus to retain its position in Part Two.

What makes a good editor for you?

Someone who recognises the difference between identifying an issue and offering a solution. Nine times out of ten, a ‘solution’ proffered by an editor isn’t a good idea – simply because it cannot feel organic or authentic for the author. Additionally, someone who can adjust their editorial style to the writer they’re working with, rather than having a single and single-minded approach to their own process. Kindness goes a long way for me, too!

Stories like this remind us that LGBTQ+ love was illegal in the USA until very recently and the shadow of this still hangs over us...this seems especially relevant in this moment with the ‘don’t say gay laws’ coming in effect across the USA. How did you write in this context and how did it affect you writing?

I was very aware that there are countries in the world where it is, in effect, still 1963 by our standards, and so I imagined writing for those readers - to tell the story of chapters of history in the USA and Europe through the different parts and characters. Lots of (straight) readers have referred to my book as “educational” - it’s given them the opportunity to reflect on queer lives and existences, and engendered greater empathy in those readers. I was thrilled about that. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time of writing, I can now see that it tells a key story of the effects of an era certain toxic figures would have us return to.

In addition, a few years ago my partner and I adopted a child with Roma heritage. When I began to research Roma immigration into Italy in the late-19th/early 20th century, I initially came across a contemporary piece about anti-Roma racism in Italy, nowadays. So I wanted this to be part of the identity politics of my book, too.

Do you remember your first time on the page with an LGBTQ author?

Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Sexing the Cherry’ and ‘The Passion’. I was fifteen. I felt so unspeakably excited - moved, recognised, turned on, and just so, so inspired. I still have a deeply romantic attachment to those texts. I feel terribly lucky that I encountered her work at that age. There’s something gorgeously permissive - both erotically and imaginatively - about those texts.

Music is a big part of your life and work—how does it influence your writing?

In a literal way, I love the shorthand that a soundtrack can give you: the use I make of the different recordings of ‘Lover Man (Where can you be?)’ throughout the novel: this was a delight to explore and play with.

On a more figurative level, I edit my prose in a similar way I edit my compositions: not always linearly. The editorial decisions I mention above are examples of this. I scan the work in my head to find an appropriate moment when I can keep that idea or ‘theme’, and then make adjustments to the surrounding scene in order to help that bed in. It’s musical, in a way - like orchestrating something overarching, or re-attributing a melody line to a different instrument.

What does ‘queer fiction’ mean to you?

Work that represents the queer experience, whether now or historically. I prefer it to be written by people who either identify as queer, or who we can reasonably surmise led lives we’d recognise as queer today, because it feels safer, and is always exciting to explore correlations between us now and them, then. But I suppose it can also mean works that hold with tenderness and respect queer characters in their hands: ‘A Little Life’ and ‘Call Me by Your Name’ are examples of this. I think of those texts as literary allies. And we all need allies.

SAM KENYON is a writer, composer, performer and teacher. He studied English Literature at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, before training in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. After performing for twelve years, he developed a career as a composer and lyricist. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, he provided music and lyrics for The Christmas Truce (2014), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016) and Vice Versa (2017). He wrote the book, music and lyrics for Miss Littlewood—a musical exploring the life of Joan Littlewood—which opened at the RSC in 2018, and which is published by Concord Theatricals. He is currently developing a musical about Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Samuel Steward. As a voice teacher, he works across styles and genres, with theatre, film and recording artists. He teaches at the Royal Academy of Music, as well as running a private teaching practice. He lives in London with his partner, Mitch, and their daughter. I am not Raymond Wallace is his first novel.

DAMIAN BARR is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and journalist. His memoir, Maggie & Me, won Stonewall Writer of the Year and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year. His debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, was shortlisted for six major awards and named a Book of the Year in the Observer, Guardian and Mail. He’s written columns for The Times and Sunday Times and hosted Front Row on BBC Radio 4 as well as his own series Guide Books. In 2019, Damian brought books back to television with the Big Scottish Book Club, now in its fourth series and syndicated internationally. Also on BBC TV, he presented Shelf Isolation and the landmark documentary for Sir Walter Scott’s 250th. Damian holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He started his world-famous Literary Salon in 2008. He lives in Brighton.

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