- Can you tell your readers something about why you chose this particular topic to write about? What appealed to you about it? Why do you think it is different and your approach is unique?
A few years ago I wrote a novel called SEASON OF THE WITCH, which looks at the strange and wonderful world of medieval memory palaces and examines the question of whether modern man’s reliance on technology is weakening his powers of recollection. WITCH was a research intensive book and by the time I finished it, I thought I was done with the subject of memory.
But then by chance I read a New York Times article, which told of the discovery of the memory molecule PKMzeta. Researchers are now very close to the point where they can erase very specific memories by merely changing a single substance in the brain. Once this goal is perfected, the rape victim and war veteran will no longer suffer from traumatic memories and a learned behaviour such as addiction will be cured. But the flip side of the coin is not so shiny. If we are able to rid ourselves of troubling memories, could this tempt us to persist in destructive or immoral behaviour simply because we can swallow a pill and forget about them? And how will tampering with memory impact on our sense of identity? I found these questions fascinating and so I decided to write DARK PRAYER as a story about one of the twenty-first century’s greatest remaining challenges: the mystery of memory as the key to who we are.
- How long do you think about a topic before deciding to write about it? Do you have a set of notes or a note book where you write down topics that appeal before making a decision as to which topic this time?
I have many, many folders filled with newspaper clippings, photo copies, notes, observations, snatches of overheard conversations and photographs. I usually have several ideas floating around in my mind even as I am busy writing a book. One of these random ideas will stick and usually, by the time I finish a novel, I have a good idea of what the next book will be about.
- How long does it take to research a topic before you write? And for this book?
I love research and I have to discipline myself otherwise I will go on researching forever and never write the words CHAPTER ONE. But on average, I usually spend a year on research and another year writing the novel. During the research phase I also start figuring out the plot and characters.I am not a serendipitous writer. I believe in structure and before I start writing I will have worked on many outlines and will know exactly what is going to happen in every chapter. I usually also write the first and last chapters together. This way I can be certain there will be a coherence and integrity to the story and I won’t write myself into a corner. Of course, this does not mean that things do not change as I write my story. My characters often start taking on a life of their own and sometimes they behave in ways I never expected. This is the fun part of writing.
- What resources do you use? In general and for the last book that you wrote?
The internet. But I also still believe in libraries. Very often I will track down the names of books or scientific articles which are not accessible online and will trek to the British Library and spend many hours there. I also interview people who can share with me their experiences in a specific field. E.g. My book WINDWALKER deals with cave diving and I interviewed three cave divers to make sure I understand their motivation and the work in which they live, and also nail the details about diving and diving equipment one hundred percent. In DARK PRAYER, my heroine is a free-runner. As I knew nothing about parkour except for the videos I watched on YouTube and that smashing opening sequence in Casino Royale, I asked around until I found someone who was a free-runner and who could talk to me about the sport and the philosophy behind it. This kind of person-to-person research is crucial if your story is to ring true.
- How helpful do you find authority figures such as the police when you say you want to write about them? Is there a good way to approach them in your experience?
I have never interviewed authority figures so I am afraid I have no special insight to offer.
- How many times have you been rejected before your first novel was accepted or before this book was accepted?
I was rejected twenty-seven times before I found an agent willing to sign me. The agent then shopped my debut novel and the sixth publisher he approached, took it on. Without an agent I probably would not have managed to break in.
- Did you need to self-publish on e-books before a publisher took you up?
My first book was published in 2000 when e books were not even a glimmer in mighty Amazon’s eye! In fact, Amazon was in its infancy and the big chains ruled: Barnes&Noble, Borders, Waterstones. In those days it was a paper world. No-one even emailed each other and I remember my American publisher and I had to courier unwieldy stacks of paper manuscripts back and forth across the ocean.
- Would you recommend self-publishing and building an audience before approaching a publisher? If so, what benefits do you see that it might have for the aspiring novelist?
If you’re a first-time author it is very difficult to build an audience if you self-publish. It can be done – Amanda Hocking is the poster girl for self-publishing — but in general, writers do need publishers to get established. Once you have a number of books behind you and have built up a loyal readership, it starts making more financial sense to go solo. Publishers take a very big chunk of your earnings for ebooks and most authors feel this is not warranted as publishers do not have to pay for printing, shipping and warehousing. Best-selling author, Barry Eisler, who turned down a $500,000 advance from St. Martin’s Press to self-publish (he later signed with Amazon but he still self-publishes some of his work) started the trend. More and more legacy published authors are going this route. The future is hybrid.
- Does writing provide sufficient income to live on? And how long did it take before this happened?
The average writer makes only minimum wage and most writers rely on a second job or on their spouses for support. When I started out, publishers still paid their authors decent advances. Unfortunately, this has changed and advances have shrunk very substantially. Royalties on books have also gone down because books – especially ebooks – have become laughably cheap. I rely on foreign rights as well. If your agent manages to sell foreign rights, they can add substantially to your income. But in my own case, my main income now is from screenwriting, not novel writing. Script writing has its own challenges, of course. The pay is better but the chances that your script will actually be made into a movie are very low. More than 80% of commissioned scripts never make it to the big screen. So like everything in life, it is a trade-off.
- What is the best piece of advice you were given that you could pass on to aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. And grow a very thick skin. Authors live with their egos exposed. Make peace with the knowledge that not everyone will like your work and sometimes reviewers will get nasty. Learn from your mistakes and from constructive criticism but stay true to yourself. Do not follow trends slavishly. And above all – continue reading the work of other authors. There is no better education for a writer.