How do you write?
Um . . . sometimes with a biro in a notebook, sometimes on my laptop. Usually I write by hand if I want a more intense mood; possibly that’s just superstition, but I find it can get good results, probably because using a pen is more physical. Assuming I can read my own handwriting, because I tend to get as comfortable as possible if I’m using the biro method, and writing from a sofa or a bed doesn’t exactly produce great penmanship, even if your script was better than my appalling scrawl to begin with.
Where do you get your ideas?
In general? It depends, and fundamentally I don’t know. There’s really no sensible answer to this question; if there was a simple method and I could tell you, well, you take a pinch of ginger, multiply it by the square root of pi, and then boil it in lye for five to twenty minutes depending on whether you want a short story or a novel, I’d say so, but it doesn’t work that way. This first book grew out of a late-night conversation with my friend Joel Jessup, sprawled on a rickety sofa and drinking Killer Kool Aids. (That’s vodka, midori and cranberry juice – drink of the young at heart. Joel says he used to wonder if real men drank such things, but then he decided that real men drink whatever they want. He is the future.) Joel is also a writer, and the two of us banged around ideas for about an hour, and a few days later I woke up with a rough plot and Lola’s voice taking shape in my head. After that, I threw in everything I could think of; a lot of the historical stuff came from research that I began out of idle interest and ended up completely gripped by. But overall, I’ve had ideas from conversations with people, from watching movies, from writing exercises, from thinking, and sometimes I’ve just had them. The one thing I’d say if anyone’s looking for guidance is that all the best ideas I’ve had, I’ve had when I was already working on something else. A lot of the work of writing gets done in the subconscious, and the way to keep it stoked up is to keep writing even if you’re not completely happy with your current project. Something else will eventually come clear; if you’re in practice, chances are it’ll happen sooner and better.
So what are you writing at the moment?
I ain’t sayin nothin. I tend to run away and hide when asked that question. Though this may not be the case for everyone, I’m a big believer in imaginative spark. That first rush, where thoughts are tumbling over each other and every sentence leads to the next one, like I’m improvising a song while I play, is where the energy is, and that’s what produces good work. If those patterns of thought are unfolding on a page, then I’ve got my best writing there, I’ve captured it. That’s the happy outcome. If, on the other hand, I talk about it too much, then the spark flares briefly in the conversation, but by the time I get to my keyboard, it’s fizzled out and become a boring little ember, and there goes the idea. Basically, I don’t want to talk the idea to death, so it's my policy to keep it zipped.
Do you base your characters or events on real life experiences?
Yes and no. Not literally; if I try to describe something real, I get stuck wondering whether I’m being accurate or not, and that can swamp whether something is plausible. There’s a story I like, in which a Martian comes down to Earth, sees that there’s money to be made in science fiction, so writes a history of his own planet. The publisher turns him down, on the grounds that it’s not a believable story. ‘What?’ cries the Martian, tearing off his disguise. ‘It’s the true story of Mars! Look at me – it happened to me and my people!’ ‘You writers are all the same,’ sighs the publisher. ‘Whenever someone tells you it’s not plausible, you always say that it really happened.’ Whether or not something really happened is pretty much irrelevant to fiction. I’m also not eager to write semi-autobiography. I remember meeting an agent who was enthused about my work partly because she said she was used to writers my age beginning with semi-autobiography and it was unusual that I wasn’t doing that, but I was quite surprised that semi-autobiog was what I was expected to write. I’ve experienced my life once, and while it was interesting to me at the time, rehashing it would be a chore. Anyway, there’s a certain lack of epic adventures in my own life which I suspect would be hard on readers as well; I try my best to be interesting company, but in terms of what I actually do all day, I’m just not that fascinating.
On the other hand, in some ways I am basing things on real life, because everything I’ve experienced feeds into the way I write. This is true for everyone: you may experience different events from everyone else, but human beings are human beings however they live, so with a bit of imagination, it’s possible to put yourself in anyone’s position. There’s a school of thought that says that if you want to write, you should go and have a lot of adventures; I remember people (generally not writers themselves) telling me that if I wanted to write I should travel the world, pick fruit, storm the barricades and generally get into scrapes. I don’t think you need to. If you’re paying attention to your life, you know what it’s like to be living, and that’s always what you’ll be writing about. You don’t have to have experienced, say, being a submarine commander to write about it. The question needn’t be ‘How did I feel when I commanded a submarine?’. The real question is, ‘How would someone feel when they commanded a sub?’ Posit an answer: responsibility, duty, tension, boredom and claustrophobia. And those things, everybody has felt. So it’s a double question: how would I feel in this position, and what’s it like to feel those things? The answers should be right there in your memory. Pay attention to how it feels to be a human being, and you can write anything.
Any advice on how to get published?
Yes, quite a bit, in some ways. I used to be an editor before I went full-time on the writing, so I’m including a section here based on my experience of both sides (see ‘The Other Side’), plus a few tips here. I’d warn you in advance, though, that in presenting the editor’s point of view in The Other Side, I say some quite blunt things. If you’re up for it, it may be useful, because the people you’ll be approaching for publication tend to have a blunt attitude, but if you’re just getting started, you may be at the stage where the most important thing is to build up your confidence. I know that when I started writing in my teens, I’d anxiously avoid anything that emphasised too strongly just how difficult writing well and getting published were, because I didn’t feel big and strong enough to cope with it just yet. The Other Side is tough love rather than soft encouragement, and if you need the latter right now, then I’d give it a miss until you feel firmer on your feet.
The basic advice is: write the best book you possibly can, practice a lot rather than keep planning to practice more, join a writer’s group if you find it helpful, then get a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook (released in a new edition yearly, available in public libraries, big bookshops and online – if you haven’t heard of it, get hold of a copy now, as it’s the standard industry directory and your new best friend). Read it, and follow its advice.
There are quite a few write-for-publication books out there as well, which are worth looking at. I wouldn’t necessarily listen to them on how to write, as everybody writes differently and it can derail you to give up your own methods in favour of someone else’s, but on how to find and approach agents and publishers, it’s certainly where I started.
More generally, when it comes to approaching publishers, my advice is: don’t, get an agent first. Publishers are swamped with applications from people who don’t have agents, and that pile of submissions is referred to as the ‘slush pile’. It sounds unkind, but spend a few days reading one and you’ll see why it’s called that: the majority of submissions are from people who can’t even put a sentence together grammatically. This means that if you write in without an agent, you’ll go on a pile of submissions where an editor will reckon that, statistically speaking, your book is probably bad. Two negative effects here: one, it won’t get looked at until the editor has nothing else to do, and editors are usually pressed for time. Two, it will be read by someone who’s just read a dozen submissions that were crackpot conspiracy theories, ungrammatical rants and biographies of someone’s gerbil, so there will be a rather jaundiced eye looking it over. Expectations have a huge effect on how someone thinks about a book they’re reading, and if an editor picks up your book expecting it to be bad, you’re in trouble.
With an agent, on the other hand, your book will be sent in by someone with whom the publisher has a professional relationship. This means two things: one, the book has to be looked at promptly or they’ll have an annoyed colleague after them; two, they’ll expect it to be up to a certain standard, because someone whose opinion they respect is vouching for it. And there’s another thing, too: agents know which publishers to try. They’ve spent their working lives getting a knowledge of who’s who, and that’s a huge advantage. They take a commission of your profits, but those profits are likely to be much greater than they’d ever have been if you’d been working alone, so financially you’ll still be better off – and if you make nothing, neither do they. But the main reason is very simple: to an editor, a writer without an agent doesn’t merit serious attention. Speaking from personal experience, I owe a tremendous amount to my own agent, and I know I’d never have made it thus far without her.
Beware of anyone who says they’ll be your agent or publisher in exchange for money up front. At best, they’ll be prepared to print and package your book, but not to market it – they won’t need to sell copies, because they’ve already made their profit in charging you. This may not sound like much, but it’s essential: if all a company does is print copies of a book then let them sit around, they won’t make it into the bookshops, nobody will hear about them, and in terms of how many you’ll sell, you may as well have just run off some photocopies. If you want people to actually hear about and read your book, it has to be marketed, and marketing a book is always a gamble, because some books sell well, some don’t, and it’s impossible to be sure which will and which won’t. The only reason you’d take such a gamble is that it’s your only chance of a profit. Legitimate publishers and agents have to get your book sold, because that’s the only way that they’ll make back the money they’ve spent on it, and that’s what you need: someone whose financial interests are in tandem with yours. If someone’s already banked a tidy sum just from the printing, their job is done – and that’s the best case scenario. At worst, they’ll be scam artists, and there are some proper bastards out there. Someone I know had a relation who was taken in by such a con: they took his money, accepted his manuscript, did nothing with it, then eventually fled the country without a word, presumably because the law started to cotton on to them. Unfortunately for him, he had sent them his only manuscript copy (never, ever do that – reputable publishers will try not to lose it, but accidents can happen), and he had to ask someone to go round to their warehouse and see if she could retrieve it. She went, and saw what kind of business these people were running: a complete chaos of manuscripts stacked in great piles, hundreds of them, quite possibly the author’s only copies, just stuck in a warehouse like junk and forgotten about while conmen pocketed the money and ran. The phrase she used was ‘graveyard of dreams’. Stick to respectable publishers and agents: as with every other business where people’s hopes are high, there are sharks circling the edges, and you need to be careful.
All of this sounds rather gloomy, but the fact is, the odds are heavily stacked against you if you try to get published, simply because there are many, many people trying the same thing. In a way, this is bad news, but there is a positive side to it: if you do get a rejection, it can be some comfort to know that it’s not personal, you’re just playing long odds and will have to keep plugging away in an effort to shorten them – and if you do get accepted, that makes it all the more delightful.
It occurs to me that I began by saying ‘write the best book you possibly can’, which is the most important thing, but I haven’t elaborated. The truth is, I’m not sure how to write well. I try to do it, and I can think of obvious pitfalls to avoid (see The Other Side), but really I’m groping in the dark here. All I can say is, if you’re wondering how to write well, I’m pretty much as confused as you are, so the best of luck, from one confused person to another.
Who are your favourite authors?
Oh, lots of people. The absolute top two are Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison: they’re both authors I started reading when I was a teenager and have been in thrall to ever since; though very different, the beautiful way they handle language, the subtlety and sheer muscularity of thought, are astonishing. I don’t think I’d be the same person if I hadn’t read them; certainly I wouldn’t be the same writer. Another writer who looms large in my mind is Antonia White, author of the Frost In May series; both as an author and as a person, she fascinates me. Her handling of psychological tension and the way details crawl with life when you’re hypersensitive are almost literally haunting, like a ghostly hand on your wrist that’s barely touching you but can’t be broken free from. Gillian Bradshaw is a personal favourite, a fine and intelligent historical novelist who’s not nearly as famous as she deserves to be; I’ve loved her books since I was twelve and just starting to try adult fiction, and they’re still strong favourites when I want to curl up and forget the world – one of those authors I’ll take with me to read in the surgeon’s waiting room or on the train to the important interview, which is a great thing to find. With sci fi and fantasy, I love the great old authors, particularly H.G. Wells and John Wyndham, and Susanna Clarke has recently joined my list of favourite writers ever. Also there's M.R. James, whose ghost stories are utterly perfect, combining dry humour and strong structure with occasional freezing glimpses of nightmare - the only author who's ever genuinely frightened me. My heart tends to go along with female authors like Alice Hoffman, Amy Tan and Sarah Waters, all wonderful reads; I love some of the greats like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charles Dickens as well. If I want to laugh, I’ll read David Sedaris (who was lovely to me when I went to get my copy signed as well) or James Herriot. I still have a fondness for the authors of my childhood as well; Ferdinand the Bull and Dr Seuss’s Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose were my earliest examples of falling in love with books, and I’ve never really fallen out, and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series were the first time I’d encountered a character in a book who seemed to feel things that, up till that moment, I’d thought I was the only one to feel. It was an early lesson in common humanity that I got from fiction, and I remain grateful. Well, it’s a list I’m always adding to, and I intend to keep it that way; I never want to stop discovering new books and authors.
What’s with the different titles? Are there two books?
No, there’s just one book. The only major difference between them is the titles; Benighted is a US edition and Bareback is UK, so there are some differences of spelling and occasionally a different word (flat/apartment or pushchair/buggy, for example), but that’s just tweaking for the different markets. As the story is set in an imaginary city, I wanted it to feel as local as possible to whoever was reading it, so the differences are just there to stop your eye snagging on the word ‘colour’ spelt ‘color’ or vice versa. I’d recommend you get whichever one best matches your own accent, but if you have a yen to read it in a different one, you won’t be losing out.
So why the different titles?
Primarily because Americans have dirty minds. It’s traditionally the English who have a schoolboy sense of humour, but I’m here to tell you: the Yanks have us beat.
In England, the word 'bareback' meaning unprotected sex does exist, but it’s mostly still used within the gay community. I was well aware of the meaning when I decided to use the word; that actually confirmed my decision to use it. I decided that a sexual undertone would add a usefully sharp edge to what is, basically, a bigoted term. Racist and homophobic words are for my money much more offensive than ordinary swearing, so I figured that the nastier the word sounds, the better; at the same time, as it can equally mean saddle-free horseback riding, and as the movie Brokeback Mountain wasn’t out yet, with all the jokes that went with it, I assumed that the double entendre wouldn’t entirely dominate people’s perceptions of it. The UK publishers were very keen on the title, and it all seemed to be working okay.
Then the American publishers started to worry. They pointed out that the term is in much wider use in the US than in England. I had to take their word on that, as I live over here, but the concern was that people would simply hear the title, and then either fall off their chairs laughing like thirteen-year-olds or buy the book full of misguided hopes, only to return it when they discovered it wasn’t teeming with sex scenes. Various solutions were proposed, and my editor fought valiantly to keep the title, but in the end, it was decided that argument about the title would swamp any interest in the actual book. I therefore came up with Benighted as an alternative, which was suggested by the Christina Rossetti poem I quote at the beginning, and has various overtones I thought were interesting. The American publishers accepted this, and everyone came away pretty much happy.
If I refer to the book in conversation, I still think of it as Bareback, but to avoid confusion on this site, I’m going to refer to it as ‘the book’ as much as possible. If I slip, please excuse me.
I’m English and I find it funny too.
Well, I do write to entertain. And remember, my friends, nothing says ‘thanks for a good laugh’ like buying lots of copies.
Are there any other differences?
There’s a difference in the marketing: Jonathan Cape in the UK are selling it as a literary novel, and Del Rey in the States are selling it as science fiction.
Mostly because it caught the eye of different editors in different countries. I’m very interested to see how the two editions will go, because it seems to back up something I believe very strongly: genre ghettoes are not a good thing for authors or readers. I’ve mentioned this in the interview printed at the back of Benighted by Del Rey; this is a longer explanation of said opinion, but probably skippable if you’ve read the interview.
Defining a book as ‘fantasy’, ‘crime’ or ‘romance’ is useful for booksellers: they have a long list of books they have to convince the shops to take on, and if they can say, ‘It’ll go in that section of the shop’ and point to some clearly labelled shelves, it speeds up the process of explanation. Now, we all have our living to earn and bookselling is a tough job, so it’s fair enough from their point of view, but it’s not so helpful for writers. For one thing, it inspires endless unsolvable debates: what makes a book a particular genre? Everyone who reads that genre has a different opinion, and plenty of people who don’t read it do as well, and as there’s no central authority saying ‘This be the final definition’, the argument only ever ends when the disputing parties get exhausted and have to agree to differ. More to the point, it can lead to you get your priorities wrong when you’re writing. Do you decide to reject a fantastical idea that you’d really enjoy writing because you’re supposed to be literary? Do you stick in fantastical ideas that you’re not completely happy with because you’re supposed to be fantasy? Either of those will produce writing that’s less inspired than it should be. Writers should write what feels best to them, not be forced to squeeze themselves into a pre-existing box that was only ever invented as a salesman’s convenience and can never be properly defined however long you argue about it. That’s just not the way to produce good work.
It’s not that great for readers, either. Leaving aside the fact that readers deserve the authors’ best, and whatever cramps that isn’t in their interests, I’ve had plenty of people make assumptions about my book the minute they heard the word ‘werewolf’ that were completely wrong – only to tell me, ‘Hey, I thought I wouldn’t like it because I don’t usually like that kind of thing, but you know what? I did.’ ‘That kind of thing’ nearly stopped them reading something they actually enjoyed. And if it happened with mine, it’s a good bet it’s happening with other works as well: there are probably scores of books out there that they’d love, which they’re refusing to pick up because they’re thinking in terms of genre rather than of individual novels. The same applies to people who’d read anything with a werewolf, a handsome doctor, a detective or anything else in it: there’s no guarantee that they’ll like what the writer’s trying to do just because the writer is handling their favourite idea. Nor should there be – you don’t commit to a style just because you pick a subject – but these readers are missing out on other stuff they might love because they’re not casting their nets wide enough. And if you’re missing out on books you might love, that’s incredibly sad, because loved books are one of the nicest things in the world. Nobody wins.
I never read by genre when I was growing up, and I still don’t. Every book is unique, and that’s the only way to think about them. That fed heavily into the way I wrote my first novel, with the result that it became a book that could equally be published by two completely different imprints. All I can say to anyone who enjoyed it is: read across the genres as much as you can, otherwise you’ll miss out on a lot of good stuff.
Is there going to be a sequel?
Not in the foreseeable future, no, but I’m not ruling anything out. There were a few ideas and thoughts that I didn’t add to the original because they didn’t streamline with the story, so it’s always possible I could put them in a sequel some day, but for the most part, I feel that the original book is finished. A sequel wouldn’t add anything: the story’s told, the world has been presented, the characters have had such epiphanies are were plausible given their personalities, and I don’t want to bore people with a forced series. If, on the other hand, a brilliant idea strikes me one day that just has to be done in the world of the first book, then I probably will sit down and write a sequel. Who knows? Just now, though, I fancy a change.