Interview with Nick Gilbert author of Time & Again

Why did you write Time & Again?

There were two main motivations, neither at all original! The first was a belief that I could produce work that could stand comparison with successful contemporary fiction. About five years ago I read a number of critically acclaimed, prize-winning novels, and felt disappointed – in different ways -- by each in turn. I felt there was a significant flaw or something lacking in each: the quality of the writing, or the credibility of the storyline, or the intrinsic interest of the setting. I got to the end of each and thought that I could write just as successfully myself – or immodestly, even more successfully, since I had these observed flaws in mind already.

The second motivation was that I had had an idea, no more than a very rough outline, for a novel floating in my mind for a while. So there was the necessary conjunction: an idea of something to write, and the spur actually to try to write it.

I had been intrigued by ideas about memory and imagination for a long time, and by the possible confusions between remembered, mis-remembered, or imagined experience. An example is that common experience of apparently waking directly from a vivid dream, a dream that was shocking, or frightening, or embarrassing, and coming to the realisation after a few seconds of confusion that it was only a dream. But you can often carry along a few fragments of the dream, and they are just like memories of real events. What is the difference between “memories” such as this, somehow implanted by the unconscious dreaming state, and memories of actual events?

My idea was to follow the changing recollections of an acute emotional experience, a passionate but perhaps not entirely requited love affair, when those recollections are all that remain and each return to them makes them shift a little, abrade a little more, and drift a little further from whatever had been the truth of the real experience. Looking back on what he sees as this great emotional loss, the main character comes to rely on some photographs taken during the relationship, and I wanted to use the fact that the photographs were no more reliable than his memories, but were just as susceptible to changing interpretation and the same drift from whatever truth they once held.

What kind of reader would enjoy Time & Again?

My intention was that the story could be taken in at several levels. Firstly, it entirely depends on the relationship between the two main characters and how that develops, so it is essentially a story about love – or more precisely a story of love gone wrong.

It is not a romance, but it is an attempt to see how an idea of love – perhaps a rather obsessive idea – develops in someone’s mind, and to trace the events that then occur as that idea unfolds. The key incidents are quite precisely located, in London and elsewhere, and the sense of place is important to the narrative. But it is also about how those key events can look in retrospect and how the memories of love develop in someone’s mind. So a reader can take the story as a literary love story, and enjoy it within that genre, but can also be entertained by the descriptions and the sense of place, and provoked by the underlying theme of shifting memories and their abrasion by passing time.

How did you develop your characters?

The principal male character is someone that I could imagine being, doing things that I could imagine doing. Much of the book is seen through his eyes and the narrative follows his actions, but there’s a strong dependence on his inner life and that has to be credible. Leah, the principal female character, exists in the book almost entirely through the recollections and imagination of the male character, and so in one sense was easy to develop: I was imagining a character for the book who was going to be largely represented by memories – by unreliable, mutable memories, by imagining the past. So Leah is the result of imagining an imaginary woman. But it is vital for the book to succeed that the reader nevertheless sees Leah as a real person and can project a living, breathing Leah beyond the boundaries of her imagined existence.

Why did you decide to publish Time & Again yourself?

I went through the frustrations and exasperations of submitting it to literary agents, and getting a series of template rejection letters in response. Only one or two replies gave any indication my submitted excerpt and synopsis had been read. As gatekeepers to the publishing industry, the agents I tried were very efficient: the gate remained firmly shut, without explanation. I thought about self-publishing Time & Again as a printed paperback, but never convinced myself that this carried much hope of reaching readers. When I saw how the Kindle self-publishing system worked – my wife Fiona is an enthusiastic Kindle user, and had read quite a few self-published books – it was an easy decision to give it a try. There was still some residual nervousness about pressing the final button though, since I didn’t have much in the way of critical approval, apart from the opinion of a few friends and Fiona’s persuasive support, and no reassurance from an agent or editor that Time & Again was a tale worth the telling.

Are you working on any new writing at the moment?

I’ve had another narrative idea sitting immovably in my mind for a while, but I’m not sure that I see exactly how to turn it into a novel. I’ve also been collecting ideas for some short stories. I noticed that literary agents seemed to be even less keen on submissions of short stories than they were on literary fiction, but that’s not something that Kindle self-publishing is bothered about, so maybe I just need to press on!