‘I love the challenge of trying to write a beautiful sentence…’

Film maker, author and resident of Tunbridge Wells, Michael Waterhouse has just published his new novel, ‘The Ladder’. Here he tells Eileen Leahy about what inspired his latest book. He also talks about his previous work, which includes another novel, ‘Prodigal’ and the Emmy-nominated film, ‘The Bible’


So Michael how did you get into writing – was it something you always wanted
to do?

I feel that I’ve been writing all my life. It’s something that I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I think that, at the age of seven, I was creating my own Just William stories. None have survived, so I’ve no idea how awful they were. You can’t expect too much of a seven-year-old!

I read English at university and hoped that I would, one day, become a full-time novelist. From my late twenties, I was producing a novel perhaps every three to four years, but breaking into the world of London publishing was incredibly tough. I had a few near-misses, when an editor saw some promise in something I’d written and was eager to see my next book – only for that editor to vanish into thin air by the time I’d completed the next. So, it took until a few years ago for me to find the right publisher for my fiction. I’m very grateful to the Conrad Press for taking on Prodigal (2019) and now The Ladder.


How many books have you written in addition to your latest one and Prodigal?

I published a non-fiction title with Constable in 2003. It was entitled Staying Close: A Positive Approach to Dying and Bereavement and explored how care of the dying and bereaved was changing in the early 2000s, and how hospices could offer a real quality of life to those with terminal illness. It was also about innovative and ‘alternative’ approaches to funerals and bereavement counselling. I suppose, if you put me on the spot, ideas to do with death have preoccupied me over the years. There was even a time when I was the Death Correspondent of the Literary Review. I reviewed all the books they received on the subject. We all have to earn a living.


What do you enjoy most about the process? And how does it fit in alongside your work as a film maker?

Fiction is my real passion. I love the challenge of trying to write a beautiful sentence. I love the freedom novel-writing provides to invent characters and live with them for months, years even.

As a television producer, I produce and direct documentaries, chiefly history and mainly for the BBC and Channel 4. Being freelance, there are always intervals in the year, between contracts, say, when I can devote myself to writing. Every time I come back to a novel, I feel a frisson of excitement about the opportunity to develop and expand the story my characters are following. People ask novelists if they plot out everything beforehand. You do, inevitably, set a course, but so much arises spontaneously, as characters acquire depth and complexity. For me, one of the great pleasures of writing is that sense of ‘discovering’ the story.


Your latest book is entitled The Ladder. Can you tell us about its plot?

The Ladder is, first and foremost, a love story. It’s about what happens to love when one partner, Kim in this case, develops a debilitating illness. But don’t let that put you off! I have to say that whenever I felt the novel was in danger of tilting irreversibly into gloom and despondency, I tried a handbrake turn and headed for the sunny uplands, to something uplifting.

The novel has two narratives – Gary’s and Kim’s. Gary is living on a Scottish island. He’s recently lost Kim and, in his grief, he looks back on the previous two years. He wants to create a lasting tribute to Kim, a celebration of her lively, optimistic character and her love of colour. (She’s a florist.) But the memorial he’s designed may well raise questions amongst the islanders, questions he’d rather not answer.


How did you get into film making and how did it feel for The Bible to be nominated for an Emmy?
As I say, I hoped to be a novelist when I left university. I qualified as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language and thought I could survive in London on part-time teaching, which would leave me time to write. How naive was that! So, when a friend told me about a job at Thames Television, I went for it. We didn’t call what I was doing being a ‘runner’ in those days, but that’s what it was. I quite soon was given a researcher’s job on ‘This Is Your Life’ and spent a good deal of time in the company of ‘stars’, enough to convince me that Light Entertainment wasn’t my scene and I applied to be a producer of religious and arts programmes in Thames’ documentary department. The rest, as they say…

‘The Bible’ (2013) was one of my few ventures into the field of drama. It was all shot in Morocco, an incredible experience for, in my case, four months. The Emmy nomination was, of course, a huge thrill, international acknowledgement of the hard work and creativity of what was a very big production team and cast. We were pipped at the post by ‘Behind the Candelabra’, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace.


Are you working on anything at the moment you can tell us about?

I’m writing a novel about truth and lies. Can truth survive amidst the maelstrom of social media and political spin? I suppose it’s my attempt to tell a story that encapsulates my response to the Trump era and its consequences. It’s set in the world of archaeology and – plot teaser – features a shipwreck in the Namibian Desert.


You live locally, do you find any particular places here inspiring when it comes to writing/filming?  What do you enjoy most about living here?

I’ve lived in Southborough for nearly thirty years and have loved every minute. On the one hand, it has been easy to travel to London, where I generally work, and on the other, I adore the countryside in this area.

Walking the footpaths around Penshurst has been a perfect time to think about a scene in a novel or how a character might develop, and the medieval buildings that make up ‘Leicester Square’, near Penshurst Church, have featured in at least two of my films.


‘The Ladder’ (RRP £9.99) is published by The Conrad Press and can be ordered from Amazon and all good bookshops. (ISBN: 978-1915494276)

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