Barely in Time
What inspired your most recent book?
Inspiration is maybe a bit too strong of a word. Like “beverages” for example, a word I harbour a hidden grudge against. What does it mean, anyway? “Here you can buy Quality Beverages” – while all they really mean is that they sell some fairly tolerable plonk.
Anyway, I can honestly tell you, I’ve been inspired by many different things, the sudden flux of creativity makes lots of objects seem to be glittering with unexpected genius. What’s important though is to choose the correct “lead”, the right mode of inspiration that will push you towards the real object-matter of your book, towards its general aesthetic, that will reveal its pace, flow and texture. “Barely in Time”, my first-ever novel, was inspired by a whole train of different thoughts and observations that usually occur whenever we feel beaten, downtrodden or just really, really low, asking ourselves “what is the way out and how do I manage laugh or smile again?”
I cannot claim, however, that that’s the “Thing”, the sole source that made the book possible – after all, one source of inspiration, one “divine touch inspiring it all” sounds like the worst kind of poncy and effette highbrow priggery. I’m no St. Ignatius of Loyola to lay august claims to “divine visitations” or Ezra Pound to say that I was inspired by the unhappy tidings of modernity to “Make it New.” Writing, after all, is a grotty, messy and down-to-earth business of putting one word after (or behind) another in a self-ironising attempt to please. “To please whom exactly?” you might ask, and I tell you - it’s up to you to decide!
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Finding quality ideas. Of course, there’s always a temptation to sit down and churn out the daily dose any bally nonsense or artful bilge, but one’s better self prevaricates and, thankfully, wins over. You see, we live in an age that is overwhelmingly abundant in literature! All “classical” plots are explored inside out, all “Big Ideas” dissected and chewed down to an insipid pulp of empty and prolix verbiage. It was good for Shakespeare to make bank with “Hamlet” and give his competitors a run for their money – the audience, as I can readily imagine, went bonkers for the show! But go ahead and try to run the same trick now, with similar plot and devices – just don’t forget to count the raspberries. What I’m driving at is that writing takes more thinking now than ever before, and good, quality thinking comes at a price.
What was the hardest scene or character to write in your most recent book?
To quote Alan Bennett, “It’s like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water.” You’re free to heave a hot brick at me, should I know which one was the easiest! They’re all quite tricky, those scenes and characters, having the mind of their own and all that sort of mess. It’s a mean and ungrateful job, manning and managing an imaginary menagerie of characters. Nonetheless, I can think of much harder and laboursome jobs: like heaving literal bricks on a construction site for example, or moving heavy furniture, or charming deaf adders (hardly tractable creatures, being deaf and all), the list goes on. What I mean is that I’m in no position to complain.
Do you remember the moment (or person who inspired it) in your life that you knew you were going to be a writer?
The short answer is – myself, but I know how that sounds. Now then, let me explain. I’m a person of no particular talents whatsoever: I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I’m horrible at sports and my drawings can induce uncontrollable spasms of nausea even amongst the congenitally blind. And it didn’t take me too long to discover my utter uselessness, my absolute, nonentitizing ineptitude in all those undoubtedly noble (and what’s more important, popular) human endeavours. During my school years I was mercilessly mocked and pilloried for being a “lag”, a “spaz” and a “swot”, all attempted dalliances with the dance-floors of my late-adolescence had proven fruitless and shameful – my patented “mating call” was as attractive and sexy as that of a barn owl.
It was pretty quickly that I realized that the only world for me to play and caper in was the world of Word. To quote Malcolm Muggeridge, “it’s an awful confession to make, but the only thing I was ever interested in was words, the use of words. Written words, spoken words, just words!”
There, you see, I felt I could prove myself at least tolerably well. And above all, I simply loved telling stories – lots of stories, colourful stories, fantastic and incredible stories! If for a brief moment, the fields and the games would be abandoned and I became the centre of all attention and curiosity, as I told, told and told. But then of course that natural enemy of all things fine and beautiful that we call “reality” had to butt in and I was branded a “bally liar” and once again abandoned to my own devices. Writing, on the other hand, gives lies a sanction of art – so, ho-hum! Here we are.
Tell us your favourite character you’ve created.
It has to be the Elder from “Barely in Time” – the epitome of that “you can’t outfox a fox”, and a hateful old curmudgeon too. Really enjoyed writing him, felt like scratching an old, semi-forgotten itch that I once thought would be the early symptom of a melanoma.
How do your books differ from each other?
Well, having only two books to my name so far, I can possibly say something towards the difference between them. Exhibit 1 is my fantastic novel (“fantastic” both in terms of genre and aesthetic quality, tee-hee) that goes by the name of “Barely in Time”. It’s a whimsical and hopefully enjoyable work of pure fiction. Exhibit B is titled “The Black Beetle” and has to do something with being a collection of my essays, bits of personal recollection and such assorted salmagundi of trifles. To say the least, they are quite different both in substance and in style. And now that I think of the “Beetle”, I’m considering taking it temporarily off the shelves and giving it a thorough rummage-through – a lick of paint here, a dab of wax there and then it’ll become a better book!
How has your life or work experience influenced your work?
I’m very glad (and dare I say proud) to say that my work and life experience had influenced my writing in no way whatsoever. Oscar Wilde once said that “life imitates art” – well, that depends on whose life it is!
On the other hand, my writing is heavily influenced by my reading - that is to say, I’m never shy of purloining the best lexical bijoux of the writers that I cherish and admire. A reader might notice whilst perusing my literary output the faded scent of early Evelyn Waugh, the unaptly aped and mimicked wit of Wodehouse, the assail at the breadth, depth and profundity of Wilde and the amateurish imitation of Firbank’s rococo. I also owe much of my linguistic tastes and verbose propensities to writers, journalists, comedians and broadcasters like John Ebdon, Alistair Cooke, Malcolm Muggeridge, Arthur Marshall, Frank Muir, Ken Robinson, Ken Williams, Anthony Quinton and Bryan Magee. Sir Peter Ustinov - “the Great”, a genius of tongue and pen, a raconteur like no-one else in the world, was an early childhood influence. Another Peter, also Great but without “Sir” – Peter Cook taught me all about mirth and laughter, together with Dudley Moore that is.
Moving towards more recent times there’s even more writers, actors and comedians: Tom Sharpe, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Ben Elton (oh I know, I know - he’s an utter rotter, a “fake socialist” and just “so eighties”. That all apart, I still enjoy his novels, heaps of fun!) Ken Branagh, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Last but under no earthly circumstances least comes Alan Bennett, a much-admired writer and playwright I still enjoy going to bed with almost every other day, and by that I mean his books of course, not what you thought!
I also watch quite a lot of telly, so David Mitchell, Jimmy Carr, Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Dara O’Briain, Sean Lock, Lee Mack, Rob Brydon and Richard Ayoade are not at all foreign to my taste.
Now, have I left out anyone? Probably yes, as I haven’t mentioned my penchant for Dornford Yates “Berry” stories, my utter fascination with Shakespeare, my sneaky avoidance of modernist writers and a whole lot else, but then it’s better left for some other time, don’t you think so?
Do you use a lot of personal experience in your books, or do you try to write objectively?
The novel “Barely in Time”, being my first serious work (in terms of effort, not content), I decided to follow the one true gospel that works for all beginner writers – write about something you know. Even before having composed a coherent plot, I already knew the substance of my work, the matter which had to be dealt with. I had a sense of where to go with it, what turns to take, which paths untrodden to explore. That is to say, I drew on the memories of my objective experience as well as on a whole bevvy of whimsies. Experience, after all, is grist to the mill of our reflections and any objectivity allowed in a book, I think, lies somewhere within the object of our thoughts.
Have you ever written a story from a dream?
But of course! And a capital thing it was too, I tell you, simply topping! Sold tens of thousands of copies, got me a spotlight in “New Yorkers” and full feature column in “Harper’s Review”, plus a film proposal coming my way with a major Hollywood producer greedily drooling over it, lecherous leer and all. Oh, and then I woke up…
What genre that you haven’t tried already would you like to?
Maybe, if I’ll manage to wrap my head around it, I’ll dabble in something highbrow and sophisticated like historical fiction, something along the lines of Sir Walter Scott or, if you prefer more recent examples, Umberto Eco. But it’s a very precarious genre, that one always fraught with mortal risks of degrading oneself into something stale, boring and limp-wristedly unimaginative – like Dan Brown for example. When having a stab at highbrow there’s always a chance of doing something remarkably uncouth and ungrateful, like peddling time-worn adages, hoary old lies, hoaxes and dim-witted “deepities”. And I rather be called a hare-brained clown than a mendacious boor.
Do you base characters on people you know?
Sometimes I indeed do, usually as a matter of personal revenge.
Do you do a lot of research and why, or if not, why not?
Yes, I tend to. To quote Samuel Johnson, “a man will turn over half a library to make one book” – and that’s true, I’m afraid, for as a writer I feel responsible for what I do and how I do it, responsible above all for the quality of my work. Yes, writing is all about telling stories, but in our day and age “just-so stories” hardly ever cut. Then of course it all depends on what are you trying to do, what’s the general goal of your writing: if your “niche” demands you to cough up at least two or three books a year to keep the wolf well-away from the door, then it’s wholly justifiable for you not to spend days upon days marinating your bum at a library.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
A German-made paper-shredder is one of my soundest investments yet!
What does literary success look like to you?
People enjoying my stories, as simple as that. The rest - sales numbers, money, publicity and “celebrity” is just a ruche, a type of embroidery stitched into the plainly cut cloth of a writer. Even if just five or ten people read my literary output and thoroughly enjoy it – why then, I’ll be skipping and jumping with merriment, writhing in blithe ecstasy like a lovesick eel!
Did you ever consider a pseudonym?
As a matter of fact, I’m using one!
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Professional critics call such hidden secrets “self-conscious intertextuality”, I call them “wisecracks”. And it’s always a pleasure to depose a couple of such “wisecracks” under a layer of linguistic pyrotechnics that we use to impress our readers with. A reward for the attentive and prying, an “easter egg” or two for the worthy pioneers to dig up.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Well, having collected a handful of reviews so far, I can say that I read them all. I think it’s more of a problem for celebrated and popular writers whose books attract lots of reviews, some of which are unfortunately written by that specific type of people who write letters to Daily Mail.
Or, to be more illustrative, have you looked under any YouTube video? 95% of all the “comments” are usually nice and perfectly gentle, but then there’s that odd puddle of urine in the otherwise pristine pool - the hate-fuelled, vitriolic outpourings of trollers and bullies alike. That’s maybe the reason that I hardly ever scroll down to read the comments section or engage people on internet forums or boards. Sometimes it’s just too god-soddenly, soul-shatteringly, bowel-wrenchingly crushing!
Well-well, you might say, aren’t we a precious flower? And, well, being in the business of writing, aren’t you supposed to suffer the critique, however hard or scathing? After all, writers and artists alike have to grow a very hard skin, or so they say. “If you can’t stand the heat, maybe it’s time to get out of the kitchen?” To that I can reply by recalling an anecdote about Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a famous Edwardian writer and critic. Welcoming a young Fellow to Jesus, the Cambridge College where he himself held Fellowship till the very day of his death, he embraced the young man and said: “So very fine to have you here! A word of advice though: don’t try to be clever. for we’re all quite clever here. Try kindness, if only a little bit.”
Do you try more to be original or pander to readers’ wants?
Pandering to the hypothetical reader, in my opinion, must be a remarkable exercise in futility. Writers claim that they “know their readers” but do they really? I think writerly pandering is downright impossible. The best you can do is to “pander” to an idealized image of a reader that you have in your head and, for what it’s worth, mightn’t exist at all. Therefore, I think, it’s always better to “pander” and “cater” to what you, as a writer, care the most about, - it might be style, vocabulary or plot. Never try to suck it up to the readers – they’ll know it, they’ll feel it and, believe me, they won’t be too happy about it.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Oscar Wilde, I think, made me reconsider my views on fiction by his extraordinarily creative use of language. Before getting to know Wilde I knew that one uses language to concoct fictional stories and that’s about it, but I couldn’t have suspected that it is possible to use language in such a brain-ticklingly clever way!
Studying Wilde, Waugh, Doyle, Dickens and Wodehouse had brought me much nearer to the powers of language, and dare I say, to the pleasures of it.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about non-fiction?
The essays by Isaiah Berlin on the Roots of Romanticism made a profound impression on me. I remember saying to myself after going through them again and again – “so that’s what’s it all about!” There were some other books too, of course, but I think I’d better forswear the full stream of my words, least this nice and neat Q&A session develops into a discursive essay of sorts! We had enough of those in school…
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
I tend not to make any demands, you see, not unreasonable demands, anyhow. All I ask my reader to do is to leave a case full of clean, unmarked banknotes under the park bench before midnight and I’ll be taking care of the rest. You know what you did.
How do you select the names of your characters?
It’s important that they sound pleasing. Who wants to read a story about some old bloke named Bob? Or would you care a single bit about Maud, his husband Frank and his block-headed son Evan? Names should be creative, imaginative and pleasing to the ear – like Danny for example in “Barely in Time”, or even George. Come to think of it, George, - isn’t that a thoroughly fine name, eh?
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
From four to five months. One month goes to research, then I work out the plot, then comes the first draft, second draft, then two or three weeks for polishing the whole thing and we’re done!
How many hours a day do you write?
Just as many as it takes to do the daily 1500 words. It depends, of course, but usually I spend up to 8 hours a day on literary work, every day, no weekends or long vacations. Work is more fun than fun, remember?
If you have a day job or family commitment, how do you work writing into it?
I’m a confirmed bachelor, so no downtrodden wife and alienated child are pining for their cold-hearted husband and father. As of my daily job – if one can call that job, it has something to do with academia. They pay paltry pennies of course, but all I have to do is just sit around and pretend to be knowledgeable and well-informed. Neat! I wonder if it lasts, though…
What did you edit out of your most recent book?
Some jokes that I thought were a tad bit too daft, even for my taste.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Getting it all together, producing a “coherent body of work”, that is. Takes lot of pain, sweat and Rothies.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
Everything, up to a pound of flesh.
Who are your favourite indie authors?
Being a newcomer to the indie scene, I can’t unfortunately give you any names as I hadn’t yet time to explore the indie literature in its fullness, but judging by the tightly-vowed, extremely intelligent and welcoming community that indie book hubs are, I’m sure that there are many highly-gifted and bright writers out there! So, in a sense, for me, it’s all pleasure yet to come as I’ll be delving in and exploring indie works in the coming months.
Do you ever think it’s ethical to reply to your book reviews?
It all depends on a particular review, I think. It would be appropriate to post a reply if, for example, the reviewer had posed questions about some bits and pieces of my book and deliberately “calls me out” to provide some esclarishment. Otherwise, I reckon, it’s better to let the whole thing slide: some people will adulate, others shall mock and pillory, yet some shall be left wholly unimpressed – what’s important is that all different voices have the right to be heard, even the ones that I, as an author, might think to be sounding “wrong” or “mean”.
Do you have a favourite literary magazine or website that’s excellent for indie authors?
I rarely read literary magazines, except for the archive copies of “The Strand” – it’s a strange, yet titillating pleasure nevertheless to read Conan Doyle, Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm and Dornford Yates in their original form of magazine contributions, before the well-deserved celebrity and “prestige” of the Big Publishing. The Strand in itself was of course a very big deal, but we can all agree that a printed book gives the author an “established” look.
As of the websites, why – I can link you to one: if you haven’t, check out www.loyal-lyre.uk, the rarest gem of its kind and a very welcoming and friendly platform for all of us struggling indies! Oh wait, you must be already there if you’re reading this interview – well, this only proves my point. A topping place to be around and a trove of treasures to explore, isn’t it now?
Do you think a big ego is a hindrance or a help?
There’s a difference between “ego” and “self-respect”, I think. It’s like the difference between “patriotism” and “nationalism”: a patriot loves his country, while a nationalist hates everyone else’s. So it is with “self-respect” and “ego”: a self-respecting person is always respectful to others, an egotistic person has only respect for oneself.
Do you think writer’s block exists?
I call it “writer’s constipation”, and the best laxative is doing some thorough reading. Just don’t you strain yourslef too much or you’ll get what is known as “writer’s piles” – a dreadful thing altogether.
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing/distribution industry?
Oh, don’t you get me started… It’s much easier to ask what’s ethical in it! That I can answer: some big-name publishing houses are using recycled paper and thus helping our planet to remain cooler and greener, but that’s about it. An attitude towards “no-name upstarts” is, simply speaking, dismal. It’s sheer futility sending manuscripts to one of the Big Houses unless you are already selling big numbers and have a fairly recognisable social-media standing. In other words, if you somehow manage and claw yourself to a certain level of “celebrity”, those Big Houses would be only happy to piggyback on your hard work and make a pretty penny out of it too. A contract with one of those big cheeses will, of course, do you good in terms of sales figures and additional exposure, but it’s still doing them even more good!
Otherwise it’s nigh-impossible to get “in”, unless you’re already in, knowing some "cognoscenti" hoodlums from the publishing Cosa-Nostra – a clique and a coterie like no other, impregnable to anyone but well-celebrated “luvvies” and “old boys”.
Now, whoever rattled your cage, George? All I mean to say is that the Publishing industry (the one with big P) is just as unfair to unknown artists as any other Big and Impersonal business might be. I’m not discouraging anyone from sending their work to the Big Names, but don’t be surprised, unless you already rub shoulders with the “greats”, that your work won’t be accepted.
Conversely, if you have a private fortune to spend, you can ring up a dandy, pukka and well-connected literary agent and ply him with ready cash till he bursts. Rest assured, he’ll bring home the bacon but you’ll be paying for it with every penny you got.
What’s been your best experience navigating through indie authoring?
Coming across the Loyal Lyre and writing an email to its editor, owner and patron saint - dear Jessica O’Toole! She greeted and treated me with unbelievable humane warmth and candour, an unknown supplicant that I was, shyly shuffling my feet at her digital doorstep. Never before I’d been treated with such magnanimity and never before such a formidable cornucopia of opportunities had been laid before me. “Capital, capital, capital!” as Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle would’ve said. Highly recommended!
What’s been your worst experience navigating through indie authoring?
To be honest, I had no bad experience navigating the indie world per se. People are mostly welcoming and it’s very easy to start a dialogue. When and if your book is not accepted amongst the indies, it’s usually due to the niche or some other, wholly technical circumstances, not because you’re not posh and popular enough to be courtesied to.
What is your favourite character of another author?
Hmm… I have several, but if I have to pick between them, then it’s P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth, the ever-bumbling and pottering old peer who is usually described as “drooping like a wet sock” either at his library window or, what’s much more preferable and desired, at the “bijou residence” of his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. He’s an extremely amiable fellow (if a bit eccentric or, as the Duke of Dunstable had oft been heard to say, “potty to the core”), being deeply averse to the manifold tyrannies of London and his imperious sisters alike. His natural habitat is the splendid greenery of Blandings and his sole desire is to make sure that the Empress is “well-adjusted” and properly fed. And, mind you, is there more to be desired?
How do you feel about book pirating?
Fiction is quite affordable nowadays so it’s hardly advisable to explore the dark alleyways of the internet all for to save a paltry quid or two. Textbooks, however, and some of the more serious and weighty publications, is a whole other business… Mea maxima culpa and all that sort of rot, but I’m not ready to dish out 70% of my disposable income for a dratted set of textbooks that, in any case, shall be seeing the insides of a dustbin after a term or two.
Do you soundtrack your own novels?
All my novels should be read to the accompaniment of John Cage’s “4’33”.
Do you have any secret marketing advice?
Tell your readers that with every purchased copy of your latest book they’ll be getting a brand new car! Works like pure magic. One little snag though: it only works if you’re Oprah.
Have you ever Googled yourself?
Yes, I did. Found myself in “appliances and handpumps” section on Craigslist.
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