Tuesday, 7 August 2018

An Epiphany - starring Hollie Overton as herself

Ten years ago, Hollie Overton’s acting career was just gathering momentum when she had a profound change-of-heart and decided to chuck it in and direct her creative energies into becoming a writer instead. A gamble that paid off with television writing jobs for series including Cold Case, The  Client List and Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments.

Last year, her debut novel, Baby Doll became a Sunday Times bestseller and was selected as a Richard & Judy Book Club summer read. Now, her second novel, The Walls, is already climbing the charts.

Hollie Overton
(author photo courtesy Random House

Both of her novels to date draw upon her unique childhood experiences to lend realism and compassion to her depictions of violence and complicated family dynamics. Baby Doll, described as ‘a gripping and tense psychological thriller’, features a relationship between twins and Hollie is an identical twin herself. The Walls tells the story of a single mother who happens to be a Death Row press agent for the Texas Department of Corrections as she grapples with temptation to murder her abusive boyfriend using her knowledge of the criminal justice system and guidance from a death row inmate. Hollie’s father was a member of the notorious Overton gang in Austin, Texas, and spent several years in prison for manslaughter, so she was raised by her single mother.

In this exclusive Scrawl interview, Hollie Overton talks with Remy Dean and shares some of her experience of writing for television and talks about how she made a brave decision that paid off and led her to becoming such a successful novelist.

Are you an actress who writes or a writer who acts?

There was a time when I would have said that I was an actress who writes but over the last six years that has changed. Now I’m a writer who used to act. I have no desire to perform anymore. Sometimes admitting that surprises even me. Acting consumed so much of my life - from the time I was ten until my late twenties. If I wasn’t trying to get an audition, taking classes, or performing, I was obsessively thinking about what else I could do to further my career.

For a while, I tried writing and acting, but the more writing opportunities that came my way, the less acting mattered.

Was there a particular moment, or series of events, that changed your outlook?

I remember getting an audition for a TV show and being surrounded by dozens of actresses in the waiting room. I had this sudden epiphany--“I don’t want to do this anymore.” That was the last audition I went on and since that time I’ve focused fully on writing. I almost couldn’t believe it was that easy to walk away from but it was.

Perhaps if I had been more successful I would feel differently about it, but I truly believe I wasn’t quite good enough. I got into rooms, got auditions for great projects but could never get to that next stage where I was booking roles. I have zero regrets though.

Did the actress skillset feed into being a writer?

Studying acting taught me so much about the writing process. I learned how to analyse text, the specificity required in creating a character, the collaboration involved in bringing a creative work to life. Acting was my first love, and ignited my passion for storytelling. I’m forever grateful for those experiences.

Would you say that portraying a character as an actress and creating a character as a writer have anything in common?

I studied Meisner, an acting technique that is all about getting out of your head, so you can behave instinctively to your surrounding environment. Despite all my training, I was never truly about to let go and be “in the moment.”  I found it impossible to escape all the superficial thoughts that filled my head. LA is a harsh place where youth and beauty is held to an almost impossible standard. It’s difficult not to compare yourself to others. As an actor, instead of embracing the role I was playing, all these thoughts would cloud my brain; am I too fat, too tall, too pale, too redheaded?

There were moments in acting class, and occasionally on auditions or during performances, that I could silence that voice, but it was always a struggle. I’m not sure why but the process for creating a character when I was writing always felt more organic, sometimes even effortless.

The Walls by Hollie Overton

So, are characters usually your starting point?

Before I begin a writing project, I always start with a main character. Then I ask myself what their emotional wound is and what core relationship matters most and I build the story from there. I think it’s because I’m working from such a deep emotional place that has nothing to do with those superficial aspects so I’m really able to silence that inner critic.

Because you are so regularly involved with television and writing for screen, do you consider your novels to be screenplays in waiting?

I don’t consider my novels as an extension of my screenwriting. As a matter of fact, it’s important that I keep them separate. When I first started writing Baby Doll, I was in a creative funk and frustrated by my TV career. I wanted to do something that was just for me and not for the marketplace. I wasn’t even sure what I was writing. I called it my “project” and worked on in bits and pieces in between screenwriting gigs.

When I sold my first book, I was beyond excited because it seemed like such an impossible achievement. Having worked in Hollywood, I’ve seen how difficult it is to get something produced, even if it is a well-received book. I told myself from the start that I’m would focus only on what I could control—writing a great book. Of course I’d love to see my books on TV or film but that’s not why I write them. I simply love the process and then seeing my books in print.

To what extent is your writing process emotional/intuitive vs. calculated/intellectual?

I’m without question an emotional and intuitive writer. I’m mostly self-taught, though I have taken several classes to learn structure and hone my own process but most of what I know I learned from doing with lots of trial and error along the way.

I used to have doubts about the type of writer I was and the type of writer I “should” be. I grew up reading all the greats. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Jane Austen and every time I thought about becoming a writer, especially a novelist, I’d talk myself out of it. If I wasn’t going to be able to write like the masters, then maybe I shouldn’t write. Once I let go of the expectations and pre-conceived notions and followed my heart, I started writing the stories that mattered to me. That’s when everything changed and I discovered what I was meant to be doing.

One of my favourite writers, Graham Masterton says he runs his stories as a film in his head and writes down what he sees and hears… When writing a novel are you acting-out all the scenes in your head first?

I’ve never thought about my process like that.  The way I work is very loose and less rigid than when I’m writing scripts. I’m a huge proponent of outlining screenplays or teleplays, but when I’m a writing book, I write from character and the story finds its way. I don’t suggest other writers attempt that because it can be tricky but so far it’s worked for me.

Once I’ve started a book, I spend a lot of time building each scene/chapter, trying to find the arc and the rhythm so that it’s exciting and entertaining and making sure the characters are tested in a way that’s real and grounded.

It’s also important to find those unexpected moments, the twists and turns that keep readers turning the pages. It’s usually when I’m writing dialogue that I employ Mr. Masterton’s technique, reading out loud the dialogue, doing my best to ensure that each character sounds as unique and specific as possible.

I was scanning your your IMDB credits… could you explain what the difference is between ‘staff writer for’ and ‘written by’ …and all the different writing jobs you do?

Staff writer is basically an entry-level position. When you’re a staff writer, you receive a salary, but you don’t get paid when you write your episode - which is a significant amount of money. You do receive residuals each time an episode you wrote airs.

When it says ‘written by’ that means I wrote a specific episode but was a story editor on the complete season.

The other rungs on the TV Writer ladder are: Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Consulting Producer, Executive Producer - Showrunner.

To clarify, my credits state that I was a story editor for TV but that was on a previous show. Story Editor is a title given by the Writers Guild of America to help classify your pay structure and job requirements. I’m currently a Co-Producer. What that means is I have slightly more responsibilities than as a story editor.

Whether you’re a Story Editor or a Producer, you’re still in the writer’s room pitching ideas and writing episodes. The higher up the ranks you go, the more responsibilities you’re given.

Dominic Sherwood, Anna Hopkins and Katherine McNamara in
Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (picture courtesy Disney ABC)

One of the main obstacles for the writing process is the ‘internal editor’, which some can find crippling at times… How do you deal with that when there are so many 'external editors' involved? 

In TV, time is precious so you don’t have the luxury of worrying about your internal editor. You have to make decisions and move on because in a few weeks you’re breaking, writing and prepping the next episode.

The nice thing about the process of TV writing is that it’s collaborative. You may have a wild idea that doesn’t quite work and someone else will have the perfect fix and vice versa. There’s often a consensus from the room about what works. Or the showrunner has a very clear vision. That usually helps eliminate the internal editor. If you’re in a room that really supports each writer, it also gives you the courage to pitch wild and inventive things and see what lands. Sometimes those are the ideas that work best.

When it comes to the actual process of writing an episode versus writing a book, it’s the same - sitting down by yourself and typing away until you have a finished product.

The benefit of writing for TV is that you’re not doing it alone. You’ve got a team of writers working to build the story, scene by scene, everyone with the common goal of creating the best show possible.

The downside is that because there are so many people working to create an episode of television, there are times when that an episode morphs into something that’s not aligned with your personal vision. You have to remind yourself ‘this isn’t your show.’ Your job is to support the showrunner and creator’s vision.  That means you have to accept letting go of an idea you love or implementing an idea you might hate.

Writing a book is of a much more solitary endeavour and it can be a bit daunting knowing that you have to craft three hundred plus pages by yourself. Writing novels requires a deep level of trust and belief in yourself and the story you want to tell. There are no actors or directors to blame if the final product isn’t well received. It’s all you. For better or worse.

I’m never sure how writing by consensus works! All the re-drafting, editing – can you give us more of an idea about the process?

Writers gather in a room and the showrunner presents their vision for the season or episode. The writing staff “breaks” each episode, pitching our best ideas scene by scene until a story takes shape. Some shows are very hierarchical, in which you’re level dictates how often you speak or how much weight your ideas might have. I’ve been lucky that most of the rooms I’ve been in were very democratic. Everyone had a voice and the best idea won.

At this point, a writer is assigned and sent off to write an outline. The showrunner and studio or network executives, all weigh in with notes. It’s your job to revise as many times as necessary and then you’re “off to script.” Those three words send joy and terror into the hearts of TV writers everywhere!

You’re supposed to have two weeks to write an episode but I’ve done drafts in four or five days. Once a script is done, you turn it in and go through another round of notes. Sometimes the entire staff will weigh in on a draft, other times it’s only the showrunner.

After the script has been given approval by the network or studio, it’s sent to production. Script changes continue throughout that pre-production process. Sometimes the script is too long and you have to make cuts. Other times you can’t get a location or an actor isn’t available and you have to make more changes. This process continues right up until you shooting begins.

Once you’re on set, the changes are usually minimal but you’re always making tweaks. Actors might have an issue with a scene or the director will have a different vision or the studio or network has a problem that wasn’t ironed out so you’re on set tweaking the script on the fly. It’s simultaneously a very stressful and exhilarating process.

What is the best route for a writer to get their script in front of a story editor?

The one difference between selling a novel and getting a TV writing job is that access to decision makers is much easier in publishing. I’m not saying it’s easy. Just easier. Anyone with an Internet connection and a great book can be discovered if their book is good.

You can cold query agents and editors, track them down on Twitter and see what types of manuscripts they’re looking for. But in TV, there’s a much bigger gate to climb over to even get your work read. It’s not simply about writing the best script, it’s about finding someone to champion your work.
Most TV writers, myself included, work for other people. We simply don’t have the power to hire a writer onto a show.  It’s a very complicated process in which the showrunner, network and studios must all agree on whom to hire for a writing staff. To even get a showrunner or studio meeting, you usually need an agent or a manager or know someone with connections.

For anyone hoping to land a TV writing job, writing a TV pilot that gets attention is the first step. Then you have to find representation. A great way to do that and something that really helped me when I started was entering writing contests. There are a lot of scams out there so you must do your homework but there are some exceptional contests and fellowships that will get you noticed.

Which one worked for you?

I was in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop and that got me my first manager and agent and my first TV job. There’s also the route of working in a TV writers office as an assistant and getting to know writers and having them recommend you to their agents. There’s no one path. If you talked to a hundred TV writers, they would likely all have different stories about breaking in, but all of them would probably say hustle and a positive attitude are crucial.

How would you feel when your fiction gets optioned and other writers are hired to ‘adapt it’?

I’ve loved seeing writers like Gillian Flynn and Emma Donogue adapting their own work and I’m eager to follow in their footsteps.  I’ve had several offers since Baby Doll came out, none that have come to fruition. I have been very clear though that I either get first crack at adapting my books, or it won't happen. I’m perfectly content with letting the books live on as just books.

Could you consider the following two quotes that Oscar Wilde wrote and comment on your thoughts, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” yet he also said, "An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty."

I adore these quotes though I’m more inclined to agree with Mr. Wilde’s first statement. I write crime thrillers so the basic stories are obviously fictional but the characters and their relationships are loosely inspired by my own. I didn’t start out saying, “these books are going to reflect my life and my family,” but that’s how things unfolded.

Baby Doll - Hollie Overton's debut bestseller

You say your first novel Baby Doll has a lot of your personal experience interwoven with the plot and writing was a kind of therapy… so, is your second book The Walls continuing therapy and self-examination?

There are so many small character moments that worked their way into Baby Doll and The Walls. I remember my husband hadn’t read The Walls and he was listening to the audiobook and he almost had to pull over he was so surprised by a familiar scene I’d put in.  He called it “surreal.”

I also like to focus on relationships that are important to me because I find it deepens my work. In Baby Doll, it’s the twin sisters, which was born from my relationship with my twin. In The Walls, it’s the parent-child dynamic, inspired by my own relationship with my mother. I often wonder as I continue writing books if that will change. Will I find other sources of inspiration? Only time will tell. Right now I’m trusting my process and going with what works.

You have been open about your stressful and troubled childhood and say you took refuge in writing at an early age. When did you wake up to being a writer?

My childhood was definitely turbulent but I had a wonderful mother who nurtured my creative talents. She bought me a journal when I was seven and it became my refuge. I’d write about my daily activities and thoughts. I filled up dozens of journals over the years.

At ten, I started doing theatre, and that form of storytelling fuelled me, but I never stopped journaling which turned into writing short stories and evolved from there.  I used to say I was an actress and writing was my therapy. What surprised me most was that when I became a professional writer, I felt a profound sense of loss. I no longer had my creative refuge because writing was now a career. I eventually had to find other outlets like yoga and running to calm my mind and keep me centered.

What is the first book that you recall reading that really wrapped you up in its world and carried you off - to a place of refuge?

I was an avid reader growing up but I was fourteen when I read Pat Conroy’s Beach Music and it affected me in such a deep and profound way. It’s a sweeping love story that travels across the globe, from the Deep South to Italy, detailing the characters stories from the Vietnam War to the concentration camps during World War II. What made Beach Music stand out, were the brilliant characters. They’re real and funny and flawed, and practically leap off the page.

I remember absolutely adoring that book and wondering why it wasn’t a bigger hit. It was only later when I read the reviews and saw the book was Pat Conroy’s least successful which surprised me because I loved it so much.  I don’t care what critics or anyone says. It made me feel more than any book I had ever read, and whenever I need an emotional kick-start, I reread it.

Who have been your favourite authors and what have you learned from them? 

I’m a huge Steinbeck fan. I read The Winter of Our Discontent at eighteen. It was a very bleak time in my life; a time when a family financial crisis derailed my college plans. I was questioning all the choices I’d made.  It’s a very bleak book but in some ways that fuelled me. I told myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those people that allowed life to break me. I was going to be a fighter.

On a craft level, it’s hard to list just one writer as an influence. I grew up reading lots of “important’ novelists but I was just as invested in more popular contemporary fiction. Mary Higgins Clark was a huge influence. She wrote about women in dangerous situations and always made me truly invest in their journey and root for them.  In some ways I don’t think she gets enough credit for all she did for the genre.

I also loved R L Stine’s young adult novels. I remember arguing with my sister over who got to read the latest book. He was the master at cliff-hangers and twists. I also loved Stephen King because he’s Stephen King, the master of both story and character.

I was a huge fan of John Grisham and I read The Client and Pelican Brief half-a-dozen times. When I first started writing books, I didn’t know what type of writer I would become but thinking about the books I loved to read, it makes sense that I chose crime dramas.

What's your favourite treat or tipple?

There’s an ice cream shop in LA called 'Salt and Straw' that makes the best salted caramel ice cream you’ve ever had. There’s also a seafood restaurant right outside my hometown in Texas called 'Kings Inn'. They have fried catfish, avocado salad and tartar sauce that are simply the best in the world. It’s worth going back for that meal alone.

What can we look forward to next from Hollie Overton?

I’m currently revising my third novel, The Runaway, which will be out early next year. I just finished writing for a TV show called Tell Me A Story for CBS All-Access that will air later this year. I’m also developing a TV pilot that explores a brutal ‘murder for hire’ in Texas, and an unlikely killer.

Thank you very much, Hollie, for taking the time to consider these questions and sharing some of your varied and valuable writing experience.

Hollie Overton was talking with Remy Dean

For more info and news, check out the official Hollie Overton website

Hollie Overton is the author of The Walls
out now in paperback (published by Arrow, £6.99)

Monday, 16 July 2018

From Wigan to Grandville - an interview with Bryan Talbot

Bryan Talbot is one of the most widely recognised and respected practitioners of graphic storytelling. His long career has produced a hugely varied, always relevant, body of work that spans many genres from superhero fantasy to documentary realism. His subjects cover machine-gun toting badgers, imaginary giant rats, civil engineering, history, social geography and biography.

Since the mid-1980s he has steadily accrued a string of top accolades. In 2009, Talbot was the first graphic storyteller to be given an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by the University of Sunderland, and in 2012 was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by Northumbria University. That same year, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, a clever graphic memoir he co-created with Mary Talbot, won the Costa Biography Award. This year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Bryan Talbot being signed into the Royal Society of Literature,
...using Lord Byron's pen! (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Just take a look at his body of work and the vast scope of some of his more ambitious tomes and you will know that Bryan Talbot is a busy man! So, The Scrawl is hugely honoured that he took the time to talk with Remy Dean, about anthropomorphising animals, the collaborative process, the development of the comic industry and whether Rupert the Bear is terrifying or not…

I was part-educated at Wigan College of Mining and Technology. During the mid-late 1980s, I found the ‘scene’ there a very rich and creative one. It was one of my student friends who introduced me to Hellblazer, which was when I first remember being conscious of the name Bryan Talbot as an artist, though I had also been reading 2000AD, to which he also made an important contribution. 

Bryan Talbot was born and raised in Wigan and also went through art college there. Soon after his graduation from Preston’s Harris College in the mid-70s, Talbot had started publishing his own indie comic, Brainstorm Comix, in which his character, Luther Arkwright made his debut. Later, a long-form edition of the epic Adventures of Luther Arkwright was published as a single volume and this is generally recognised as being the template for what we now consider to be a Graphic Novel. The Graphic Novel, or GN, is an extended form of storytelling using the comic strip format, tending to be more literate in tone and often tackling more ambitious concepts and serious themes. Talbot now has the deserved reputation of being the ‘Father of the British GN’ and is certainly one of the form's more prominent proponents. 

Years after I too had graduated, I visited an old college friend from Wigan and saw they had a big poster of artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat – I think this was one of the first comics, along with what was coming out of the New York counter-culture, that I came across that really tackled serious social and political issues like child abuse and homelessness, whilst ultimately remaining an uplifting read. 

How did The Tale of One Bad Rat come about and what was the motivation? Was it simply a good story, an issue you felt strongly about, or was it a conscious effort to push the envelope of what a GN could do?

I never set out to write a book about child abuse. It came out of a desire to do a graphic novel using the Lake District as a setting. I know the place very well, and partly grew up there. It was in my mind for several years and I began to read books on the area and its history. I researched the Lake District poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge but a graphic novel idea never crystallised.

While visiting Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top, the thought struck me that here was a woman who told stories using a mixture of words and pictures, a direct correlation with comics. So, I started to research Potter. I'd never read her books when young and started by reading her complete oeuvre, then books about her. I must have read about 13 biographies before I realised that her life wouldn't make a very interesting basis for a graphic novel. If you saw the movie Miss Potter, you'll understand what I mean. They only managed to make that vaguely interesting by inventing events and simply making things up.

Shattering the silence... The sublime landscapes of the Lake District feature
prominently in Bryan Talbot's ground-breaking GN, The Tale of One Bad Rat
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)

So, I'd reached another dead end. Then, one day I saw a teenage girl begging on a platform in London's Tottenham Court Road Tube station. She was being hassled by a huge, bearded Jesus freak, who was trying to persuade her to go with him to a hostel or somewhere. She looked so embarrassed. Thinking about her later, she brought to mind descriptions of Beatrix Potter who, at age 16, was said to be "painfully shy." As you know, that became the first scene in the book and I grew the story from there.

Can you talk us through a bit of how this process of 'growing' that story went?

I thought, "What if this girl has a psychic or synchronistic connection with Beatrix Potter and she follows Potter's footsteps to the Lake District?' As I plotted it, I asked myself why she left home. "Because her father was abusing her," was the reply. It was as glib as that. It's a fact that many kids do run away to escape abuse and many end up in London. Personally, I knew nothing of the subject, so I began to research it, buying books and visiting the library. What was amazing was the number of people who came forward, from friends I've known for years to people I met at conventions, to talk to me about the abuse they'd suffered as soon as they discovered I was researching it. It quickly dawned on me that it was far too important to marginalise, to simply have as a reason for her to leave home. It needed to be what the book was all about.

Just one page from the meticulously designed dynamic layouts
that pepper the hugely entertaining Grandville graphic novels...
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Please tell us about the anthropomorphised characters in Grandville – I had first assumed they were under the influence of Wind in the Willows, perhaps the work of Beatrix Potter… but then I made the connection with Parisian cartoonist J.J Grandville. I am wondering what creative path led you to the characters for Grandville and why they have held your attention for so long…

My graphic novels are usually the result of years of consideration, some taking longer than others. I think, research and make notes, slowly developing the concept until I’m happy with it. The first volume of Grandville was the complete opposite. Directly after finishing Alice in Sunderland, I was tidying away the pile of reference books I’d been using and picked up a book I’d had for decades. It was a book about JJ Granville, the pen name of Jean Ignace Isadore Gérard, who was a big influence on John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books.

As you know, his brilliant cartoons, satirising French social mores, fashions and attitudes, used animals to convey character. I had a sudden flash of inspiration: “Grandville” could be the nickname for Paris in a story set in an alternative reality populated by anthropomorphic characters in which Paris is the biggest city in the world.

I’m a big fan of crime fiction and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. The idea to write a detective story, in a Belle Epoque steampunk fantasy setting, really grabbed my imagination. Also, I’d never done an anthropomorphic comic before, so jumped at the challenge.

How do you approach such an ambitious undertaking?

With this book, after spending a week thinking about it, while working on the artwork for my experimental graphic novel Metronome, I scribbled down the plot in ten minutes and typed the whole script over the next five or six days. The characters arrived fully-formed and even delivered their own lines. It was like taking dictation. For all my previous comics, I made meticulous thumbnail sketches of each page before starting the scripts. This time, I didn’t need them, as I could vividly visualise each page, something I’ve done ever since. Creating a graphic novel is a very long slog, and anything that can save time is a bonus.

Animal action and crime capers in Bryan Talbot's Grandville
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Some of your graphic novels are huge undertakings – how do you go about planning something with the scope and breadth of Alice in Sunderland, for example, which is so rich in facts and history? 

I spend a lot of time on the structure, which has to be rock-solid before I type a single word. The first Grandville was an exception. I know that many prose writers, such as Stephen King or Ian Rankin, create as they write, the story growing out the initial concept, developing it as they go along. You can’t really do that with a comic. You can’t get half way through drawing a graphic novel, then suddenly realise that, to take a silly example, your protagonist should have been two feet taller and you have to re-draw eight month’s worth of work.

Even after spending two or three years researching Alice in Sunderland and making copious notes, I still had to spend six weeks working full-time on the plot structure, going through draft after draft until it was as perfect as I could get it. With this 320-page book that used dream logic and what had to seem, on the surface, to be stream of consciousness storytelling, a solid structure was vitally important.

Alice in Sunderland: the inventiveness and diversity
of Bryan Talbot's visual storytelling is showcased in
this hugely ambitious cross-cultural history-spanning
'biography' of this typically remarkable Northern city.

Writers often talk about differences between approaching short-form fiction and the novel – do you have such distinction based on the length of a work?

I don’t tend to write short strips but, when I do, the process is no different.

 You are an all-round comics creator, how do your ideas generally develop – through sketches and drawings, through prose, through story... Which came first the word or the image?

They come at the same time. It’s not as if I’m writing a script and then I have to imagine how to stage and draw it.

Alice in SunderlandThe Tale of One Bad Rat with its runaway from the North, in London… Do you think being ‘a northerner’ has influenced your outlook in any way?

I don’t really know. I know I have a low tolerance for pretension, but that’s probably due to coming from a working-class background, rather than being Northern. I did make my early characters Northern, such as Chester P Hackenbush and Frank Fazakerly.

Do you have a creative ritual or regimen?

I get up around 9 a.m, start working around 10 and work till 9 p.m, with a break for lunch and another for a brisk four-mile walk, seven days a week. My creative process, which you can probably imagine from my description of how the last two books came about, all depends upon what stage I’m at in the development of a book – whether working on ideas, writing, pencilling, inking or colouring.

Can you describe the place where you do most of your creative work, outside of your own head, that is?

If you mean my studio, it’s in a large ground floor room with a bay window. There are lots of bookshelves, books in piles on the floor, a plan chest full of artwork, a drawing board, a computer area with 2 Macs, printer scanner and Wacom tablet, a large Victorian roll-top desk and a big aspidistra. The place is cluttered with a variety of junk that I’ve often used as props.

What can you see from there?

If I’m at the drawing board, in the bay, I can look out onto our front garden: trees, lawn, flowers. Mary’s a keen gardener. I enjoy watching the birds that we put food out for and have a bird identification book handy.

Do you have a favourite treat or tipple?

Wine. As a treat, I do enjoy a full English fry-up once every month or two. Usually we eat very healthily!

You regularly collaborate with other artists and writers – which is very usual for comics creators. But you also are an auteur – writing, drawing, colouring, as a solo venture, and more recently you have been collaborating closely with Mary Talbot. 

The graphic memoir of  Mary Talbot draws on parallels
between her troubled relationship with her own father, a James Joyce scholar,
and Joyce with his daughter Lucia... Winner of the 2012 Costa Biography Award.
Can you tell us a little bit about your motivations, both for working alone and for working with others and how that process generally works out creatively?

I always prefer to draw my own stories. It’s satisfying and also easier, as I know exactly what the writer intends! Though, I must say, as a writer, I’m often a complete bastard to myself as artist, giving myself scenes that I know will look good, but that will be hell to draw. Crowd scenes, for example. They take ages. Commercial comics are a production line, with an editor who commissions a writer, gives the script to a penciller, who’s then inked, coloured and lettered by different people. There is often zero collaboration between the writer and artists, apart from any script instructions.

The books I draw for Mary work very differently and the collaboration is extremely close. We discuss the books as she’s researching and writing them. We both have input on all aspects. I recommend script and plot changes and sometimes even supply extra dialogue, and Mary comments on the art as I’m working on it.

You have been involved in British comics for some time - articles often refer to you as a 'veteran' or the 'father' of the British GN... How has the scene changed? It seems to have gained respect during your tenure, and your contribution to this shift in perception has been recognised by numerous accolades including your honorary doctorates and the recent Royal Society of Literature Fellowship...

The big change has been the decline in sales of monthly and weekly comics, and the dramatic rise, in the number, range and quality of graphic novels. Also the rapid growth in the percentage of women creators, which has shot from hardly any about 40 years ago to what I now guess is 50%. Graphic novels are no longer confined to the specialist comic store niche market and are now sold in regular bookshops and every respectable literature festival now has a sizable graphic novel component.

When did you ‘wake up’ to being a writer/creator?

I’ve been writing and drawing my own comics since I was eight.

Casting your mind back, what was the first book you can remember that really grabbed you, immersed you in its world and carried you off?

The Rupert the Bear annuals, when I was five.

…and did they scare and 'scar you for life' as they did Ramsey Campbell?

Not at all. I know the story he means, he told me all about it once!

For me, it was an escape from the grimy, smoky Wigan of the 1950s where I grew up, the idyllic country setting and fantastic adventures... probably why I fell in love with the Lake District when my folks bought a caravan there and we started going up every chance we had.

In my research I came across a mention that you had done some concept art for a screen adaptation of a story by Campbell?

Yes, coincidentally enough, that was set in the Lakes. It was only a short film, about 30 minutes long I seem to remember, directed by Jon Sorenson, a cinematographer who’d worked on Bladerunner, among other things. I don’t think it was ever shown on TV.

Do you have an all-time favourite book or one that you regularly return to?

I’ve had books like that, but they changed over the years as my tastes have developed. I do find myself going back to Aldous Huxley once every few years.

What’s out there right now that you would recommend?

Hannah Berry’s Livestock.  Salman Rushdie’s Shame... it’s been out for many years, but I only read it recently.

I would expect there has been some interest in screen adaptations of your work, I mean a Graphic Novel is practically a storyboard already...

I’ve sold the film option on Luther Arkwright a few times, but nothing’s ever come of it. At the moment, Euston Films is trying to get a TV series based on Grandville off the ground, ditto with a small UK production company and Bad Rat. I’ve been here before, though, and am not holding my breath. These things more at a glacial pace and often fall through.

What is coming up from Bryan Talbot that we should look out for?

I’m currently drawing Mary’s fourth graphic novel, Rain.

Thank you, Bryan Talbot!


for more information, news and updates: 

of particular interest, and well worth spending some time with, are
The Grandville Annotations
in which Bryan Talbot is very generous with information about
the influences and ideas behind the epic story and artwork 
- it is like a director's commentary you may come across on a
collectors' edition DVD for a classic film, only free and online!

and follow his approved fan-page twitter

You may also like:

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Re-boot Imminent

Watch this space for new and exclusive content up-loading this summer!

The Scrawl has recently been recognised by the National Library of Wales as, "having significant cultural value," and they have started to archive all our content and will provide a mirror site as part of their academic portal. The Scrawl was originally published as a newsstand magazine, with a small grant from the Arts Council of Wales. That was 18 years ago! It has since turned into a 'labour of love' and we are keen to restore its former glory with Remy Dean and Kim Vertue back at the editorial helm.

The Scrawl publishes author interviews about their creative journey, themes and process. Our editorial approach is both multi-genre and trans-media, so far we have featured literature, comics, critique, stage, screen and songwriting. Our readers share our passion for words - perhaps aspiring writers, creative writing students and fans who are looking for informative features and more serious, in-depth interviews with their favourite word-wielders.

Here is baker's dozen of cool writers, just some of those we have featured so far - how many can you match with the list of names above?


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Reading the Telly - an interview with Frank Collins

Frank Collins is best known for writing extended reviews and critiques of modern media - particularly cult television and cinema - insightful musings that take-in a much broader canvas than many of his contemporaries would attempt. 

Frank Collins aboard the TARDIS
He is the author of Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - an in-depth and inspirational book exploring the worlds of the Eleventh Doctor - a regular contributor to Frame Rated and to books for Arrow Films accompanying their acclaimed specialist movie releases - including Bruce Robinson, Woody Allen and Hammer Films collections. He also writes for online magazines such as Wow 24/7 and MovieMail and readers with an interest in cult television, and classic British cinema, may remember Frank from his influential review blog Cathode Ray Tube... Frank Collins talked to Remy Dean for The Scrawlabout writing, reviewing and making wider cultural connections!

What does Frank think is the function, or responsibility, of the reviewer and cultural critic?

If I’m reviewing anything I always try to strike a balance between praise and criticism. I couldn’t cynically rip anything to shreds and leave it at that. That isn’t my approach. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. It can be counterproductive. On the other hand, there are many reviewers out there whose humour often provides that balance and there is certainly room for all sorts of views. I always try to find something interesting to say.

He opened a recent Doctor Who review with references to Italo Calvino, John Donne, Rembrandt, memory and reflection… not what may be expected from a review of a popular telly series...

Doctor Who, like any television programme or film, isn’t perfect. Some stories work for one particular audience demographic and others don’t. The series takes risks – perhaps trying out a writer new to the format or shooting the episode in a particular style – and often it falls flat on its face.  As a reviewer, I always aim to find the good in what might be perceived as a bit of a duff episode. If a story doesn’t work for me then I’ll try and constructively explain what I perceive as the faults.

With all the references I use, then that’s really my own perception of that episode. The episode’s writer did not consciously or deliberately refer to Italo Calvino but the Rembrandt portrait was in the episode. For me, a certain piece of dialogue may set off cultural connections and Calvino was one of them. The Rembrandt, I believe, was included either on the part of the writer or the production designer. It was a visual comment in the background. John Donne was a metaphysical poet interested in science and there’s a lot of analysis that ties together his poetry and quantum physics, for example. So, I did a bit of research and I felt it reflected the Doctor’s role as a Renaissance figure in the story that sees the poetic rhythm of the universe. Therefore, the John Donne stuff went in.

I have been - and I’m sure I always will be - criticised for seeing things in episodes that were, on the surface, never referred to, and for reading them in an ‘arty-pretentious’ manner. In the end, my way of seeing a story is in finding the wider cultural connections. The episodes don’t exist in isolation, they constantly refer to other genres and art forms and by tracing the connections, I hope I bring a different perspective to how the viewer may receive the episode.

Frank Collins gets to know the 11th Doctor!
[click cover for reviews & to buy the book]
His extended reviews always enrich and enhance re-watches and are of great service. Recent contributions to books to accompany special DVD releases also rely on plenty of in-depth background research...

Film reviewing is slightly different. Working for Arrow Video on some of their releases allows me to mix together a film’s production history – a story that may well yield interesting cultural references – with contemporary analysis. So, for example, when I was commissioned to write about the two Count Yorga films, I did the research on the films but I also read about the connections between the counter-culture occult scene of the late 1960s and the Manson murders because that’s the milieu in which those films were made. The essay for Arrow’s release of Woody Allen’s September was again, a combination of what was available about the production history and an analysis of how the film reflected Allen’s appreciation of Chekhov, his metaphysical view of the universe and how the film embodied a number of genre tropes, particularly melodrama. It also looked at editing, shot composition and use of lighting.

The wider the field of analysis is, the better for me. That’s fun research. That’s finding out about writers, artists and filmmakers, many of whom you may only know about in passing. You end up exploring an entire body of work as a result and it makes your writing that much richer.

Frank has been involved in the wider visual arts since his student days, either as practitioner or facilitator. He is a talented artist and also works as an illustrator and archaeological sketch artist – does he think that his art-training and sensibilities have influenced (and informed) his writerly engagement with (and use of) words?

The best thing I ever did was to train as an artist. I may not have ended up as a professional artist but the paths I took to study for the qualification were worth it. I greedily absorbed the history of art and design and learned how to interpret art and understand an artist’s intentions without prejudice to my own taste.

But beyond that, you learn how to articulate the ideas in your own practice. It is not simply a process of making the art. You need to be able to talk about your work, to transmit the ideas in it. Again, like writers, artists do not work in isolation. They accumulate references and connections and visually interpret the world around them.

Trench 4 - a sketch by Frank Collins recording an archaeological dig
When did he ‘wake-up’ to being a writer?

My work as an artist ran the gamut from installation and photography to performance works. The latter were not random, ad hoc pieces. They were written as monologues and performed live. All of it leads back to words for me, whether written or spoken.

If I have a ‘style’ as a writer then it was first cultivated in the monologues and poetry that went hand in hand with dissertations and catalogue statements.

Prior to that, I’d dabbled with writing about telly and films and cobbled together magazines at school so that was always there in the background.

My current phase as a writer started about ten years ago with the [Cathode Ray Tube] blog. I realised at that point that it was much easier to get your voice out there. There were so many ways of publishing instantly and if enough people liked it you’re on to something. From that blog came the books, invites to guest review on other sites and the commissioned work.

Talking of the past, what was the first book that really grabbed him and carried him off to another place?

Oddly enough, I’ve been revisiting a lot of the books I remember reading as a youngster.  So, I’ve recently just re-read Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Alan Garner’s Elidor. It’s a cliché but Terrance Dicks and his Doctor Who novelisations also had an immense effect on my generation. He made us read. I recently revisited his Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion novel. He is an astonishingly vivid prose writer.

Who have been his favourite writers and what can be learned from them?

Derek Jarman was a key figure. A brilliant film-maker, a poetic writer and a man unafraid to challenge the status quo during a very difficult time for the LGBT community in the 1980s. He taught me to not be afraid of being myself. His diaries are incredible and the book about his garden in Dungeness is still inspiring me. A lot of my work as an artist owed much to him and to Neil Bartlett.

Bartlett was an amazing performance artist and wrote a hugely influential book about Oscar Wilde, Who Was That Man? that is always worth returning to. He made me aware of how much, at the time, LGBT history was hidden away and that it was a story that had to be told. He now writes wonderful novels that all seem to be about finding the truth beneath the accepted social conventions of post-war England. He unconsciously led me to Sarah Waters whose later novels come from a similar standpoint.

Influences beget influences. Bowie’s cut-up method for song lyrics led me to William Burroughs and Kathy Acker. Jarman is in direct lineage to Powell and Pressburger. Hammer Horror turned me on to folk-horror like Witchfinder General and then to writers like David Rudkin. Genet took me to John Rechy and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This just scratches the surface. We are all built out of such influences and connections. And they are there to be used.

...but is there a favourite book or one that he has returned to more than a few times?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That’s ground zero for me. I first read that when I was about 14. I’ve still got the edition I bought then. It’s falling to pieces. From that book radiates my interest in the whole horror genre and beyond. I wouldn’t say Stoker was a 'good writer' but Dracula’s influence is enormous. It spurred me on to Poe, M R James, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Aikman.

In addition to being both insightful and eloquent, Frank is a prolific writer and is capable of structuring long-read pieces that remain fascinating, entertaining and informative throughout. Does he have a preferred writing approach, method or regimen?

Find the angle. Once you’ve got that you can get started and build around it. If I’m doing a film piece then it usually starts with the research. I might find a wonderful anecdote or story and then I’ll start with that and work back and forth. For a tribute I did on John Hurt a few months ago, it started with an anecdote where he described his choice of work as him being the victim of his own imagination. That was the springboard to talking about the types of characters he played.

An image can often give you the opening to a piece. If something strikes you instantly then start there and work outwards.

I tend to collate all my research and then start to assemble based on that. It’s often about trying to create a narrative. So it may start with a good quote about a film or an interesting anecdote. Then, I’ll construct a history of the film or the director and finally I’ll find a jumping off point to put across my view of the film in context with a particular genre or era.

For pieces with longer deadlines I do all the research up-front. I’m just in the middle of researching The Naked Civil Servant, the television film about Quentin Crisp. I won’t start writing until a few weeks before the deadline and then I’ll do that over a couple of weekends. I used to be able to write late at night but I don’t have the inclination now to do that and I’m very much reduced to writing at weekends because I work full-time.

The Doctor Who reviews are done straight off the mark on Sunday morning. The last one took all day Sunday writing solidly from about ten in the morning to about five in the afternoon. There’s some pressure to get those done, as the sooner they’re posted, the better, but I’ll keep refining those until the last minute. With those reviews the episode’s theme and ideas are usually the initial spark but I can get side-tracked by researching something. Last time, I ended up digging through a lot of analysis of Rembrandt’s portraiture.

What is the beverage of choice when writing and being creative?

I’m always fuelled by too much tea and coffee.

...and what is the view like from his usual writing space?

The garden. It took me ten years to get round to actually creating a garden at our current home but I finally turned the disintegrating tarmac and weeds into a gravel garden last summer. Gradually, it’s filling up with plants and flowers and it’s lovely watching everything you planted a year ago emerge. If I get really stuck writing I’ll nip out and have a wander for ten minutes.

So, what advice can he share with all those ‘fan-boys-and-girls’ who may envy his position as a leading commentator on all things cult and cultural?

You have nothing to be envious of. I don’t consider myself special at all. I do a lot of work for free and rarely get paid, so if you really want to be in my position then that’s the reality.  When you do get paid that’s when you realise that just perhaps you might be quite good. I don’t like working for free but that’s the nature of the beast.

You have to want to do it. I must really want to write because despite the ups and down I still do it. So, if you want to write about films and telly and you think you have a particular voice you would like to share then just go and do it. The hard work is getting people to read it and to build an audience.

Thank you very much, Frank!

Frank Collins was talking with Remy Dean

You can read all of Frank's contributions to Frame Rated here

Check-out a wide variety of past projects on his tumblr pages

For news, updates and 'asides', follow Frank on twitter @CathodeRayTube

...and check-out the (now mainly archival) blog Cathode Ray Tube 
- "the quintessence of British Pop Culture blogs"

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Culture and Cruelty - an interview with Iain (M) Banks from The Scrawl archive

It is 30 years since the groundbreaking epic science fiction saga of The Culture began with Consider Phlebas and went on to span ten volumes. Three years prior to that, Ian Banks' debut novel, The Wasp Factory, had shaken up the literary scene and left an indelible mark on a generation of readers (and writers). The time seems right to delve into The Scrawl archives and share our interview with the late, great Ian (M) Banks, conducted during 1998 (between Excession and Inversions)...

Iain Banks in a publicity photo for The Bridge
One of the UK's most wildly imaginative authors talks to Scrawl about sex, space and smugness...

Iain Menzies Banks is Scottish. He was born and raised in and around Dunfermline, Fife, educated at Sterling University. Along with fellow Scot, Irvin Welsh, Banks has become known as one of the most startling of modern British writers. Scotland seems to be producing more than its fair share of literary talent and recently that talent has began to make a notable impact on British SF, with Iain M Banks and Ken MacLeod pushing the vanguard. Is there something north of the border responsible for this top-heavy distribution of word-wielding talents?

‘I think it’s mainly just coincidence,’ Iain conceded, ‘But it is true that a good proportion of good British writers are Scottish... A cultural divide does exist and most English people don't understand the breadth of it. Writers in that situation develop a different voice and are more determined to express it.

‘I think Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is a landmark - the best Scottish novel this century! Scotland has been producing more than its fair share, in terms of literature, ever since - we’re just ten per cent of the UK, but we've got more than ten per cent of the best writers...’

His first novel, The Wasp Factory, after causing a furore in the literary world on its publication in 1984, is now held as an iconic modern novel. In much the same way as Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting, The Wasp Factory is held up as a ‘yardstick’ - new books are often promoted as ‘the best since,’ or heralded as ‘a Wasp Factory for the nineties,’ and so on... It was a provocative and stunning debut and certainly made the name of Iain Banks instantly famous and infamous, was it a battle to bring it to print?

‘It was rejected by six of the big publishers...’

The Wasp Factory - a stunning debut!
Although it was the first Iain Banks novel to see publication, it was not the first he had completed...

‘I’d written about five novels before The Wasp Factory was published, but I’d written three or four before that one, mainly science fiction. Two of those novels were eventually published as part of the Culture series, one of them being The Use Of Weapons, partly due to some intervention from Ken MacLeod.’

The Culture is a broad concept that links the bulk of Banks’ widely read and acclaimed SF output. It is a vast intelligent culture of sentient machines, including giant living space vessels, which have become so advanced that they have exceeded the full understanding of humans and now look after the human population in a cosmos-spanning, multi-cultural future society... Is this a future that Iain thinks we may be heading towards, and would that be a good thing?

‘Is the Culture a possible future...’ Iain mused, ‘Probably, eventually, but not for us. It will be the future for another species perhaps, different from us as we are today. We’re too tied up in bigotry, hatred, war, economics, oppression, competition... The Culture would only work with people who are nicer than us - less prone to violence and genocide. Perhaps aggression is necessary to achieve sentience, consciousness, space travel, and we don't know if we're a particularly violent species or a relatively mild one compared to others out there...’

Iain had stated that he would want to be in the Contact division, which is the section of the Culture that would deal with First Contact scenarios...

‘Contact is the most interesting bit - the Culture’s saving grace - and joining it is about the only ambition available within the Culture. Because not everyone qualifies for Contact - whereas the Culture goes out of its way to accommodate nearly everybody, even those who don’t like it...’

‘The Culture is my vision of exactly the place I would like to live. I can’t imagine a better place - it’s a utopian society.’

Some readers have criticised the Culture for being 'too smug'...

‘It knows it's smug. The price of perfection, I'm afraid. It’s smugness is one of its best points!’

It has been suggested that the Culture should be destroyed, because it is too perfect.

‘I can understand that urge. As a boy, I used to enjoy building dams in the sand on the beach, irrigation channels and little castles, and of course the real fun was knocking them down or watching them fall as the tide came in...’

Would he ever take notice of such reader feedback and compromise in any way?

‘No - I write what I enjoy and even I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I let it flow and the plot takes control... I started out writing Excession with the idea of destroying the Culture and it could have gone that way. There is an element in the story which could have initiated its downfall and if the plot had wrestled the book from me and it had gone that way, I would have let it - I would have destroyed the Culture... It happened to turn the other way.'

The Culture continues...
So are there any more Culture novels in the pipeline?

‘Out of my current four book deal, at least one of them will be a Culture novel...’

Does Banks have a writing ritual or regimen?

‘Oh, I’m very strict with myself... During the summer months I have fun and think about books and I find myself looking forward to the time of year when nights draw in and the weather turns bad... I write nine to five, every day during the darker winter months, and often into the night also. I write directly into an AppleMac. Listening to Radio 1, usually, though I always have a CD cued up and ready to go also. I enjoy music very much.’

Does the genre-hopping, from SF to 'mainstream' and back, cause any problems from publishers or marketing departments?

‘Not at all. I think, perhaps, I don’t get nominated for science fiction awards because they think I’ll get them for my other books and the people giving out the mainstream awards think I’m a science fiction writer, so I’ll get awards in that category. But no pressure at all to write one kind of book over another.’

Are Iain's novels primarily driven by their themes, or their narrative?

‘I don’t really think about it. I would never try to work out how I write, I write because I enjoy it. I just let it come to me and go with the flow. Sometimes I don’t know if a book is going to be science fiction or not, I just start out with a bunch of ideas and run with them...’

One theme that seems prominent throughout Iain's mainstream and SF novels is that of gender identity. Of course, this is a central motif in The Wasp Factory, then in Excession we have the concept of both sexes being able to become pregnant, Whit is told from the first person point of view of a female and Song Of Stone is told in the male first person. There is a strong element of sexual discovery and the formation of gender identity running through the flashbacks in Complicity... Is this a personal fascination that asserts itself or is it an intentional exploration of these ideas?

‘I can recall when "Women’s Lib" was in the news - before it became "Feminism"... It made a big impact at the time I was being brought up. Then, the media portrayal of women was very clear cut and gender roles were set out for you.

‘When I was a child, I remember noticing that women in films couldn’t run unless the male hero placed his hand in the small of their backs and kinda pushed them along, as if this was what made them go. And if the plot demanded that the villains caught them, then it was the woman who fell over or sprained an ankle and the man had to stay in order to protect her. So you thought you had it all worked out and the difference between men and women was very clear cut... Then you realised that perhaps it wasn’t true - in fact it was all nonsense.

‘So it is something that fascinates me, to this day, and I am aware of it. It is a theme that runs through my writing, intentionally, but it’s not the major theme and I wouldn’t like to think that readers see that as one of the most important themes. I think the more important element is humanism and the definition of the individual.’

The treatment of male pregnancy in Excession implies that personality defines gender more than physical attributes...

‘I think there are definite male and female aspects to personality that define gender more than the outward appearance - though I wouldn’t like to say what they are...’

Another recurring trait is the often extreme cruelty in his novels... Is that due to some dark subconscious tendencies or is it a reaction against the happy ending cliché?

‘Well I certainly wouldn’t want to be a character in one of my own novels! But is it due to something in the murky depths of my subconscious? God, I hope not! I think it’s more to do with avoiding the cliché and making things a bit more unpredictable.

‘Many people seemed to think that The Wasp Factory was horrendous and pretty bleak, but I actually thought it had a happy ending and was an upbeat sort of book.’

In Complicity, after you get to know the central character and quite like the guy... Banks gives him cancer when it has nothing directly to do with the plot...

‘Well, he’s not dead, he has cancer. It up to the reader to be pessimistic or optimistic about the outcome of that. Otherwise I think that’s also an upbeat book.’

Complicity was adapted for the screen
Song Of Stone, seemed to be a bit of a departure, quite a gentle read, all very lyrical except for the regular interruption of the short sharp set-pieces of blunt brutality and violence...

‘Gentle!? It’s horribly violent! The whole book is about the lead character’s inability to affect his own destiny - he has no outward control and cannot seem to change anything. He’s just swept along by events. And all he can do is think. His mind is his only freedom, and the language he uses tends to be overly flowery in parts, because all he can do is try to prettify the horrible things that are happening around him - try to make something beautiful out of them in his own mind. He does this by retreating into his thoughts and seeing things in this rather flowery fashion...

‘If you're writing from the point of view of someone who doesn't share your own beliefs it makes you think, you start to question your own beliefs and that's always a progressive and good thing to do.’

The science in the Culture novels seems convincing and the whole vision of the future is well filled-out and holistic, are you aware of the science facts behind the fiction?

‘I read New Scientist and that's about it. As little research as possible! A lot of my research is just reading other people's SF and nicking their good ideas! I never let it get in the way of a good story.

‘I'm not really introducing any new absurdities, just taking up old ones. But you read New Scientist, and you see stuff which may imply that hyperspace and faster-than-light travel aren't as absurd as all that. They’re not possible right now, but for scientists to say that we’ll never travel faster than light is just as daft as saying we’ll never get into space - which people were saying only a few decades ago...’

...The Wright Brothers stated that flight was possible, but not in their life time. Then, the very next year, they achieved the first flight in the Kittyhawk ...Does banks really think we’ll find life out there?

‘There is life out there. If there isn't, I'd find that thought incredibly worrying... But we wouldn't know about it, unless they wanted us to.’

So cruelty and existential angst aside, would Iain Banks describe his own overall outlook as optimistic or pessimistic?

‘Optimistic. I’m a long-term optimist.’

Here's to you Iain Banks - fondly remembered by legions of fans,
he lives on in his many words... and in many worlds.
Filming for the cinema adaptation of Complicity was completed during 1999. The novel has been adapted for the screen by Bryan Elsley and directed by Gavin Millar, the team also responsible for the screen adaptation of The Crow Road, which, in the opinion of Iain Banks, was ‘Excellent’. Gavin Millar has a long and distinguished directorial career, which includes the, also excellent, adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild.

Complicity was filmed on location in and around Edinburgh and stars Jonny Lee Miller, who played ‘Sick Boy’ in Trainspotting and ‘Crash Override’ in Hackers - Jason Hetherington, who among other roles, appeared with the late Jeremy Brett in Sherlock Holmes: The Last Vampyre - and Rachael Stirling, who can be seen in the movie, Still Crazy.

Iain Banks was talking with Remy Dean

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Strange Changes: an interview with Lu Hersey

Lu Hersey's debut novel, Deep Water, won the MsLexia 2012 Children's Novel Writing Award, in advance of its publication, and has since been well-received by readers and critics. The story is inspired by Celtic mythology and teenage transitional angst, both embodied by its protagonist Danni, a teenage girl with a fairly unremarkable background who is unaware of a fairly remarkable secret about her past. The story starts with a mysterious disappearance and appears to be a crime drama, then a creeping strangeness begins to pervade events as Danni deals with changes - both internal and external. Lu Hersey talks to Remy Dean about her inspirations and approaches to writing contemporary magical realism for the youth of today...

Lu Hersey, rooted in the past, looking to the future...
Deep Water has been described as a cross between The Wicker Man and Susan Cooper – would you say it falls within the ‘Folk Horror’ genre?

The story has a strong folkloric element, certainly, but I’ve never thought of it as horror. I’d describe it more as ‘kitchen sink paranormal’, if such a genre exists! However, I’m immensely flattered to have any comparison with Susan Cooper, and I guess there’s a fair bit of Wicker Man type stuff going on in the background too… Maybe it’s ‘Folk Horror’ after all and I just didn’t realise it?

You open Deep Water with a quote from Joseph Campbell - I teach A-Level Media Studies and we look at his Hero’s Journey ideas in relation to narrative structures.

Joseph Campbell is one of my heroes – though it was only after I’d written the book that I realised Deep Water fitted neatly into the twelve-point Hero’s Journey narrative structure!

What did you learn from him and how did you apply it?

When writing, I was actually more inspired by Campbell’s theory that we - as in the human race - created myths to explain things we don’t fully understand, but ‘know’ deep in our subconscious. I was also very drawn to his - and Jung’s - ideas on universal archetypes, and wanted to use the shapeshifter archetype as an extended metaphor for the changes everyone experiences in adolescence - Danni transforming to her selkie form reflects the massive physical and emotional changes all teens experience in puberty…

This is beginning to sound strangely like I had a master plan and knew what I was doing! The truth is I’ve always loved the selkie myth and just wanted to explore ways to bring it into a contemporary setting.

Why do you think contemporary teenagers are still interested in old folklore and myths?

I think teenagers are drawn to stories that explore all things dark and inexplicable, and of course many myths do exactly that. Campbell felt it was important to keep myths alive, while adapting them to suit the times we live in, and I think he’s right. There are some brilliant takes on ancient myth coming out right now. Claire Mcfall’s Ferryman and Julia Gray’s The Otherlife, for starters…

What were you reading when you were the age of your readership?

I read loads of different stuff, like most teenagers, ranging from Dickens to Marvel comics. But I was really drawn to writers like Tolkien, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper – and my all time favourite, Ursula Le Guin.

Who have been your favourite authors, and what makes them stand out to you?

That’s a really tough question! To make it simpler, I’ll stick with favourite authors of teen and children’s books…

Most recently I’ve particularly enjoyed books by Maria Turtschaninoff, S F Said, Suzanne Collins, Eugene Lambert, David Hofmeyr and Julie Bertagna - all very different, but each with the ability to create amazing worlds that you can totally believe in.

I also love the work of Sara Crowe, Holly Black and Anna McKerrow - weaving folklore and magic into their writing in a really engaging way. And I can’t possibly compile a list of favourite authors that doesn’t include David Almond, J K Rowling, Frances Hardinge and Neil Gaiman…

Outside fantasy and SF genres, I love writers who create beautifully written, gripping stories with characters you can really relate to, such as Liz Flanagan with Eden Summer, Fox Benwell - writing as Sarah Benwell - with Last Leaves Falling, and Clare Furniss with The Year of the Rat.

Deep Water is your debut novel and was remarkably well-received – how has this affected your attitude to writing and your approach to the follow-up, Broken Ground?

In some ways it’s given me the confidence to believe I’ve done it once, so surely I can do it again – though on a bad day I get terrible impostor syndrome and think maybe everyone made a big mistake…

I still haven’t completely finished my next book, Broken Ground - I must be on at least draft ten, by now! I honestly have no idea if anyone will like it when I’ve finished. I hope so…

Can you tell us about your writing process, do you have a regular regimen?

If only! I have a day-job working in a library, so writing time is limited and should be well structured - but of course it isn’t. Some weeks I’m compelled to write and manage 2000 words a day, then other times I struggle to get 300 words out in a week. I can’t do this thing of ‘just sit down and write, it doesn’t matter so long as you’re writing’ - it matters to me. What’s the point of writing 5000 words of total drivel? I’m hard on myself and edit constantly as I go along, even though I know it would be sensible to write a complete draft, however crap, and edit later.

I try and plan the whole book at the beginning, but that doesn’t entirely work either. The characters have a life of their own and take the plot away from the plan all the time - but I still find it useful to have an idea of what happens. I always know the beginning and the end, but the middle morphs and changes a lot.

Research seems to play an important part?

Yes, I’m nerdy about getting detail right, so I do a lot of research into all aspects of the story. Landscape, myth, history, folklore, magic…

Some of my research is probably just procrastination, especially stuff like compiling images on Pinterest - which I love - but a fair amount feeds into my subconscious and I weave it into the story later.

As an editor of The Scrawl, I was aware of a deficit of female writers in our content, but with this year’s overarching focus on YA fantasy authors, we seem to be redressing the balance… Historically, there have been Edith Nesbit, Philippa Pearce, Susan Cooper. Angela Carter, Tanith Lee… I suppose we could start the list with Mary Shelley! And now we have the likes of J K Rowling, Angie Sage, Stephenie Meyer, to name but a very few. 

I want to ask about your thoughts on gender and fantasy – do you perceive a difference in masculine and feminine approaches to the genre?

Yes, sometimes - but not always. If the author name wasn’t on the cover, could you guess the gender of the writer? It’s a very interesting exercise to read manuscripts without knowing. I help sift short stories for the Bristol Short Story Prize, where all entries are anonymous (the writer is allotted a number), and I can often correctly guess the gender of the writer – but sometimes I’m totally surprised. I think this transfers to all forms of writing, including fantasy/SF genres.

Obviously, winning the MsLexia award must have been a thrill and is of course a notable achievement - it is what drew you to our attention. I am reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s comment about being called, “the best woman painter,” by a critic, and being offended by this differentiation. I know this could be provocative, but by ‘compete’ I also imply that fair competition requires a ‘level playing field’ to start with - so, does excluding male writers from the running simply acknowledge that women are unable to compete with male counterparts? 

I don’t think it’s about women not being able to compete with male counterparts - it’s more a confidence issue. Women often perceive themselves as somehow not good enough - even when they obviously are - and might not even consider entering a competition where they don’t think they stand a chance. For the same reason, you find most creative writing MA courses, or similar, have far more women students than men. Men generally believe in themselves and their abilities more than women do. Hopefully this will change over time.

And having said all of that, of course I wish that the competition had been open to everyone and that I’d won it anyway…

When did you know you were a writer? …and why did you pursue an MA?

I realised I was - potentially - a writer at primary school, when I found it much easier than other children in the class to write the script for the school play - it was only a puppet theatre thing. I loved writing the dialogue, and was genuinely surprised that no one else seemed to find it that easy.

Years later, I worked as an advertising copywriter, and although it paid reasonably well, it felt a bit like a Faustian pact, using my writing soul just to help sell stuff no one really needs. Writing commercial content for Tesco and similar companies wasn’t what I wanted to write at all, but I couldn’t see a way out. In the end I decided that in order to change direction and write a novel - which I’d always wanted to do, I had to give myself a really expensive deadline to force myself to do it - so I applied for the Creative Writing for Young People MA at Bath Spa. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Which reminds me, I should have included Julia Green, the wonderful course leader, in my favourite writers! Great stories, really beautifully written.

As a relatively ‘new novelist’, what advice would you share with aspiring writers of YA fantasy?

Possibly the same advice I’d give to any new writer, whatever the genre – that it’s really worth getting good quality feedback from an early stage. It’s a long, difficult road to publication and once you’ve got going, writing courses, such as those run by the Arvon Foundation or the Golden Egg Academy, are invaluable for improving your writing, finding inspiration, and meeting other writers.

If possible, do an MA in creative writing! At the very least, find a critique group that will be honest about your writing and where it needs improving. You don’t always have to take the advice, but working in a vacuum isn’t easy.

Thank you Lu Hersey for your considered responses

Lu Hersey was talking with Remy Dean

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