19 Sep 2014
Interview: David Nobbs on ‘The Second Life of Sally Mottram’
David Nobbs is a writer, mostly of novels, of which he has done over 20. He has also written for television, most famously The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and A Bit of a Do. He is soon to turn 80 but is still working full time, and lives in Harrogate in Yorkshire. He recently published The Second Life of Sally Mottram, the first mainstream novel which includes Transition as a key element of its storyline, which we reviewed here. We talked to him by phone, about the book, its origins, and what makes a good story.
Could you tell us where the idea of The Second Life of Sally Mottram came from, of doing a novel about Transition?
I’ve been interested in Transition almost since it started. I was particularly stimulated by my stepdaughter Kim who lives in the Lot valley in France. When I go to visit her, she has always been putting books on the sort of policies that Transition stands for in my way and has eventually been part of the production team making a film about Transition in the Lot. And I thought I’d like to write something about it, but equally I didn’t want to write a book that just told what it was and also I wanted to have a central character who had a life outside it.
I have done one book before with a woman leading character, Going Gently, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing and I felt it was time I had another female leading character. I don’t know how Sally came to visit me in my thoughts but I thought about her, and then I thought I want this to be an optimistic book and I read The Good Companions by J.B. Priestly which I had read before and regarded as an archetypal feel-good book. And I realised you have to go through bad in order to feel good if it’s not to seem sentimental. And it was these ideas that I took to the writing.
So what was it that attracted you about Transition? What is it that you personally find exciting about it?
I just find the whole concept exciting. I just think it’s a better, healthier, less expensive – and I don’t mean in money terms, I mean less expensive in terms of the environment and obesity and the destruction of things on a human scale. I just think it fights for a lot of the things that I like in the world.
How has the book been received since it came out?
The book’s been very well received. I think there’s a big problem with books now in communication. A lot of people say to me “I’ve read all your books”, but I then discover they haven’t read the last two because they didn’t know they were out. The big bookshops are much less proactive, and when you go for books online or on Amazon, you look for the book you want. You don’t browse. I do find the publicity of getting books to the attention of the readers is very difficult and quite depressing.
One of the things that’s been interesting in Transition from the beginning has been discussion about the role of story in communicating something like Transition. What for you are the key elements of a good story?
The key elements of a good story, for me, are that it makes you care about the people that you’re reading about. When I read I want to identify with people and with their problems. I root for them and hope they have a happy ending, which is not possible all the time or just becomes tedious and predictable. I don’t read a book in order to find out who did it. That’s not my kind of book.
A good story is a story about people who are worth following, who are worth investing emotion in. That’s my fundamental quality. I also like people to laugh. I am now known as a comic writer which is a phrase I don’t quite like. I am a writer with comedy in my books. But I do want jokes, humour anyway, and I don’t turn it down when I can think of it. I would love to write like P.G. Wodehouse, things that are just lovely books that you can take away and throw away your cares. I care too much about things and these get dragged in as well. So it’s a mixture of comedy, of caring and of emotion.
You write at the beginning of the book that Potherthwaite isn’t a real place, but are you able to say if there was a particular place you had in mind? You’ve got maps drawn of it and everything at the beginning of the book.
I’d never done a map before! I did the map because I just wanted the proper book to look as attractive as it can. I didn’t draw the map, and I felt it could have been a little more imaginative. But I just wanted it to look real. No, I haven’t got a place that I based it on. In some of my other books, my Henry Pratt series, I’ve got a place called Firmarsh whose name derives from two places near Rotherham, Fircroft and Rawmarsh which were mining villages. It’s a town and that I can say is a kind of mixture of Barnsley and Rotherham.
But I don’t have a proper place for this, and while I was writing it, I did in fact visit the Pennines. I know them quite well because I live not far from them, but I didn’t make special trips and go round making notes. I created it in my head as my fictional place.
One of the things that struck me that I mentioned in the review that I did was about how they managed to do Transition with virtually no use of email or Facebook anything like that.
You made the point that maybe one or two things weren’t perhaps totally convincing. I don’t know enough of Transition and I suspect I’d probably agree with you if I did. I suppose it reflects things I’m interested in. I’m sure a lot of it was done in real life through computers and email and all these things. I can’t say I don’t use them – I’m on Twitter so I can hardly say I avoid social networks.
If I was deeply involved politically or in any movement, I’m sure I would have contacted people mainly through those. I just thought it’s more entertaining for me, and I hope for the reader, to do it on a more human scale.
I think a book about people sitting around tweeting each other probably doesn’t have a lot going for it! I really loved it and I think you beautifully capture the sense of momentum, of feeling part of something changing around you, something positive and optimistic that you can actually see changing. Did you draw on that from anything that you’ve personally experienced?
Not in a way that I can be specific about. One or two people occur who reflect people that I’ve met in my life. Sir Norman, the rich industrialist who doesn’t really know how to enjoy his life is loosely based on someone I and my stepchildren knew near Marlow a very long time ago and who is now long dead I would think. I do use experiences that I’ve had but not to any great extent. I really do like making things up.
You frame what Sally does in Potherthwaite in terms of responding to climate change and peak oil like Transition does, but it seems like actually what happens is a response to much, much more than that. You put it very beautifully at the beginning when she’s talking to her friends in a restaurant and she says “I see my town dying and I’m not happy to put up with that.” What, for you, does what she creates in that town, what else is she responding to there, do you think?
I think she’s responding to a sense that there’s a creeping lack of humanity and much less contact between people in our lives today. The supermarket is a case in point, where you don’t really speak to the people who serve you and you don’t speak to the other people shopping. You try to avoid them as much as possible. And in a lot of our lives we try to get in and out without communication.
My wife broke her finger and we were in A & E last week. We saw a friend in there and she didn’t see us. We talked about it afterwards, and we only just caught sight of her before we went because we were sort of not wanting to make contact with people. There’s a lot of that going on, I think, now, and we try to fight against it.