We caught up with Author Tony Bayliss, and chatted with him about Orwell, dreams of playing football for England, and the personal journey of writing his newest book.
Your latest book, Past Continuous was recently published by Sparkling Books. Congratulations. Can you tell us a little about it?
Past Continuous starts with the death of the hero, an unpromising start to any story, but then takes us back to find out why he died. Nothing is quite as it seems, and soon the reader is left to wonder how, if he is dead, he can be communicating with the living. The person charged with finding out the truth is a girl who never met him in life, but who feels instinctively that she loves this man. She doesn’t know he is dead, and thinks he is lying in a coma, communicating telepathically. Her determination to find him, and to find the truth, is what drives the story on to its unexpected conclusion. I like happy endings.
I understand that Past Continuous was inspired by the suicide of your own son, Michael. Did you find the writing more difficult or cathartic? How much of his story did you allow to seep into the book?
Yes, it was difficult to get started. I knew I would have to purge myself of the grief by writing something, but I didn’t start the book until five years after my son’s death, and then I took a further ten years, with lots of pauses, to finish it. I was determined that it should stand as a work of art in its own right, and not be morbid. The main character is that of my son, and I used several small incidents from his life; but all other characters are fictional. The story is one of which he would have approved, especially since he was a musician, and a computer nerd.
Suicide is always a difficult subject to broach. Did you feel a sense of responsibility to educate as well as entertain?
I didn’t feel a responsibility at the time of writing. As writer I don’t feel I have a responsibility to anyone – art should be free of constraints liked that – but having written it, I realised that it might help those affected by suicide and bereavement. Since publishing it, I have been booked to talk to groups and charities who work to help families and others touched by suicide, and I have included a list of such organisations on the book’s website –www.pastcontinuous.co.uk
How did your family feel about your writing this book?
They are delighted with the result, and all came to support me at the launch. My son’s mother, whom I divorced in 1982, was particularly pleased, and I suppose in many ways, she was my target audience.
The significance is that the past is continuous because it shapes our future. More importantly, real love is continuous. I don’t find titles easy, but they are very important. This one came from a scene in which Sophie, the heroine, was struggling with a grammar lesson. She asks her father what the difference is between past historic and past continuous, and he dismisses the idea that past can have continuity. It seemed like a turning point in the book, what with the hero having died, yet was about to reappear in the future.
Is there anything you would you want a reader coming to your work for the first time through this book to know about how this book reflects your values as a writer?
That’s a difficult one. Do I have values, as a writer, or do I confer them on my characters? I want the reader to identify closely with my characters, so I use a lot of dialogue. I want the plot to be believable so, although it strays into the realms of science fiction, the science is not too far-fetched. I want the reader to feel emotions, to engage with the tension, and to be enthralled and excited by the way the climax is reached. Most of all, I want the reader to be uplifted. What does that say about my values as a writer? I suppose it say that I aim high, am a stickler for detail, and try to produce something which is both informative and entertaining.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I really didn’t know. I drifted into teaching for lack of good careers advice, but enjoyed it and was successful. I was then successful in my second career, in property. But I always wanted to write.
You started out writing poetry in school. When did you decide you wanted to write a novel or to make a living as a writer?
I started my first book – a diary – when I was ten, and distinctly remember promising myself that one day I would write a whole book. So I suppose it was my earliest ambition, along with being an astronaut and playing football for England. The latter two didn’t happen. I didn’t ever expected to make a living from writing – few do. In fact, a lecturer at university told me that teaching and writing didn’t mix, and that I should drop one of them. I chose to continue with teaching because I needed to eat. He was right, though – I wrote very little during my time as a teacher.
You’ve mentioned that the website Authonomy played a part in getting you a book deal for Past Continuous. Can you talk a little about that? Would you recommend this route to other novelists?
It was good experience to meet other writers, to give and take advice – I learnt a lot of technical stuff, and made some very good friends. But to rise up through the ranking lists requires a lot of time on the site – as much as six hours a day – and not many people can afford that. But yes, it got me noticed and gave me lots of contacts. Writing can be a very lonely occupation, and I think we all need the support of like minds.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating this book?
That I used the word ‘and’ too often, and that editing never finishes! Actually, I enjoy editing and re-writing more than composing onto a blank sheet/screen.
What’s on your bookshelf right now?
The story of Silbury Hill, Hitch 22 (the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens), The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. You’ll notice I read a lot of non-fiction, particular, philosophy, science and issues surrounding religion, and use the information in my novels.
Are there any books and stories that have influenced or stuck with you from your childhood or young-adulthood?
When young, I read a lot of John Wyndham, Aldous Huxley, DH Lawrence, and George Orwell, all of which continue to influence me.
Do you have any literary heroes?
George Orwell for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four (but some of his other novels are quite weak, I think). I love Audrey Niffenegger, Dickens, and Dostoevsky.
What would you consider your most interesting author quirk?
If I could get away with it, I would only ever write dialogue because the spoken word is everything to me. Maybe I should be a playwright.
Can you share with us anything about what you are working on now?
Yes, I’m trying to do to religion what Orwell did to politics in Nineteen Eighty Four. The year is 2090 and religious fundamentalists have taking over the governance of the UK. Women aren’t having a good time. It’s a bit like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but more explicit about the causes of society’s decline.
Tony, thanks so much for your time and thoughtful responses. I’m looking forward to reading your book.
About the book:
A story of love so strong that it transcends death, with more than a little help from a top secret robot research programme…
‘Ingenious…A work of real imagination’
Martin Ouvry, The Writers’ Workshop
‘Beautifully written, and so touchingly, achingly real’
Anna Rossi, author of Black Damask