Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of
Tony Mitton’s debut novel Potter’s Boy was edited by Anthony Hinton of David Fickling Books. The judges described it as ‘poignant and unusual’; ‘beautiful storytelling, and ‘a slow read for the modern child but one that will draw them in’.
Can you tell us about the inspiration for Potter’s Boy?
Since my childhood in 1950s Hong Kong I’ve been interested in and influenced by Buddhism generally. More particularly, during my 20s, I began to find out more about Zen Buddhism, the Japanese forms of Buddhism, and the various Japanese arts which are strongly imbued with Zen influences. In due course I came to incorporate some of the practices and principles of Zen into my own life, so that those have had a formative influence on me. More recently, during this last decade, I’ve been exploring the ways that in the West the Mindfulness movement has been absorbing influences from Buddhism and introducing them into the fields of both mental and physical health and mainstream medical practice, as well as what some people in the West might call ‘spiritual’ practice (though Zennists might be cautious with that ‘S’ word).
As I began to approach my middle 60s (the traditional time for a man of my age to retire) I realised I was financially in a position to take the necessary time to write a novel in which I might process much of this material. I undertook this project as a private, personal one in the first instance, assuming that I had no track record as a novelist and that I would be unlikely to find a publisher for such a work. I mooted to myself the notion that I could publish a small run myself in order to give to friends and interested parties.
I told David Fickling about my enterprise as a matter of conversation (he has published many of my main titles of poetry & verse for children over the last 20 years) and he asked to read what there was of it at that time (that would have been about the first quarter of the first draft). Having read it he said he’d love to see the finished thing when it was ready to be seen. So about a year or so later I sent it to him in ‘good finished draft’ form. He read it promptly and got straight back to me and asked to be able to publish it. But the inspiration for me, overall, was the desire to bring together many of the ideas and practices of Buddhism, of Zen, and of Mindfulness, into a story form that might keep a reader interested while absorbing their essence.
What did you find most challenging as a debut author (and as someone used to writing poetry)?
When you write poetry the writing tends to be more condensed so that you need to give the text a particular kind of close attention that you can’t exercise when writing prose. Don’t misunderstand me. There’s no less care in writing prose. It’s just that there’s so much fuller a field of text to manage, and not the regularity of rhythms (and perhaps rhymes) that you may be using in poetry or verse. There’s also a greater danger of repetition – for me, I found myself re-using a key word later in the same paragraph on many occasions. I picked some of that up myself while redrafting but in places it still needed my editor Anthony to bring it to my attention. I really like writing prose, whether narrative or discursive, and I’ve used narrative prose in some of my published works, often woven together with both lyric and narrative verse. But taking on a full-length novel was for me a new undertaking and one I had to acknowledge myself to be a novice at. I enjoyed the process so much, though, that I have been long planning a second novel which I hope to start the actual writing of soon.
What did you enjoy most about the editorial process and what was the most important suggestion or piece of advice that Anthony gave you?
It’s hard for me to highlight a ‘single’ piece of advice but what stands out most for me in my memory of Anthony’s editorship is that I sent him what I considered to be a finished novel and he then wrote notes in pencil in the margins in many places. This was an agreed approach as I thought I’d have difficulty with the standard kinds of editorial software that I’ve encountered in the past with my longer works. I asked if he would mind working in hard copy on a printout of the novel and he did just that. In many places he queried me, not pushing for changes but simply questioning my intentions. Was that what I exactly meant? Did I want that repetition there, that strong emphasis? Would that character really express themself with that particular word or phrase? Or was it the voice of the old man, the storyteller, coming through like that? So should it stay the same or did I want to change it? Anthony was a very courteous editor in that respect, as I say, questioning my intentions, gently interrogating me as to ‘did I really mean that, or might I want to consider my phrasing?’
My ultimate experience of Anthony’s editorship was that I thought I had a finished novel in the bag and he gently nudged and coaxed me into ending up with a finer piece of work. So I am, of course, grateful for that to him. Beyond that, what was also very encouraging was his enthusiasm for the book. He gave me the sense that he really liked the book in essence and that he was delighted to be working on it with me. That too counted for a lot.
What most excited you about Tony’s manuscript when you first read it?
Tony’s voice - warm, engaging, witty and wise. He is a writer of very rare distinction, and the instant I started to read I knew I was in the hands of a master. His story drew me in gently, and, without realising it, I found myself utterly hooked, and I read the first draft in one sitting. All the while, Tony’s thoughtful, humorous, mesmeric voice was echoing in my head, and, through reading it, I became entirely the richer for it.
What were the aspects that you worked on most when editing it with him?
Making sure that the story was really letting the potential for all Tony's ideas, emotional moments, humour, and gripping action come through, and be properly developed, so that it was doing itself complete justice. Building up or reworking certain aspects of the world a little more, and establishing the flow of certain dramatic sequences.·
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
Ryo’s return to Cold Mountain, near the end. To explain exactly why would be to give too much away, but it’s utterly beautiful, and the writing soars. It’s a moment of quiet, but incredibly potent, emotional power, and it’s a feeling that Tony is an absolute master at creating. I was moved, smiled, and cried, all at the same time.
Thanks to Tony and Anthony for answering our questions.
Photo of Tony Mitton by Keith Heppell