(Interview from the Essential Words website)
What inspired you to become a writer?
At 15, I had a wonderful English master who would read Chaucer to us in a vigorous imitation of a 14th century accent. He sounded so enchantingly like Bluebottle in the Goon Show that I switched from my intended career in science to read English at Oxford.
I then descended to running a public relations company. As a result, I have never had writer’s block. In PR, you either produce or you’re fired.
Did you find an agent or a publisher first?
I don’t think any author should have to suffer a slow death by rejection slip. My first three books were marketing textbooks. They were brought out by a conventional publisher in the Golden Age of the last century when you could send an unsolicited manuscript to publishers, confident they would read it quickly and respond courteously with personal comments. Literary agents in those days were, happily, a very rare animal.
When literary agents became czars, I produced my next five books through my own small publishing companies. They weren’t vanity presses - when I sold it, one of my self-publishing firms was grossing £840,000 annually, publishing solely my own books. It operated from my front room with just one secretary.
What do you think the future of book-publishing will be?
We often hear that the agent-publisher-book chain axis has become unworkable. I welcome its collapse. With the advent of ebooks, the future for authors lies in self-publishing. When everyone has an ebook reader and can download any book they wish from the Internet in moments, readers rather than literary agents will shape an author’s career.
Of course, life will not become easier for authors. There is already so much self-published tosh on the web that I suspect readers will have to be guided through the fog by independent review sites. Influential reviewers will then become more important than the copytasters at Random House, reviews will build or kill careers, and one gatekeeper will simply replace another. Plus ça change…
How do you divide your time between teaching and writing?
So far, the lecturing contract at my university has been part-time. In theory, this leaves me a few days a week free for writing, or ‘research’ as universities term it. But as every teacher will tell you, one paid academic hour equals at least five hours unpaid in preparation and marking. Fortunately, I write best at dawn from 5am to 8am, inspired by total silence.
Why did you set up the Writers’ Village short fiction contest in 2009?
For fun! It was a great joy to read the many entries last year and to discover several writers, previously unpublished, who clearly have the talent to become professional authors.
I had also heard several speakers at writing conferences say that, in their early years, rejection slips had brought them close to clinical depression. It occurred to me that writing contests can be very important for a new writer. To win any prize at all boosts one’s self-esteem during those lonely nights of the soul that we all experience.
Several of my winners told me that the kudos of the win was more important to them than the cash. (Um, I often wonder why I bother to offer cash at all...)
How do you think writers benefit from entering creative writing contests?
Every entry in a writing contest hones a writer’s skills and every win (or near miss) teaches the writer what judges (and publishers) look for. A writing contest deadline is also a great spur to getting a story finished. At least one third of the entries in the Writers’ Village contest arrive in the week just before the deadline.
What do you find to be the biggest challenges of writing?
My greatest challenge is not a shortage of ideas. Earn your living from writing for 40 years, as I have, and you’ll have more ideas than you can use.
I also find that revising endless drafts - the bane of many authors – is a joy, especially with a wine chiller at my elbow.
But as I am a very lazy person, the greatest vexation is the sheer manual effort of tapping the keyboard hour after hour. I have thought of installing voice recognition software on my laptop so that I could just sit back in an easy chair and talk to myself.
Better still, I could hide my laptop beneath a table in the staff common room and recover a tale worthy of EastEnders, full of sound and fury, already written for me.
Whose writing do you admire?
Among modern writers, I admire Peter Ackroyd and Anthony Burgess for the sheer, unfashionable joy they take in playing with words. I dislike the Hemingway school of journalism. In my opinion, it destroyed the English novel.
I yearn for the return of the flock wallpaper style of Edwardian fiction with its unashamed floridity of language. Meanwhile, I read Michael Innes. He’s as wordy as it gets.
Where do you carry out the majority of your writing?
I am fortunate to have a large conservatory, insulated by a thousand books from the television in the next room, where I can harmlessly smoke cigars and pretend to be Lord Peter Wimsey.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
It has undoubtedly been the mentoring experience I enjoyed with the wonderful crime novelist Michelle Spring while finishing my latest historical novel.
In five months, Michelle taught me more about the commercial realities of modern fiction writing than I had learned in four years doing a PhD in creative writing. In return, I shared with her several delightful Jacobean swear words.
What advice would you offer an aspiring writer?
Success in commercial writing is 90% perspiration, 10% technique. Talent is optional. Creative writing classes don’t always tell you that (even mine!).
If you really want to become a best-selling author, you probably will - or so the best-selling author Michele Spring keeps assuring me.
But you’ll need to spend at least seven years learning the techniques, as apprentices did in the old craft guilds. Then another seven years trying to catch the eye of an agent. Unless you’re married to a mainstream publisher, there’s no short cut. No ‘novel in a month’. No tested, easy ‘12 point plan for success’.
Thomas Mann once allegedly wrote: ‘a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. Amen.