We chat to Now Novel member and debut author Mark Lamont about his novel, Whisky & Wildflowers. In the book, David Carter journeys through grief to presence after his wife’s passing to cancer. Mark talks writing inspiration, writing fiction from personal experience, Jane Austen and other influences, and more in this author chat.
Jordan Kantey: 00:08
So welcome, Mark. It’s fantastic to have you with us to talk about your book, Whisky & Wildflowers. Just to introduce Mark, Mark Lamont is a writer who lives on the island of Guernsey with his wife and three cats.
Whisky & Wildflowers is his first novel.
First off, congratulations on finishing and releasing your book. I’ve seen first-hand the hard work you’ve put into it, and it’s been
gratifying being part of the process.
How would you describe your book to a friend in just a few sentences?
Whisky & Wildflowers in the author’s own words
Mark Lamont: 00:37
I think I would describe it as a very personal, emotional journey for someone who’s lost their identity almost in the person that’s most
important to them and how they’ve defined themselves. And struggling to cope with that. And almost in spite of the best efforts
of their friends and their family and their loved ones, finding it very difficult.
And it’s the journey that David goes through to try and find a way to live when everything he held dear, represented in Carol,
has been taken away from him.
Jordan Kantey: 01:19
Great. There’s definitely a sense of great compassion and heart in the story, and it comes through that it comes from deeply considered personal experience.
The writing process
What I wanted to ask you about [next] was the writing process. We love to chat about process, as you know. So I was curious, what was hardest about the writing process and what did you find most helpful?
Mark Lamont: 01:49
I think that the first thing I found was a big challenge was to take that initial idea. I mean, I woke up, I had a very vivid dream that my wife had died of the cancer, which thankfully … she had cancer, but
she recovered from [it].
And I woke up one morning believing she hadn’t, and I reached across
and she was there and I thank God for that. So that was the idea.
And I spoke to Beth about it and I said, ‘I’ve had this idea I could turn that into a novel’. And she loved it. Loved it straight away.
But then there was a challenge to turn what was such a compelling idea
into a 70, 80 or ended up 85,000-word novel. So that was quite daunting and I felt a huge sense of responsibility. So that drove me and kept me on edge at the same time.
And I think also just to keep on showing up was a challenge because it’s two to three hours a day and I couldn’t have done that without her support really, because basically, it was a question of her sometimes kicking me upstairs [laughs]. She watched the telly whilst I went upstairs and tried to turn the idea into a book.
So I think the biggest challenge was really expanding that one idea into a full narrative.
Accountability and story planning
Jordan Kantey: 03:22
And I suppose one of the most helpful parts then was having Beth as a kind of accountability partner to encourage you to sit down and write as well.
Mark Lamont: 03:31
Absolutely. I would say full credit to you and to the Now Novel community because the groups, they always kept me going and inspired me.
So I think in terms of the way I managed to turn that idea into a story, was I got away from my lifelong aversion to plotting and planning, and stopped being a pantser once and for all. And I had a very clear idea of the journey I wanted to take David through and had a really clear idea of the characters.
I got inspiration from other websites that you look around and one of them came up with a very kind of detailed questionnaire. It was like a starter. And then I just expanded that and kind of interviewed my
characters and I got to know them, really know them, I think, better than that then I’d ever done before.
And that made it a lot easier for me to throw things at them. Because I had a clear sense of who they were and how they’d respond.
So knowing very clearly, my beginning, middle, end, the challenges that
I was going to throw at them, made it a lot easier for me to keep the story going. And it’s interesting that there were deviations when it
came to the actual writing, but the heart of the story is pretty much the one I started with when I did my first plan.
Jordan Kantey: 05:06
That’s very interesting. It definitely comes through that there’s a sense of focus.
Even in the early beta reading, giving feedback in a manuscript assessment stages, there was that sense of the author having a clear idea of the scope of the story, as it were, where it’s going, and so forth. Which there isn’t always in the early stages of the feedback process. So that was interesting.
Mark Lamont: 05:31
It’s not been my experience before [laughs]. I think possibly because this was a very personal story, I guess that helped.
Jordan Kantey: 05:40
There was a kind of model.
So in the first page you reference the work of Joseph Turner, his amazing paintings of sky, that quintessentially British artist. And so I wanted to ask you who some of your favorite authors, artists and musicians are who inspire your work.
But I first wanted to read from that description, the Turner comparison from the first page. So here’s the opening, just as a teaser for readers to go and read the book from Mark’s novel:
‘As it rises, the sun is captured in the tumbler like something
from a Turner painting. Amber skies over mist-covered fields.
The whisky bottle stands to the side. I can’t see the inscription on the
back, but I know it’s there. ‘From Carol with all my love,’ it says.
Only I can’t hear her voice right now. As I have so often this past year,
I’m sitting at my desk in the sun room, looking out.’
Who are some of the writers and the artists and musicians who inspire your writing?
Mark Lamont: 06:35
Well, I love Turner. My dad was an artist, actually just over my shoulder, you see that picture on the wall there, with the sea? That was my dad’s.
Jordan Kantey: 06:48
That’s beautiful, wow.
Mark Lamont: 06:50
Sorry I always get quite emotional when I think about him.
I love impressionism, anything like that. Anything that plays with light I’ve always enjoyed. And the sea. Authors … I’m very eclectic,
It’s something I have in common with both the characters in the book.
Jane Austen’s writing
I love Jane Austen. I didn’t when I was at school, when I was made to
Jordan Kantey: 07:17
[Laughs] That’s often the case.
Mark Lamont: 07:19
Exactly, when I was 16 year old boy I wanted to read action. I wanted to read Hemingway, I didn’t want to read Jane Austen.
But now I think the fact that it’s ‘Whisky and Wildflowers’ is obviously party homage.
It wasn’t deliberate, but the fact that that was the title, and obviously Pride and Prejudice crops up a couple of times in the book along with Emma.
But I love crime. I love P.D. James. I’m real big fan of J.K. Rowling’s alter ego. But yeah, I read widely. Science fiction, fantasy. I grew up reading Tolkien. Stephen Donaldson. I will read anything that’s well written. Margaret Atwood, obviously.
Jordan Kantey: 08:18
She’s a personal favorite of mine as well.
It’s interesting with Austen, I did an elective on her work in college, when I studied literature. And the lecturer did this whole extended analysis of how the kind of burgeoning relationship between Darcy and
Lizzy Bennett is just enacted in grammar. How it shifts … There’s something like where he says, You are loved by me’.
And that putting of the you, of the second person, at the front of the sentence, as a kind of effacing of the subject, putting her [Lizzie Bennet] in the center.
And it was such a beautiful analysis of how subtle and masterful Austen’s writing actually is. Because I think it’s so easy for people to dismiss romantic … or women’s writing. Most of my favorite authors are women. So it’s very interesting.
Gender and writing
Mark Lamont: 09:15
It’s a historical prejudice that will take us a while to get over.
Yeah, one of my aims writing the book was to try and get over some of the stereotypes.
Jordan Kantey: 09:27
Absolutely. I was going to say, I mean, I think what is rare for your book as well is that it’s rare for men’s stories (and it’s not uncommon – there are many men who write about relationships as opposed to, say, you look at the kind of political novels of Graham Greene – you know, there’s a lot of men who write very cerebral, intellectual things about politics and these grand big ideas).
But personally I’m always drawn to the characterful stories, writers like … a great one is Kent Haruf. He writes these very simple, simple stories
that are just real studies of characters and human relationships that are just so beautiful and moving. And your writing style in some ways reminds me of that, that simplicity…
There’s a kind of elegance in simplicity and writing about people, as opposed to writing about grand machinations and things…
Mark Lamont: 10:21
I think that’s definitely me. I’ve tried writing the other and you end up sort of sounding like you’re on a soapbox. In this story, I think the emotional heart of it is what resonated when I was writing it and even when I read it back to myself, I think that might be where I am at my strongest.
Jordan Kantey: 10:48
And that segues well to my next question which was the fact that you draw on very personal experiences (and obviously we briefly
mentioned it), your own wife’s cancer scare.
In a way, the story is a traveling down the road not taken. What didn’t happen in that instance, in that in the story, David’s wife Carol does pass to cancer.
The road not taken
So what drew you to that courageous imaginative path, of imagining what could have been, and really pursuing that down that road?
Mark Lamont: 11:24
I think firstly it was Beth’s reaction to it. I couldn’t have written it if her reaction would have been otherwise.
But I think I wanted to explore what that would have been. The person that I had dreamt I was, I don’t think I would be like David. I like to think that I don’t have some of his challenges, but certainly in terms of someone who’s lost their touchstone, I wanted to explore what that would be like and where would that take them and also what
might help them along the way.
Maybe pull them back, what would they find to live for. And so that was really the journey I wanted to try and put my poor David character through.
Jordan Kantey: 12:28
I love that, because it’s a kind of counter-voice that writers have, where you look at your life, or the things you know, and you think what if it were another way. Or ‘thinking otherwise’.
I think it was Tom Stoppard who said something like, ‘I write the supposition, then I refute the supposition, then I refute
the refutation’, or something like that.
But it’s like, I think it goes with the territory. I think a lot of writers are introverts, or introspective, or very analytical. And it’s a kind of analytical process of turning things around and seeing things from
other angles, and seeing all the possible angles. I can’t imagine it’s easy to go down that ‘What if?’ path.
Mark Lamont: 13:11
At times it was very difficult because again, even now, we both know that we’re never out of the woods.
I suppose again, I wanted to … whilst it’s a difficult journey for David, I still think there’s heart and there’s hope in the story. So that’s another thing that drove me to write.
Jordan Kantey: 13:39
And also art in some ways is a rehearsal for life. I mean, when I think of difficult experiences in life one goes through, a lot of the time, fiction and storytelling has provided a rehearsal space almost for those experiences, whether it’s something as universal and – for some – terrifying or just generally unknown and as death, or one of the big things.
It gives us a space to rehearse these experiences and explore situations that we might not otherwise have had as much courage to go through.
So I think literature and writing is so valuable in that sense, in how it’s almost like you get to live ‘other’ lives for a little bit of time.
Mark Lamont: 14:29
Yeah, and I think again, this story reminded me and Beth how precious life is, how precious our relationship is. And not to take the moment for granted. I’m actually taking a sabbatical for work in January as
a direct result of having finished this book. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I was right, wasn’t I? This is precious.’
You only get one crack at this. So one of my character’s great regrets is
not doing things that he might have done. [Laughs] So we’re going to Australia for six weeks.
Jordan Kantey: 15:14
[Laughs] So there’s life imitating art right there!
Mark Lamont: 15:16
Writing about grief
Jordan Kantey: 15:18
That’s great. So on that subject, I also wanted to ask you about (I mean,
I think we’ve covered this a fair amount) … But grief has been a major discussion topic these last few years with Covid and everything.
It’s been quite strange here how for two years everything was so uncertain and there was a lot of shearing off of peripheral connections and only really seeing close family, closest friends occasionally, in very kind of structured, reduced ways.
So one thing I loved about the story is its deep sense of compassion for grief, and for your characters, and how they each have their own personal grieving process that isn’t always perhaps what someone
might say is ‘the right’ response.
For example, one of Carol’s children going straight into a work situation [after Carol’s death] that turns out more complicated than it first seems in a personal way.
So I think there’s a huge sense of compassion for your characters and the ways they process grief differently. What are your thoughts on grief as a theme in Whisky & Wildflowers, or grief generally?
Mark Lamont: 16:30
Yeah, I think it’s a very personal journey. One of my favorite characters is the counsellor, Felicity and I think she helps David realize that the journey is … there’s no right or wrong way to do grief.
It’s something that you experience for yourself. And I think going back to what we touched on earlier, I think the idea that men should be stoic and have a stiff upper lip, I rebel against that personally, and I rebel
against it in the book because it’s damaging.
Yes, grief can overwhelm you and define you and I’ve experienced that when my dad died. But the recovery from that which I found … this
is one of the bits … David isn’t me, but we have a few things in common and one of them was I didn’t actually get a lot from counselling, apart from it made me think, ‘I don’t want to do that again!’ [Laughs]
I just found there was … something that my wife found for me actually, a Tony Robbins tape, when he talked about gratitude and being
grateful for the moments that you did have, all the good things that you got from that relationship. And actually, if David had realized that earlier, I think his journey might have been easier.
I didn’t make his journey easy for him. Part of his problem is that he’s quite self aware in some ways, but also he’s very … so locked up in his grief. And it’s only when he’s shocked out of it that he has a chance to actually step through into the other side.
And I think for me, that journey, if you can focus on all that’s good and all that you had, I think there’s an opportunity there for you to find the beauty and the hope for the future. Whether I’m right or not, I guess you’ll find out in time. But yeah, I think grief is a necessary part of the human existence. But then, so is finding a way to be
thankful and move on from it is the challenge.
Jordan Kantey: 18:57
Absolutely. There’s so much to unpack there. That’s also very interesting.
Subverting gender stereotypes and writing as therapy
The idea, firstly, going back a little, to the idea of men being stoic (or being expected to be stoic).
And what I love about the story is you have David’s kind of slightly more sentimental, slightly more stuck- sorry, not ‘stuck’ in the mud – stick in the mud – but more … I guess stuck in the mud in some ways, too – kind of personality.
And then Carol’s a beautiful counter-voice to that, in that she’s so pragmatic and she sees the lighter side.
And she’s also very self effacing in a way. Both Carol and David have a kind of humility, and a sense of their own provisional position in relation to things. The fact that one’s own subjectivity and point view and stuff is one small stitch in a very big tapestry of life. To use that analogy. And there’s a sense of that.
But also I also love that, in that the gender roles aren’t super typical.
One can’t have any kind of pre-conceived notion of how people of different genders will react. How different people will react. Everyone has their own way of processing things.
You mentioned also with therapy how for you, the experience didn’t work. There’s also a thing with that in how it very much depends on fit and finding the right person.
Mark Lamont: 20:19
Yes, Felicity [David’s counselor in the story] would have been great for me. Felicity is my kind of counselor.
Jordan Kantey: 20:27
Exactly [laughs]. You wrote the counselor you needed.
I think part of writing, in some ways, is wish fulfillment … It’s wish fulfillment, it’s fear fulfillment, it’s all those things.
Favorite parts of Whisky & Wildflowers
What was your favorite part or aspect of the book, if you can choose one?
Mark Lamont: 20:44
It’s difficult because there’s so much I loved about it. Carol’s irreverence, the theme tune she chose for her own funeral.
I really almost wanted her to get her wish, and to have the alarm clocks playing as she was brought up to the front.
I love Penny. She just keeps on showing up. As I said, I loved Felicity.
One of my favorite bits is … there’s a part where David has done something he’s very ashamed of, and he stops hearing Carol’s voice. And he goes to see Felicity and she talks him through it.
And there’s that moment where Carol comes back and says, ‘Miss me?’
I can’t read that, even now. I can’t even talk about it without getting a little emotion. For me, I think that’s my favorite moment in the book.
Jordan Kantey: 21:58
That was actually one (I think I mentioned to you in an email) that moved me to tears as well. And I think having been through also … I’ve also done all therapy thing.
I think, on the one hand, it spoke to how incredible it can feel when you do find someone you speak to in that very honest, open, narrative way, about every single neurosis or whatever it might be. Or every painful experience in your life. And they provide that help to you, like a good friend does.
But in a way that’s so focused. And it’s a very difficult thing to do as the analysand, I think that’s right word. To open yourself and your thoughts and feelings up to someone who you barely know at all as well, it’s a fear-inducing thing to do, but also an incredibly powerful thing to do, if
you’re able to do it and find the right fit.
So it captured the heart of what is so amazing and transformative about the therapeutic process. Then also, it captured just Carol’s voice and irreverence. Just her simple, ‘Missed me?’
Mark Lamont: 23:11
Yeah, I mean for me, that moment defines Carol, defines David, and their relationship. It’s funny, I mean, even though I wrote it, even though I read it a hundred times as I proofed and proofed as we’ve discussed, it still gets me. So I know, at least for me, that worked.
Giving feedback and editing
Jordan Kantey: 23:30
That’s great. So I wanted to ask you also about editing. I know from our interactions on the Now Novel critique groups, you give very thoughtful, considered feedback.
Often I read it and I think, ‘I can’t add anything here!’ [laughs] when you beat me to be the first to comment and give your thoughts.
So I know you get very good editorial feedback yourself. I also was curious to know, what did you find most valuable about editorial assessment, and what have you learned through giving other writers feedback?
Mark Lamont: 24:06
Well, first of all, to talk about the manuscript assessment that you gave me. I found it invaluable, and as I said, I was looking through comparing the first draft with your comments and what ended up in the book.
There were so many little things, subtle things or suggestions. Things where either I needed to add more depth, more color, throw in some people. It was quite an interior novel at times. And actually throwing in a bystander to bounce light off David.
I think it added about seven and a half thousand words from draft one to draft two. And most of that was actually expanding on things that hadn’t quite landed or coloring in, putting some light and shade in.
Jordan Kantey: 25:06
I like that, coloring in, yes. Like a bit of Turner.
Mark Lamont: 25:12
Even just a little nuance here and there, that you’d spotted something that hadn’t quite worked as it worked in my head.
So I was comparing the first three chapters, first time around, and in every way, your comments had helped me make it better.
Jordan Kantey: 25:34
I’m so glad to hear that, it’s always gratifying as an editor to hear that one made a positive difference.
Mark Lamont: 25:42
Well, absolutely, no doubt. And I try and do that in the community, try and say to them what I would want someone to say to me. And I think that’s what I love about the feedback groups is that everyone is very generous and people are very … we’re all kind of in it together. We’re all trying to be better writers.
And I definitely feel that I got better helping other people. It helped me look at my own writing and think, ‘Ah, actually what I said about that is probably true about something that I’ve written. So I value the Now Novel community tremendously. So I try and give as much to them as they give to me.
Jordan Kantey: 26:29
That’s fantastic. Yeah, I think that’s I’ve also been in some writing
circles and what’s so wonderful is getting a window into someone else’s creative process and the real deep sense of not just who someone is as a
person, but having that through their work and their work’s evolution as well, and what they struggle with and what they have, the ways they grow.
Being part of someone else’s creative journey is a wonderful gift. And I feel I’ve learned a lot more about writing through giving feedback almost, than through any kind of text on ‘This is how you write or don’t write.’ There’s a kind of teaching lesson in every piece of feedback you give.
Mark Lamont: 27:13
Yeah, I’ve definitely felt that. I’ve learned more. Well, they do say that if you want to improve on anything, try and teach someone. Giving that feedback you can definitely throw a light back on your own writing
Writing projects in development
Jordan Kantey: 27:29
Yeah, absolutely. Great. And then lastly, I just wanted to ask, what can we expect from you next? Is there anything in development that you can talk about?
Mark Lamont: 27:40
Yeah, I’ve got almost too many things at the moment. I’ve got my Dystopian novel, which I’ve got the first draft of, which is kind of
gathering dust at the moment because other things, Whisky & Wildflowers, completely took it over.
And I was in the process of planning out my next book, which is more in sync with Whisky & Wildflowers as a book about heart and development and personal challenge, which is going to be … a current working title, is On Reflection, which is about someone who
effectively meets themselves as a spirit guide.
It’s something I’ve played with a few years ago when I first joined Now Novel I started writing that idea, so that was what I was doing.
But as you have seen on the community, my imagination has been hijacked by a character called Lila Cabot who’s a detective, and she’s not happy about the idea of not being my next book.
So yeah, she’s very insistent. All I need to do now is to find
her a couple of bodies for her to work on. I’m going to let her have her way and I’m going to give it a go for NaNoWriMo and see how she does.
Jordan Kantey: 29:08
That’s fantastic. A great source I find to find ideas and things is Reddit as well, all the sparks of ideas, because I find there are lots of subreddits on specific topics such as unsolved crimes and so forth that can give one inspiration in those areas.
Well, thank you so much for chatting to me. It was so great to get more insight into everything.
Mark Lamont: 29:30
It’s a pleasure, thanks Jordan.
Mark Lamont – Author bio
Mark Lamont is a lawyer by day and lives on the island of Guernsey with his wife and three cats. Whisky & Wildflowers is his first novel.