1. What made you want to first become an author?
I didn’t! I think most authors decide when they’re quite young that they want to become authors and then they set about honing their craft and finding a story to tell. For me it was the other way round. I never thought about being an author. I was a musician and songwriter. But I was also an impatient reader and started thinking about how to create the perfect story that would grip someone like me. Once I developed the idea I didn’t want to waste it so I started writing it down. Once I’d written the start it would have been foolish just to leave it unfinished. So can you see where this is going? I became an author before I realised what was happening.
2. In Jimmy Coates: Blackout how did you think of the character ‘The Head’?
Have you ever been sent to the head? I mean the head teacher at school. It was an idea that tickled me – when you’re in school, talking about ‘the head’ makes perfect sense and everyone knows what you mean. But once you’re not in school any more and you hear someone talking about ‘the head’, it doesn’t immediately mean a head teacher. To me it suggested an actual head. It connected with some of my philosophy studies, where there are a topics where you think about the possibility that you’re just a brain in a jar being fed information by wires and you THINK you’re a living, breathing, walking human but actually you’re not even a head, just a brain or just a set of ‘false’ sensations.
Finally, I also find it much more sinister to write a character whose power doesn’t come from physical strength. The Head is the opposite of that. He has no physical strength at all because he basically has no body. He relies purely on power of influence, intelligence, persuasion, intention… and so on.
3. Do your family/friends read your books?
Yes, mostly. My family all do. Most of my friends do, though some of them are a bit behind and haven’t caught up with the latest books yet. But also you’ve got to remember that a lot of my friends write books themselves so we can’t all keep up with reading all of each other’s books! (I read the books of the friends I like the most, or whose books I think are the best.)
Actually, some of my friends are IN my books so they have to read them! Remember Professor Zigmund Wilson? He’s a minor character in JC: Power, I think. He dies before he can pass on an important message – or say anything, in fact. He’s named after my friend Sacha Wilson (one of his middle names is Zigmund). There are a few other examples of that kind of thing. You wouldn’t spot them unless you know who you’re looking for.
4. When you write, do you think about language features like alliteration or personification and try to include them?
All the time. I’m trying to tell my story in the most direct but powerful way possible. I usually think about these features when I’m RE-writing, rather than worrying about them when I’m just splurging out a first draft. Once my first draft is finished I can go back and spent time thinking hard about the best possible way to get my story across. Of course that will involve alliteration (used sparingly) and personification (which I try to use in surprising ways). My other favourite rhetorical techniques are chiasmus and zeugma. You’ll have to look them up and then search my books for examples.
I learned all of those techniques, and how they can all help tell the story more powerfully, by studying The Aeneid in Latin lessons at school. (I didn’t do that kind of thing in English lessons and I didn’t do English A-Level.)
5. Do you ever wish you could change something in any of your books?
One thing. When I’m writing a book I dedicate myself to making it the best book it can possibly be – the best book I can make it at the time. So I can never look back with regret and think I could have done better. I know I couldn’t have done better if I can honestly say I gave it my all at the time.
But I made one mistake.
In my first book, Jimmy catches a bullet. I was overexcited and carried away with the action and didn’t have the experience to know that would cause problems. It makes the character less believable and, more importantly, it makes the character too invulnerable. The whole story of the series relies on the main character being in danger – the feeling that he genuinely could be caught, injured or killed by dangerous situations or by his enemies. So in book two I had to put in a whole load of extra work to make sure it was clear to the reader that Jimmy wasn’t going to be catching any more bullets – that he really could be shot. That he might catch the first bullet all the circumstances were in his favour, but the second one would kill him, and it would hurt.
My editor should have pointed out my mistake but maybe she didn’t realise it either.
6. What is your favourite ever book?
Bend Sinister by Nabokov.
7. Which of your books are you most proud of?
Jimmy Coates: Blackout
8. Which authors inspired you to start writing when you were younger?
Mervyn Peake and Paul Auster. But remember – I didn’t write when I was younger. Not really. Those two were the authors who got me back into reading when I had become so impatient with books that I’d basically given up. So without them I’d never have been able to write a word and my first efforts at writing stories were greatly influenced by them.
One more thing: don’t give in to the myth of ‘inspiration’. If you want to write something, write it. Obviously you have to read a huge amount to have any chance at being any good, but don’t wait for ‘inspiration’. Ideas don’t hit you out of the blue. You make them. You make them by giving yourself time and space to stare at blank pages. You make them by challenging your brain to come up with something – anything. And you make good ideas by going through a hundred bad ones first. Don’t fear bad ideas – bad ideas help beat the fear of writing ANY ideas. So be prepared to make an effort and a mess.
And have you looked up chiasmus and zeugma yet? Because I just gave you two pretty good examples.
Thanks for a great set of questions. Much more interesting than the usual stuff!