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!

Reviewing: An Unknown Writer’s Perspective

[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.

Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.

On with the article…]

 

How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.

To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.

Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.

The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.

The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.

That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?

And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.

But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?

Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.

Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.

 

*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis