Did you always dream of becoming a writer? And if so, has it turned out to be how you always imagined it?
I trained as an accountant so my dream was always to be something (anything) other than an accountant. But, I suppose, becoming a writer of science fiction was a natural progression from accountancy: I just traded one fantasy world for another.
As for if it’s worked out the way I imagined: the thing they don’t tell you about is that writing a book is only the beginning. After that comes the seemingly endless edits, proof-readings and, worst of all, the bloody questionnaires . . .
Do you write primarily from experience, or are you a keen researcher – and has that research ever changed the course of the story?
I’ve got a lot of (air) mileage. In my time I’ve lived in Tehran, Qatar and Moscow, and I’ve travelled extensively in Africa so this all adds flavour to my writing. Living and working throughout the world has convinced me of one thing: that all men are created equal in their duplicity and their ability to say one thing and do another. Duplicity/Duality is a theme running through ‘The Demi-Monde’ . . . as is my questioning of whether there is intelligent life on earth.
Regarding research. Yeah, I do a lot of it. I might write about fantastic worlds but I want them to have a coherency that persuades my readers to suspend disbelief. And yes, as I have a number of historical characters popping up in the Demi-Monde I have to regularly tweak the story when I realise that their public persona doesn’t quite match the reality unearthed by my research. Percy Shelley is a case in point: what a wuss!
Who or what is your biggest inspiration? Why?
My wife, Nelli. Because she’s the smartest, most genuine and easily the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.
Do you plan your books? And where do you begin a story, at the beginning, in the middle or at the end?
I only start when all my research is completed so I know the ins and outs of my characters, of the faux-religions I’ll be introducing and where (vaguely) the story is going to end up. Then I begin at the beginning (that’s the accountant in me) and write and see where things lead me.
You’re throwing your Fantasy Dinner Party: who are your five other guests, living, dead, real, mythological or made-up, and why?
You have to invite couples to dinner parties otherwise it’s all a bit unbalanced, so my couples would be:
Josephine Baker (20’s jazz dancer/singer) + Richard Burton (the Victorian explorer not the actor). As they both had a pretty liberated attitude to things sexual (and hugely talented with it) I think they would make a pretty good pairing and add a little pizzazz to proceedings. I’d have loved for Dick Burton to have been in the Demi-Monde but Philip Jose Farmer had first dibs on him.
Marilyn Monroe + Cyrano de Bergerac. In my humble, Marilyn was the greatest comedy actor of all time and Cyrano a freewheeling genius. A match made in heaven.
Jane Austen + H.G. Wells. Jane could explain to me how to write third person omniscient (which I don’t get) and Herbert could explain to me what it’s like to be a genius.
Billie Holiday + Charlie Parker. Okay, the drugs might be a problem but the jam session after the meal . . .
Marguerita Zelle (aka Mata Hari) + Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth I’s spymaster). They could sit in a dark corner and exchange encrypted billets doux. Hopefully Marguerita could be persuaded to dance. Now she and Josephine Baker tripping the light fantastic together would make for an interesting evening. Zowie!
When and why did you first start writing?
About four/five years ago. I got desperate to have the Guardian carry my obituary.
What was your favourite book as a child?
The Invisible Man: scared the crap outta me.
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm: I hooted.
Coral Island: made me think but I can’t remember what.
And what was the last book you started but couldn’t finish?
Too many to mention: I have a very short boredom span with fiction. I don’t suppose I’ve read a new book from beginning to end (except for those I’ve reviewed and some of those were a real trial) in the last ten years.
The other reason I don’t read fiction is that I think it’s quite a corrosive occupation for a writer. There was a piece in the Guardian a while back about J.G. Ballard where Will Self commented that ‘for a fiction writer it’s quite inimical to your own work to be saturated in someone else’s.’ I agree.
Other than writing, what would be your dream job?
And what’s the most interesting job you’ve actually had?
Nelli and I ran our own business in Russia during the ’90s and that was wild . . . and scary . . . and surreal. I’ll write a book about it one day and then go into hiding.
What’s the book – or who’s the author – you turn to when you’re sad, ill or worried?
I can’t imagine a book being of use in any of those situations.
What’s your view of eBooks and online writing – blogs, fan-fiction, etc? Are you involved in any online writing yourself?
I think, whether we like it or not, all media is in a process of conflation, and will eventually coalesce into one enormous cyber-continuum, with the distinction between films, computer games, comic books, music, images and the written word blurring and finally disappearing. Even now there is an enormous overlap, this driven by the fact that the audience has come to join the players on stage. Thanks to social networking, the audience is now part of the creative process.
And the implications of having the audience as a creative partner are profound: my suspicion is that today’s proto-reader is – and increasingly will be – looking for an altogether more immersive (dare I say, a more visceral) experience than one which can be found within the covers of a printed book. They will want to explore the backgrounds of their favourite characters, be able (especially with the SF and fantasy genres) to make a deeper, almost forensic examination of the world the writer has created, they will want to interact with the characters and with each other, they will want to see the writer’s visualisation of his or her book and, most importantly, they will want to become involved. This nuReader will want all his or her senses engaged and like it or not it will become incumbent on writers to create worlds and characters which transcend the printed word. This will be the only way they will be able to persuade a cyber-savvy generation to suspend disbelief.
Of course, appreciating this doesn’t make it any easier for a writer. My own modest step was the creation of the Demi-Monde website (www.thedemi-monde.com); this is designed to allow my readers the opportunity to immerse themselves more fully in my virtual world and to better understand the nuances and detail that can only (because of considerations of pace and length) be alluded to in the book. One small step, but an important one ’cos if you don’t embrace the revolution that is upon us you’ll be in danger of being swept away by it.
How did you first get published?
I wrote a book (Dark Charismatic, my take on the Jekyll and Hyde story). I sent it to an agent. He accepted it and sent it out to publishers. They rejected it (fools!).
I wrote another book (Locusts). It was crap (300,000 words of crap!). I binned it.
I wrote another, another book (The Demi-Monde: Winter). I sent it to my agent and he sent it out to a load of major publishers. Quercus came back in 72 hours with a terrific four-book deal that blew the opposition outta the water (hooray!).
How do you like to write: in silence, or with music? Do your books have a soundtrack (and if so, what’s the soundtrack for this one?)?
I like to be near the kitchen (or even in it) so I can get coffee quickly and easily and I like to be near Nelli ’cos she gives off good vibes. I’m oblivious to anything around me when I write so I don’t really mind what I’m listening to, tho’ currently I’m giving a brilliant album by Cachaito (Cuban bass player) an airing. I’d love to think my writing emulated this musicianship (fluid, effortless, spellbinding . . . I wish) but if I had to pick an album that encapsulates the book I’m currently working on I’d choose Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew: inspired in parts but the whole thing is teetering on the brink of collapse.
Do you have an “ideal” reader in your mind when you write?
Someone who wants to be entertained, provoked and affronted. It’s a niche market.
What was the most difficult part of writing this novel, and how did you overcome it?
Bringing all the threads of the first three books of a quartet together in a satisfying finale. I’m sitting here trying to write The Demi-Monde: Fall the last of the Demi-Monde series and I’m STUCK. Yipes!
What do you do when you are not writing?
Think about writing.
Do you let your parents read your books?
I’d need a Ouija board.
Who is your favourite fictional hero/heroine? And what about your favourite villain?
I seem to be drawn to characters who are flawed and incorporate both the good and the bad side of humanity:
• Flashman: the great character creation of George MacDonald Fraser. Utterly reprehensible, but don’t you just see yourself in him?
• Lockhart Flawse (aka ‘the Bastard’): the wonderfully dark and sardonically comic hero of Tom Sharpe’s The Throwback. Better even than Wilt.
• Griffin (The Invisible Man): paranoia personified.
• Meursault (L’Etranger): literature’s most compelling psychotic.
• Moriarty: a villain to admire (though not quite evil enough in my opinion).
• Alex (A Clockwork Orange): brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Funny evil and profound with it. The Droogs’ patois is inspired.
Winston Smith (1984): the greatest book I’ve ever read. The pathos communicated by Winston Smith is heart-wrenching.
Do you ever put people you know in your books?
Bits of them. My three heroines in The Demi-Monde have elements of Nelli and my two daughters. For legal reasons (and because they know where I live) I ain’t saying which character is which daughter. And, of course, like every writer, there’s a piece of me somewhere in there. I’d like to think it was Vanka Maykov – suave, glib and handsome – but Nelli believes I’m more Burlesque Bandstand – big, blustering and boorish. Terrific.
Here’s the question everyone’s always desperate for the answer: what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Write, write and then write some more. I think it was Ray Bradbury who said that you couldn’t call yourself a writer until you had a million words under your belt. I added up the words I’d written before The Demi-Monde was accepted: 984,000!
Here’s the Desert Island question: if you’re going to be stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life and you could only take three books, what would they be?
Filthy ones – with pictures.
And finally: what’s the one question you wish I’d asked – and why? ☺
Will you take this call from Stephen Spielberg?