An Interview with Paul Dodgson
I am delighted that writer and musician, Paul Dodgson has found time in his busy schedule to chat to me today. Thank you so much for your time, Paul.
1 Please tell my readers a little about yourself?
I am a writer, musician, teacher and radio producer who has written nineteen plays and stories for BBC Radio 4, drama documentaries for BBC2 and Eastenders for BBC1, plus plays for young people and music and lyrics for five musicals including The Nutcracker at Theatre Royal Bath and Nuffield Southampton. After thirty years of regret and stage fright, I became a singer-songwriter in 2016, went out on the road not taken and wrote a book about the adventure that followed.
2 What inspired you to become a writer/author?
I remember my mum telling me I would be a writer and being resistant to her advice because I wanted to be a rock star. That didn’t happen. Much later I was working for the BBC and started to be involved with radio drama, first doing the sound effects and eventually directing plays. I loved the way writers made a world out of sound and wanted to do the same. It took me a while but I got there in the end and mum was right.
3 What is the best thing about being a writer/author?
Working with words all day long.
4 What is your writing routine like?
When in the writing phase of a project I try to keep regular hours. I always seem to do the best work in the morning and then edit in the afternoon. I like to end the day be asking questions about what needs to happen next. Usually, the answers have arrived by the next morning, thanks to the wonders of the unconscious mind.
5 How much time is spent on research?
This varies from project to project. If I am writing a radio play about a subject I don’t know anything about then I might do several months of research and then write the first draft in a couple of weeks. Listeners are very quick to pick up discrepancies. I once wrote a play set in 1957 where a character (who had been travelling in Italy) cooked spaghetti bolognaise for supper. There followed an intense online discussion about whether that dish would ever have been eaten in 1950’s Cumberland. My book is a memoir and I spent a lot of time researching half remembered stories to verify the facts and straighten out a timeline that was distorted by memory.
6 How much of the book is planned out before you start writing it?
I am definitely a planner. I think this comes from my time writing Eastenders, when you had to submit a scene breakdown before the first draft. I find this really helpful. The book involved interplay between two narratives, three decades apart. I used Scrivener as I like the visual representation of material, and put notes, preliminary writing and research into each chapter heading. It was easy to move things around and get a sense of how the overall story was flowing. I like to do so much planning that the writing isn’t a struggle. I sometimes think that planning is just becoming really engaged with the material.
7 What do you think is most important when writing a book? Characters, plot, setting, etc
Well I have only written one book… but thinking back across all the screen, radio and theatre plays I have written, I believe story is the most important thing. What is it that makes the reader/listener/viewer want to know what happens next? Get this right and everything follows.
8 What is your latest book about?
On The Road Not Taken is a memoir about the power of music, my childhood obsession with music and my faltering and comical attempts to become a rock star. I stopped singing in public at the age of 19 and didn’t do so again until I was in my 50’s, by which time I was suffering from stage fright. The book tells the story of what happened next.
9 What inspired it?
A couple of things came together to inspire this book. I started writing down memories of my childhood relationship with music and all the stories I could remember, from first recollections of songs, through attempting to learn the guitar, to the wonders of my teenage band. At first I thought all this would be a short podcast series but realised I was building up enough material for a book. At the same time, the more I wrote, the more I realised I had never let go of the dream of being a gigging musician. After going to a party, being asked to sing a song and not being able to, I set out to learn songs well enough to go out on the road and play them in front of people for the first time in over 30 years. This became the other half of the book.
10 Why did you pick the genre or genres that you write in?
I have been fascinated by memoir for the last decade. Before writing this book I wrote 3 memoir plays for BBC Radio 4. I am interested in the way ordinary life can be celebrated and commemorated and how well told personal stories hold universal appeal. The writer Laurie Lee puts it very well when he says, ‘Autobiography can be the laying to rest of ghosts as well as an ordering of the mind. But for me it is also a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations.’
11 How did you go about getting a publishing deal? Or how did you become self-published?
I have been very lucky in that most of my work for the BBC and theatres was commissioned. When I started thinking about how to get On The Road Not Taken into the world I came across a publisher called Unbound, who have a subscription model. You pitch the book and if accepted sell enough copies in advance for the book to be published. The production standards were very high and their ethos seemed to fit with my musical journey, which involved going out and persuading people to come and see someone they had never heard of before. The fundraising tour became part of the story of the book and has it’s own chapter at the end.
12 Any new books or plans for the future?
I am currently planning a memoir about my experience of work and another about the Norfolk Broads and boats.
13 What authors have been an influence on your writing?
There are many but to name a few… Laurie Lee, Hilary Mantel, Alan Bennett, Alexandra Fuller.
14 What writing advice would you have given yourself when you started?
You know more than you think you do, but you have a lot to learn.
15 What writing advice would you give to an aspiring writer or a new author to the block?
Learn how to turn off the interior critic that says you are not good enough. So many times I have run a writing workshop and someone has come along with almost no confidence, then produced something that stuns the group to silence with it’s brilliance.
16 What has been your favourite book so far this year?
Greenery By Tim Dee. A mixture of nature writing, travel writing, literary history and memoir, telling the story of spring, as it moves across the globe from the southern to the northern hemisphere. I began reading the book at the start of lockdown and became immersed the writer’s world, so much so I felt as though I was seeing spring for the first time. When I saw the first swallows above Llandaff Fields in Cardiff I experienced unbelievable joy, as I properly understood the epic journey they had made.
17 What is your all-time favourite book and why?
I have been teaching life writing for the last 10 years and always begin my workshops with the same passage; the opening of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morningby Laurie Lee. More than any other, it is the book that made me want to write memoir after years of being a scriptwriter for radio and television. I love the way Lee elevates ordinary situations with lyrical prose, full of sensory detail. The opening pages are like a film as he shows us his younger self walking away from his childhood home before weaving in the context that makes sense of the story to come.
18 What genre do you read most often?
I can’t stop reading memoir but try and alternate between other non-fiction books and novels.
19 What are you currently reading?
Love From Boy, Roald Dahl’s Letters to his Mother. Wonderful to see the writer emerging through his letters home.
20 Anything else you would like to add?
The reason I didn’t try and fulfil my musical dreams earlier was because I was afraid of making a fool myself. I thought I needed to be perfect and that triggered all sorts of anxieties when it came to stepping on stage and singing. Once I started there were occasions when I did make a fool of myself and it was nowhere near as bad as I had imagined. What I learned about myself and the world around me when I moved out of my comfort zone was so intense and life affirming, I would advise anyone who’s thinking of making a similar journey, whether that is singing songs or writing a book, to just go and do it.
Thank you, it has been really interesting to hear about your work, Paul. I believe readers can fine you at your website.