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Posts tagged ‘creative writing’

Blog Tour Q&A: Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

I am delighted to host a blog tour stop today for Johnny Rich, author of The Human Scripta book I enjoyed immensely and which is now available in paperback by Red Button Publishing. Below, Johnny discusses the book’s journey from writing to publication and his fascination with the major themes within the story…

Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

Johnny Rich, author of The Human Script

Please introduce yourself and give our readers a brief overview of your career.

My career has been more checkered than a tweed chessboard. It’s ranged from publishing to politics, from television to technology and from educational charities to entrepreneurship. Through it all, I’ve tried to piece together a living based on communicating. With words, mostly. 

Fifteen years ago, I quit a well paid job in the media to go back to university to study Creative Writing. I was lucky enough to get a place on the celebrated masters course at the University of East Anglia where, among many other wonderful teachers, I was tutored by such great names as Sir Andrew Motion, W G Sebald and Lorna Sage. A steady stream of writers also dropped by: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Malcolm Bradbury, Doris Lessing, Ali Smith, Louis de Bernieres and many other luminaries. 

That year made me recognise two things. First, writing fiction was not something to be ashamed of. Second, it was something I was able to do with at least some skill.

My debut novel The Human Script was something I started writing that year. I had no idea then how long it would take to reach the printed page.

Your book The Human Script has just been published in paperback by Red Button Publishing. Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

I’m not good at summing it up, especially without spoilers. If I could, I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to write it in the first place. For that reason I’m grateful to one reviewer who provided me with a snappy description: ‘a philosophical thriller’.

Obviously, I worked hard to ensure that the story is as engaging as a thriller while, at the same time, deep questions emerge about what it means to be human.

The narrative involves Chris Putnam, a junior geneticist at the turn of the millennium, working on the Human Genome Project, which was the global effort to write down the DNA code that makes us human. It was, literally, the largest scientific endeavour our species has ever undertaken. Chris, however, is no more than a tooth on a cog in the machine.

Against this backdrop, the story begins with the death of Chris’s estranged father. This sets in train a series of events exploring nature and nurture, science and faith, art and celebrity, sexuality, truth and literature.

It’s also a love story, a tearjerker, and occasionally it’s funny too. Or that’s what I hope.

As a triplet, I am always interested in books and literature about identicals and multiple births. What drew you to this subject matter?

Going back to Shakespeare and beyond, twins are a classic literary device. Not only do they provide great scope for plot twists based on confusion (most of which I avoided as they often come across as contrived), but they’re also a sort of natural ‘what if?’ What ifs are central to the theme of The Human Script.

For the same reason, twins are critical to the study of human behaviour and genetics. If identical twins – who share the same genes – behave differently, how do you explain the difference? The simplistic answer is that it’s down to their environment: their nurture rather than their nature. (As it happens, it’s more complex than that. It’s the chaotic interplay of genes, upbringing and whole lot else besides.)

Hidden within this nature versus nurture debate though is the assumption that nothing about a person can be outside those influences. If that is the case, we can never be free of our background, of who we are. We are creatures of fate. So where does that leave free will?

To me this question becomes even more fascinating in the context of a novel. The characters act for reasons that they can’t control and, as readers, we have to believe in their motivations, their sense of choice and in the reality of their suffering, even though, deep down, we know it’s all just puppetry on the part of the writer.

Why was it important for you to address some of life’s big subjects such as reality, mental health, religion and philosophy?

These big subjects appeal to my natural curiosity as, I hope, they will to any intelligent reader. But no one wants to wade through a treacle-thick philosophical tract. A good story, with human emotions, turns these big issues into a deep blue pool that it’s fun diving into. And, I hope, occasionally the reader will fish out a few pearls – or at least emerge feeling refreshed.

Having said that, I don’t see big subjects as separate from little ones. Yes, you could trudge through life with great human tragedies played out before your eyes without ever taking notice. Or you could see a universe in the smallest thing. The way a person takes their coffee, for example, might say something profound and important about that person, about all humanity, about existence itself.

I used to be a keen photographer. I always felt that you could point a camera at any object or scene and a talented enough photographer would always find a way to create art from it by seeing it afresh. I now feel the same about writing. A thrilling story can be dull if told badly, but even the most mundane event can be elevated into a tale of epic scale by a good storyteller.

What motivated you to write in a less conventional and more experimental form of writing? i.e less structured punctuation, etc.?

Getting the voice right is utterly non-negotiable in good writing. It’s something I worked hard on and in The Human Script, there are basically two voices.

There’s Chris’s first person narrative, which recounts events as he experiences them. I wanted to avoid that awkward feeling you can get as a reader when a character is telling you the story, that sense of ‘why are they speaking to me like this?’

That’s not how thoughts run in our heads, so I wanted to avoid that for my main character. Instead, I used a variety of styles of stream of consciousness writing. It’s important that the reader is inside Chris’s thoughts because the story turns on him becoming aware that not everything that goes on in his head can necessarily be trusted.

The other voice is a third person narrator. This voice is authoritative, authorial, almost godlike in its omniscience. It’s somewhat portentous and sometimes even pompous. As the novel progresses, the reader should be asking those awkward questions. Why is this narrator speaking to me like this? How do they know? Who are they?

How did The Human Script get picked up by Red Button Publishing?

When I completed The Human Script over a decade ago, it was snapped up by one of London’s top literary agencies. In fact, three agencies were competing for it, which was very flattering. However, at the time, if a book wasn’t about a boy wizard or written by a celebrity, they weren’t interested. Over the next couple of years, just about every publisher turned it down.

Most literary fiction loses money anyway and this novel in particular is hard to categorise, which makes it hard to market. I don’t blame the publishers for not taking the gamble. However much the agents and editors were raving about it, commercially it looked too tough to justify a publisher’s investment.

My manuscript was confined to a box under the bed. Ten years passed, during which publishing changed. The introduction of eBooks and small-run printing meant lower commercial risks for independent publishers. That allowed them to take bigger literary risks.

One evening, I got an email from a friend asking me if any of my arty-farty friends had unpublished novels kicking around. A friend of his was starting up an independent imprint with the specific aim of discovering great books that mainstream publishers had overlooked. My reply email was barely more than an attached file.

Three days later Red Button responded saying The Human Script was the book that been looking for to launch their imprint. They asked for some small changes, which reassured me they knew what they were doing, and the support they have given the book is probably more than I might have hoped for from a bigger operation.

What have you found to be the biggest benefits of publishing with an independent publisher?

Red Button publish books because they love them – books in general and the books they’ve chosen in particular. What more could a writer ask for?

In practice, this means that they’ve spent far more time listening to my views on everything from marketing to cover design than I think would have been the case with a major publishing house.

Of course, it would have been nice to have a publisher with more marketing and distribution clout, but not at any price. I’ve heard tales from friends who’ve been published by the mainstream and whose books have vanished without trace because they’ve been sold as chick lit, horror or historical fiction, when they simply weren’t. When they haven’t sold big in the first few months, they’ve been dropped like a lead jellyfish as soon as their contracts allowed.

Meanwhile, the slow steady burn has worked for The Human Script. Recently, one website called it a “whisper hit”, a reference to the way that, despite the lack of hype, readers have found the novel, loved it and just spread the word.

What have been your favourite reviews of the book to date?

The reviews have all been so generous, it’s hard to pick a favourite, although of course the Words are my Craft review was especially insightful and wonderfully written. (Enough crawling?)

If I have to pick one though, it would probably be the review by book blogger Book ’em Stevo – mainly because it was the first. Among many other kind words, he wrote, “To say I enjoyed The Human Script would be an understatement. It provided me with the long forgotten thrill of not knowing how a novel will conclude, and for that I am grateful. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys clever, well written fiction.”

I read that and thought, “That’ll do.”

So far, there hasn’t been a single bad review, but I suppose it will happen eventually. When it does, I’d like to think I’ll see it in the context of wider praise and I’ll remind myself that literature is highly subjective and a book that everyone likes probably has no real conviction. Probably not, though. It’ll haunt me.

What are you working on next?

I like to range widely, not just in fiction. I’ve recently written a semi-academic paper on an aspect of education. I’m toying with the idea of turning it into something more popular.

Meanwhile, I’ve got two kids and sometimes I tell them stories. Occasionally I think, hmm, that’s got legs. I’ve written a couple down, but not done anything with them yet.

In terms of adult fiction, there are a couple of ideas I’ve been stewing for a while. One is a sort of postmodern retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Another centres around Baron Alexander von Humboldt. I’ll just have to see which one develops first into enough of a plot to demand to be put on paper.

human-script-final

Johnny Rich is the author of The Human Script, published by Red Button Publishing, available now in paperback (£9.99) and eBook (£2.99) formats. To celebrate the launch of the paperback the author will be reading extracts from the novel followed by a Q&A on 17 November 2015 at the Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3BL. To find out more and to book tickets, visit: http://bit.ly/humanscriptlaunch.

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Introducing Author and Journalist Brian Lavery

Today’s interviewee is a very dear friend of mine from Hull University (where we undertook our English with Creative Writing undergraduate degrees together). Brian is such an inspiring. friendly, and talented man. As he explains in this interview, he’s been such a success in a number of areas. He is a truly skilled writer. Tonight, I will be attending the launch for his book The Headscarf Revolutionaries (published by Barbican Press, a publisher for which I once interned) at the Maritime Museum in Hull. Take a read of this interview with the writer in anticipation of my book review and blog post covering the event itself!

Brian Lavery, fellow Hull Alumni. Photo credit: Martin J Goodman of Barbican Press.

Brian Lavery, fellow Hull Alumni. Photo credit: Martin J Goodman of Barbican Press.

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your background and your career.

My name is Brian Lavery and I am a writer, journalist and late-comer to academia. When I write creative nonfiction I am Brian W. Lavery, so as not to be confused with another Scot with the same name as me, who also happens to be a world authority on maritime history. So, just my luck that the first book I get published has a maritime theme. Perhaps that is why the phrase “lucky as a Brian” does not exist.
The other Brian, however, is far more encumbered by success than I – and very well known too – so I was advised to give myself a middle initial to prevent confusion. However, I do not have a middle name, (I joke with my publisher that when I was a kid we could not afford it!) So I use my father’s initial. It’s a nice wee tribute too. He was he best-read man I knew, that did not teach or write, at least not professionally.

I was born in Glasgow’s East End in 1959 and I am told I am apparently from a disadvantaged background, although I must say I did not notice this as my mother and father did a great job of disguising it. I am the fourth of six sons. My father was a sheet metal worker and my mother a shop assistant. I have been writing since ever I can remember. My father always encouraged me and was a big fan of education in general. He worked in shipyards and factories and was keen I should not do similar. ‘The heaviest thing a smart man will lift is a steel rule,’ he said. His advice stuck. I even used it as a piece of dialogue recently in a short story.

I have been a regional and national print and broadcast journalist and now latterly an academic and writer. I have edited two weekly newspapers; news edited two regional dailies, and held various roles on national and foreign papers and magazines. I have also worked as a reporter, features writer, sub-editor, publisher, PR and media consultant, speechwriter and contract publisher. I returned to higher education in 2008 and recently completed a PhD with the University of Hull’s English Department. My new book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple Trawler Disaster) (Barbican Press) resulted from the research for that doctorate.

Having already been very successful in the writing industry and working in journalism for 25 years, what drove you to go to university and then later to do a PhD?

Shakespeare tells us the world’s a stage and we are players etc., well, this is the third act to my play. When I did my undergraduate degree I loved it. I was still working. I had to, to pay the fees etc., But I realised I had found something new. I am not a religious man, but going back to university, for me was how I imagine it must be for some folk “finding God.” When the University of Hull offered me a PhD place (and paid the fees and gave me a tutoring post too) I did not hesitate. At 52, I was Hull’s oldest scholarship boy. I also had two years of teaching that I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to continue. I also owe a vast debt to my wife and my two daughters for their support in helping to make my third act a reality.

Of journalism, writing for radio, creative non-fiction and short fiction, which do you find the most challenging and why? Which do you find the most rewarding?

If you are doing them correctly, i.e. to the very best of your ability, each time, every time, then they should all be equally challenging and rewarding. The challenge being getting the story, script, poem or whatever out there and the reward being in knowing that you did your best in so doing. That said, I couldn’t remember a time I did not write. And when the chance came to get into newspapers I jumped at it. I dropped out of university and set off to college in Sheffield from Glasgow, with dreams of being a latter-day Damon Runyan or Raymond Chandler.
I became fascinated with every aspect of newspapers, their production and processes and as a result managed to get into senior positions relatively early. Aged 24, I was the country’s youngest editor when I took over the Humberside Weekly News in 1983. My other writing took a back seat as I married, had a family, and moved onto to national print and broadcast work and so on. Most of the time I was based in Hull and later a lot of my work was freelance. I also worked as a “UK” correspondent for foreign titles. Journalism brought me a degree of success and travel, but most of all I loved doing it and swore that if that feeling left, I would quickly follow. I still wrote poems, prose etc., but did little with them. As John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.’

What advice would you give for anyone starting out in the journalism industry?

If you want to be a journalist, don’t do it. If you NEED to be a journalist, then well done, because you are half way there. Folk always make way for somebody that knows where they are going. I am not big on advice. I did not follow it as a young man and rarely give it as an older one.

Print journalism – which was my principal practice – is vastly different from when I started.

What was the biggest change you saw in journalism within your time in the industry?

When people ask me why I left mainstream journalism, I tell them I didn’t. It left me. Print journalism – which was my principal practice – is vastly different from when I started. There was no Internet, computers etc., just paper, ink and typewriters. But it is not just the vast technological change, which is welcome, but it is more that the fact that the actual print model is now, in the main, a dead man walking. I no longer felt at home there. As I said earlier the “feeling” of loving doing it left me and I decided to do something new. I hung on only to help support my family.
Many papers and their attendant websites are simple click-bait hubs and because the big corporate publishers missed the bus by not taking new technologies as seriously as they should have, print media, especially local papers, are struggling. Sadly the knee-jerk reaction to that decline was to throw the baby out with the bath water and as result mature, experienced journalists like those who taught me, are a rare sight indeed. I still feel there will be a place good news outlets, whether online or in print. But it can’t all be about money. The old Press barons like Beaverbrook, knew this and often made losses while making great newspapers. But I will halt with my philosophy of news, lest I bore your readers to death.

You are about to publish
The Headscarf Revolutionaries with Barbican Press, an independent publisher based in Hull and London. How did this come about?

I had a quite bit of interest in my book before it was finished. But I simply felt no-one would give me the dedication and support that I knew I would get from Barbican. I knew some of their writers and their works. I liked what they did – and how they did it. I was in good company, so when Barbican offered to publish my book, I agreed. But it was year before I signed a contract. As a young man, I would have jumped at the first offer from the first publisher. As an older man, I am not as ready to jump and not as easily impressed. That’s great thing about being “an overnight success” after just 30 years. I put a lot of store in trust and integrity and Barbican excels in both those departments. They also are gifted editors. But most importantly – they actually care.

What do you feel are the advantages of publishing with an independent publisher?

Input. You are much more part of the process in a smaller indie firm. I am presently ten per cent of their writing stable, as opposed to just another assignment for an appointed editor in a big publishing house.

What ways do you find are most effective in marketing yourself and your books?

Having a background in public relations and journalism, gives me the advantage of knowing what to do. Knowing folk in the media helps too. But like selling anything, if the product is dodgy it will come back to bite you. The most effective way to market a book is to write it well, to the best of your abilities. The rest is in the lap of the gods. As for marketing yourself, I find being a shameless self-publicist is a positive boon. It is also hard work. Go to the readings, the signings and do the interviews. Work at it. After all, the readers are not going to come round to your house.

Like selling anything, if the product is dodgy it will come back to bite you. The most effective way to market a book is to write it well, to the best of your abilities.

What fuelled your interest in Lillian Bilocca’s story and in the maritime/trawler history of Hull?

It was the story of Lillian Bilocca and the Hessle Road women that captivated me, more than an interest in the trawling industry or maritime history per se. In 1988, I wrote Mrs Bilocca’s obituary for The Times. They used just five paragraphs. I always thought she deserved so much more. A mere 30 years or so later, I got round to writing it. The story of these brave women and their fight to improve safety at sea is one of great courage. It is the story of this city in the 20th century.

How do you feel being named the City of Culture for 2017 will help boost Hull’s literary scene?

Make no mistake, Hull richly deserves to be recognised as a city of culture, for that is what it is – and has long been. It was so when I arrived here more than 30 years ago – and certainly long before. It is not as if the city suddenly became more cultured on the day of the announcement. When that announcement was made I was dragged in as a ‘talking head’ for a local radio interview and told them that I was obviously pleased, but wary. Pleased that my great adopted home city was getting the recognition it deserved, but wary that we might be overwhelmed by swarms of outsiders, ‘consultants’ and folk from “That London” telling us how cultured we are. We in Hull already know how cultured we are. Without sounding too cynical, my main fear is that local writers, artists, playwrights, poets, painters etc., who have been – and still are on a daily basis – the mainstay of our cultural capital, may be overlooked or under appreciated or worse still, subsumed. I do not want a “W1A” scenario where the “Perfect Curve” brigade come in, steal our metaphorical watch, tell us the time, and sell us the watch back. I am also worried that the future of the arts in our city may fall prey to a “sub-committee” culture. After all, when did you last see a statue built to a great sub-committee? My bitter and twisted sarcasm aside, I am confident the arts community of our city will not allow that sort of thing to happen. It is too great a community. If you throw a penny at a crowd in Hull you will hit a poet, writer, musician or other artist with it. Our literary scene will grow and enjoy many boosts with or without assistance, whatever the year.

You can find out more about Brian and his work here.

Brian is also very active on Twitter here.

You can read more about Barbican Press and the publisher Martin Goodman here.

Do you have any questions for Brian? Please include them in the comments below and I will get them answered!

Introducing Independent Publisher Martin Goodman

Today’s guest on my blog is the Publisher and owner of Barbican Press, the publishing house based in my native city of Hull and the company for which I undertook a social media internship last year. I first met Martin Goodman at a Head In A Book event (run by Head In A Book, Hull, discussing the Tony Hogan book by Kerry Hudson) at Hull Central Library last year. From there we began talking and I secured an internship in which I ran the Twitter and Facebook activity for Barbican Press over the course of a month. Of course, I knew of Martin before this, but I hadn’t had a chance to meet him before then. I’m very grateful that we have a formed a good working and personal friendship and I love seeing Barbican Press go from strength to strength. Here in this interview, Martin talks publishing, teaching creative writing, and Barbican Press.

Martin Goodman: Publisher and Professor

Martin Goodman: Publisher and Professor

Tell me a little bit about your background and career.

I was born in Leicester and determined it was time to become a professional writer aged 12. By the end of my first week I had filled a folder and realized I was overproducing – more than the market could bear – and so determined to bide my time. I felt it would be later in life before my writing started to connect, so I kept writing but kept it to myself or sent it out and had it come back. My first novel came out in 1992 – On Bended Knees, shortlisted for that year’s Whitbread Prize. And I keep on going. I moved into academia in 2007 and am now also Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull.

What drove you to start up your own publishing business?

I know what sort of publishing house I need as a writer – one inclined toward quality and risk – and so choose to provide such a house for others. I was external examiner for D.D.Johnston’s The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub when it was up for its PhD. D.D. had determined to write a novel that would be unpublishable by the industry, and I knew it was too brilliant not to share – and so kickstarted the company then.

Do you focus on a particular kind of literature, or publish a wide range?

Our slogan is ‘writing from the discomfort zone’ – ours are the sort of books Picador used to bring out in the 70s. One of our writers sees our books as being ‘dark with a sense of humour’. There’s also some regional focus on great writing coming from Hull.

Mainstream publishers can’t generally risk the sorts of books we bring out because they don’t tick all the mainstream boxes; they don’t come with a sure return.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced with starting your own publishing company?

Getting anybody to notice. After four trips to an independent bookstore they agreed to take an individual copy of two titles. Getting a book shortlisted for Scottish Fist Book of the Year resulted in three copies being bought in for Scottish stores. So bookstores need to know and support us, as do reviewers. We target and send out scores of copies for reviews, then watch them come up for sale on ebay.

Previously, huge publishing conglomerates have dominated the industry. With the publishing industry changing and evolving at a rapid rate, what do you think the independent publisher needs to do in order to stay in the race?

Don’t join in. We can’t win that race. The trick is to keep independent virtues – have faith in the offbeat and determine that other readers are out there and in fact longing for the sort of books with a difference we can bring out. Mainstream publishers can’t generally risk the sorts of books we bring out because they don’t tick all the mainstream boxes; they don’t come with a sure return.

When looking for an outstanding piece of writing, do you have a set, firm criteria that the manuscript must meet? What do you look for? Or do you generally let your gut feeling decide how you feel about a manuscript?

The writing is immediately clear, and opens up a striking and alternative world view. Beautiful prose plus a striking intelligence.

What are your short and long-term goals for Barbican Press?

We have to make a profit in 2015. We need to see our books in bookstores, picked up by overseas agents and customers, and achieve reviews and prizes. All accomplishable. Long-term the goal is to have readers seek us out as their choice brand.

What is your proudest moment for your company?

Honestly it’s each time an author trusts us with their book and we bring it into the world. And they are happy. That’s the crux of what we are about: releasing genius works that might otherwise have languished.

What is your biggest personal achievement?

In Barbican Press terms, where I am very much a hands-on editor, it’s probably supporting Hana Sklenkva on her translation of Martin Vopenka’s THE FIFTH DIMENSION, a book destined to become known as a modern classic which would have stayed obscure otherwise.

Are there any general or universal misconceptions about writing and publishing that creative writing students tend to bring with them into the classroom?

Students generally aim to write better, which is the proper focus. As a long-time published writer, starting a publishing house showed me all the misconceptions I had had. I had never appreciated all the steps and costs and work that go into bringing out a book. I had never given full credit to the extent of a publisher’s commitment.  Writers always deliver books that are special to them, but don’t necessarily give thought to what will make those books stand out in a preposterously crowded market.

How do you find managing your workload as a writer, publisher, and lecturer?

Full-on. I keep the writing side going by starting at 5am. 5-8 became my creative slot. Then I let the day hit me with whatever it wants until it’s time for bed.

Who do you see as a big influencer in the industry? Anyone you feel people should be keeping their eye on as the next big success?

I honestly believe any of our writers could break through in a big way. Such blazing optimism comes in handy. Creative writing departments are going to have an increased say. Most writing of note coming out of the US has some creative writing school allegiance, and that will happen increasingly here. And deservedly so, since so many writers are sacrificing so much and working so hard on their writing with expert tuition over many years. The best ones are using the opportunity, freed from commercial pressures, to break bounds and come up with books that are vibrant and unique.

The Fifth Dimension, one of Martin's proudest achievements.

The Fifth Dimension, one of Martin’s proudest achievements.

Follow @MartinGoodman2 and @BarbicanPress1 on Twitter

Find out more about Barbican Press here.

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