• NZ Booklovers

Interview: Patricia Bell talks about The Library of Unfinished Business


Patricia Bell is a writer and a freelance editor and proofreader. Her short stories, poems, and non-fiction articles have been published in anthologies, literary journals and online.


Her short story “Dandelion Clocks” won first prize in the 2021 New Zealand Society of Authors Graeme Lay Short Story Competition.


Patricia has a widely read author website (www.patriciabellauthor.com) where she shares some of her creative writing and offers writing advice, as well as musings on language, reading, and the writing process. Patricia talks to NZ Booklovers about her debut novel.

Tell us a little about The Library of Unfinished Business.

It’s about a sad and disillusioned small-town librarian who dies one Monday morning and finds himself in a very strange afterlife. The story follows his adventures in that afterlife, and at the same time, the complicated path taken by his daughter, who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. And then, at the climax of the book, in the most unexpected of ways and in the most unexpected of places, their paths intersect, and what happens next…well, that's for readers to discover. There are two libraries in the story, and they’re very important. So is fire, along with everything that it symbolises. There’s also a karaoke machine, a drunken barmaid, a rowing race, naked people, bananas, and dangerous angels. But at the heart, it's about the relationship between a father and daughter. That’s what made the story worth writing, and that’s why it’s worth reading.


In terms of genre: it’s tricky to pin down, but if you asked me where to place it in a bookshop, it would be in the contemporary fiction section, probably somewhere between The Lovely Bones, maybe a couple of books by Matt Haig (but with a bit more humour), and anything by Jasper Fforde. Funny, absurd, moving, magical, original. It’s all those things, I hope.


What inspired you to write this book?

Dad was an only child, and his best (and only) childhood friends were his books. I grew up in a house filled with books on every subject under the earth. They filled dozens of bookcases, various cupboards, boxes in the garage and even the space under the house. Dad had a particular penchant for the weird and esoteric. Horror, the supernatural, alien encounters, science fiction, witchcraft, bloody murder, deviant medieval practices…his bookshelves made for startling Sunday afternoon browsing. In fact, he used to wrap a number of books in brown paper so his parishioners (He's a retired Presbyterian minister) wouldn’t see the titles when they came round for prayer meetings and Bible discussion groups. So I think most of the inspiration for this book has been right under my nose, from when I was little.


One day around twelve years ago I sat down and wrote, just for fun and without any forethought: “This is the story of my jailbreak from Heaven”. Ooooh, this could be a good short story, I thought. Little did I know it would keep growing and growing. So it started as a low-key writing experiment, then took on a life of its own.


I love what Stephen King has to say about theme: it is, quite simply, the reason you wrote the book; the reason it matters. The Library of Unfinished Business matters because it’s about the possibility of forgiveness and repair and redemption and second chances, even when we feel we have failed miserably. It’s about living bravely, and taking risks. I didn't necessarily set out to write about these things ... but ultimately they are the "themes" that emerged as I wrote.


I was always interested in “I died and saw a tunnel and a bright light” stories. The ones where you meet a dead relative and they say “You must go back”. That, as you will find, has made its way into my book. But I wanted to re-imagine and play with that idea from the other perspective - the perspective of the dead relative - and in an entirely unexpected way.


We are all curious about what happens after death. We are all scared of the unknown. Humans try everything to reassure themselves there is something there. I don’t have the answers: I'm a born-again agnostic. But I think that what matters most is what we do here, while we're alive. Here and now, with the ones we love. What matters is now. We can be redeemed now. We can start to "rewrite" our stories now. We need to love now. And - crucially - it's never too late for second chances.


What research was involved?

I didn't need to do a huge amount because the book came entirely from my imagination. I purposely set the parts of the book that take place on Earth in an unspecified location. There are one or two hints at Aotearoa ... but I wanted this book to be universal; not obviously "New Zealand". All street names and place names are fictional, although the library that Maurice worked at was loosely based on Remuera library, where I used to go regularly when I lived in the area.


As I wrote half the book from a male first person POV - my protagonist Maurice - I did need to consult my male friends on a few key things. How it feels to have an erection, for example. How a man like Maurice might express himself under duress. How it feels to become a father. How a man might react to divorce. That sort of thing. I also consulted my teenage daughter on a few things, to try to make Andy's voice authentic.


I read up on angels and archangels and their representation in religious and literary traditions.


As for the other Biblical references: In my childhood and youth my family attended church and Sunday School religiously (har, har). Then I leapt, with great angst and fervour, into my Pentecostal phase. I leapt back out again a couple of years later, a little burnt, a little wiser. It’s all grist for the mill now. So I know the Bible well, and I have dropped in a number of allusions, references, and in-jokes that may go entirely unnoticed by some readers. That's OK; you don't need to have an intimate knowledge of the Bible to enjoy the book. But for those who do, there's an extra layer there.


I brought the Biblical characters to life with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and I had enormous fun. I make a few digs – or rather, ask some gentle questions about conventional concepts of God and Heaven and Hell and what it means to be holy. Will that turn some readers off? Let’s not lose sight of the overriding message of the book: that love is all that matters. And if that isn’t the most important spiritual message ever, then I don’t know what is.


I think God would approve. But he or she had better have a sense of humour, or there goes my afterlife.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I'm an editor/proofreader, and spend much of my day perfecting other people's manuscripts. But I seem to be able to shift gear when I sit down to write creatively. I give myself permission to get it wrong; to let it all hang out. I seem to be able to tap into an inspired, free-flowing part of myself, which is a blessing. It’s only later that I go back and painstakingly address every comma and semi-colon.


I wrote much of the first draft of The Library of Unfinished Business free-flow—no plan, no outline, just the giddy excitement of “Where will this go today?” every time I sat down to write. Then I started getting stuck, losing track of ideas and threads and doddering about in the wilderness that is the mid-point of a messy first draft. So I pulled back, wrote a plot outline and a chapter plan, and with that “road map” to guide me, carried on. The more I wrote, and the more intricate the story became, the more I stepped back to plan my next move.


One of the most useful things I did was write a back story for Maurice. What was his upbringing like? Did his parents get on? What did he like to do as a child? What did he study at university? What was his earliest memory? By the time I had finished, I held him crystal clear in my mind. I felt like I knew him through and through, and writing him became so much easier. Why? Because I instinctively knew how he would react in any given situation. I knew his peculiarities, his likes and dislikes, his hopes and wishes and habits.


I did the same for Andrea and Kit – not to the same detailed extent, but it was just as useful.


So the best piece of advice I could give to anyone who wants to write a novel is: Know your characters, know your characters, know your characters. The plot flows from your characters – not the other way round.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I mention them in an author's note at the back of the book, which I quote here verbatim:


This novel was inspired, in part, by Kate Bush’s music, particularly the songs “Lily” from the album The Red Shoes, and “Among Angels” from 50 Words for Snow. If you do a search on YouTube you will find “Among Angels” set to a short animated film called Father and Daughter, by Dutch film maker Michael Dudok de Wit. My words may be the flesh and bones of this story … but Bush’s song and Dudok de Wit’s film are its heart and soul.


Also - anything by the Bee Gees. If you know, you know. 😉


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Maurice: Paul Giamatti, who played Miles Raymond, an unhappy, middle-aged, unsuccessful writer in the beyond-fantastic movie Sideways. He's such a wonderful character actor. Andy: my beautiful daughter. She's 14 and already a talented performer. We'd have to wait a few years, and dye her hair red, but I reckon she could capture Andy perfectly. As for Kit: Give me Ansel Elgort and I'll be happy. Can he sing the theme tune?


What did you enjoy the most about writing The Library of Unfinished Business?

I loved piecing together the intricate plot, although it was at times devilishly difficult. I’ve always loved puzzles and word plays and mysteries and lateral thinking games. Spy movies, Whodunnit games, murder mysteries, secret signs, red herrings…they’re all in there, to some extent. They’ll make the reader work (in a good way). I think most readers like trying to figure things out, trying to anticipate what’s going to happen. Hopefully they’ll still be surprised, though.


I also loved the funny bits. Writing humour can be tricky. You never know, you see. What I think is rip-snortingly funny may elicit nothing more than a raised eyebrow or a pursed lip.


If you read some of my published short stories, they’re quite grim, slice of life meditations, suffused with melancholy. My novel is quite different. There is still melancholy, and a bit of a preoccupation with death and longing and sadness, but those things just don’t … sing quite as loudly, because they’ve been joined by all the other voices in the choir: humour, hope, villainy, slapstick, excitement, love, longing, desire. Obviously a novel can run the full gamut of emotion in a way that a five-page story cannot. Add to that the necessity of sustaining a reader’s engagement for 80,000 words. It’s hard to do that when a novel is all darkness (or all light).


I’m Irish (my father is Irish, my mother was Scottish, and I was born and raised for some of my childhood in Northern Ireland). We love to laugh and talk and sing and tell tales. We love the craic … but we also love the melancholy. What did Yeats say? "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I simply sighed with relief and disbelief that it was ... done. It took years to write, and the draft was often relegated to the bottom drawer when life events took over. But the first COVID lockdown in 2020 was my impetus to finish the thing, once and for all. Also: I just quietly started sending it out to beta readers (people, carefully chosen, who will read a manuscript and offer feedback) and gearing myself up for the next stage. As an editor, I know that finishing a book is only the beginning of the long, often arduous editing process - and that's before you even get to the submission stage.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I was captivated by Charlotte Grimshaw's The Mirror Book. So much of it resonated. Throughout, Grimshaw reiterates the point that telling your story – your true story, not the carefully curated, editorialised “selfie stories” so common on social media, but your true story, is existentially important: “This is what is existentially important: to be heard and understood, to have a listener affirm it, to know the mind is not alone … The thread that will lead you out of the maze is the thread of narrative.”


Without giving too much away * Spoiler Alert *, in The Library of Unfinished Business, citizens in Heaven are offered the chance to “rewrite” their books – to rewrite their lives, in a sense. To tell their stories, and be heard, and thus be set free.


I’ve spent some time in psychotherapy, and my therapist once told me that having therapy is like being offered the chance to grow up all over again, and in doing so having the opportunity and freedom to make new choices and decisions, no longer shackled by the hurts and wounds of the past. It’s like rewriting your own life story, in a sense. I have found this to be true, and I think that discovery has found its way into my novel.


Kiwi journalist Jehan Casinader has done some very important work, in the context of mental health, around the themes of retelling your story, refusing to accept that the ending is set in stone, daring to change the narrative, questioning what we tell ourselves and what narratives we are stuck in. You may have read his book This is not how it ends: how rewriting your story can save your life. I hope my book can entertain, and make you laugh and cry, and just be a rollicking good tale - but perhaps also contribute something to that sort of conversation.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I'm working on my next book, which is a story cycle, AKA a composite novel, in which each story can be read as a stand-alone piece, but they are all linked in some way, and together present an overarching narrative. Funnily enough, the working title is the one I initially chose for The Library of Unfinished Business. That will have to remain secret for now.


But the other idea I'm currently entertaining is one suggested to me by my daughter. It's a murder mystery/Whodunnit set on an island in the Hauraki Gulf. Every time I think of the concept I get excited ... and that's a sign, perhaps.


Just like one of the the signs in The Library of Unfinished Business. 😉


Patricia Bell (Dip. Edit., Dip. Journ., MA) Bellbird Words Proofreading, Editing and Writing Services www.bellbirdwords.com