The lovely Anthony McGowan has stopped by to answer some questions about writing, breaking wind and sleeping with JK Rowling.
Ok, really only the first one of those is true.
Nevertheless, make yourself a cup of tea and read on :)
Hi Tony, welcome to my blog. Pull up a chair! So. Down to business: How would you sum yourself up as a writer in a couple of sentences?
I try to do two quite possibly irreconcilable things – I try to be as intellectually stretching as I can – hence the philosophical and literary underpinning of my books, whilst also appealing to the part of the brain that laughs at the conspicuous breaking of wind.
What’s your ‘story’ – getting your first book written, finished and published?
Quite a complicated one. I wrote my first book– an early version of what eventually became Hellbent, while working as a civil servant in London. It was the most enjoyable writing time of my life – I was writing purely out of love, and enjoyed every moment at my computer, which I think transmitted itself to the text I was pretty excited about it and sent it off to the usual places, receiving, in due course, the usual rejections. In the meantime my wife (whose day job is designing clothes) wrote a novel which, embarrassingly, got a book deal straight away. Her agent took me on out of pity. She suggested that I write something more commercial, which I did – an adult thriller called Stag Hunt. Hodder and Stoughton snapped it up. And now I was published writer, suddenly Hellbent seemed attractive, and Random House brought it out.
What motivates you to get your writing done? Do you set yourself word limits every day? Do you leave a sentence half finished for the next time you sit in front of your computer?
I always try to write a 1000 words a day. That seems a good target – achievable, but reasonably stretching. I’d never leave a sentence hanging – I’m such a bubble head I’d probably forget what I was going to say.
When someone says to you ‘What do you do?’ and you answer ‘I’m a writer’ – what reaction do you normally get? What’s the worst reaction you’ve had? And the best?
Yeah, I usually fess-up. Generally people are polite and interested. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever had anything other than that, except for the occasional embittered unpublished writer, who’s convinced that I only got published because I’m sleeping with J K Rowling or Martin Amis or whoever. Although, it could be argued, that I only got published because I was sleeping with my wife, who happened to get a book deal ... But compared to ‘I work in the VAT department of HM Customs & Excise’, ‘actually, I’m a writer’, usually goes down very well.
You’ve written both adult and YA novels – which do you enjoy writing most?
Hard to generalise – each book has its own challenges and frustrations. But, over-all, I’d say I slightly prefer writing for teenagers.
To those [idiots] who say that writing for children is easy, what do you wish to say to them?
All writing is hard. Or easy. Or somewhere in between. Children’s books are often shorter, which can be an advantage. Or make things harder. Or something in between. I know that’s not very helpful, but the answer to this question does simply depend on where your natural gifts lie. One thing that annoys children’s authors is the idea that any old celebrity can knock out a quick kids’ book. They’re invariably crap, but get so much marketing attention that they end up selling way more than much better books by less well-known authors.
Your YA novels mix the supernatural with real-life issues facing YAs today. How do you find the right balance between the two?
I trust my instincts. I like to mix up the real and the strange/supernatural/fantastic. Actually, I think with me, the most important mash-up is not between reality and fantasy, but between reality and literature. All of my books begin with some other text, which forms the spine my story. So, with Hellbent, the originating text is Dante’s Inferno. With Henry Tumour it’s Henry IV part 1. With The Knife that Killed me it’s the Iliad. Ah, just how pretentious does that sound!
You also teach writing, and will be running a YA writing workshop, ‘Writing For Children’ with The Faber Academy in the new year. How has teaching writing affected your own writing?
I don’t think teaching has affected my writing at all – it’s the other way round - what I teach is based on what I’ve learnt about writing from actually doing it. Having said that, I find it terrifically stimulating from an intellectual point of view – creative writing students are (quite rightly) very demanding, and I always feel like I have to be at the top of my game to keep them happy!
In a recent interview, Tom Vowler said [when asked what was his most memorable moment of his writing career so far] ‘…but increasingly I’m finding it’s the little moments. Seeing a stranger browsing the book in the High Street. Or when a writer emailed me to say one of the stories had just made her cry on the train.’ What is your most memorable moment, and what are your ambitions for the future?
Writing is such a diffuse and vague activity – a book can take a year, two years. So I treasure the rare intense moments of pleasure - winning prizes is always very, very nice. But the simple joy in seeing your book in a bookshop, which used to thrill me, fades ... Having a boy who’s never read a book before send me an email saying they’ve enjoyed The Knife that Killed Me (or whatever) is also very moving.
And, final question, in our Book Forum, we have the ‘Book Tree’ where members pick their favourite book and post it to each other in a circle, so everyone reads each others’ books, writing comments in them as they go. If you were to join in, which book would you choose and why?
In the teen book world, it would have to be Red Shift, by Alan Garner. If an adult book, I’d probably pick The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley – the greatest book that no one’s ever heard of.
Tony McGowan will be teaching ‘Writing For Children’ at The Faber Academy starting 25th January 2011. For more information, see www.faberacademy.co.uk or call Ian at the Faber Academy on 0207 927 3827.
Sent to Hell for typical teenage misdemeanours, Conor is surprised to find that it's not all pitchforks and leaping flames. But an eternity in a fusty cave full of philosophy books and obscure classical music is actually worse.
Then Conor realizes that his personal version of Hell might be someone else's idea of Heaven – and vice versa. He sets out on a filthy, funny and forbidden journey to search for his opposite number, accompanied by his repulsive pet dog, a depressed cross-dressing Viking and a stumpy devil called Clarence. What he sees is disgusting and what he discovers is shocking, but oddly enough Conor learns a hell of a lot about life – now that he's dead!]
I don't have much time, but just a little post here to say LET US CELEBRATE 'National Short Story' week. Fabulous. :)
Grab a short story collection, get reading, tell people about it, shout out about your favourite short story writers and celebrate the tiny novel, the tale in a cup et cetera, et cetera.
I'm not biased or anything, you know ;)
I'm very pleased to announce that the fantastic Jon McGregor, author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, twice Man Booker Prize longlist-er who is currently shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award, will be popping along here in the New Year to talk about short stories, and his new book (the paperback of which will be out in February). I just like to give you all a chance to get excited about that [and impatient ;) ]
Coming up soon as well, will be interviews with the fantastic Alan Bissett and Tony McGowan. Watch this space!
I don't know what it is about bookshops and weird happenings. I think they are magnets for ridiculous questions. There was that gem of a moment when a customer asked if Anne Frank had written a sequel to her dirary *facepalm* And the other week I was asked if we had any signed copies of William Shakespeare plays. I mean, REALLY? REALLY?
But this gem of a conversation just happened and, sadly, there was no one else in the shop at the time for me to look at them in a way that says 'Did you just hear that too?' And, no, before you say so, this man was not taking the piss.
"Do you have black and white film posters?" "Yes, we do, over here." "Do you have any posters of Adolf Hitler?" "Pardon?" "Adolf Hitler." "Well, he wasn't a film star, was he." "Yes, he was. He was American. Jewish, I think."
Last night I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Imogen Heap. I've been a fan of hers for a very very long time, and this time she had written 11 movements for an orchestra and was conducting them [and singing at the same time], followed by a two hour solo concert. I just can't really get my head around how talented this woman is. We were sitting in Choir West, which was behind the stage so, as Immi was conducting, she was facing us. It was a really beautiful and moving performance. You can find the music on youtube in three parts.
Immi's last album Ellipse came out last year, and she was vlogging about it before it came out, showing us all how she was putting it together, the amount of detail she puts into it. How she stays up until 7am most days and then gets a few hours sleep, tears it all up and rearranges it. She is the queen of editing and perseverance. She produced her own album, played nearly every single instrument on the album, recorded sounds all over her house. The end product is phenomenal. Dan and I watched her DVD Everything In-Between, and seriously it's enough to give anyone a huge kick up the backside and say YOU CAN DO THIS. You can make your WIP the best that you can; you have to slave over your work; you have to suffer for your art. [I'm not saying we'll all win a Grammy if we do that, but you know] bloody well get on with it.
I'm very pleased to welcome the fabulously talented Jonathan Lee, who is here to talk about his writing. :) Put the kettle on and sit down (that's an order!). At the end of the interview you can find out how to be in with a chance of winning a free copy of his fantastic debut novel.
Hi Jonathan, welcome to my blog. Please take a seat/beanbag/make yourself at home.
I'll take the beanbag please. Hugely underrated bit of furniture, the beanbag.
Your first novel 'Who is Mr. Satoshi?' was published with Random House this July; sell it to us in a couple of sentences.
The central character is a once famous photographer who has lost his creative urge and become a bit of a recluse. His mother dies and leaves him a package addressed to the mysterious Mr Satoshi, and - searching for some sense of purpose in his life - he sets out to deliver it. His quest takes him to Tokyo, a new neon world full of colourful characters, and forces him to excavate some long-buried secrets in his past. (Three sentences - sorry.)
I'm sure it must be an amazing feeling to see your book sitting on a bookshelf in a bookshop; where was the first place you saw it?
A couple of days after Who Is Mr Satoshi? came out in hardback I saw it in the 'our favourite books' display of Daunt's in Marylebone. That was a nice feeling - to see something you've produced sitting there in one of the loveliest of all bookshops.
How long have you been writing?
In terms of fiction writing, I've been scribbling bits and pieces for the last ten years or so. I'm twenty-nine now, and though I'd been a keen reader since a young age, it was at Bristol University, studying English, that fiction became something of an obsession for me. I was twenty-seven when I started writing Who Is Mr Satoshi?, my first published piece of fiction. It was the first thing I'd done which I wasn't instantly ashamed of. The rest was terrible autobiographical stuff about English literature students sitting around trying to write novels about English literature students sitting around trying to write novels. Often on beanbags, coincidentally. There's nothing wrong with autobiographical fiction, but perhaps you need to have had an interesting life. Mine is dull: full of coffee, paper, and - of late - Amazon rankings.
When did you write this book, and how long did it take you to get it published?
I was working as a lawyer and saved up enough money to take a six month period of unpaid leave. That's when the bulk of the book was written.
I sent the first three chapters, with a synopsis and cover letter, to a number of literary agents. One of them was Clare Alexander at Aitken Alexander Associates, who loved it (or made a good show of loving it). I was chuffed to bits - she's a bit of a superstar in the agenting world. When she'd read the whole thing we had a coffee and worked out which aspects of the manuscript needed further work. People don't necessarily realise what a collaborative process book-writing is. First your agent gives you feedback, and then your editor has a go, and what ends up on the shelves can be quite different to the thing you initially envisaged - better, hopefully. In my case the book definitely took strength from the editorial process. Jason Arthur, my editor at Random House, gave some hugely helpful suggestions, as did Clare. I took the book as far as I could, and then I needed sensitive expert readers to help me with the finishing touches.
Where did the idea for your book come from?
I became interested in photography and the idea of a photographer who has a trauma in his past that's blocking his creativity. His life has become flat, still and outside time. It's less a life and more a record of past events - a photo, if you like. He's fallen out of love with his own creative process, and he's become reclusive and unproductive, untethered from the wider world. Then some seemingly insignificant but intriguing object comes into his life - a parcel wrapped in brown paper, addressed to a guy he's never heard of - and it sets him off in a new direction.
I had spent some time living and working in Tokyo. It seemed like the perfect setting in which to drop a withdrawn, quiet character - it was the counterpoint to everything he is. So that's where I put him, and the story rolled on from there.
When you write, do you have a specific place to sit? Do you type or write? Must it be quiet, or do you prefer background noise?
I type into a laptop. I suspect I'm of a generation that can't think in longhand. Most of my writing gets done at the dining room table of the flat I rent in Islington. Preferably in silence - although I don't go to the Franzean extreme of blindfolding myself and strapping on ear-defenders. Seems to work for him, though ...
Which writers would you say have inspired you the most, and why?
John Updike, for his lovely lilting sentences and forensic eye for detail; David Foster Wallace, for the frenzied and funny edginess of his prose; Samuel Beckett, for perfect comic timing in the darkest of places. I don't get anywhere near these writers, of course, and I'm not sure I'm trying to, but they are each a source of inspiration on some level.
There seems to be quite a lot of discussion about whether reading a lot makes you a better writer. Personally, I agree with this. What do you think?
Yes. I agree. Could you be a top chef without first knowing what good food tastes like? I haven't met any writers who don't read widely. If they exist, I would hazard a guess that they're a bit rubbish.
In our book forum, we have the Book Tree, where members post books to each other in a circle, writing comments in each book as they read them, so that when your book comes back to you it's filled up with notes from lots of different people. If you were to send a book round our Book Tree, what would you choose?
I recently read a cool little book called All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. It's very short but, I think, rich in all sorts of ways. It's the sort of story that lends itself to lots of different interpretations, so it would be interesting to re-read it alongside readers' notes.
What are your writing plans for the future?
I'm working on a second novel for Random House, unrelated to the first. No Japan, no Mr Satoshi, no parcel requiring delivery. It's possible that one minor-ish character from Who Is Mr Satoshi? will turn up again, but we'll see. I'll audition him/her and see how they perform.
Finally: the infamous 'six word novel' [baby shoes for sale: never worn]. Go on, give us a six word novel.
Am I concise with words? Possibly.
Jonathan is 29 and lives in London. Who is Mr. Satoshi? is available from Amazon over HERE. His website is over HERE.
Thank you so much to Jonathan for taking the time to stop by!
Jen Campbell is the author of the best-selling 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' series. She's also an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her poetry collection 'The Hungry Ghost Festival' is published by The Rialto, and she lives in London, where she works at an antiquarian bookshop. Her new book, 'The Bookshop Book' is forthcoming autumn 2014.