Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part V

Enemies at the Door coverWhat, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Quite simply – his or her work must be a page-turner. I don’t mean that it needs to have explosions on every page but it has to keep the reader interested. Whether that be through a driving storyline, taut narrative, beautiful writing, eloquent wordplay, fabulously rendered characters, or a combination thereof – whatever; it can have the most meaningful subtext in history but that’s no use if readers won’t keep turning the pages.

Some exponents of classic literature do this effortlessly. Books I’ve read in virtually one sitting include Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Sallinger, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines, A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh and even Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – a mammoth book by modern standards but so well written and so intriguing that you just keep blazing through it. The same applies to certain genre works. Take the Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Very popular now thanks to the TV series, but the books are so readable – and that’s quite a feat when you see how incredibly long they are.

It would be great if we could bottle what these authors have brought to the written page and try to sell it, but it’s too intangible. Whatever it is, it keeps their readers entranced all the way through – at least, it kept me entranced. We all have to find our own way in that regard. However we do it, we must tell a story that our audience will stick with from the beginning to the end and then yearn for a sequel.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

The worst aspect for writing for a living – I’m guessing that’s what you mean – is the self-discipline it requires. That’s my personal opinion. I don’t have another job, so I have to keep writing all day and every day in order to make a living. But even then I can find it tough. My Dad was astonishing in that regard. All his life as a freelance writer, he worked a solid nine-til-five, Monday to Friday. He was in his office bang on time every morning, and he was only ever late coming out of it if some murderous deadline was proving difficult. Of course he didn’t have the distractions we have today – like Facebook, like our favourite online forums, like 24-hour news channels. But he still got his head down and worked all day like a Spartan, never taking unnecessary breaks. I am far more scatty. I don’t mean that I sit around twiddling my thumbs. I always aim to work a normal day shift, but sometimes, if I’m struggling with something, I go and take the dogs for a walk or kick a football around the garden to try and work things through (yeah, right). To make up for this, I sometimes work in the evenings and at weekends. Other times, if I’ve taken on more work than I should, I have to do this regardless. None of this makes for a good equilibrium, I fear. In fact, there are times when I’ve got the job done and I wonder how I managed it.

Anyway, that’s the worst aspect of the job for me – trying to match my time and energy, trying to keep a healthy schedule, balancing work, recreation and so forth.  I’m sure it’s different for every writer though. Some talk about writer’s block, and while I’ve never suffered that, I do think there are times when you simply get tired. Contrary to the popular view, writing a novel – say100,000 words or more – is an enormous physical undertaking. There are times when you just can’t face that, though it’s always important to remember that things could be worse – you could be digging coal 1000 feet underground, like my grandfathers did (in both their cases having just fought a World War), or you could be having to deal with sick and dying people and their relatives. As things go, there are far more perks to writing for a living than drawbacks.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

The most important lesson I can impart is keep persevering, despite all the brickbats this industry will throw at you. I’ve encountered far too many writers who bruise so easily that I know they’ll never make it. There is nothing to gain from having a tantrum just because someone has said they don’t like your stuff.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but we can all paper rooms in our houses with rejection slips. I once heard, to my disbelief, that Stephen King – even though he was already an established bestselling novelist – had his first nine drafts for The X Files knocked back. Incredible, but at least that shows that if you get rejected, you’re in good company. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that rejection is not just par for the course, but an integral part of the learning curve, because it doesn’t just toughen you up for what is an extremely brutal game, it teaches you where you’re going wrong. I always advise new writers that if an agent, publisher, producer or script-editor has taken the trouble to tell you why he doesn’t like your work, you need to take note of it. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with him, have a look at the points he’s raised and take them on board. Even those who don’t take the trouble to explain can indirectly assist, because if a submission of yours continually gets bounced you must conclude that there’s something wrong with it. Paying attention to that and taking appropriate action could be the difference between getting accepted the next time or being rejected again.

You have to make rejection work for you, or you’re in the wrong business.

I would also recommend that writers network feverishly; get to know other writers and editors in your field, ask them what slots are available and who’s buying, talk to them about their work, talk about your own work – it’s an indirect form of self-promotion, but the sort that isn’t going to get up someone’s nose. With the internet, authors now have a tool that I never had when I was first writing and which generations of writers before us could not even imagine. It allows us to get out there, talk to fellow professionals, advertise ourselves and look for market opportunities without even having to leave our keyboards. Remember that if you don’t wave your own flag, no-one will do it for you. The days of the misanthropic genius being discovered by accident while slaving away alone in some dim, candle-lit garret are long over. There are far too many people competing for too few slots for miracles like that to occur. Get out there into Cyberspace, listen to what’s going on, learn what’s hot and what’s not, and, where appropriate, promote yourself and your work.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

In the crime genre, I would urge readers to look up two British novels from several decades ago. They are Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis and Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter. In some ways both books have dated. They were both published in the 1960s, but they are seminal crime novels representing British hardboiled thriller writing at its best.

Most crime fans will be familiar with Jack’s Return Home, even if they haven’t read the book, because it was made into the highly successful gangland drama, Get Carter, with Michael Caine. The novel tells the tale of a London racketeer returning to his native Scunthorpe to avenge the death of his brother. It’s very much of its time, but is slick, dark and brutal – a classic noir set against a very different backdrop from the norm: the factories and steel mills of Humberside. The movie version of course was set in Newcastle, but that was because director Mike Hodges was trying to sex it up with a better known location.

The superbly titled Hell Is A City is also set in the industrial north, in this case Manchester. It features a world-weary detective determined to bring a notorious villain to justice after he breaks out of jail to do one last job. This one is particularly close to my heart, given that I too was a Manchester cop. Another classic suspenser, also filled with violent action. This also was made into a movie, with Stanley Baker, though it’s not as famous as Get Carter.

Recommendations from outside the genre would include The Saxon Tapestry by Sile Rice, which is a historical adventure/romance following the fortunes of Hereward the Wake after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It contains as much myth and mysticism as historical fact, not to mention some of the bloodiest battle scenes ever written, and a whole lot of hauntingly beautiful prose. A true masterpiece, in some parts heartbreakingly sad.

In terms of horror, I’d suggest The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber. Again it was made into a movie which has now become more famous than the book, but unlike Get Carter, this movie fails to deliver the same punch as the novel. It tells the tale of two New York police detectives and their hunt for a werewolf pack that is decimating the city’s hooker and junkie population. This one should be of as much interest to thriller fans as it is to the horror crowd: it is strong on police procedural and the rough tough relationships within that milieu, and is as gritty and realistic a portrayal of the seedy backstreets in Brooklyn and the Bronx as you’re ever likely to encounter.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part IV

Dark North by Paul FinchCan you tell our readers about your writing process? Do you plan incessantly or freestyle as you go along?

On one hand, I’m an inveterate planner. For example, with a novel or script, I tend to write a detailed chapter-by-chapter (or scene-by-scene) outline before even commencing the actual writing, though I suppose in the professional game it’s incumbent on you to do that anyway. On the other hand, I do have this tendency to jump in, to try and strike while the iron’s hot – though that applies to short stories rather than longer works. And even then, once my first wind is blown, I tend to sit back and take stock, try to work out exactly where the tale is going. Though even then, having worked out the beats on paper, that might not be the final storyline. I think, whatever you’re writing, you’ve got to be aware, throughout, that you might get an even better idea which may send you off at a tangent or may have you backtracking to make changes so that it will fit. But if it’s a better idea it’s a better idea, and it’s got to be worth the extra effort – at least that’s my view.

So I suppose, to answer the question less long-windedly, I plan whenever possible. That always helps you create a balanced structure and a clear narrative. In addition, I blitz it whenever I get one of those wonderful moments of inspiration – no matter how orderly and organised you like to be, I don’t think you can afford to ignore those moments (‘the divine breath’ as my dad used to call them). But overall I keep everything pretty loose until the final draft. And I don’t think that’s a particularly radical approach.

Do you approach short stories in a different way to longer fiction?

I think I’ve partly answered this in the question before but maybe there’s a bit more I can add. First off, writing is writing, and I don’t think the approach varies too much overall. At least it doesn’t in my case. However, there are some noticeable differences.

The general consensus seems to be that the short story is more about the short, sharp shock, even if it’s not necessarily a thriller or horror story. O’Henry, for example, one of the world’s greatest short story writers, delivered a gut-punch with every one of his short tales, even those that were essentially comedies. But that almost makes it sound as if there’s no more to short stories than the sting in the tale and I don’t think that’s true. Roald Dahl’s classic Lamb To The Slaughter is a masterful piece of short story writing. It’s as funny as it’s horrific and at the same time is an amazing murder mystery. Green Fingers by Charles Birkin is a slow-burning character-study in evil and yet at the same time is much more profound than that. Its central character is a middle-class German woman who stumbles almost blindly into participating in the Holocaust. Birkin was never regarded as having produced works of great depth and yet that story in particular is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read for all kinds of different reasons, not least what it says about ordinary everyday people and their terrible capabilities.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that good short story writing combines all the finer elements of fiction, but crisply, economically and yet with greater intensity. At least that’s what those of us who write them aspire to. The short form is a big discipline; it’s certainly not something you can knock off as a quick earner. My personal approach is to give it a lot of thought beforehand – as much, if possible (though it rarely is) as a book, screenplay or novella – to wring as much out of it as I can, and then, once it’s written, to proof it until the cows come home – though I have to be realistic, and admit that the average writer’s schedule rarely allows for this. At the end of the day, just be aware that in writing short stories, you’re writing for a community of readers who are not just fond of contemporary authors, but of those who are long dead and whose work lives on. It’s tough company in which to shine.

For all that, even more thought and planning needs to go into the longer form, be it a novel, a novella or screenplay – quite simply because you’re working on a much broader canvas, and it’s got to be filled, but filled with good, relevant stuff. The moment a story starts to sag, the audience will notice, and may abandon it. That’s the main risk of the longer form as I see it. You’ve got to stay on top of it all the way through and be ruthless with yourself. You’ve got to ensure that everything you put in adds to the product as a whole. If it doesn’t, it’s got to come out; anything that isn’t entertaining your audience in some way has to come out – even if this means you lose length.

One of the most instructive things I was ever told about writing was while I was a trainee journalist. It sounds simple, it may even sound glib, but I was reporting on some local minor issue and when I asked the editor how much he wanted, he replied: “Give it what it’s worth.” That rules applies universally in writing, as far as I can see – even to the blockbuster novel. If it’s worth 200,000 words, give it 200,000, though you’d better be sure you’re right, because people won’t read it all if it isn’t and that’s a lot of wasted effort on your part.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that, while short stories can’t be undertaken lightly, you need to be on your game – remaining sharp and focussed – for a much longer time if you’re writing something a lot meatier. Again, how do I personally approach this? The same way I do with the short story, though I feel there’s an extra dimension of discipline required with a novel. I don’t like to drag things out ad infinitum, because that way I’d never finish anything. So I always impose a fairly rigorous time-frame on my longer form writing, aiming to finish the first draft of a screenplay within a month and a novel within three months. Okay, sometimes you bust it, but at least that gives you strong motivation. You have to divide that time up sensibly of course – with a novel, making sure you write at least 2,000 words a day – but this is my day-job now, so it’s not quite as onerous as it may sound.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part III

Terror tales of the cotswoldsYour work has spanned the horror, crime and historical fiction genres. Which is your favourite and do you have a different approach for each genre?

I don’t have a real favourite. All three of these genres score equally for me, but purely from a personal perspective each one presents its own unique challenge.

Historical fiction, for example, demands that you be adept at world-building. You can’t assume that every reader will be fully au fait with the time-period you’re writing about, so you need to create a concise picture of the historical era your characters inhabit, especially if it’s something they don’t see very often in the movies. But even if it’s something they do, you want it make it as real for them as possible. Most readers will think they know what the Romans looked like, and will be aware that medieval knights lived in castles. But perhaps they won’t know a lot more than that, and this won’t necessarily serve your purpose. In fact, it may be vital to your narrative that your audience has, or quickly attains, a workable understanding of the period. But by the same token you’ve got to impart this to them in a way that isn’t just info dump; as I say, you’ve got to be concise – you’ve got to weave in into the action so the pace never flags.

With horror it’s different again. The biggest challenge there is creating a sense of fear. Many years ago, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester when a bunch of my stories were given an audio release by K-Tel with a few eminent actors reading. I came out with one quote which I was rather proud of at the time, describing horror as comedy’s “dark twin” – in that it attempts to provoke an emotional response which for much of the average day is quite elusive. In comedy it’s mirth, in horror it’s fear. I’ve never been a big fan of gore for its own sake. To me, for horror to really work it has to be scary, not revolting. And the only way you can achieve that as an author is to sit down and imagine scenarios that you personally find frightening or disturbing, which isn’t always easy in the humdrum lives we tend to lead these days, and then recreate it on the page but at the same time work it into something seamless. Again, and with horror especially, if something is obviously contrived, it just won’t work.

The crime and thriller medium is probably the most grown-up of the three, in that you’re writing in the real world and the here and now, touching on themes that your audience will already be familiar with and, in some cases, may have been affected by. For which reason, you need to handle the material very differently. Okay, it’s only fiction, but it’s possible to cross the line. The way you get around that, at least in my experience, is by telling a compelling story with suspense and mystery at its heart, and utilising strong, believable and sympathetic characters, and with a pacy narrative that just keeps pulling the readers along – in effect creating a fantasy adventure in the midst of gritty urban realism. David Fincher’s movie Se7en, scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, would be a good example of this; a story of unrelieved pain and suffering in the heart of drug-addiction, prostitution and poverty, yet it’s a ripping tale filled with intrigue and excitement. Even though it ends on a truly dismal note, you know you’ve watched an exhilarating thriller.

It’s always difficult of course, using violence and torment as a means to entertain, but this isn’t something we need ashamed of. Human society has done this ever since the days of the campfire story. But if it is cast in an acceptable – maybe even an instructive – context, then you could be onto a real winner. How, for example, do you tell the story of a police investigation into the rape of a little girl without it seeming exploitative and voyeuristic?  John Hopkins had the answer with his 1968 stage-play, This Story Of Yours (which in 1972 was made into an astonishing movie, The Offence, with Sean Connery and Trevor Howard). It’s master-class writing, dealing with a shocking crime and all its appalling consequences in a most grown-up and yet dramatic fashion.

After all that, I’m not sure if I’ve really answered the question here. To summarise, you asked me how I approach these different genres. I suppose it’s mainly the case that I bear all these different modes and motivations in mind when writing in them. I suppose, at the end of the day, certain things will always be the same. Most stories, whatever genre they’re in, are about human beings, the jeopardy they face and their struggles to overcome. They are about people and their relationships. Without any of that, as you know, it simply doesn’t work – no matter what the background happens to be.

Your upcoming novel Stalkers features a character called Mark Heckenburg. Can you talk us through his creation?

Like all heroes, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg has more good points than bad ones, but I thought it important from the beginning that he wasn’t a white knight. I don’t mean by that that he’s of ambiguous morality. I love tough police characters like Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry, who exist in such a state of war with the underworld that they often let their guns do the talking, but that’s really a different era from this one. Heck can mix it if he needs to, of course he can – that’s a prerequisite of urban policing (despite the way the job has tried to reinvent itself in the age of political correctness, it often boils down to a simple question – do you want to be able to protect the victims from the victimisers, or don’t you?) – but that isn’t the whole story with Heck. In actual fact he’s an affable guy, who has sympathy and understanding for those creatures inhabiting the fringes of society, and who believes that a discreet, diplomatic approach can pay off where violence and intimidation won’t, but who at the same time despises the really big fish in the criminal pond and will stop at nothing to defeat them, even if that involves bending the rules to breaking point.

This is where Heck’s flaws start to show, because he’s more obsessive than is good for him. His boss and ex-girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, has a real problem with this aspect of his character. He imposes long hours on himself, working doggedly, often alone, to get results – and this is hugely detrimental to his social life, not to mention his love life.  He is not married – (mainly because he is still in constant proximity to Gemma) – so he has nothing really to go home to, which situation is likely to remain as long as he buries himself in work.

All of this really stems from my observations of detectives in real life. The best one I ever knew, and who I worked with regularly (though I won’t mention his name) always went an extra ten miles to get the job done. He had been totally sucked into the police world at the expense of everything else, and would think nothing of working back-to-back shifts to close cases. He actually was married, but having seen the way he and his wife interacted, I’m not sure that state of affairs would last much longer. She basically never saw him.

This kind of fixation can have other unsavoury side-effect. It creates a ‘grump’ in the cop personality, because though these guys won’t admit it, they are always tired, always on the edge – and as they have no time for anything but work, there is very little in their world for them to look forward to. They also have a firm conviction – or is this an excuse they make to themselves? – that without them, the job will fall apart. There is much of this in Heck too.

But as I say, he is the hero of these stories, so while much of his personality it based on real hard-working detectives I was personally acquainted with, other parts of his character are borrowed freely from hardboiled American crime fiction: he is sharp, witty (verging on a Chandler-esque smartarse) and, if you can get through the rumpled exterior, has a rugged, easy charm that the average person on the street would find attractive.

Another aspect of Heck’s character is his relationship with Gemma Piper, his former lover and full-time boss. These two really are fire and water but deep down there is a very strong bond between them which will nearly always provide the emotional core of the story. I won’t go into too much detail over this as it’s something I want to develop through the books.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part I

Paul FinchPaul Finch, author of fantastic horror, crime and historical novels in addition to numerous screen-writing credits joins us for the first of a five part chat about genre, influences and writing for the page and screen.

When were you inspired to become a writer and who (or what) inspired you to pick up a pen?

There is no question that my late father inspired me to be an author. Brian Finch was a successful television screenwriter for four decades. He covered the entire spectrum from soaps to crime drama, from period pieces to children’s television, from science fiction to comedy and romance. He was the ultimate professional. He could turn his hand to anything and with great aplomb. The high point of his career was probably Goodnight Mr. Tom in 1998 for which he won a BAFTA – that was an adaptation of Michelle Magorion’s famous novel.

Dad’s early life never prepared him for any of this. He grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, a coal-mining town, where the local people, though as good an example of humanity as you could find, had few highfalutin ambitions. Yet my dad had wanted to be a writer since his earliest days. That he achieved this so successfully, with minimal qualifications and no experience to call on – either his own or anyone else’s – is quite remarkable and really should be an inspiration to anybody. I’m sorry if that’s in some ways a boring answer. I have been inspired by other great writers – of  course I have, but growing up with my dad and seeing at close hand how happy he was doing what he did, how much satisfaction he drew from his creativity, and to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his craft are 100% the reasons why I too became a writer.

For those interested, Brian Finch’s own contributions to the crime genre are mainly TV credits but they are plentiful. They include: Softly Softly, Chinese Puzzle, Hunter’s Walk, Public Eye, Shoestring, The Bill, and, on a lighter note, Heartbeat.

You used to be a police officer, was the step into crime writing an easy one or did you find it difficult to detach yourself from what you had learned on the job?

There’s no question that my police experience has helped me enormously in terms of my writing. I know my police procedural pretty well inside-out. It was that, I think, that first got me onto The Bill. I sent them a script on spec – not an episode of the series, but an original screenplay concerning a murder inside a police station. Nothing happened at first, but then, about six months later, I received a phone call from one of the script editors asking me if I’d like to go in and see them. I was very raw in writing terms then, but they were intrigued that I knew the police world and police life so well so when they offered me a shot at the show, I jumped at it. I should add that it was several years before I actually made it through the system onto the TV screen. I might have known my police stuff, but way back then I didn’t know much about writing and had to learn it the hard way.

However, my experience as a police officer gave me an excellent grounding in regard to modern law and order issues and I’ve been able to utilise it many times on the written page.

Does having ‘insider knowledge’ as it were make research for crime writing redundant or do you still have to put the hours in?

No, I still have to put the hours in. I finished in the police some time ago, and my knowledge could easily become outdated if I didn’t keep on refreshing it. Police protocols and procedures change all the time. The law itself changes. When I started as a copper the Police and Criminal Evidence Act hadn’t even been introduced and that made phenomenal changes across the board in terms of methods and processes. So I have to try and stay on the ball. In addition, there was never a time when I knew everything anyway. Law enforcement is a vast arena in which to be employed – there are so many different aspects to it and it’s rare that you can experience and become familiar with all of them.

I have to do my research like everyone else. Though I still have lots of friends and contacts in the police, so I suppose that helps.

Which crime writers do you currently admire in the genre?

There are quite a few. From the States, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard. From the UK, Stuart MacBride, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham. I also love Mo Hayder’s amazing blend of crime and horror.

You’ve written crime for both the screen and the page, which do you prefer?

For me they’re both pretty satisfying but unless you’re writing a screenplay for a major Hollywood studio, you can let rip a lot more in prose than you can in a script.

I don’t mean to say that bigger is always better. Far from it. But when I’m writing a novel, I get a great deal of pleasure from pushing the envelope in a way that I wouldn’t be able to on television. I’m partly talking about sex, violence and profanity here, which inevitably come into it if you’re dealing with gritty crime scenarios. For example, when I was writing for The Bill, it was a pre-watershed TV show, so you had to create material that dealt with modern policing issues but was also family friendly. But in addition to all that, and this would apply whether The Bill was on TV before nine o’clock or after it, there was no point developing anything that would be too complex or expensive to produce. Budgetary constraints didn’t just disappear because you had a great idea. For instance, if your plot required an action sequence, you first had to ponder how expensive it would be to show cars chasing and crashing, how many stunt doubles you would need, how expensive the FX if you were to ask for gunfire, explosions and so forth. You don’t have any of that when you’re writing a novel, which is really very liberating.

At the risk of having given you a rather shallow response, that’s about it really. Otherwise, I get the same kick from writing both forms. If you’ve told a rattling good story, and people are talking about it afterwards and are basically energised and enthused by it, then you’ve done your job as an author, whether they saw it on the screen or read it on the page. Either way, it’s very satisfying.

 DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Gareth L. Powell on writing

Gareth PowellWho and what inspired you to become a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer, and I was always interested in science fiction, so it was inevitable that I would become a writer of science fiction. My local library had a good selection of classic science fiction hardbacks and paperbacks, from Brian Earnshaw’s Dragonfall 5 series, through to the short stories of Arthur C. Clarke, the juveniles of Robert Heinlein, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels, and I read them all.

I studied creative writing at University, but then spent a few years “in the wilderness”, writing poetry and dodgy short stories. I only decided to get really serious about my writing around the turn of the Millennium. We were entering a new century, and I was leaving the last years of my twenties and embarking on the first years of my thirties. It seemed like the right time to “put up, or shut up”.

This new phase started with a novel called Silversands. I spent a couple of years writing it while working a full-time job, and I poured most of my influences into it. Looking back on it now, I can see traces of those books I used to read at the library; but at the same time, I had begun to find a “voice” that had been lacking from my earlier efforts.

At the same time, I was discovering authors whose work would have a big influence on my later writing: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson…

Silversands would eventually be published as a hardback by Pendragon Press in 2010, and then reissued as an e-book by Anarchy Books in 2012 – but when I finished writing it in 2002, I put it aside and started writing short stories.

Writing short stories really helped me to hone my craft. I started submitting them to online genre magazines and, when I felt I had a story that was good enough, I sent one to Interzone, Britain’s long-running science fiction and fantasy magazine. The story was called ‘The Last Reef’, and it attracted some interest from readers and reviewers.

After that, I continued submitting, and eventually came to the attention of Andrew Hook at Elastic Press—a respected independent outfit specialising in single author collections of short fiction. Andrew published my collection, The Last Reef and Other Stories in 2008 (and it was also reissued as an e-book by Anarchy Books in 2012).

Since then, I have written two further novels for Solaris Books: The Recollection (2011) is my love letter to science fiction, and the archetypal spacers embodied by characters such as Han Solo, Lorq Von Ray, Mal Reynolds, and Captain John Truck.

Ack-Ack Macaque (2013) is something else: an alternate world saga featuring a WWII Spitfire pilot who also happens to be a cigar-chomping monkey, and a runaway prince of the realm, who uncovers the dirty secret at the heart of the British monarchy.

What attracted you to the genre that you write in?

I grew up with the Moon landings, Skylab, and the Viking probes. Not to mention Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. When the first space shuttle launched in 1980, we thought we’d all be living on the Moon by the year 2000.

Mired as we were in the depths of the Cold War, science fiction offered a future of bright, boundless adventure. Even the post-apocalyptic stuff held the promise that somebody somewhere would live through any holocaust that might befall us, and that humanity would rise again, all the way to the stars.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

I admire lots of writers, for lots of reasons. Some I admire because of their style; others because of their life stories and the difficulties they’ve overcome; and others because I’ve met them, and liked them. If pushed, I’d have to list the following as writers who have had a profound effect on me: Raymond Chandler; Ernest Hemingway; William Gibson; Jack Kerouac; Hunter S. Thompson; Arthur C. Clarke; Iain M. Banks; Douglas Coupland; M. John Harrison; Aliette de Bodard; Colin Harvey; JG Ballard; Leonard Cohen; Samuel Delany; Philip K. Dick; Frederik Pohl; Cordwainer Smith; Alastair Reynolds; Jon Courtenay Grimwood; Kurt Vonnegut; Bruce Sterling… (the list goes on and on)

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Being able to finish what they start. I have known many people who have started novels but, for one reason or another, never finished them. You have to finish what you write. You have to write a lot in order to learn your craft. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect to win a marathon without training, you can’t expect to write a masterpiece without practicing.

Talent, style and imagination are all important attributes, but if you never finish your book, no-one will ever read it.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

Read as much as you can; write as much as you can. The two are inextricably linked.

The RecollectionWhat is the worst aspect of writing?

For me, the worst part is the waiting; whether it’s waiting for a reply from an editor on a submission I’ve made; waiting for the publication date of a novel or story; or waiting for the reviews to come in. There’s a lot of waiting in this business, and it can drive you nuts. The best thing you can do is distract yourself by starting work on something new. There are always more stories to be written.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

If I had to recommend a science fiction book to someone who’d never read any science fiction, I wouldn’t point them at one of the ‘classics’. Asimov and Clarke may be acknowledged as pioneers in the genre, but their writing is awfully dated now, and likely to turn-off the new reader. Better, I think, to start with something which addresses our current concerns and sensibilities, such as Moxyland by Lauren Beukes: the story of four characters in a near-future South Africa, doing what they can to survive in a culture dominated by corporate wealth and political corruption.

As far as non-science fiction books are concerned, for many years my favourite book has been Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road. I know a lot of people who hate it, but the luminosity of the writing gets me every time; every sentence sings with sheer enthusiasm and a naked lust for experience and meaning. And, at the end, that’s what makes it such a sad book: because none of the characters (nor their real life counterparts) ever finds what they’re looking for. It’s a book about life, and it’s a book about failure and death; and as such, it has a lot to tell us about who we are and where we’re going in this crazy, sad world.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed our interview with Gareth L. Powell and want to read more of his fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Gareth L. Powell fiction (UK)
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Lawrence Block Interview

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block is a best-selling novelist and multi-award winner including the Edgar Grand Master Award, Best Short Story Collection Anthony Award and Best Character Award for Matt Scudder in the 2009 Shamus Awards. In addition to this he has written a number of ‘how to’ books on the craft of writing including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Write For Your Life and The Liar’s Bible.

Many of your novels are set in New York, a city where you have lived most of your life. Can you elaborate on how the changing atmosphere of New York has affected your writing?

LB: I don’t really know that it has. I suppose the books reflect the city, or at least my perception of it, at the time of the writing.

You have won numerous awards for your writing, how highly do you regard them and are they something you aspire to?

LB: Awards are certainly gratifying, but I don’t know that they’re important.  It’s the same book whether or not one gets a little statue for it.

In terms of your books about writing, what inspired you to write the first one? Was there a particularly terrible novel that served as a catalyst?

LB: No, nothing like that. I started writing a column for a magazine, and one thing led to another.

You have had an incredibly prolific career, how have you been able to keep your writing discipline over the years?

LB: I’m lazy. This leads me to do things efficiently and finish them as quickly as possible.

What is your writing routine, do you treat it like a day job and work core hours or do you work to a word limit?

LB: I don’t have a routine. The pattern varies from book to book.

Some authors have books that they really toil over, was there a particular book that you struggled to write or enjoyed writing less than the others?

LB: Not that I can think of.

At the risk of sounding cliché your books are often described as ‘gritty’, what parts of them do you enjoy writing the most and is there anything that you purposefully shy away from?

LB: I’ve never quite understood what “gritty” means, so I won’t address that. I enjoy writing when it’s going well and I’m pleased with what I’m doing; that’s pretty much irrespective of content.

Having produced various books for writers do you ever hear any success stories from people that have read them?

LB: In the past couple of years, Open Road brought out The Liar’s Bible, The Liar’s Companion, and Afterthoughts, all as eRiginals. And I’m frequently heartened when a newly successful writer lets me know that something I wrote played a role. I still hear from people who took my seminar, Write For Your Life, a quarter of a century ago, and am glad the seminar’s now available in book form under that title.

You have written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson, how did writing under a female name change your approach to books such as Getting Off?

LB: I don’t know that it did. A third or more of the book was written, and several of the chapters published as short stories under my own name, before I made the decision to put Jill’s by-line on the book.

You have written huge numbers of novels and short story collections, you also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of My Blueberry Nights, which form of writing do you prefer and how different is your approach to each one?

LB: My Blueberry Nights wasn’t my story, it was Wong Kar-wai’s. I’ve adapted a couple of books of mine for the screen, but they never got filmed. Screenwriting is interesting and demanding, and has its own satisfactions, but I don’t care if I never do any more of it.

Do you think it is important for a writer to have at least some first-hand experience of what they are writing about?

LB: No, of course not. All a writer needs is imagination.

Over the years you have repeatedly said that you try to get things right first time rather than editing later. Does this cause conflicts with your publishers?

LB: No.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, apart from to buy one of your books on writing?

LB: I don’t know that I’d steer anyone toward one of my books. They’ll find their way to them if they’re supposed to. And my advice to any writer would be to write to please yourself. Period.

 DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed our interview with Lawrence Block and want to read more of Lawrence’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Buy Lawrence Block fiction (UK)
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Interview: Pat Cadigan on Writing

Pat CadiganPat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two non-fiction books, a young-adult novel, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners Synners and Fools. She lives in North London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler. Most of her work is available electronically as part of SF Gateway, the ambitious electronic publishing program from Orion/Gollancz.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

I’m one of those lucky people who always knew what she wanted to do–I don’t remember not writing. It runs in the family. When my mother – known to anyone acquainted with me on Facebook as Old Unkillable – graduated from high school, her teachers tried to talk her into going to university to become a journalist. This was during the Great Depression, however, and her family had lost everything; her oldest brother offered to put her through school but she didn’t feel she could. Anyway, she started reading aloud to me before I was a year old and I learned to read by osmosis. I got my first library card before I was three.

Reading made the world – the universe – bigger for me. I read everything I could get my hands on and if I didn’t understand it, I kept reading anyway because sooner or later it would become clear to me in some way. As soon as I understood that books didn’t simply appear by magic, that they were written by human beings, I knew that I was going to be one of those human beings.

What attracted you to the genres you write in?

Once again, that was something that just happened. Every story I started to write, even as a little kid (Old Unkillable gave me her ancient Underwood typewriter), had a fantastic element. I had no interest in writing slice-of-day-to-day-life.

When I finally got my adult library card, I discovered Judith Merrill’s best SF of the year anthologies. In those days, the genre wasn’t as stratified as it is now – SF meant SF, fantasy, what we now call Magic Realism, and even horror. Good old nuts-and-bolts SF by people like Ward Moore was side-by-side with odd little pieces by Bernard Malamud and even John Cheever and Tuli Kupferberg. I thought this was wonderful. So when I started a story, I never thought, I’m going to write a science fiction story or a fantasy story–I let the story tell me what it was.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

The thing about the literary world is, there are plenty of admirable people in it. I admire every editor I’ve ever worked with – Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, Nick Mamatas, Ian Whates to name the ones I’ve most recently done original work for (I’d name everyone but I know I’d have a senior moment and leave someone out and the guilt would eat my liver till the day I die). I admire George RR Martin for hanging in all those years and never giving up, and I admire his wife Parris for hanging in there with him–there were a lot of lean years when she worked to keep them afloat. In fact, I admire all the spouses/partners, especially mine. Without my husband Chris, I’m not sure I’d be able to get anything done.

I admire William Gibson. Every time I read a new book by Bill, I fall in love with his work all over again. And he’s a truly lovely person.

I admire J.K. Rowling for persevering with Harry Potter. Her success blossomed directly from her readers–she wasn’t an insider, her first manuscript was rejected at least a dozen times and it was plucked out of the slush-pile. It tickles me to death that the richest woman in the UK is not just a writer, she’s a fantasy writer–a YA fantasy writer. Yeah, I know she’s just written her first book for adult readers–I have no idea whether it’s fantasy or not but I’ve pre-ordered it. I want to read it.

And finally, I admire Stephen King more than I can say. I love his work and he’s given a great deal to his community in Maine. I’ve met him several times and interviewed him twice, once just before The Stand came out and again after he’d gotten so big he could barely go anywhere without being mobbed. He’s the same guy.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Perseverance. Over the years, when I was in school, and when I was first starting out, I met a number of people who were more talented, who wrote far better as beginners than I did. But I can’t tell you their names because I don’t remember them – they gave up or they just weren’t interested enough to continue. Talent can be developed, it can be improved, but only by hard work.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

See above. Don’t give up, don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do, and listen to your editors.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

I don’t know…I never thought about it. Seriously.

Recommend a good example of writing.

I’m currently re-reading John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. It’s fascinating to compare the future as seen from 1968 with the present that came to pass.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is wonderful – go read it!

I’m glad Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award – it’s great.

Tricia Sullivan’s Maul and Lightborn will bitch-smack you – I mean that in the best possible way.

Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books are a great example of how to write a series without letting any tedium creep in.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King is the definitive modern-day vampire story. With vampires that are frightening monsters, not just misunderstood and too beautiful for the common people.

If you can find any of Judith Merrill’s best of the year anthologies in used bookstores – mail order or online is probably your best source – grab them and read some of the finest short fiction ever. I mean, EVER.

And while I’m at it, short fiction readers and writers should be reading Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine taught me a lot about the structure of good short fiction.

And if that still isn’t enough, go read my stuff. It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it. *chuckle*

MICHAEL WILSON