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!

Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…