Having published books on a wide range of subjects, including business strategy, epic fantasy poetry and spiritual inspiration, writer Michael Forester, describes his writing life.
He passes on his tips for new writers and finishes by reading a short extract from his recently published Forest Pathways (2023).
Click to start the video and turn CC on for subtitles (run time 28.42 mins).
Jill: Thank you for this interview, Michael. I was delighted to workwith you on your ‘Forest Pathways’ book. You have a series of books. How did publishing your first book change how you viewed your writing?
Michael: It’s an extended answer, Jill, in so far as I was traditionally published in business writing in the last century. I used two different traditional publishers of business books and both were quite successful, but there was a complete change of direction in both life and business in the millennium year. I started writing creatively and my life changed fundamentally, it took me out of the business world over a period of time. I expected to sail into traditional publication with creative writing in the same way as I more or less had with business writing and it was a major surprise when I found out how much more difficult it is to get creative books published so I came from a stable where I knew I could write books and I knew publishers wanted them into an environment where there was vastly more scepticism. ‘Oh, you think you’re a writer, do you? Oh, let’s take a look, oh no that’s not going to work.’ And over the course of my first independently published book, which is this one ‘If It Wasn’t for That Dog’ I think I approached, in the plan to publish, something of the order of forty agents and forty publishers.
It’s a book that is perceived to be about disability. Everybody has to be very polite to you. ‘Oh, yes looks really good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite fit our lists.’ And I had this repeated eighty times over. So in the end I approached Hearing Dogs for Deaf People and said ‘I’m going to self-publish this book.’ And we were fortunate in so far as it was the beginning of Print On Demand and the Arts Council gave me a grant for the initial publication of the book so we went, with considerable inexperience, through the process and ended up with a whole stack of books. And it changed fundamental my belief that I needed a traditional publisher. Because there I was sitting with my book, which I was more than pleased with. The problem then was distribution.
Jill: It sounds like you certainly learnt the art of persistence.
Michael: I think tenacity is probably the single most important watch word of creative writing you get on with it. You don’t listen to your own internal editor which tells you ‘You are writing rubbish today’. You don’t listen to all the naysayers who say ‘… terribly difficult to do.’ You just do write. And then when you have got the book then we work on how we’re going to do something with that book. Until you overcome that unbelief in yourself you don’t have anything to start with.
Jill: I have got a couple of your books here and you’ve already shown one on the screen there so out of all of the books you have written,in recent years, which was the easiest would you say to write?
Michael: A very difficult question because the were easy and hard, in their respective ways, at the same time. I think it’s the overcoming of that unbelief that changes everything you know it’s like climbing and extremely challenging mountain. Until you get to that point where you believe what you can do and then it becomes easy, in the case of my second self-published book, ‘Dragonsong’ it actually took me only three months to write, I was in a very different frame of mind from the usual. I’d just gone through a profound nervous breakdown, which is detailed with a bit more information in my book ‘Forest Rain’ but it put me in a mentally very different space and this thing whatever it was started to come to me I wrote a poem, a , 3,000-word poem about dragons and magicians. I was well pleased with that. My goodness , 3,000 words of rhyming poetry that’s something. I was lying in bed one night thinking, hang on it’s not finished and I went and wrote the next stage and in the end I had a , 32,000-word book. An epic fantasy in the tradition of ‘Garwain and the Green Knight’, ‘Beowulf’ or perhaps ‘Homer’ and I had a book that was like nothing else I had never seen before in the twentieth or twenty-first century, so that was a joy to write because I was totally and utterly absorbed in it. I was on a different planet you might say.
Jill: So that’s the one that was the quickest and presumably that you enjoyed the most writing.
Michael: I enjoyed them in different ways. In a sense writing this one, my first self-published novel ‘Viscious’, was the most enjoyable. Once I had got hold of the fact that I was writing a book then I just let the characters tell their stories. It started lying on a sunbed in Tenerife, and I began to formulate the idea for a short story and then a completely different short story appeared and for then another and eventually there were four of them, jumbled about in my head all at once. Until it clicked that I was writing about four characters who shared the same journey, or overlapping journey and at that point I allowed the story then to take over and for the characters to tell their own story. So that was probably the most enjoyable in that sense.
Jill: Really insightful, how the characters take over. So, in the process I think from what you’re saying it’s very creative and you go as you feel but do you have a plan, a structure before you start? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Michael: I’m not very organised in that respect. If you go to university of writing school or something they’ll tell you this is what you need – you need to plot your novel. It didn’t work that way for me, in fact it still doesn’t, it takes me a while to realise that I’m working on a new book and I’m just, at that point, writing. I allow writing, my creativity, to have complete freedom and then at some point it will click, I realise, ‘Ah, this is what I’m writing’. And at that point I start to start to formulate a bit more of a plan but in my opinion, you’ve got to be a bit careful how quickly you introduce that because once your internal editor starts speaking to you first of all they’ll tell you, ‘You know you’re not writing very well today. Cross all that out throw that away.’ And then they’ll tell you to go in a given direction. I want to say today, in my opinion, the most effective way of writing, the best communication, is to let go and let your storyteller tell their story first, all of the editing can come back later. You can tear out 0% if you want to but you need that freedom before you start to begin to control it. So I have a minimum amount of planning at the early stages and then I undertake whatever revisions are necessary when I come to that first review of the text.
Jill: This reminds me of a quote, that I think was from Stephen King, where he says, ‘The first draft is you telling yourself the story.’ So kill the internal editor at that stage completely and do the editing afterwards, just so you get the production. Have you any superstitions, or magic thoughts perhaps even, about creativity and inspiration?
Michael: I wouldn’t use the word superstition. I think more in terms of being aware of what is unseen around us. And I know that creativity comes to me when I let go when I stop trying to control things. Normally we’ll write a line or two and then a voice will cut in as I say, and tell you it’s no good. That’s the editor tell him to be quiet tell her to be quiet, they’ll get their chance later on, what you need first of all is let your creative flow sounds. However daft it sounds to you, however rubbish you think you’re writing today, write through that, wherever you are and then the flow comes and then you have something creative that you can work with. Until you break through that barrier of unbelief, you don’t have anything worthwhile, in my opinion. So, not superstition but awareness of the spirit of writing perhaps if I can put it that way.
Jill: I don’t know if you’ve seen this one but Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in a similar way, that it’s something you need to get out of the way of rather than control.
Michael: That’s very well put indeed. We have to stop impeding our creativity.
Jill: Can you put your finger on what the inspiration was for your most recent publication, ‘Forest Pathways’?
Michael: The secret’s in the title, Jill. The New Forest has been my biggest inspiration for twenty-five years and, in the case of ‘Forest Pathways’, in particular, which you were kind enough to proofread for me, I went out into the forest and allowed my inspiration to come, allowed the forest to connect with me and it was by solitary walking and using the silence, particularly during lockdown or the part of lockdown when we were allowed to be out locally. Fortunately, living where I do, in the New Forest District Council area, is that everybody in the area can go into the forest so, I had the forest almost to myself. It was a luxury I had not known in many years. And I walked and I walked and I walked and I allowed the spirit of the forest to talk to me, and it resulted in ‘Forest Pathways’.
Jill: It’s a positive that’s come out of all that pandemic.
Michael: I think a lot of people did a lot of writing in the pandemic. Certainly, if you were working on a project, it gave you time that you wouldn’t otherwise have had. It hit all of us emotionally and I certainly at the beginning found myself floundering because at that moment I was not working on anything and it took a while for me to get into what was a different way of being that we were all facing and then came the opportunity to get out and get the job.
Jill: What do you like the most then about writing a story?
Michael: I think the earlier part of it when the creativity is flowing really at some point you do have to let that editor get to work and then it becomes a bit more drudgery and I think ‘Oh no, I’ve got four hundred pages to cut down to two-hundred and fifty, or whatever it’s going to be and that then becomes a job of work but it’s a joyful job because I know what I will end up with at the end of the project.
Jill: So, the mundane side of it I suppose, and what novice writers are always really intrigued by. What is your process, your writing schedule? Do you have a preferred location for example?
Michael: Embarrassingly chaotic. I have been a little bit more disciplined this year my partner the poet, Jackie Haskell and I, have been going to the cafe together to do what we refer to as writing practise not practice in the sense of trying to get better but practising writing. So, on a nearly daily basis now I will go and spend twenty minutes just free flow writing but my normal pattern over twenty-five years has not been organised it must be said. I tend to write very, very intensively for short periods of time. So if I’m working on a book it can be up to sixteen hours a day. I wouldn’t say it’s a very healthy way of spending your day. I gave myself sciatica by doing that unfortunately. So I am aware I mustn’t overdo it but I become very focused, very absorbed and write intensively and then I will not write for a period of time. Particularly being not only self-published but also a self-distributing author of course a large proportion of my year is already devoted to distribution of books in one way or another.
Jill: And what about software choice, do you work in Word?
Michael: It depends on where originate, so walking out in the forest to write ‘Forest Pathways’ I dictated onto my iPhone into Notes and I guess it was 70 to 80% accurate so I would then email that to myself download from the email into Word and there would be a lot of errors to correct at that point. But working at the cafe, I’m writing longhand now and then I will dictate that simply because it’s faster than typing. Once then I’ve got a body of text is relatively easier to work on that for a non-trained typist like me.
Jill: So all sorts of different ways then.
Michael: Oh I think as many different ways as there are authors, you find the way that works for you.
Jill: So have you got a superfan? Who’s the biggest supporter of your writing?
Michael: I’ve got two people who support my belief in my writing. One is Jacqueline Haskell, my partner who regularly pushes me and convinces me, yes, you’re doing something good or work on this a bit more or whatever. And then there is the person that so faithfully helps me when I’m doing event work, distributing books, my friend and former business partner, Susan Aldworth, she knows my books very well indeed and she’s a complete faithful believer in what I’m doing. So if I need pepping up at one time or another then one of those two will be the useful person to talk to.
Jill: If you were now able to speak to your teenage self, what sort of advice would you pass on to that person, about your writing, about writing?
Michael: I think it would be, write, write, write right now. Write it, write it, write it. Don’t show anybody don’t accept any criticism don’t listen to what anybody else thinks. All that matters is that you get into that habit and process of writing everything else can come later. Criticism, the technique of learning how to do it. You might be learning bad habits but until you get the opportunity to go to writing school university whatever it happens to be, whichever route you choose, the writing I would say as a habit needs to become established first so I say, ‘Get off the screen. Get away from the television. Get out there and write. Go and sit somewhere where nobody’s talking to you and get on with the job. It doesn’t matter if it never sees the light of day. What matters is that you are doing it’.
Jill: That’s powerful advice, thank you. So, the strongest influences in your writing? I can see nature very strongly.
Michael: I have to ask you to repeat the question, Jill. I’m sorry, I didn’t see that.
Jill: The strongest influences I’m asking for in your writing. I see it as being nature but that may be simplistic.
Michael: I think that’s certainly part of the picture but perhaps it’ll help that if I tell you when I decided that I was going to commit to creative writing there were two people who were my sources of inspiration, two authors. One was Isabel Allende but not for the fictional books that she writes and not even for ‘House of Spirits’ her very famous book but she wrote a book about the death of her daughter called ‘Paula’, and I recommend everybody to read that book, it’s one of the most profoundly emotional books I’ve ever come across. She takes this most challenging of subjects and she just writes faithfully about how the process happened and what the effect was on her, her living family, her passed-on family she writes a particular scene where the family gathers in the room where the young woman is about to pass and the dead relatives arrive first. Bearing in mind, Isabel Allende is Chilean and comes from a tradition where spirit is seen visibly in a way we don’t do so much in the West. And her living family came and joined her. I was just so utterly blown away by this book and this scene in particularly, and I thought, ‘If I can write emotionally half as well as that I’ll be a very happy author.’
The other person and a book, probably largely forgotten by now. In the 1970s one Robert Pirsig, wrote a book called ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. It was a cult book in the 0s when I was at university and it’s a book I have never really drifted away from, I’ve read it several times over. So, when I came to creative writing as opposed to business writing I said, ‘If I can write intellectually half as well as Robert Pirsig, I’ll be a happy author.’
So I guess now, I’m a happy author I write, I would say about half as well as Isabel Allende and about half as well as Robert Pirsig.
Jill: So, another question then but you’ve probably answered it already in that question. Do you have favourite authors?
Michael: I do and once I’ve read those books they are there, I refer back to them. Probably my single most favourite author is Kazuo Ishiguro. There are a suite of books out there most of which have been shortlisted for the Booker, Man Booker and so on. These books are so insightful it’s easy to miss the depths that are in there, you could call on any one of them but I suppose the one that comes to mind particularly is ‘The Buried Giant’. Which I’ve read perhaps four times now. Apparently, it’s this innocent-looking little lightweight fantasy book but once you understand what he’s doing, there’s something happening at a totally different level here. Profound, profound insightful man.
Cormac McCarthy is another favourite and the book everybody shies away from, the first one he wrote, ‘Blood Meridian’ I think is one of the most powerful and honest books I’ve ever come across and the stylistic aspects of the book the writing capability is superb. So, I would say face the stuff we don’t want to read. It’s the history of what happened in the American West. And it’s faithful and it’s honest and it’s very, very painful indeed to read. George Orwell, a guru of mine, non-fiction as well as fiction, yes ‘1984’, yes ‘Animal Farm’ but the book that turned around my life totally was ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ which I read when I was twenty-one.
Two others I guess just come to mind, Yann Martel. Everybody knows ‘Life of Pi’ which won the Booker in the early part of the century, or perhaps it was even but I would say he got better after that. He’s not, in my opinion, properly recognised for his insightfulness, I would say try ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ which is one of the most avant-garde insightful, profound books that that I’ve some across. These words keep coming up in my discourse, don’t they? Insightful, profound, that is what I’m looking for in reading. I’m not looking for lightweight. Which is fine if you’re lying on a beach, two weeks in the sunshine and you want a doorstep novel yes, I’m not decrying any of that. But I’m looking for people, writers who help me develop and help me grow. I’m looking for insight. I’m looking for depth. I’m looking for what is profound.
And finally, possibly my favourite author of all, a less well-known writer by the name of, Geoff Dyer, a British author and I would simply say, read a book of his called ‘But Beautiful’. In my opinion it is possibly the most beautiful book ever written.
Jill: Thank you, really great recommendations. And now for a reading of yours.
Michael: Here is ‘Forest Pathways’ which you were kind enough to proofread for me very effectively. Thank you for making my book a better book, Jill.
I want read the first off, I think we’ve got about thirty pieces in this book, if I remember correctly, yes. This is the first of thirty pieces and it’s called ‘When I Am Sleeping’. Perhaps I should say the book is a collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry inspired by walks in the forest and we start with ‘When I Am Sleeping’.
‘When I Am Sleeping’
‘It’s been a long time,’ she said. Then she paused, waiting for my reply. ‘I was ready for you,’ she continued, when I didn’t answer. ‘I dressed special for you – put on my finest. You always say autumnal colours suit me best. But you didn’t come.’
It was an expression more of disappointment than accusation. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, feeling uncomfortable as I looked down at the decaying leaves. ‘Now look,’ she said in her sadness, gesturing about herself. ‘It’s almost all gone.’ I looked up, knowing she was right. There was a quiet, muted sleepiness about her, as if her mind was elsewhere.
‘I wanted to come,’ I began. ‘I intended to come – really.’ She waited for more but embarrassment made the words stick in my throat. I was in the wrong, without excuse.
‘But you had more important things to do?’ she ventured. I drew my breath in sharply. ‘No,’ I replied, not that. Never that. Nothing is more important than coming to be with you.’ ‘Why then?’
I fell silent again. ‘It’s hard to explain,’ I said, eventually. ‘There’s been a listlessness about me. A drop in my energy. I’ve not been able to motivate myself. I can’t say why.’
‘I know what you mean,’ she said, gesturing to the waning colour of late autumn. The branches of the trees were becoming visible, where just a week or so ago they would have been wrapped in a coat of colour.
‘All right, I was depressed,’ I confessed finally. ‘I couldn’t motivate myself to come to you.’ I knew how weak it sounded. She waited for more but I had nothing else to add. The silence stood between us like a barrier, a wall, forbidding me to step across.
‘I’m still here for you,’ she responded, finally. ‘I will always be here for you. You do know that don’t you? Just like you know you always feel better when you come to me.’ She was right.
Whenever I shake off the bonds of lethargy to walk with her, it’s like she wakens my soul. I become aware, not just of her and the creatures that she tends to, but of the Spirit that moves the heart in her and beyond. And when I’m lucky enough, or open enough, or maybe just ready enough, that Spirit begins to move me too and, if I’m willing to listen, to open up to the truth that dwells behind the illusion.
So, I walked her paths again and the silence that had been a wall became a lovers’ bridge, as I watched her prepare her children and herself for sleep. When it was time for me to go, I turned to walk away.
Then she spoke again. ‘Don’t leave it so long next time,’ she said. ‘Come back when I am sleeping, when the snow hangs heavy on my boughs. Come and be with me in the silence. You know that it is in the silence that you find yourself again.’
And we both knew she was right.
Jill: That’s lovely, thank you. Thank you.
Michael: All I can say – is may you be happy Jill, may all beings be happy and free from suffering. Take the time to go on a walk in nature, be it the empty seashore, be it on the plains, be it in the forest and if you can’t find anywhere else walk through the streets as if they were the forest and feel, reach out for what you connect to.
Jill: That’s wonderful. Thank you Michael, what an inspiration.
Michael: Thank you.