On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

In December 2013, the first book in the Earth Haven trilogy, The Cleansing, was published. A reviewer enjoyed the novel so much that she asked to interview me. Not being one to turn down free publicity, I readily agreed. The interview appeared on her blog towards the end of January 2014.

At the time, I was writing the second book in the trilogy, The Beacon, but (as is obvious from my answers) had no clear idea as to how it would all pan out.

I was with a small-press publisher at the time—seems almost quaint to say that now.

On with the interview…

Why did you write an end-of-the-world story?

I have been fascinated by end-of-the-world tales since watching the film The Omega Man as a young boy. There’s a scene where Charlton Heston wanders into a department store and starts picking out new clothes. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to go into any shop I fancied and just take anything that caught my eye. I was too young to appreciate the downside to all this—the despair, the loneliness, the absolute hopelessness of being in such a situation—but the sense of wonder has never left me.

Since then, some of my favourite books have involved end of the world scenarios: The Stand, Riddley Walker and The Road, to name a few. When I started writing in my early thirties, it seemed perfectly natural to pen an apocalyptic tale and I wrote the short story ‘The Third Coming’ around fifteen years ago. It contained the germs of the ideas that would be realised more fully in The Cleansing and its sequels. When writing that story, something in the back of my mind told me I would be returning to explore that world in more depth at some point.

It nagged at me on and off for the next fifteen years, but it was only when a review of my short story collection Pond Life mentioned that the reviewer would be interested in reading an expanded version of ‘The Third Coming’ that I decided the time was right to return to that world.

Did you find it difficult to approach the genre from a new and fresh perspective?

To be perfectly honest, not once did such considerations enter my head. Of course, I was all too aware that similar stories had been told, and amazingly well, by writers with reputations I can only hope to emulate. More than once the thought passed my mind, ‘Does the world really need yet another apocalytic novel?’ Moreover, by a writer no one’s ever heard of? But I pressed on regardless. Not through arrogance, but because I’m the sort of writer who has to write a story once it’s in my head. The only way to get shot of it is to write it. A little like lancing a boil but without the mess.

Who is your favourite character from The Cleansing?

Bishop and Simone both intrigue me. Without giving anything away, they are of the other sort yet neither display the hive mentality of their kindred.

Peter and Milandra, too, I find interesting. Torn between loyalty to their kind and sympathy for the survivors, I’m looking forward to seeing how they will act from here on in.

But my favourite character? Probably Ceri. I sense a strength of character within her that I don’t think even she’s aware of.

Do you know how the rest of the story will play out?

I know (roughly) how the third book ends, so in that sense it’s plot-driven. However, I have no idea how the characters will reach that point. And there are new characters in Book Two (The Beacon) that I’m enjoying getting to know. Quite what their roles will be is not yet clear. That’s part of the fun, and terror, of the way I write: I don’t plot in advance—I’ve tried and I can’t do it—so it’s almost as much a journey of discovery for me as it will be for the reader.

Without giving too much away, what’s next in store for the characters?

Tom was the dominant survivor in The Cleansing, but I suspect that he has already plumbed the depths of his courage when he did what he had to do in his mother’s back garden. Ceri will come more to the fore in Book Two. I know that at least one of the new characters, Bri (pronounced like brie, the cheese), will have a big part to play.

Simone will become a key figure, but possibly not revealing her full role until Book Three. Diane is still an enigma—her innermost feelings and motivations are still unclear. And Peter… hmmm. He’s hiding something. That’s all I’d better say for now.

Who is your favourite comfort author and what is your favourite comfort book?

Since my teens, Stephen King has always been my go-to author, but Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is often revisited for light-hearted escapism. So I’d have to declare a draw for my favourite comfort author. Book? No contest: The Lord of the Rings. I can return to it time after time and never grow bored.

And your favourite comfort food?

Ribeye steak (medium/well done), onion rings, fried mushrooms, peas, golden chips, all washed down with a good Merlot.

Name something you’d like to be better at doing.

Advance plotting. I’m a little envious of writers who can produce a 30,000-word outline then knock out a near-perfect novel in a few weeks because most of the hard work—resolving twists and turns, coping with characters who insist on doing their own thing, tying up loose ends—was done at the outline stage.

Oh, and I have to mention self-promotion. I’m completely inept at blowing my own trumpet. When I try, I become all coy and self-deprecating. So that’s what I wish I was good at—and so do my publishers.

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