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Virtual Book Club: Paul Marriner introduces Miracle Number Four

Today I’m delighted to welcome Paul Marriner to my Virtual Book Club, my author interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their book to your book club.

Paul grew up in a west London suburb (not unlike the suburbs in which his latest book – Miracle Number Four – is based) 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 five 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).

To celebrate the launch of Miracle Number Four, Paul is kindly offering four lucky readers a signed first edition. Unfortunately only readers based in the UK can enter the draw. Details of how to enter will appear at the end.

Q: Paul, can I start by asking you what it is about Miracle Number Four novel that makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?

It’s a story of family, friends, first love, tragedy, hope and rock and roll – oh, and maybe a miracle – maybe. Plenty for a book club to get their teeth into.

It’s told in first person by a teenage boy, but was plotted from the start to be an ensemble piece, providing a number of characters to think about and discuss – motivations, relationships, challenges, actions. Additionally, as a coming of age novel, I think there is much with which readers will identify – it may be set in the 70s but we were all teenagers once, and though set in the past, it also touches on issues which are still relevant – mental health, women’s equality, grief, first love, hope. Another of the book’s themes is the move to a more secular society, something which is arguably ongoing, and, on top of all that, there’s a backdrop of great music. So with all that happening, and a cast of characters that I hope readers will warm to, and which includes some strong and influential young women, I think there’s plenty of scope for book clubs to enjoy and share views – and if they’re local to me I’d love to come along and listen!

Q: Lots to look forward to, but first I’m going to take you back to your early writing. Have you had any rejections that have inspired or motivated you?

My very first rejection was from Weekend Magazine in 1977. They had a short story feature every week and I submitted a piece. Sad to say they didn’t use it but I still have their letter. It was very kind and although even back then I suspected they were letting me down gently, it was a form of encouragement. I think it also taught me early on that rejection doesn’t mean ‘give up’. There were a couple of days of disappointment, self-doubt and disillusionment, but I learnt that those feelings pass – a lesson that has helped me deal with rejections over the years – I still get the feelings but I know they’ll pass – so thank you Weekend Magazine!

Q: And you kept it all this time – that’s wonderful! John Irving says that you can’t teach writing. You can only recognise what’s good and say ‘keep doing that.’ Do you think that’s true?

I think it’s also the case that if a writer is seeking traditional representation and publishing in a specific genre then there are often some loose ‘rules’ and structures that are often expected by readers and agents/publishers and which, if absent, might hinder the writer’s progress to traditional publication. I think those loose rules, structures and expectations can be taught. Whether or not they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a matter of opinion and it’s down to the wrier to decide to what degree they will follow them.

I attended the Faber Academy a few years ago (novel writing course) and have no doubt that I learnt a great deal that I wish I’d known earlier – though it’s also true that in many ways the best part of the course is finding yourself in a group of like-minded creative people who all want you to be the best writer you can be. I’d definitely recommend a course (other courses are available, I’m sure) – my Faber friends are supportive, kind and very talented writers.

Having said that, I’m a big fan of John Irving, and his back catalogue speaks for itself – so I’m prepared to admit that perhaps I’m taking his quote too literally.

Q: Did you know where Miracle Number Four was going to go right from the start?

Not entirely. I started from the premise of what would happen if an event acclaimed as a miracle is then doubted – how would the main protagonist, an impressionable teenager, react. I knew I also wanted to explore the concept of what ‘peace’ might mean to different people and I also wanted to set the story in a suburb, with the main premise acting as a symbol of the move to a more secular society. But I also wanted to celebrate suburban life while acknowledging it wasn’t great for everyone. I was also keen for it to be an ensemble piece based around music, with characters from a previous book – Three Weeks In The Summer – that I had previously ‘set up’. So right from the early conceptual thinking there was a lot going on. But I wasn’t sure how the story would evolve and the main protagonist’s primary issues would be resolved until I started detailed plotting – letting the characters and situations drive the narrative arc so that the resolutions are natural and not pre-conceived; much like real-life. Not to mention that as the narrative developed I came to realise that it wasn’t necessary for all the issues and protagonists’ jeopardy to be resolved – life isn’t like that and part of growing up is learning to recognise and live with it.

Q: This is very familiar ground for me. My novel These Fragile Things is also about a teenager whose recovery from a near-death experience is labelled a miracle, and how that label might effect someone. But I digress. Has setting the novel in a place that is well known to you changed the way that you feel about that place?

I chose to set the novel in an environment that I know well (it’s pretty much where I lived) because I think the London suburbs were an OK place to grow up and suburbs in general get a bad ‘press’. Of course they aren’t perfect and behind closed curtains I’m sure there was a lot of unhappiness and many secrets – like anywhere else. But when it comes to 30,000 plus people living in close proximity, needing shops, travel infrastructure, schools, amenities, parks, nature reserves, hospitals and surgeries, places of worship, social clubs, pubs, cinemas ….. you get the idea …. and all finding a way to live together and thrive, then I’m inclined to think they weren’t too bad. They were also a place where entrepreneurs could build businesses (lots of potential customers) and a base for commuters that, generally, provides more space than inner-city living. On top of that, although I appreciate society in general was a difficult place for women, with much inequality especially in workplaces, for a child growing up there were many women who were the main points of contact – mothers, obviously, but also running the guides, cubs, scouts, in the shops, receptionists, teaching, first point of contact in the health services and such like. I’m not suggesting it was a matriarchal society, but it was a society in which women were influential in many of the decisions and interactions affecting children, and I think that was a good thing.

But has writing about the suburb changed how I feel about it? No. I hope it gave me the chance, in some way, to celebrate the good things. But I do appreciate it wasn’t that way for all and, as it happens, one of my current works in progress is also set in a suburb but explores the theme of loneliness – How it is possible to feel so alone despite being surrounded by people. How it is possible for society so ‘controlled’ and almost sanitised by protocols and institutions to still allow individuals to become isolated and lacking support. I know it might not sound ‘happy’, but like all my novels there will be a message of hope.

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Q: At what point in writing Miracle Number Four did you decide on its title?

My working title for the book was When Wonders Were Miracles – but I always thought that it clumsy. Fortunately, early on in the book one of the principal characters talks about ‘everyday miracles’ and, in particular, what they describe as the ‘fourth miracle’ – and it seemed natural to use that as the title. What are the four miracles? I’m hoping you’ll read the book to find out.

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

I develop a detailed outline with a sort of pyramid, working from the initial basic narrative arc down through increasing layers of detail to highlight plot points, characters’ issues and jeopardy and reveals and critical events – some of which are designed to move the plot forward while some are designed to support character development – and some do both (the more that do both the better). I also develop fairly detailed characters’ backstories and physical descriptions – even though very little of it ends up in the novel; it just helps me to understand them better. The pyramid has more detail added to it as the story progresses and I’m not afraid to dump entire characters, plot lines and events if the story changes – I try to give the characters as much freedom to change their own ‘lives’ as a I can, as long as I can hold true to the themes and original premise – though even those can be dumped if I come up with something I think is better. I have no problem putting aside thousands of words if they are stopping the book being the best I can make it. As Arthur Quiller-Couch is quoted as saying, ‘Murder your darlings.’

Q: Was the seed of your story an idea or an image?

I start with an idea, usually based around ‘what if <make something up> happened to a person?’ Which begs questions like, ‘Who is that person?’ ‘Why do they care?’ ‘Why should the reader care?’ ‘Where do they come from?’ ‘What do they want?’ ‘Who matters to them? To whom do they matter?’ And if the idea has some merit I’ll think more about a plot, location, timescales, principal characters. But, at the same time, I start thinking about the themes on which I’d like the story to touch – some heavily, others very lightly. And then, if the basic idea and characters I’ve thought about can act as a vehicle for those themes as well as providing an interesting, entertaining story, then I’ve a starting point.

This all sounds quite onerous but it’s not really and can happen pretty quickly. In truth, most ideas fail three tests very early.

‘Is it an interesting/entertaining idea and basic premise that can last longer than a short story?’

‘Who cares and why?’

‘Am I the right person to write this story?’

The last question is an interesting one as I see no reason why any writer should not write any story, regardless of cultural/ethnic/religious/sex/class/age appropriation issues. Having said that, I will only write stories if I believe I can adequately inhabit the hearts and heads of my characters and sometimes, despite all the research in the world, I’m not always convinced I can. That might be ok for minor characters but when it comes to main protagonist, it’s a show-stopper for me.

I am also a strong believer that the first duty of a story is to entertain. But I also believe that the best novels include (be it overtly or covertly) themes that challenge and/or educate the reader – hence my desire to decide early on in the process what themes I’d like to include – that may dictate key plot points and even the need for specific characters to carry or symbolise ideas.

Q: Do you think that self-revelation is part of the writing process?

Very much so. The books I have written have, to a greater or lesser degree, included elements of my own thoughts, beliefs, values and, such as it is, philosophy for life. These are mostly embedded in various characters, and it may be that people who know me would recognise them, I don’t know. But it seems to me entirely natural that bits of me will end up in my stories – it doesn’t mean the stories are about me or my experiences and that’s the important part. As far as the reader is concerned I don’t believe my own views and values should matter – it’s my characters’ that count. That some characters may hold the same values and beliefs as myself should, I hope, help with authenticity and so the challenge is to make sure that I am able to bring authenticity to characters who hold different values to me.

Having said that, if I were to write a book which promoted my own specific political or religious position over and above and to the detriment of others, I believe I would be obliged to make my bias known at the outset.

Perhaps more important is that when I’m writing I learn more about my own views and develop further my own values and beliefs and challenge myself to be more honest. If an ethical question is raised in one of my books and I seek to have characters represent various aspects of the question, it’s natural that I start by thinking about my own position and challenge or develop it further accordingly. On some occasions it may be an issue I’ve never considered before and, by writing about it, I’m forced to think about it seriously. All of which means that the more I write the more I learn about myself. In some ways this may be the best reason of all for being a writer.

Q: Where does this story fit in with the rest of your work?

This is an easy one. One of my earlier books – Three Weeks In The Summer – introduced, among others, three characters whose stories I felt had a lot more to come – Mike, the teenage bass player with dreams of rock stardom, Richard, the sensitive youth wanting to understand more about his heritage and Anika, a vivacious young Czech woman who ‘calls it as she sees it’. Mike has become the main protagonist in Miracle Number Four and Richard and Anika are major characters, instrumental in Mike’s ‘coming of age’ story. The two books don’t have a prequel/sequel relationship – each can stand alone – but they are closely related and I hope readers enjoy both equally.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on two books at the moment. One is a sequel to Miracle Number Four, set some forty years later as I wanted to see how the characters’ lives played out. The other is a study of loneliness and loyalty in modern England. The main protagonist is a daughter caring for her elderly father. Life is pretty hard and lonely, even though she lives in a busy suburb and a lot of people ‘pass’ through her days. She agrees to allow a carer into their lives and the book explores how the carer challenges the status quo. I think that’s the book which will be finished first. The working title is The Michaelmas Daisy.

How to enter the draw to win one of four signed first editions

If you live anywhere in the UK, follow Paul on either Facebook or Twitter using the links below and then send him the message, ‘Please put my name in the hat’. It’s as simple as that.

Want to know more about Paul and his writing?

Visit his website:

Find him on Facebook: Paul Marriner – Author | Facebook

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Instagram: marriner66

Miracle Number Four: Miracle Number Four eBook : Marriner, Paul: Kindle Store