The Witch of Glenaster
The Widow's Thorn
The Ghosts of Glenaster
Most Recent Release:
The Ghosts of Glenaster
Have you ever written a story from a dream?
I’ve certainly used dreams as the basis or inspiration for some stories, and I keep a journal of dreams I can remember, if I think they’re interesting enough. But I don’t think a story based exactly on a dream would work very well. Even if you intended to be deliberately surreal, it probably wouldn’t make much sense.
Do you base characters on people you know?
Not intentionally. I’m saying no more than that!
What is your favourite character of another author?
I always enjoy strong female characters. So Jane Eyre is a perennial favourite, and I love Mattie Ross from True Grit by Charles Portis.
Do you prefer fiction, non-fiction or both?
Both. I’m always flabbergasted when people say they only read one or the other.
Do you think a big ego is a hindrance or a help?
Oh, help, definitely! If you want to pursue writing in the hopes of making some kind of career out of it, I think you need a self-belief that is bordering on the deranged.
Have you ever gotten reader's block?
Good question! I get very frustrated sometimes at how slowly I read. If I finish a book in a week that’s good going for me. But I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from reader’s block, no.
Did you ever consider a pseudonym?
No, though I’ve thought about using my middle initial sometimes, just because a lot of fantasy writers seem to do so. But it probably doesn’t matter much.
Do you try more to be original or pander to readers’ wants?
I think you can do both. Stephen King says that “if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway”. But at the same time most writers want to be read, don’t they? And you’re not going to be if you don’t keep at least one eye on what people want to read. It’s a tricky balancing act.
Can you name a famous author whose work you really don’t like?
HP Lovecraft! Hugely overrated, if you ask me, and all that stuff about tentacles - something very Freudian going on there…
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Well I’m just writing the last part of a trilogy at the moment, and I’ve really enjoyed writing it (mostly), but it’s taken so long! When it’s done I’d like to go back to doing some more stand alone work.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
It’s an obvious answer, but a decent PC is pretty essential. That said, I’m quite fussy about having a decent notebook, too (one with a hardback cover, to protect the pages, and of a size that can easily fit in the pocket), and I’m forever on the search for the perfect pen (biro, one that flows nicely across the page when you write), but these things are harder to find than you’d think. Also, if I had a room big enough, I’d cover it with a wall-sized blackboard, for plotting and planning out stories. That would be great.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Gene Wolfe. When I first read The Book of the New Sun, which both George RR Martin and Ursula Le Guin have called a masterpiece, I just didn’t get it, couldn’t finish it. Then I tried again about a year later, and was mesmerised by it. It’s not an easy read, but it’s such a memorable one, and shows how you can take familiar motifs from heroic fantasy – swords, quests, imperilled maidens, strange people and places – and do something extraordinary and unexpected with them. I don’t imagine everyone would like it, but I think they should read it anyway.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
This may sound like a flippant answer, but it’s not supposed to be - when I was a kid, my parents once bought me some underpants that were too tight, and, my grasp of the English language still in its early stages then, I went downstairs and told them, very crossly: “I can’t wear these pants, they’re hurting my scruples!” And so I learned that language had power – the power to make my parents laugh in this case (which they did, long and loudly), though of course it has many other types of power, too!
What’s your favourite under-appreciated or unknown novel?
The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen. It’s been called “the most decadent book in the English language”, which is quite a claim, but it really does cast a spell, and is strange, unsettling, erotic, a masterpiece I’d say.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Probably a sloth. Slow, steady wins the race (hopefully). Also, apparently their claws are so sharp that often hunters let them alone, because even when they’re dead they just hang there and don’t drop to the ground!
What does literary success look like to you?
Freedom. I don’t want to be rich, but of course it would be lovely to make some kind of a living, however basic, from writing.
Do you do a lot of research and why, or if not, why not?
Research is important, and I enjoy doing it, though of course the trick is then to fold it into your writing without looking like you’re showing off about how much research you’ve done. I know Bernard Cornwell says you should write the story first, and then check that you’ve got the historical details right (if you’re writing historical fiction), but presumably you need a rough idea before you start, too. I tried writing a short sci-fi story recently whose opening involved a massive dam, so I needed to do research into how dams are engineered, how they work, so I could write about it authentically. It’s not always easy, but it is rewarding.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters of the opposite sex?
As a man, I enjoy writing female characters. Apart from anything else, it puts a little bit of distance between me and them, so I can’t just write a version of myself, but also I think women (and this is a generalisation, obviously) tend to be more decisive, more positive, better able to live in the moment than men are. But I think you have to be careful not to stray into areas that might seem a little weird. Writing about female sexuality, for example, as a middle-aged heterosexual man, one could quickly become unstuck (so to speak).
What did you edit of your most recent book?
Lots! And I can’t remember what it was, because once it’s finished, the last thing I want to do is go back and read all the early drafts. There may be really good stuff in there, but it’s gone, like piles of hair on the floor at the barber’s.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
So much advice on writing is contradictory and unhelpful, but there are some useful nuggets here and there. Most recently I read an essay by Ursula Le Guin called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to write fantasy. Also she is one writer whose work in both fiction and non-fiction has made me think differently, about writing and about life.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Writing, in fantasy especially, I try to avoid names that sound too silly. Selecting them is mostly intuitive – if it sounds right, I’ll use it.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Yes, of course I read them! I don’t believe writers who say they don’t. I don’t think I take them too personally, though, to date, no one has written anything really nasty, and the criticisms people have made have been interesting and helpful. And when people really enjoy my work and they say so, that makes my day.
Do you ever think it’s ethical to reply to your book reviews?
Well, apparently you’re not supposed to, but if someone writes a nice one, or even a constructively critical one, is it so bad to reply? That said, it’s clearly not a good idea to get into an argument with someone who hates your book!
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Not yet! Or have I…?
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Just doing it, which sounds obvious, but the book you actually write is never going to be as good as the one you imagined in your head when you started out. Once you sit down and start writing, you’re very quickly confronted by your own limitations. It’s like mental rock climbing, trying yourself against the hard, unforgiving surface of your own mind. But if you work with it rather than against it, you can achieve more perhaps than you thought you could, and once you get to the top, the view can be spectacular.
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I probably would have read more. And studied grammar properly!
Do you think writer’s block exists?
I’m a sceptic on writer’s block. If you have a deadline to meet, for example, then you just have to write, whether you feel like it or not. Writing isn’t always a joy, sometimes it can be a grind, but you have to keep at it anyway, and try and do at least a little bit every day.
Which other medium would you love to venture into (film, musicals, plays etc.)
Well, it would be lovely to direct a film, but I think that boat has probably sailed. Though some novelists have made the leap to film directing, e.g. Alex Garland.