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Virtual Book Club: Paul Marriner introduces The Blue Bench

This week I’m delighted to welcome Paul Marriner to Virtual Book Club, my interview series that gives authors the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.  

Paul grew up in a west London suburb and now lives in Berkshire with his wife and two children. He is passionate about music, sport and, most of all,  writing, on which he now concentrates full-time. Paul has written four novels and his primary literary ambition is that you enjoy reading them while he is hard at work on the next one (but still finding time to play drums with Redlands and Rags 2 Riches).

Q: Paul, can I begin by asking what it is about The Blue Bench that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?

Book clubs give readers the chance to compare which elements (plot-lines, characters, settings, themes, style) they liked or disliked with other readers’ views and to find out what others saw in a book that perhaps they didn’t. And, put simply, generally the more layers a book has I think the more there is to talk about. Additionally, people like to talk about people and The Blue Bench is a multi-layered novel about people.

It tells the full spectrum of a story from individuals through to the level of the national consciousness, from solitary to collective emotions and from personal action and reaction to the dynamics of couples, smaller groups and society in general. And it is set in a time of social change which is still relevant and recognisable; the themes have continued to this day and readers will be able to relate to the main protagonists.

All that, an event of immense cultural importance and romance too! So I believe it provides a wealth of opportunities for discussion.

When I talk to readers it’s always exciting to hear their thoughts and learn their take. It helps that there are some elements of The Blue Bench which allow the reader some latitude with respect to character motivations. One of the things I hoped to achieve was the feeling for a reader that they met the protagonists for the first time that summer and were there, watching the events unfold, learning a little more about the characters as they did so but, just as in real life, not knowing everything about them and having a degree of speculation.

I’d love to think that book clubs will talk about the characters as if they lived down their street.

Q: Did you know where this book was going to go right from the start?

At a macro level I knew very early on. I had been reading about the period and it seemed to me that the post WW1 period was not subject to the same level of attention as the war itself. This is understandable but the post war period was a time when circumstances conspired to initiate the start of great social change –and I say ‘the start’ as I believe some of the issues have still not been resolved. But as I learnt the extent to which Britain was still suffering from the war it seemed to me the story needed a focal point at a national level to properly illustrate the depth of the country’s pain – and then, when I understood the true significance of the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster, I had a eureka moment. That was the event that could pull together the various threads. And the more I learnt about the event the more I felt I had the foundations of a story that could satisfy all the elements I look for and was an important story to tell.

The next step was to plan the detail and decide which of the characters I had running around my imagination were best placed to tell the story, allowing for the introduction of the themes I wanted to write about. And because I felt the themes were so strong I was confident I could write the characters’ stories as their everyday lives  – hopefully making them relevant and also emphasising the impact on them of the extraordinary events that happened around and to them in the war and immediately afterwards.

Q: Where is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?

Most of The Blue Bench is set in Margate, in 1920 and the setting was easy to choose because that’s where Reverend Railton went after WW1. Reverend Railton is a historical figure and while he doesn’t appear in the book a great deal, his inspired idea for a grave for The Unknown Warrior is absolutely essential to the novel. Margate also provided a great backdrop for the other elements of the story and a location in which it is entirely plausible the protagonists should come together.

And, to some extent, the resort is a good representation of the dilemma that was facing Britain at the time – partly resting on faded laurels and needing to find a new path to peace and prosperity.

Click here to look inside or buy   

‘..a masterfully written story..’

Margate 1920 – The Great War is over but Britain is still to find peace and its spirit is not yet mended.

Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?

About a quarter of the way through, the title jumped off the page. It was suddenly obvious and explained so much. It’s also historically meaningful and, I hope, is memorable. But I can’t say why I feel it’s a perfect title for the book as it would spoil the reveal. So I haven’t really helped, have I? Sorry.

Q: Do you have a technique for keeping track of your fictional canvas?

Although The Blue Bench doesn’t cover a long period of time (most of the events occurring in the summer of 1920) there were a lot themes I needed to make sure I covered and a lot of information that I wanted to include, in as natural a fashion as possible. Additionally, although the cast of characters was not large, there was a group which I hoped to bring to life with as much subtle detail as I could.

Also, for reasons I won’t bother you with today, my memory is simply not very good. So I used a very detailed plan to capture the intricacies of the plot and the characters. It provided a chapter by chapter breakdown of events and when to introduce key information and it gave a base source of data on characters, including their backstory, even if it wasn’t used. Each chapter was planned to probably 80% of detail before I started it and subsequent chapters planned with decreasing levels of detail the further forward they ran. I also used the plan to try and make sure the pace was consistent. It was important to me that it felt to the reader like they were watching events unfold steadily through the summer.

But although I plan in detail I’m not against changing things drastically if I think there’s a better way – and if that means a complete re-write and re-plan of chunks of narrative then so be it. It’s essential that I feel the book is the best I can make it, which means being prepared to rip bits up and start again.

Q: What is the central conflict in your novel?

At the core of the novel is the need to find a way to accept the past and not let it hold you back, to learn how to grieve by remembering those who have gone with love and pride and to find peace. But, most importantly, the conflict is true at both the level of the individual characters and the nation.

Q: Was your novel inspired by any real life events? And, if so, how to do deal with the responsibility that comes with this?

Much of The Blue Bench was inspired by real life events. I’d like to mention a couple in particular.

Firstly, the selection and interment of The Unknown Warrior on Armistice Day 1920. There are many accounts of these events but I didn’t know the detail beforehand and so I read much of the archive material and subsequent reports. I quickly realised that this would be an essential element of the novel but it was only as I read more about the impact on Britain that I began to feel a responsibility to make sure not only were the facts accurate but, more importantly, its impact as a cultural event on the nation’s collective consciousness was recognised. Hundreds of thousands of people came (& continue to come) to see the grave and that’s something I’d like to stress here – it’s a grave, not a monument, and, uniquely, it is not only a place for national mourning but also, for some people the actual grave, with remains, of a loved one. Of course we don’t know who, but it means that hundreds of thousands of people who were missing loved ones could believe, if they chose, that there was a chance their loved one had been brought home. If you read the contemporary accounts and watch the footage it seems to me that the interment was both a focal and turning point and I can’t think of an event that has had such an impact. It was an integral part in allowing an entire nation to find a way to move on. So I certainly felt a responsibility to represent it properly and with respect. But to avoid it being a history lesson I focused less on facts and more on emotions. In the lead up to the event the novel looks at it from the perspective of the main protagonists but for the event itself I placed them in the crowd and tried to show how the weight of the event affected the people, which, in turn impacts on the protagonists. I hope it worked.

Secondly, the work of Major Gillies as a pioneering surgeon of was critical to the story. During the war itself the medics and doctors at the front became good at keeping the wounded alive despite horrendous injuries. But once home these men were in need of prosthetics and surgery to try and offer them a chance to re-integrate into a society that was not ready for them. Major Gillies and his colleagues introduced creative and innovative ways to help these mutilated and disfigured men and I am in awe of his skill as a surgeon and his determination to change both the establishment’s and society’s views. Again, I felt a responsibility to make sure his contribution is recognised. There are a number of books (fiction and non-fiction) that provide a lot of detail regarding his techniques so I decided to focus more on how his work impacted on a particular character, to make it personal and, again, to focus on the emotion.

So, to summarise, I did feel a responsibility to bring as much accuracy to The Blue Bench as possible but I hope the reader sees the impact of the real life events on the main protagonists, rather than necessarily understanding the real life events themselves in depth.

Q: Do you write with an imaginary reader in mind? If so, tell as a little about that person.

I do. I’ve written elsewhere about my ‘ideal’ reader and to paraphrase – they are someone who is widely read, enjoys being challenged, pushes me to ‘make it better’ and is a friend who is not afraid to tell me to rip it up and start again. I know a bit about their education and background and their career and personal aspirations but I don’t know their name, gender, race or religion. They don’t have a preference for any particular genre but they have some pet hates that I try to avoid because I trust their judgement.

BUT, crucially, they are NOT the buyer I am targeting. I avoid having such a target in mind as that might lead me to try and write something just to get them to buy and I think they’d see through that. I appreciate why larger publishers will need to understand their readers’ demographics and genre preferences but I don’t think that would be of much use to me – so rather than have a ‘target’, I’ve got an imaginary friend who tells it straight – but also gives some encouragement occasionally – ‘cos we all need that now and again.

Q: What makes fiction ‘literary’?

I don’t know. I think there’s a temptation to use it to denigrate some other genres, as if being ‘literary’ is superior in some way. I think that work referred to as ‘literary’ should include themes and ethical questions that challenge the reader to ask questions of themselves and to look at the world from a different viewpoint. It should avoid a formulaic approach and ideally bring a fresh perspective on what it means to be human and how we might need to change, either as individuals or as a collective.

However, I see no reason why a story can’t do all that and still be classified in another genre. For example – historical, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, crime, psychological thriller, erotica. Why shouldn’t a novel in any of those genres also be literary? And I guess the best ones are.

I’d also like to say that just because a novel is written from an unusual, perhaps eccentric or bizarre viewpoint, and incorporates an ‘other-worldly’ perspective or deeply intellectual approach and complex language structures, or introduces concepts that stretch credibility, it is not necessarily ‘literary’, simply for being written that way.

But this is only my opinion…

Oh, and just because something is ‘serious’ doesn’t mean it’s more ‘worthy’ – I say that as someone who wishes they could write comedy.

Q: Are you looking to entertain or illuminate?

I was recently asked to do an article on ‘why I write’ and took the opportunity to think about the question in some detail – something I hadn’t really done before. It boiled down to three key reasons: to entertain, to educate and to challenge. Hopefully the first is obvious as I do believe entertainment is the primary function of fiction. The education part should be far more subtle than is perhaps implied and I prefer your word – ‘illuminate’ (I wish I‘d used that). It’s not about teaching or preaching but introducing themes and ideas that may be new to the reader or which they may not have thought of in detail before. By the end of the book hopefully they have picked up on them, even if sub-consciously. There is also an element of learning new facts which I know some people like – so if there’s a few of them slipped in the narrative in a natural way that makes the reader think, ‘well I never knew,’ then that’s nice too. The third reason ‘challenge’ – sounds more pretentious than it’s meant to. My personal experience is that I get most from a book when I find myself asking what would I do if faced with the situations or dilemmas that the protagonist has to deal with? When this happens it shows how invested I am in the character (whether I like them or not) and if it’s an ethical question than it’s good to take stock of my own position – but even if just a simple question, like ‘to run or fight’, then that’s good as it means I’m right there with the protagonist.

So, in answer to your question, and perhaps with a touch of fence sitting I’d say both – but with emphasis on entertainment as I don’t write text books.

As an aside, when I was asked ‘why I write’ I also said that I learn more about myself and my own attitudes and aspirations during the process and that may turn out to be the most important reason, but the jury is out on that at the moment.

Q: Joanna Russ wrote, “Not only is female experience often considered less broad, less representative, less important, than male experience, but the actual content of works can be distorted according to whether the author is believed to be of one sex or the other.” Would you like to comment?

One of the themes included in The Blue Bench refers to the changes brought about (slowly) by women’s’ experiences in the war, their evolving role in society and the challenges of a society where a generation of men has been significantly reduced in number – so I thought this was a relevant question. But I must confess that I haven’t read anything by Joanna Russ. I did some brief research, but, in truth, still don’t know the context for the quote.

So, I read the quote a few times and tried to put it into the context of my favourite books and my own writing. Here are my thoughts, though they are formed almost entirely by my own experiences and I cannot claim to have read anywhere near as widely as I’d have liked….

I grew up in a family and, mostly, a society, where couples were married, men were bread-winners and women were home-makers. But not only were the women responsible for running the home they often had to work to make ends meet and I’m pretty sure they were paid less than men for equivalent work. They worked hard and were also generally the key decision makers when it came to family and children issues. They were experts at managing a raft of personal and family relationships at a level quite simply beyond their husband’s abilities. Put bluntly, without these women I find it hard to believe the comfortable, controlled, loving and supportive suburban environment I grew up in could have existed – from mother to teacher to cub leader to the corner shop to the nurse at the doctor, they were omnipresent and generally a force for good. And yes, I feel very lucky to have grown up where and when I did. I also suspect that the vast majority of men at this time and place knew how lucky they were and, in my experience, men understood that their role was secondary in most domestic circumstances. I’m not saying this was what the women wanted or were universally happy with and certainly not advocating it as a model for all but there was a degree of balance that seemed to work, at least from my then ‘child’s’ perspective. And I think this resulted in a society where at a family level the women were generally respected (though husbands may not have been overly demonstrative) but, for some reason, this didn’t translate into the workplace or general society where women were still treated as second-class.

I appreciate there are some sweeping generalisations in the above and it is biased towards my own experience. It was also a time when what we would now consider to be sexual harassment was commonplace and, for some reason, women’s views on some topics (e.g. politics) were considered less informed by many men. And I know that many women and families had very different experiences to mine and were oppressed, abused, mis-treated and taken for granted by bullying men. So I am extremely thankful for my own upbringing and do not mean in any way to diminish the experiences of others.

But, to go back to Joanna Russ’s quote above and to put it into the context of books, I don’t think it’s true of my favourite books and would be horrified to think it true of my own. My favourite books have tended to include female characters that are kind, wise, understanding and, for the most part, nicer human beings than the men. And the women have great influence on how events unfold. But interestingly, now that I think of it, those books have been mostly written by men and I wonder now if I am seeing those characters through the lens of my own upbringing? Hmmm – tricky and I do understand that it’s easy for a man to simply not ‘see’ casual misogyny and for attitudes that I feel are ‘neutral’  to actually offend.

So, in short, the answer is, I don’t know how accurate Joanna Russ’s quote is but I feel there’s plenty here for me to think about in the writing of my next novel. Also, it would be fascinating to hear the views of women when it comes to my own books and whether I am inadvertently continuing the prejudices to which Joanna Russ refers in her quote. It’s a conversation I’d love to have with book club members.

Q: Do you think political statements belong in literature? Would you write a novel that was a political tract?

Much of the world, its impact on us and the degree of freedom we enjoy (or not) is dictated by politics, economics and religion. So it’s hard not to include political comment or, at the very least, references to political concepts. Just as the ideas are all around us then so will they impact on the characters in our books. However, rather than overt statements I think the trick is to let the ideas speak for themselves or be shown through the actions of our characters. In that sense The Blue Bench includes an element of political comment, which I felt was important bearing in mind the period in which it is set and the societal change that was gathering momentum.

But if an author writes a novel in order to promote a specific political view then I believe the author has a duty to declare that intent – perhaps in an introduction. It is not the job of a novel to indoctrinate, be it subversively or explicitly. So I think the answer to the second part of your question is no.

And, having said all that, do I believe a book needs to include a political side, however subtle, in order to be considered a serious or important novel? Absolutely not.

Q: According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a novel is never really finished but only abandoned. True?

I don’t think ‘abandoned’ is the right word. I think they are often ‘interrupted’ by the need to bring that part of the story to a close or perhaps a convenient pause – but most stories are excerpts from a longer one, extending both before and afterwards – even if the author doesn’t know what they are at the time.

I‘m reminded of Hemingway’s quote: ‘Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.’

Q: How do you cope with the self-doubt that seems to plague the creative process?

Badly. I try to fend off the self-doubt by referring back to why I write and why the current story is important. But this doesn’t stop the doubts over whether the work is good enough. And that’s a tough one as there’s always room for improvement. I try to set and stick to my own bar and trust my own judgement but it’s very difficult. Reviews are important and a good indicator but there’s always the feeling that I should have done better. I have recently been asked, ‘Whose approval are you after?’ and that’s an excellent question but before that perhaps I need to answer the question, ‘Why do you need someone else’s approval?’ Or is that simply a human need? Any psychologists in the house?

The good news is that so far the satisfaction of writing outweighs the self-doubt.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for this. He sent me a print copy for review, and I hope to get to it soon (well… as soon as I can after reading a real door stopper of a novel about historical Paris)!

    Comment by Davida Chazan on October 21, 2018 at 8:36 am