I've skipped the traditional About Me for this website, because there is categorically nothing whatsoever, remotely, in any way shape or form interesting or unique about my life. Instead, I offer these responses to a recent interview as advice for young writers.
What was your dream career as a child, and did it affect your move into the writing of novels?
I loved shows on television (it was the seventies) like The Swiss Family Robinson, old movies of Oliver Twist, The Human Comedy. Not so much adventure, crime, sci-fi, but character-driven stories, with epic plots. I started looking for these sorts of books as I got older. I never thought of being a writer. It wasn’t a ‘career’ option, and maybe still isn’t. My ilk ended up as tradesmen, maybe a bank job, police, nurse (all explained in This Excellent Machine). I was one of the few people to go to university from my school. But there was nothing at school for a potential writer (though plenty for potential sports people). Not much value put in books, language, stories. I wrote a novel in Year 12, sent it to some publishers, but it was bad, and I burned it years later. I often think it would’ve been good if there was someone, a mentor, someone to say keep at it. Unfortunately, you (still) have to fall back on yourself for that. You’re born with the story-telling gene, or you’re not. I wanted to be a journalist at one stage. A fighter pilot. Ha!
What was the first thing that made writing seem like a viable career for you?
By ‘viable’ we could mean something to make us happy, satisfied, or maybe financially viable. Writing will give you the former, generally not the latter. It’s more a calling, a passion, call it what you like. This isn’t as grim as it sounds, because as you grow older you’ll have something to sustain you, motivate you, and most people don’t have this. You pay a price for being an artist, and for me that’s okay. As for what a ‘career’ is? That used to mean the way you’d make money to raise your family. But most people with ‘careers’ (as far as I can tell) aren’t terribly happy with them (imagine being a dentist for god sake!).
Are there any dreams you wish for your books? Such as a film or television adaptation?
Film would be good, but judging by the sort of books that get made into films now, I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, the most original books were/are unfilmable (Ulysses, The Naked Lunch etc). But I guess growing up with films, everybody would like to see their name on a screen.
What is your writing process? What order do you have for creating ideas, themes, characters, settings, and plot structure?
Get an idea. Something original, unexpected, problematic. Keep it in your head for a year, two, ten, and it will start to suggest possibilities. Never write a plot during this time, it will stop the flow of ideas. One day, it will just come to you. How this idea can be made into a complete, longer story. Then plan, and redo it, talk to people about it, make sure it hasn’t been done before. Then you’ll keep putting off writing it, for months, years. The best thing anyone told me is that there’s no good time to start (like having children). Something’s always going on. But you have to sit, write, make a mess, hate what you’ve done, and gather enough willpower to sit down and continue the next day. Then a first draft. Put it aside. Re-read it months later. Then start the process of re-writing. THIS is what will make the book, not the first go.
Do you think there is any link between your own experiences and motivations and your protagonists'?
Yes. Plenty. Each writer creates a version of him- or herself in each book. Maybe we’re trying to work out who we are, or maybe we’re just very egotistical. I suspect, though, that we’re trying to find the kid who first picked up a book, read a story. I think as we get older we forget who we were, and spend a lot of energy (for artists) trying to find where he or she went. Maybe this is a bit sad, but maybe writers are sad.
How do you keep the story engaging?
It’s all in the idea. Good ideas keep giving, bad ones keep resisting. Avoid the temptation to adopt tropes (ie certain themes, plot lines etc) that might make your book more commercial, but go against your feelings. Ask yourself what you really want to do, and do it, regardless of what anyone says. Chasing commercial success is the biggest waste of time. You’ll only create a product, have a flash of fame, then it’ll vanish. I think you need a protagonist in search of something (love, money, affirmation). But all of this advice is turd, in a way. YOU HAVE TO WORK THESE THINGS OUT FOR YOURSELF OR THEY’LL MEAN NOTHING.
How do you come up with individual and personalised traits for characters?
People I know, people I remember, imagination (which comes from reading lots and lots of books, being a dreamer, not caring about anything except telling stories). Read Dickens to see how well a person can be described.
Have you learned anything about either yourself or others through your career?
Writing interrogates humans, asks how they function, why we do stuff, what makes one person successful, another a failure, the price we’re willing to pay for things – everything. Thing is, people are complex, and hard to understand, and writers are having a crack at explaining all of this. I guess it’s all in psychology text books, but people don’t read them. We function via stories. This is how we learn to be decent, wise, giving, loving. I think the present malaise, the crisis in society (as it is) is somehow related to the loss of storytelling.