Interview for The Falcata Times

1) Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it’s something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
I think afflicted is a strong word. I’ve never felt like one of those writers who is ‘tortured’ by their creativity. I certainly feel as if I’ve never really had a choice about what I wanted to do. And there are moments when I wish I could switch off my brain for a little while – my imagination can run away with itself sometimes. But most of the time I am grateful for the life I have.

2) When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
Very early on. I’ve been writing and illustrating stories since I was about six or seven. I would have been in my teens when I first started considering it as a job, but I went into illustration because I thought it would be easier to make a living. That’s the kind of eejit I was.

3) It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
It can certainly be hard to fit a story into a short format. A bit like staging a play in a phone box. Every line must be written to great effect. I write stories for all age groups and length is an issue, particularly for younger readers. My shortest book is 1000 words long, my longest so far is 113,000 words.

4) If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else’s and how would you define it?
For my latest novel, The Wisdom of Dead Men, I would say: ‘It’s a humorous, action-packed fantasy history mystery thriller, set in Victorian Ireland, about the conspiracies of a murderous family, spontaneously combusting women, a sexist secret order and machines that wander the world like wild animals. If you like crime, historical novels, sci-fi or fantasy stories, action thrillers or the surreal, you’ll love this book.’ If that doesn’t interest them, I’d point them towards the celebrity biography section.

5) How would you “sell” your book in 20 words or less?
This is like the last question isn’t it? All right, in less than 20 words or less: ‘A conspiring, murderous family, spontaneously combusting women, mysterious machines and a war of the sexes, set in Victorian Ireland.’

6) Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
I couldn’t pick just one. Of the writers who are still alive: Terry Pratchett, Iain Banks and Kate Thompson are among the top of the list. I wish Raymond Chandler was still knocking them out. But I don’t really have favourites of anything.

7) When you sit down and write, do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your ideas develop as you write?
I’m a planner. I make copious notes before I start a book. I don’t start writing until I have, at the very least, a title, a gripping start and a climactic ending. Even so, a book always develops in ways you didn’t expect once you start writing.

8) What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
I love hillwalking, watching films, sitting in cafes with my notebook and spending time with my family. The last three books I read were: Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia. I’m also reading a book entitled Fatherhood: The Truth, by Marcus Berkman, because I have a new baby daughter.

9) What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
I’m afraid it’s going to have to stay that way.

10) Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
I was always rescuing lost or wounded animals when I was a kid, but I was never allowed keep them, or have a pet, because both my parents worked and couldn’t spare the time to look after it. My mother got a cocker spaniel after I left home, which I both loved and resented. I’ve promised my stepson a kitten after we come back from our holidays – I’d prefer a dog, but I’d want a big dog, we don’t have a secure garden and I’m away a lot. Cats don’t need you around as much (some don’t need you at all, as long as you’re producing the goods).

11) Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
In The Wisdom of Dead Men, it would be a toss up between Tatiana or Roberto. Tatty is this pathologically bubbly teenager defying the moral conventions of her Victorian world. She speaks her mind, often simplistically, but never in a stupid way, much to the annoyance of the rest of her family. Berto was a meatier part to write. He is the reluctant head of a predatory family, determined to reform their ways. His light-hearted nature is smothered by the fact that he must keep his homosexuality secret, is confined to a wheelchair and faces constant threat of assassination.

12) How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
Not very. The principle character in The Wisdom of Dead Men would probably be Nathaniel, though he’s not the single most important one. Nate is a natural athlete and the bodyguard and problem-solver for his older brother and some of his family want him dead – none of which would be features I could claim. On the other hand, he does have an interest in zoology (albeit a weird type of zoology), which mirrors my interests when I was young, is resentful of interference in his work and a bit belligerent at times. I suppose if you combined Nate, Gerald, Berto and Daisy – four of the main characters – you’d have a lot of my characteristics.

13) What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
My hobbies and work overlap to a huge degree. I love films and they have a massive influence on my work – as do my reading habits, obviously. My illustration work has resulted in my doing very little drawing or painting for pleasure, but I aspire to doing more. Again, this kind of work influences the visual nature of my writing. I love hillwalking and other reasons to get outdoors and I think that comes through in my stories, as does my interest in so many things, from cars to zoology, martial arts to health issues. I have a wide range of interests and I enjoy seeing anything done with a high level of skill.

14) Where do you get your ideas from?
Everywhere. The world is full of things to give you ideas. When you can teach yourself to look at things in a certain way, you’ll never be short of ideas.

15) Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
I think the term ‘writers block’ is just a fancy way of saying you’re stuck. If you’re trying to write the next great literary work and get all worked up about the fact you don’t know what to write next, it’s easy to think you’ve hit some immovable wall. Or sometimes you’re just not in the mood. So what? Sometimes I get stuck; when I do, I take a break or just make a change and write something else for a while. If you can’t think of anything to write, write about not being able to write. There’s always a way out of it.

16) Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
I prefer to write from late morning into the evening. Writing in the evening is often my most productive time, but I have a family I have to spend time with, so I don’t get to do it as often as I used to.

17) Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
I will sometimes use a piece of music to get myself psyched up, and will even mention appropriate pieces of music in a text to help the atmosphere, but I never listen to music while I’m writing. It’s different with illustration. I normally won’t listen to music while I’m conceiving or sketching out a picture, but nearly always listen while I’m rendering it.

18) What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
I had no idea that writers had to do so much of the promotion of their books. Getting out and spreading the word is often the difference between making a living and not. And it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And it’s a cliché, but it’s ridiculously hard to make a living in this profession. You work so hard to get published, but that’s only the very start of the game.

19) If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
Writing is food for the brain. One must passionately engage with it, taste, experiment, explore and consume with relish. And I’m all for comfort eating, but you need to be careful your brain doesn’t become a skull potato.

20) What can you tell us about the next novel?
It’s a hard-boiled mystery story, with a supernatural undercurrent, featuring a street-gang member turned private eye and his enigmatic arthritic boss, a girl on a mission from God, a gun-nut, a Harley-riding pale-skinned cowboy, a group of Satanists, an arms manufacturer and a Jamaican gangster, most of whom are looking for either a quantum physicist or a missing gun – or both.

21) What are the last five internet sites that you’ve visited?
I’ve just helped set up cb-info on the Children’s Books Ireland site – a professional’s guide to the world of children’s books in Ireland – so I’ve been on that a lot. I’m regularly updating my own site, so I’m on that all the time too. YouTube is really useful for video demonstrations of things I want to see in operation, like robotic book scanners and the Espresso Book Machine and also for all kinds of useful and entertaining snippets. I updated my Firefox browser recently on the Mozilla site. I use Wikipedia a fair bit too, but you always have to triple check anything you find there.

22) Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
No, I’ve never done any writing classes. I learned everything I know about writing from all the books that I’ve read, the films I’ve seen and English class at school. But I know other people who’ve found classes very helpful and now I teach a lot too.

23) How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
I was an illustrator for years before I tried getting published as a writer. A unflinching persistence, a very thick skin and a substantial ego are essential requirements for both jobs.

24) In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
The worst aspects of this life are the instability of income and the sheer quantities of administration, networking and promotional work that you have to do to make the books sell – work I never anticipated when I dreamed of being a writer. It takes up a huge amount of your time. The best aspect of this life is that I get to do what I love as a job. I love my working day. I’ll keep doing this until somebody stops me.