Bookseller by Day, Novelist by Night. Which is to say, “a lie”. I’m a morning writer. Give me a cup of coffee, an eight o’clock start, and four uninterrupted hours of writing time. These days I cram in an hour and twenty minutes and then commute to the day job. I spend a lot of time at work asking people to swap shifts. Fortunately they’re very generous and good natured about it. I write on a battered MacBook Air. The hinge is shot so the screen is propped up on a handful of weighty advance reader copies. Who said books couldn’t be useful?
I Get Around. Not like the Beach Boys. I don’t really have the voice for close harmonies. I’ve worked as a bookseller for Blackwells, Waterstones, and briefly at Forbidden Planet Southampton. I’ve had other jobs too: a production assistant and comics editor at Titan magazines. My favourite entry on my CV is ‘professional writer’, even if it only lasted 15 months. I enjoyed the dress code (pajamas), the hours (flexible) and the opportunity to slope off to the couch with a book and claim it was research.
Do What You Love. I have a vivid memory of my mother standing in my bedroom doorway telling me if I put as much time into my homework as I did into Warhammer I’d get straight As. Needless to say I didn’t a single A at school. I loathed the place. But I can say it wasn’t a misspent youth. My first three books are The War Fighting Manuals, three doughty tomes on conducting war, written from the perspectives of orcs, elves and dwarves. There are some tongue in cheek references to Mr Tolkien and a scattering of terrible puns. I had a lot of fun with fictional races that are now pop culture staples thanks to Steve Jackson et al.
A Chilly Business. I wrote The Boy with the Porcelain Blade while I was unemployed. I was laid off from my comics job in the February. That winter was absolutely bitter and being unemployed didn’t leave a lot of money for luxuries like heating. I applied for jobs and wrote the novel in the mornings. In the afternoon I’d retire to the couch under a couple of blankets and watch West Wing to keep warm. I suspect this is the reason The Erebus Sequence is so political, and also why the dialogue zips back and forth.
Cor, Blimey Guv’nor. None of my family expected me to be a novelist. My parents are Londoners that moved to Dorset in the seventies. I grew up with a London accent in a small seaside town. It’s a wonder anyone understood a word I said. I’m quite conscious of my working class beginnings, especially in publishing which is whole-heartedly middle class. I wish more was done to support people from different backgrounds getting a start in publishing. The only people who can really intern are those who still live with their parents in Surrey or Hertfordshire or where ever. The fact that there is such a dearth of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) publishing professionals is, I think tied up with a lot of the class issues.
Conventional Wisdom. Science Fiction conventions are weird, wonderful and fraught with peril for the socially awkward. I attended four conventions last year and by the end I decided it was easier to think of them as work. Put a face to your brand, try not say anything too stupid on panels, be friendly and open to people (they may just buy your book), have a good time, but not too good. Conventions do offer an opportunity to see other writers and there is a strong camaraderie in the SFF community. It’s good to meet other writers face-to-face and swap war stories.
Watch, Listen, Learn. I’m keenly aware of the support I receive, from my agent Juliet Mushens, to my editor Simon Spanton and my excellent publicist Sophie Calder. It’s important to surround yourself with talented professionals and listen to them. Using other people as sounding boards can temper some of the worst excesses of the creative ego.
What A Mix Up. People complain they’re tired of seeing the same old thing re-hashed and repackaged. My own work is absolutely a work of Fantasy, but has a strong undercurrent of Gothic and doesn’t shy away from Horror. It’s surprising how resistant some people are to this blending of genres. I’m not sure I see the point of writing Fantasy if I’m not allowed to fetch my favourite ingredients down from the shelf and include all sorts of sweet and sour in the mix. Surely the Fantastic demands to keep pushing at boundaries and tropes? While I take as much comfort in the familiar as the next reader I’m happy to embrace writing that tries to be different.