Tasha Harrison is a commercial copywriter and writer of four novels as well as a collection of short stories for children. Despite having a suitable attic space to work from, she more-or-less choses to hot desk around the house and find places to work depending upon the time of day and where she feels comfortable.
AB: So, you don’t have your own, defined workspace in the house?
TH: There is a desk in the loft, which is a proper work space but I never use it because it’s just too separated from the rest of the house. I’m constantly running downstairs to do something – so I just think – this is silly, I might as well just be downstairs. I might get comfortable on the sofa, but then my wrist aches, so I’ll move to the table so I can support my wrist. So, sometimes I’m in the sitting room, or in the kitchen or - if its not too dark - in the snug. But if the kids are at home then I have to fit around them.
AB: But do you get distracted, if you’re in the kitchen and the worktops need clearing or something?
TH: The housework is constantly beckoning but I’m getting better at ignoring it. I do get the odd day when I have to deal with it because it’s affecting my ability to think clearly. But generally I feel it’s just so unimportant, I don’t care. It’s about what am I going to regret on my deathbed and housework isn’t it. Although some times doing the mundane chores can be really good to clear out all the thoughts that are knotted in my head and fighting for attention. Ironing can be really good for clearing out my head. But equally it takes me 30 minutes to walk into town and that has the same cleansing process.
"I do love working at home, in that I can be really productive. But I’d go insane if I didn’t go out."
I think it’s always good to step away from my computer and one of my best places for having ideas is going to a café for a coffee. I like to go somewhere that I can feel relaxed by myself. And anonymous. I get out my notepad and the ideas will just flow. There is no computer, no internet, no emails or jobs needing to be done. The phone isn’t ringing. Even if it’s only half an hour that time can be really productive.
I have to say, I used to feel really guilty about that but I don’t anymore. Because that’s often where I do my best thinking. I love getting my notepad and pen out.
AB: And old-fashioned note book and pen?
TH: Yes. I hate it if I forget it and have to work with the notes on my phone, it’s just so fiddly. I want an actual notebook and pen. I can just work so much more quickly and fluidly, and you can’t delete stuff so it just flows. Ideas just sometimes come so fast and I’m trying to make sure I can catch them in time.
There is a wonderful Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert and she talks about the poet, Ruth Stone, who would literally feel a poem coming at her over the landscape. Ruth would run home as fast as she could across the fields to grab a piece of paper and a pencil to try and capture it before it moves on to someone else. It’s such a great image and I totally relate to that.
AB: It is a great image, so when you’re out it’s about capturing the essence of an idea?
TH: Yes, it really can happen like that. I was out getting the kids some tights or something the other day and I came up with the opening line for my new book, which is just a big ball of clay at the moment. I thought, “Oh that’s good, quick I must write it down!” I ended up diving into the loos in the shopping centre and I sat on the loo and wrote it down.
AB: How funny. Do you think that sometimes its best not to be looking for that inspiration then? To let things happen naturally?
TH: Maybe. Sometimes you can force ideas out. I can open the laptop and start mapping out a character, their storyline, their background and all their habits, what they look like – but yes most of my ideas come when I’m out with my notebook. I can shape them afterwards. This is all happening at the moment for me, because I haven’t written anything since I published Blown Away Man 18months ago. I just didn’t want to think about writing for at least a year.
AB: Why is that?
TH: I was just so burnt out with it. The actual writing of the book was so enjoyable. But when you get to the end and towards having a finished manuscript, you need help and you need someone to help you edit it and proof read it. Getting it to a place where you can upload it is really stressful. And then I wonder if I’m doing the right thing with it, or if I should submit it to a publisher or to an agent first. So anyway I did that book and then I did my collection of children’s short stories at the same time – which was supposed to be a bit of fun, but then of course I ended up taking it very seriously. So I did all that and then I’d had enough and needed a break.
But then at the start of this year I started thinking about my next project. I thought just relax and an idea will come. It will come and I’ll catch it. But Nothing! And I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been at the commercial copywriting, so I tried not to worry about it. But then about 6 weeks ago I thought its just not coming. So I am going to have to just sit down and try and force something out.
"I actually started to think this is what writer’s block is. Which I’d never experienced before."
AB: There is that quote by Matisse that says inspiration only comes when you’re working. So, you do sometimes have to go and meet it at least halfway.
TH: Absolutely. So I thought the time had come to put some effort in, and it did work! I had this rush of a character and I was really excited because it felt really strong. But then a week later I’d gone cold on it and thought it was really feeble. I didn’t know who the characters were.
AB: So a confidence crisis?
TH: Not quite. I think because in all my four books one of the characters will be based, however loosely on someone I know or on someone I’ve met. That’s a really good foundation on which to build a fictional personality on. But these two new characters I was evolving, came out of nothing, therefore I wasn’t sure if they would be convincing or real enough.
AB: So that was new for you, normally there is an element of realism to scratch away at and play with?
TH: Yes, I have done it with lots of secondary characters, but there’s always one or two who are inspired by somebody who actually exists. For example on Package Deal a lot of the characters were inspired by people we had met on holiday or people I’d worked with. That’s not to say it is them - it could be their looks or maybe a habit of theirs and it’s amazing how much you can build on that. So I don’t think anyone would ever come up to me and say 'that’s me in your book'.
Then, In Blown Away Man, I borrowed a lot from my husband’s background. But all the time I was working to try and drive it away from that. But it’s hard because I had that voice in my head and what those characters looked like. But then it’s also a challenge to do it the other way round. So the two protagonists I had for my new book weren’t built on anything real so now I need to go and look and listen to people to find that real element. Because that’s a key thing in a novel, your characters have to be authentic.
And it’s good to go somewhere different. We went to Glastonbury recently. Every other shop was a mystic tarot type shop. We went into a shop and the woman behind the counter had long red hair and robes and all the ethnic jewellery, you know the type. Then her friend came in and I started listening to their conversation. She had a new man and they were talking about moving to the country ‘to grow’. So I was making these notes on my phone and then she said, ‘but I don’t know if he is compatible with my deep Scorpionic nature’. I just thought if I wrote this in a book, no one would believe this person exists!
It’s about finding that balance of truth being stranger than fiction. I think I need to find some more inspiration.
AB: But it sounds like its still early days?
TH: Its really early, yes.
AB: You talk about this initial rush and this energy that comes and takes over and it’s exciting. And then you talked about the final stages of your last book and about being exhausted and not being able to look at it anymore. Is that a consistent feeling – the initial enthusiasm, and then at the end, you’re physically worn out by the process?
TH: Yes I just want to see the back of it. Do you feel like with your art?
AB: Oh god yes. In fact I had a very interesting chat online with a friend of mine. We were chatting about drawing and I realised that one of the main reasons I publish my work on social media is to give it an end point. I go through the process and at the end of the session I publish it on social media, people comment on it and that’s the end. Now if I didn’t – I feel that those paintings or drawings would never leave me and they’d just keep going round and round and drive me mad.
TH: Yes you have to put it out there in some way.
AB: Yes so it becomes ‘other’ and its not so much part of me anymore. As people comment on it and take some ownership it allows me to separate myself and get some sort of distance from it.
TH: You have to get distance from it and it’s out of your system. I think all writers want to publish their work. It’s not necessarily egotistical. But why would you write otherwise, if no one was going to read it? It’s a natural thing to share it. Social media is great for that. There is a person I follow on Twitter who challenges you to write a story in 6 words. I love those things. I could keep going on a hashtag game with puns on novels for hours. I just love playing with words to the point of it being an irritating habit.
"It feels just like an itch I have to scratch. In fact, I can spend ages composing a tweet – honestly, who else spends hours sending a tweet?"
AB: I bet there are loads of people. I bet there is tweeters anonymous or something. If you put it on there, they’d all come out of the woodwork…but slowly!
TH: I thrive on the challenge but then it gets me down sometimes. It can be painful as I think I’m not where I want to be. I’d love to reach a wider audience – to have a proper publishing deal.
AB: Isn’t it wonderful though how through the internet there is the possibility to self publish and people can have an outlet?
TH: Yes, it’s liberating. But the flip side is that you’re competing with thousands of others. Some are really great and some are utter shit. And you’re all just there lumped in together in this huge haystack of authors.
But even if you were picked up by one of the big publishers, they would totally expect you to be on social media and work all the literature festivals. They check how big your audience is on Facebook and Twitter. Although I kind of think all that stuff is a load of bollocks and sometimes I think you’d have a bigger impact if you actually did none of that stuff.
AB: Very interesting. You’re not the only person that has mentioned about publishers wanting to know how many followers you have on Instagram and all that stuff. That’s really bloody depressing.
TH: And incredibly misleading, because most of the people that follow me on twitter are other writers. And so many people just follow you because they want you to follow them back! And that’s not a proper audience is it?
AB: No, there is no value in that.
TH: And it can be distracting, worrying about what everyone else is doing. I think what I’m trying to say is that the journey is so much fun when you allow it to be. I love those spoof Ladybird books – The Art Gallery - such a simple idea. I wish I’d come up with those. It would be so nice to do something like those. Something fun.
AB: Yes, it doesn’t have to always be about angst does it? Because also the word ‘novel’ has a real sense of importance to it doesn’t it?
TH: Yes it sounds really important.
TH: Actually, I can tell you what is important – I cannot write with music on. I cannot concentrate.
AB: That’s interesting, a lot of the visual artists I’ve been speaking to use music a lot and say its key.
TH: I think its another part of your brain. Classical is all right, because there are no words. I can ignore building works and the kids screaming. But not pop music. That’s a key thing. The words intrude.