Becoming a Writer
QUESTIONS ABOUT BECOMING A WRITER
What is the greatest struggle you’ve had to face/overcome?
I have a mild form of dyslexia and have always experienced difficulty recalling words or names or facts easily. I know exactly what I want to say – the words dance around at the back of my skull, but I can’t always retrieve it as and when I want. With this kind of word-blindspot I have had to develop coping strategies to cover up my occasional word-slippage. In fact as a child it was a great motivation for me to acquire an extensive vocabulary so that I could say whatever I wanted to without embarrassing myself. If I couldn’t bring the exact word in my mind out into the open I had several alternative ones lined up that would pop into place. The problem gets more acute if ever I’m under stress but it has never dulled my fascination with words and the wonders that can be achieved with them.
Who/what has inspired your work?
Anyone with passion about whatever creative process they are involved in inspires me. I also find great inspiration in travel. I love journeying through different types of landscapes. In addition to this I feel very close in spirit to eastern philosophy and writings, especially from the Zen tradition. And last but not least I have always been immensely influenced by comics and films and old 1930’s pulp adventure heroes.
What is your proudest work-related accomplishment?
Giving up my well paid job in the games industry to write the first volume in The Shadow Histories. I did this whilst living off my savings and in fact went on to complete the first two volumes in 11 months.
What is your proudest personal accomplishment?
Hard to say, but hitching to Gibraltar in 1967 before starting University comes pretty high. Mind you completing my first ever novel of 178,000 words in 1997 comes to mind as well. As does talking broken but comprehensible Turkish to villagers whilst doing research for my writing. I knew enough to ask directions, order food and ask after family members. So few people bother to learn any Turkish the villagers and travellers I met were delighted that someone had taken the trouble. Getting my first paycheck as an animator at Cosgrove Hall animation studios was a buzz because I realised I really must be an artist if someone was prepared to pay me to draw. The most recent great moment to give me a glow was holding a copy of The Shadow Histories in my hands for the very first time. That was a true landmark event.
Walking anywhere outdoors, but especially in the Lake District or the Peak District or by open water. Time spent with my granddaughter is very precious to me. I also love writing wordplays and poems using a rhyming dictionary. I have folders full of ideas scribbled down, some of which I will take time out to polish up one day. Wordplay helps me relax the way crosswords do for other people.
Favourite places in the world?
The Lake District, the sea shore, central Turkey, California, virtually anywhere with big wide open skies…oh, and anywhere in Britain where there are canals, bridges and open fields.
When did you know that art & writing were going to be an integral part of your life?
As a kid my sense of story telling was brought alive and nurtured by comics. At first it was the artwork that fascinated me but later I began to understand how powerful the story form itself was. I used to rework adventures I had read in comics and put my own twists on them as part of my school work. I wanted to know how to write well and when I began amassing a huge amount of written material for an epic SF project I had it was clear that the time had arrived to concentrate on honing whatever abilities I might have. The SF idea existed only as notes and I wanted to be confident enough to write it up in a way that would impress anyone who saw it.
In 1996 I did a beginners’ writing course run by the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, once the home of poet laureate Ted Hughes. It was a revelation and I came away realising that I had all the basic skills I needed, and no shortage of ideas. I certainly had the passion. My problem has never been a lack of new ideas but somehow channelling and controlling the avalanche of constantly unfolding material that crashes around in my head – and then giving it form. I realised I could put anything I wanted to into words. The skills themselves needed working on but that was just a matter of dedicating time and effort.
Favourite memory in regard to creative ventures?
When I finished the Arvon Foundation writing course I came away positively radiant with the staggering possibilities of what I might achieve with dedication and imagination. If I committed myself totally to the task I knew I could become a writer. From childhood I had always wanted to produce stories that lots of people would read but it was from that point after Lumb Bank that I determined to throw everything I had into achieving the dream. However long it took I would get there. Do the ground work, hone the skills, believe in myself, stick at it and don’t ever, ever give up.
Where did the ideas to create Shadow Histories stem from?
For decades now, I have scribbled hundreds of ideas into notebooks and onto scraps of paper, all ideas that excited me with their possibilities. They were things which usually had no context - they didn’t belong anywhere. But I never let a single one of them get away. I also have very vivid dreams that come to me like scenes from a film, complete with action, sound effects and settings. I note them all down too. And whilst out walking I often get overwhelmed with great chunks of story and characters who just pop up, complete with names and histories that I can tease out from the way they are dressed and the things they say. I have never had periods in my life when I didn’t want to communicate my ideas someone. People-watching is a great pastime, one which raises all kinds of questions about what any particular person’s story might be. And I want those questions answered. I watch a lot of films and read a great deal and what I take in always fills me with a desire to know more, to understand the background behind a situation or the history of an idea.
When are the other books in the series scheduled to be available?
I’d love to know that myself. The second one is completed but I have no idea when it will see print. A lot of factors will have to be sorted out before we know that.
Favourite author/book? (whose work you most admire)
It’s totally impossible to chose any single favourite because of the way I flip between reading and rereading my childhood favourites as well as my current adult ones. I do read new writers but I also revisit old ones, constantly. These are a few:
a. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe. This was a huge childhood influence.
b. The Dark Is Rising series – Susan Cooper.
c. Most things by Alan Garner, articles as well as books.
d. The Man In The High Castle – Philip K Dick.
e. Times Last Gift and the Wold Newton family series - Philip Jose Farmer.
f. The Bird of Kinship series – Richard Cowper.
g. Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan.
h. The Culture books by Ian M Banks.
i. A Talent For War – Jack McDevitt.
j. JRR Tolkien of course.
k. Beowulf – the magnificent blood and iron epic, translated by Seamus Heaney.
l. The works on myth by Joseph Campbell.
m. The works of Lao Tsu.
n. Four Quartets – TS Eliot.
o. Blood Music – Greg Bear.
p. Planetary – one of the all-time ultimate comic book series by Warren Ellis. I have enjoyed, studied and deconstructed this series until I get to a white heat, and I still don’t know how he does it. Awesome.
Philip Pullman - His Dark Materials trilogy. Apart from his novels I have an especially appreciation for his many interviews and articles, all of which I collect if I can get my hands on them. His views and opinions are always so balanced, informed and intelligent. His writing style is a never ending inspiration for me, both clear and lyrical, incisive and poetic. I love what he created with Lyra’s alternate universe, so beguiling and at the same time so coherent. A work of imagination at it’s most profound and satisfying!
Aaron Sorkin – for the incredible work creating and scripting the West Wing and giving us so much scintillating, incisive dialogue and plot points to study and admire. A master at work. A pinnacle of the writers’ art.
Joss Whedon – for the stunning brilliance of his terse, hilarious and breathtaking dialogue in his Firefly TV series. His story lines rock. His comic book work is stunning too. A great inspiration, full of humanity, wit, creative intelligence and fun.