More On Being a Writer

This is another interview for a blog that appeared in February 2015, not long after the second novel in the Earth Haven trilogy was published.

Although I have never met the blogger in person, I had come to know her as a good online friend. She asked me for a humorous introduction—I hope it’s obvious it’s fictional! I don’t know if, all these years later, she’d prefer to be anonymous so have changed her name just in case.

On with the interview…

Welcome, Sam. Perhaps you could start by explaining to my readers how we met.

I met the lovely Lois when we were both inmates at Wormwood Scrubs. We ended up sharing a cell after we had each been caught trying to tunnel out using nothing more than, in my case, a teaspoon, in hers, a set of false fingernails.

Of course, Lois wasn’t then the sweet Southern lady that you all know and love. She was an Eastend bruiser named Ronnie, with tattooed muscles like painted boulders, a bald head the size of a pumpkin that could double as a wrecking ball, and fists like sides of ham with which I saw her take out Billy the Baby-eater Brown and Mikey the Manic Madman Malone as if they were schoolboys rather than the most feared bare-knuckle fighters south of the Thames. (Billy didn’t really eat a baby. It was a dead squirrel, but you know how rumours can stick.)

No one ever dared mention to Ronnie his camp tendencies. Not if they valued being conscious. I always knew he would one day give in to his feminine side. And I’m glad that he did. Welcome, Lois. You’re much nicer than Ronnie.

What is your most recent release?

The Beacon is the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy that began with The Cleansing. It begins where the first book ended so readers should start with The Cleansing. The trilogy is post-apocalyptic science fiction, a long tale about how humankind is brought to its knees by a manufactured virus. Who developed this virus and why… can’t say too much here as it will spoil it for new readers, but the makers have their reasons. The Cleansing deals with the spread of the virus and the immediate aftermath. In The Beacon, the handful of survivors face a new threat—as if they haven’t been through enough already, bless them. Again, difficult to reveal too much. The book’s blurb contains about as much as I can say without spoiling anything.

How do you react to bad reviews?

I stamp my feet, poke the cat, throw the computer out of the window, shave off all that remains of my hair, get drunk, eat chocolate, smash plates, pluck my nostrils, squirt shaving foam at my wife, speak in tongues, paint the house, and run naked through the streets, wailing and gnashing my teeth.

Nah, I don’t really do any of those things. What I also don’t do is respond to the review. The reviewer is perfectly entitled to his or her opinion; I’m just grateful they bought my book and took the time to read it. All too often I’ve seen authors bemoaning bad reviews, either in direct response to the review itself or by starting threads in various forums. Such authors rarely come across in a good light.

What occupational hazards are there to being a novelist?

I think the obvious one is becoming unfit (or, in my case, more unfit) by spending so long sitting down. To try to combat this, I’ve invested in a home gym that sits in my garage. I even use it now and again…

Do you have any claims to fame?

Not really, although one of my distant relatives was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the defence of Rorke’s Drift (immortalised in the film Zulu). He was one of the soldiers who helped save six injured men who were being attacked as they lay in the camp infirmary. He’s (something like) my great-great-great-uncle.

Name your favourite authors.

Too many to list them all, but here are some of my go-to authors: Stephen King (for his horror and fantasy more than his crime writing), Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie (for her Poirot books), Bill Bryson, Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Forsyth, Gerald Durrell (I have a soft spot for the Greek island of Corfu thanks to his books). That’s just off the top of my head. I could list many, many more, but I think that’s probably enough to be going on with.

And your favourite movies?

In no particular order: Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid; Inception; The Great Escape; The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (and one of my favourite film scores); The Wizard of Oz; Hair; Gladiator; Bladerunner; and, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At least once each year, my younger daughter and I spend a day watching the extended versions of all three films. We often quote our favourite lines to each other (‘My friends, you bow to no one’). She’ll be leaving home for university in September, but tells me she wants to maintain what has become a tradition when she returns home during the summer vacation. I won’t argue; I love our ‘Lord of the Rings days’ as much as she does.

Do you ever laugh at your own jokes?

Of course; someone has to.

Are you jealous of commercially successful writers?

No. I’ve never begrudged another writer their success, even if their books are not to my taste. I have, however, felt envy in the sense that I’ve longed to match their success, whilst at the same time cheering them on, glad they’re reaping the rewards of all their hard work. They are living proof that persistence, allied to no little skill, can pay off.

Does anything make you cry?

I almost skipped this question, but at the risk of looking a complete wimp, here goes.

I barely cried until I was twenty-six. In May 1991, my first child was born. As I sat in the hospital, holding her in my arms while she stared intently up at me with bright blue eyes, something inside me shifted. I went to the ground floor of the hospital to ring the new grandparents. I could barely get the words out. It must have seemed to passersby that I was imparting bad news, not good.

Since then, I find myself myself choking up during films, books, sad news stories and whenever Wales win at rugby. It can be embarrassing, but I’m powerless to prevent it.

Why do you write under a pen name?

I am by nature a shy person, who hates being in the limelight. That’s a bit of a problem in this game where visibility, at least of the books, is key. I decided from the off that, since I am not good at blowing my own trumpet, I needed to use a pen name. I still don’t find that self-promotion comes naturally, but it’s easier to promote Sam Kates than it would be the person behind that name.

Thanks, Sam. Good luck with your writing career.

Cheers, Lois. Thanks for having me!

Favourite Novels

By ‘favourite’, I don’t necessarily mean the books I consider to be the best written or of the highest literary merit. Nope, I mean the novels (I’m including novellas) that left a lasting impression on me. Some of the books on this list I have read more than once—I used to reread some books over and over when I was younger, though not so much these days. Too many books, not enough time.

I originally called this list ‘Top 50 Favourite Novels’, but dropped the ‘Top 50’. There are novels I’ve greatly enjoyed that don’t appear on this list because I can’t now quickly recall them—I have read so many books over the years that I’ve probably forgotten loads—or because my mood when I compiled the list was such that a book didn’t make it when on another day it would have. So this is more properly a list of fifty of my favourite novels, but not necessarily the first fifty and not in any particular order.

I’ve read many books by the same author—e.g., Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), John Irving, Ursula Le Guin, to name a few—that I’ve enjoyed but that haven’t made the list. That doesn’t mean I don’t like their work. Far from it; merely that other books have stuck in my mind more.

There’s a preponderence of fantasy and horror and science fiction, often of the dark and/or apocalyptic kind. That’s the way my tastes run.

The books marked with an asterisk either form part of a series of which I could easily have included more or all, but I haven’t to save space; or, e.g., Christie’s Roger Ackroyd, I’ve included a book that’s illustrative of an author’s body of work of which I’m fond—I love Christie’s Poirot novels and could have easily included more—but again I want to save space; or I’ve named the series rather than just one book from it. Cheating? Maybe, but you’ll have to forgive me since it means being able to name more books. And more books is always good, right?

There are a few Stephen King novels in the list (and one slipping in under a pseudonym). If pressed to name just one, I’d say he is probably my favourite author so I had to include more than one of the twenty or thirty books of his I’ve enjoyed and reread over the years.

I didn’t consider the books I first remember reading: The Wishing Chair and Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton, for instance, though I have included her books for slightly older children, such as the Famous Five.

The links1 are all to Amazon UK and are included for anyone who wants to check out the book.

Enough blathering. On with the list.

1. Imajica – Clive Barker


Imajica

2. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown


The Da Vinci Code

3. The Road – Cormack McCarthy


The Road

4. The Day of the Jackal* – Frederick Forsyth


The Day of the Jackal

5. IT – Stephen King


IT

6. The Lord of the Rings* – J.R.R. Tolkien


The Lord of the Rings

7. Shadowland – Peter Straub


Shadowland

8. Rape of the Fair Country – Alexander Cordell


Rape of the Fair Country

9. Men at Arms* – Terry Pratchett


Men At Arms

10. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe* – C.S. Lewis


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

11. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King


Salem’s Lot

12. Dracula – Bram Stoker


Dracula

13. Run For Your Life – David Line


Run For Your Life

14. The Fog – James Herbert


The Fog

15. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway


The Old Man and the Sea

16. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card


Ender’s Game

17. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

18. The Valley of Adventure* – Enid Blyton


The Valley of Adventure

19. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver


Dark Matter

20. Red Dragon – Thomas Harris


Red Dragon

21. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson


I Am Legend

22. Five on a Treasure Island* – Enid Blyton


Five on a Treasure Island

23. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

24. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut


Cat’s Cradle

25. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte


Wuthering Heights

26. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantell


Wolf Hall

27. Riddley Walker – Russell Holban


Riddley Walker

28. Life of Pi – Yann Martell


Life Of Pi

29. The Stand – Stephen King


The Stand

30. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


The Book Thief

31. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger


The Time Traveler’s Wife

32. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller


Catch-22

33. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* – Agatha Christie


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

34. 1984 – George Orwell


1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four

35. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood


Oryx And Crake

36. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury


Something Wicked This Way Comes

37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* – Douglas Adams


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

38. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline


Ready Player One

39. Watership Down – Richard Adams


Watership Down

40. Legend* – David Gemmell


Legend

41. World War Z – Max Brookes


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

42. The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway


The Gone-Away World

43. The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp


The Last Days of Jack Sparks

44. The Eyre Affair* – Jasper Fforde


The Eyre Affair

45. The Talisman – Stephen King & Peter Straub


The Talisman

46. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


Fahrenheit 451

47. The Long Walk – Richard Bachman


The Long Walk

48. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever* – Stephen Donaldson


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

49. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny


Lord Of Light

50. Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce


Tom’s Midnight Garden

 

Let me know how many of them you’ve read. Or if there are any you dislike. It’s okay—we can still be friends.

Coming soon: Favourite Films.

 

1 they’re affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a small amount of commission from Amazon on any sales resulting from following the links; it doesn’t affect the price you pay to Amazon

On Being a Science Fiction Writer

This was part of a series of interviews a fellow writer was conducting with indie science fiction writers to feature on his blog. I completed the interview in January 2014 and it must have appeared on the blog a month or so later.

I’ve since read a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin—love everythng of hers I’ve read so far—but not yet anything by Harry Turtledove, though I have some of his works sitting on my Kindle. I haven’t yet read any longer works by Hugh Howey, but did have a story included alongside one of his in a flash fiction anthology: Stories On the Go

On with the interview…

What made you become a writer?*

First and foremost, a deep and abiding love of reading. Many of the stories I read as a child are still with me today, though I read them forty or more years ago. Books like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series, and, of course, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. In my teens I discovered Lord of the Rings and it has captivated me ever since. Then authors like James Herbert, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett came along, and I was hooked.

I started writing fiction in my early thirties for a number of reasons. Here’s a couple. At the time, I was doing a stressful job that I hated. Writing became a sort of pressure release valve, a refuge from dark introspection. It also represented a possible, if unlikely, escape route from a job I loathed to one I loved. At about the same time, I read a number of novels that left me feeling flat, wondering how they’d been published. I can’t now recall their titles (and wouldn’t name them if I could), but felt I could do better.

Why do you write science fiction?

Although I refer to mainly fantasy and horror books and authors above, I have also enjoyed reading science fiction over the years. Works by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, to name but a few. Pratchett’s Discworld series is generally regarded as fantasy, but contains many elements of science fiction.

The title story of my short story collection, Pond Life, is probably the first science fiction story I wrote. It concerns a space ship crashing into a pond outside a sleepy Welsh village and sinking to the bottom. Though the occupants of the craft are slowly dying, they work certain changes in the village’s inhabitants.

I didn’t set out to be a science fiction writer, merely a writer, but it was inevitable that science fiction would form part of my writing output. Many writers, myself included, write the sort of books that they like to read. Since science fiction forms a large portion of my reading pleasure, I was bound to write it. Put another way, we write what we write because we read what we read.

Do your stories contain some hidden, deeper meaning?

My intention in writing a story is purely and simply to entertain. Let’s face it, for all its wonders life can be pretty shit at times. I have often found escape and solace in losing myself in other worlds found between the pages of a book and enriched by my imagination. If I can provide the means to do the same for others, I’ll be happy. If readers can find some message or deeper meaning in my work, then that’s a bonus, but wasn’t what I set out to do.

Talk about one of your published works.

My short story collection contains another science fiction story, an apocalyptic tale: The Third Coming. It was written more than ten years ago, probably closer to fifteen, but I remember thinking at the time that it touched on ideas that might reward further exploration at some later date. Ideas concerning the origins of humankind and a method of faster-than-light travel and the purpose of Stonehenge, amongst others.

I revisited those ideas last year and sat down to write a novel based on them. I do a regular job full time and have to fit writing into evenings and weekends, but I completed the first draft in just under nine weeks, a record time for me. The novel is called The Cleansing and was published in December.

Who are your favourite science fiction authors?

I’ve mentioned some already. I can add Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks. There are many authors whose works I haven’t yet read, but fully intend to, such as Ursula Le Guin, Harry Turtledove and, sacrilege I know, Hugh Howey. Too many books, not enough time…

As for why I like these authors? For the depth of their imaginations and their sheer story-telling abilities.

What reactions do you hope to provoke in your readers?

As I say above, I want to entertain and help provide an avenue to forget about the humdrum for a while. If readers take something more from my work, something that makes them think or view the world differently, then all to the good. But if I only manage to entertain them, that will do.

Tell us about your work-in-progress.

A week or two into writing The Cleansing, it became apparent that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. As an unknown, I didn’t want to write a doorstop that nobody would take a chance on buying, so decided to write a trilogy. I ended The Cleansing at about 90,000 words at a point that I felt was a natural place to pause. Not every reviewer agrees and I completely see where they’re coming from, but I hope they understand that I had to end it somewhere (or write a doorstop).

Now I’m working on the sequel: The Beacon. It picks up almost immediately where The Cleansing left off. I’m enjoying meeting the characters again (I haven’t seen them since July) and introducing some new characters that I’m slowly getting to know. Although I shall do everything I can to end this one at another natural pausing point, it will still leave the main story arc unresolved. That will happen at the conclusion of the third novel. I have an ending in mind but have little idea how I’ll get there. I’m relishing the journey.

 

* A note on copyright. Although the answers to the questions in this interview (and others I’ll be reproducing here) are mine and I am the sole copyright holder, I did not write the questions and do not hold the copyright in them. While the questions are fairly generic—you will see them, or ones just like them, asked in hundreds of blogs and other media—I have reworded them (and will reword them in other interviews I post) to avoid any suggestion of copyright infringement.