An Interview with Phaedra Patrick

5 May
Phaedra Patrick is the author of the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

Phaedra Patrick is the author of the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

Phaedra Patrick studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer and communications manager. She is a prize-winning short story writer and now writes full time. She lives in the UK with her husband and son. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is her debut novel.

To read an exercise on setting up happy endings, inspired by The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, click here.

In this interview, Patrick discusses how to set a character off on a quest, happy endings, and using coincidence in a novel.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with the main character, Arthur, deciding to go on a quest. It’s a decision that is part of a long tradition of quest stories that is alive and well as shown by The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild. The difficulty, I would imagine, in writing such a story is that you need a reason to push the character out the door. Did you always know that Arthur would find the charm bracelet? Or did he begin as a character in search of a reason to go searching?

Phaedra Patrick

The charm bracelet idea came to me first, as I showed my young son my own bracelet. I write short stories too, so I liked the idea that each charm would be like a short story in its own right, then there would be a thread linking them all together, like a bracelet. I then had to find the right character to discover the bracelet and to set off on the journey to find out more about it. I thought it would be interesting if it was an older gentleman, who was rather set in his ways, and who I could take out of his comfort zone to go on this search. One of my favourite exercises is to write down the ten worst things that could happen to your character, then to explore how they’d react if these happened. And that’s what I did with Arthur.

Michael Noll

One question that often comes up in my writing classes—especially with college undergraduates—is “Why must stories be so sad?” The “literary” novels and stories that they’re reading tend to end unhappily. (One caveat: this isn’t really true of the fantasy and science fiction novels they read.) So, I was struck as I read this novel how its emotional arc is pretty much always oriented toward a happy ending—and it’s to the book’s strength. The book jacket even says that it’s a “joyous celebration of life’s infinite possibilities.” What was required—in dreaming up the novel, in its early chapters—to get it moving in a happy, satisfying direction?

Phaedra Patrick

I believe in happy endings! And in order for the story to be happy at the end, it kind of needs to be the opposite (at least in places) at the beginning, so the character can go on his/her transformative journey. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper has been described as a kind of fable and even compared to a fairy story. A lot of fables or fairy tales traditionally start with the character in an unhappy place—Bambi’s mother dies, Cinderella is ill-treated by her step-sisters, etc. So I had to put Arthur in a bad place to make things right for him in the end. It was a fine balance not to make him too self-pitying, but as soon as I introduced his neighbour, Bernadette, then this brought along humour to lift the first couple of chapters.

Michael Noll

I had the pleasure of moderating a recent panel on writing that included Alexander Chee, and he talked about how coincidence is often frowned upon by writers, and so he wanted to write a book with a lot of it (and did, in The Queen of the Night). Your novel is full of coincidence; I suppose these moments (such as the ease with which Arthur finds the people he’s looking for) might be unrealistic, but they’re also hugely entertaining. How do you approach coincidence in your writing? How do you manage to explain a plot point enough for the reader to buy it but not overexploit it until the reader is suspicious?

Phaedra Patrick

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick's first novel, and it's been called "tender, insightful, and surprising."

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick’s first novel, and it’s been called “tender, insightful, and surprising.”

I think because the book had to link up eight charms then there had to be a rather strong element of coincidence, or else Arthur would just discover the first charm and then get stuck! It’s also a story rather than a real-life account, so it does invite readers to suspend disbelief a little and get swept along with it. For quite a while I pondered on whether readers would believe there was a phone number engraved on the elephant charm, but then I decided that Arthur had to get his first lead from somewhere, and that this was the story I wanted to tell. I also ensured that Arthur found out about the charms in a variety of ways—word of mouth, letter, photo, a receipt, family, etc., and at one point he even gets stuck in his search. I think this helps to make the coincidences more believable. It is a difficult balance though.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the book, Arthur has a conversation with a woman named Sonny Yardley. I don’t want to give anything away to readers, but Sonny’s response to Arthur’s questions is strikingly different from what he’s encountered before. Did you always know the scene would play out like this? Or did you sense that the novel needed a kind of unexpected hard turn to shake the reader a bit?

Phaedra Patrick

We know that Miriam led a secret life before she and Arthur married, so there had to be a rather big reason she kept this from him during 40 years of marriage. And it was unlikely to be a happy reason! So when Arthur finally speaks to Sonny, the conversation is serious and upsetting, as it needs to be considering the subject. I actually didn’t know what Miriam’s secret was until this part of the book, and I found out at the same time as Arthur. I had to have faith in my writing and plough on with the storyline in the hope that Miriam’s secret would reveal itself to me, and thankfully it did.

May 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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