Saturday 29 July 2017

"Writing about people": An interview with Jo Zebedee

I've been threatening Jo Zebedee with an interview for a while now. Since she's just released her fifth book, Waters and the Wild, now seemed a good time to catch up with her about her latest work and anything else I could think of...

PL: What made you think of this particular story and why did you want to do it ahead of all the others?

JZ: Okay. There is an easy answer and a more complicated one.

The easy one - I had a story prompt for a flash fiction story and it showed a half-beached boat. My character thought 'there is a boat on the beach, not of this world'. It became evident she was seeing a fairy boat that no one else could.

But why did that idea grab hold?

I've written edge-of-madness characters before - in particular, Kare, in the Abendau trilogy - who walk a fine line between coping and 'falling on the inside' (stolen from Muse's track, Mercy, as the perfect descriptor). Far, far more of us than admit it face that - stop in your supermarket and ask which third HAVEN'T struggled with thoughts and moods at some point.

But Amy - the title character - grabbed this concept in a way that felt very real and very natural. The thought of never knowing what was real - when the fantasy world could be just as real - or if she was a victim of thoughts became more engaging.

But then it expanded out. What of her parents? Her older brother? What did the strain of Amy's condition (and, really, it doesn't matter if she hears fairies or not as it's very real to her) do to all of them?

So, for me, the attraction was the depth of the character inter-reactions that drove me. All my stories rely on that, and the conflict Amy presented made it even more pressing and poignant.

The final layer was the use of Irish mythology. All the places are real. All of them were visited by me during a holiday in the Glens. And all of them felt potentially magical.

That, then, was the alchemy. The fantasy idea, the characters and the place. Once there, the story became real and had to be told.

PL: Ah, the Glens! That brings me onto my next question - the use of the Northern Ireland countryside. It felt very vivid, particularly in the sense of the urbanites' reaction to it. Do you ever have that sense of being a townie out of place? Was there any particular place you saw on the holiday and thought "Oh, I must use that!"?

JZ: Well, although I'm probably identified as being from Belfast because of Inish Carraig, I'm actually from a town about 15 miles away. And Northern Ireland is tiny, so 15 miles is almost into the countryside. Which means I'm probably as familiar with the rural Northern Ireland as the urban.

Having said that, the Glens are a place on their own. Until the coast road was built (an incredible drive!) they were cut off from each other and the rest of Northern Ireland more than we sense now. In fact, with Scotland only 14 miles away from where I set the final scene in Waters there would have been as much coming and going across the water as with the rest of the island! So I think anyone entering that landscape feels a little blindsided.

The place that most stayed with me was Ossian's Grave, a stone circle that is reputed to be one of the (many) last resting places of the mythic hero, Ossian (pronounced O-sheen). I was staying opposite but didn't venture up until almost my last day.

The site is not the easiest to find - in NI we have different right-of-way laws as in England - and is quite a climb! But once there....

It's bleak. The scattered stones are all that stand out on the hillside. And a little cairn laid for John Hewitt, known as the poet of the Glens, is in the same field. That combination of the mythic, the prehistoric, and the modern felt very powerful. For sure, there, I felt I'd found something I'd never experienced before and that I tried to capture.

The scene at the stones is a central one - Waters is a circular story with patterns repeated - and one that I think most strongly feels of the place.

You can see what she's on about here, right?

PL: I should have guessed you'd say those places! You certainly used them for great dramatic effect. Speaking of dramatic effect, I'd like to go back to the character inter-reactions you mentioned early, particularly the family ones. It definitely seems to be a focus of your writing - is there anything in particular that drives that? And are there any other authors you really rate for doing it well?

JZ: Right. The family stuff. At this point my mother would like to point out I come from a perfectly normal family - and I do. And now I'm mum to a perfectly ordinary family.

So why the dysfunctionality? Well - some of it doesn't feel that dysfunction. Take Abendau, my really dysfunctional lot. Actually, childhood trauma notwithstanding, both Kare and Sonly are great parents. Okay Kare's own mother makes a preying mantis look maternal, but not everyone in it is dysfunctional.

But to Waters.... Amy has been ill - or touched by the fairies - for a long time. That must be incredibly hard for any family. Added to that there are additional pressures within her parents' relationship and you have the perfect storm.

Once my mind starts to make characters real I empathise, get under their skin, and the warts emerge. And families are messy. Divorces happen, and loss, and illness. People fight and throw the Christmas tree out the window (no one I know - I read about it once). I suppose I feel not showing those emotions would mean they didn't matter to life. I suppose it would feel dishonest.

I love character stories. Show me someone I feel is real and I'll be interested - get me to care about them and I'm hooked. A lot of the writers I read who are good at that are not in the fantasy field. Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes for instance.

But some genre writers like Stephen King nail it - his characters in The Stand or Salem's Lot bring the tragedy to life and without that the stories would never drag us in.

Often, people say writers are trashy and popular without asking why readers like their stories - and for me (I've read a lot of 'trash') it's about the ability to tell a story about people. And that's what I do - tell stories about people, with empathy and love for my characters. That matters more to me than grand themes and flawless prose. The odd clunky sentence I can live with - a dishonest character response would keep me awake at night. Which means it's warts and all...

PL: That focus on people and their honest reactions has definitely been a feature of all of your books right from the beginning. This is book five now, with book six on the way - do you feel any different as a writer from when you started? Has your process changed at all?"

JZ: Do I feel any different? A bit. Mostly more confident: I've survived reviews etc reasonably intact so that helps. But I still don't feel I have an easily identifiable niche - especially since I write such a range of material - so that challenges me. But, yeah, I feel like I am a real-life writer now.

My process is not much changed. I still hate first drafts and second, and I am the worst plotter in the world. And I still rush my endings.

But now draft 3 is reasonably presentable as opposed to draft 6 and I'm better at pacing and being sure everything has a place.

So yes and no. My approach is the same but as a more confident writer I'm more likely to approach things in a stronger fashion in the first place

PL: Another 'Have things changed' question! Amy is your first female primary protagonist - has that changed anything, or is it still writing about people? You said to me a while back that you thought this book would appeal more to women, is that part of it? Or just the absence of 'pew pew'?

JZ: She's the first female protagonist I've released but not the first I've written - in fact, I've been writing female protagonists almost as long as men, it's just my publishing schedule pushed the men to the front.

I find it mostly still writing about people. In Abendau 5 of the POV characters were female, in Inish Carraig, half of them are, I think. I don't really make a distinction - I just try to thing how that person in that position might think. But my male protagonists often aren't uber-macho so that might be me showing my bias :)

Is that one of the reasons I think Waters and the Wild will appeal to women? Partly, for sure. But also the themes of family will resonate too. Having said that, I think there's plenty for blokes to like too - especially around Amy's brother and father - and some key male point of views in it too. And the setting is universal.

Waters and the Wild - appealing to everyone who wants to read about someone losing touch with reality

PL: What's the best piece of writing advice you've received, and the worst?

JZ: Best piece - J S Maryatt, my editor for Inish Carraig.

When you can't get your third person point of view to come alive, switch to first and let them rip. You can hone it and change to third later but you'll grasp the voice better.

And from Teresa Edgerton, my editor for Abendau, if you want a reader to take in a detail you need for later slip it in a few times - 3 usually works.

Worst? So much. But that there is a rigid way to do anything - from writing, editing to publishing - is very damaging I think.

Everyone and everything is different and that's okay. Writing is like snakes and ladders. You get good times and shoot on and then crap times and fall back. The 100 square is a destination that will come and go and being fixed on what that is really doesn't help.

PL: Important question now - do beans belong in an Ulster Fry?
JZ: No. Easy answer. ;)

Long answer: bacon, sausage, black pudding, egg, soda, potato bread, tomato, and that's it.

And hash browns are The Evil.

PL: I approve of all exclusions of the Baked Bean. Okay - going back to the female point of view question and warning, this one's quite open ended - I was reading a Guardian article the other day on the debate over depictions of women and power in media. Do you think that we are seeing more women with power in SFF? Are women being written about in a different way now, or are we seeing a lot of people patting themselves on the back for reinventing the wheel?

JZ: I think we certainly see more women in the main character role than previously and there is additional pressure - call it PC-madness, call it current reading desires, or a changing market, whatever - to develop strong female characters. None of which I'm sorry about and I hope as that trend goes on there is less of a tendency to default to a male protagonist.

When I first came up with stories I didn't even consider a female main character - it simply didn't happen in most books I read - the majority of which were genre. For every Honor Harrington or Cordelia Vorkosigan there are ten Sparhawks or Logans. And that is a poor show, frankly, often justified by the belief that females don't read sf. (We do! I do! Many do!)

What I hope for is that a balance be created and maintained - that we don't have to create a female protagonist to tick a PC box or a male protagonist to gain a wider readership.

That last point is a salient one actually. We know male readers are less likely to reach for a female protagonist but that female readers are not put off by a male protagonist - which makes, when dealing with the power of averages, a male protagonist less of a risk for publishers.

Perhaps as more stories are presented with credible female leads - and Wonder Woman is a great example - the case of it being an either/or will fade and we'll allow it to be whichever suits the story best.

PL: Mad old schools props for namedropping Sparhawk - now there's an authorial duo I'd have liked to see have a good crack at a more female-orientated story. Shame they're both a bit too dead for that. Any authors you wish you could summon from the dead to continue writing for your entertainment?

JZ: Well, Terry Prachett who was so lovely. And Douglas Adams - his Last Chance to See (non-genre) was fabulous. I think the genre is poorer without them :(

PL: Exemplary choices. You frequently blog about the business side of writing and have talked about the impact that's had on the next project. What's the biggest tip you'd pass onto aspiring authors on how to get paid? And what's the next book about anyway?

JZ: I've been very lucky to have been given some funding via the Arts Council of NI and the National Lottery towards writing my next book, which has been fantastic and gave me some room in my calendar to get the project underway.

So - how to make a living... that's a really loaded question. Firstly - very very few authors I know write full time. Even those doing pretty well don't make a living - although some do. I don't see a big split in terms of traditionally published or indie either - certainly in terms of newer authors.

For me I make more money lecturing and appearing at panels and festivals. It seems wrong - that my writing sometimes plays second fiddle to my ability to talk but there we go... I just hope when I talk I convince people to try my books. Because, in this saturated market, that's all we can do: produce a good product and convince people to buy it. And that means some of the best writers - who find it hard to promote - get lost and it's incredibly sad. I'd love to say talent is what rises to the top but it's not the only parameter, in my experience.

Which means, no matter how distasteful it sounds, a writer has two choices: learn to promote or keep a day job!

Onto safer ground... hopefully it's the start of a series combining fantasy with crime. My character is a psychic artist. The book itself is set in Donegal and is most like Waters than my other books but packer with more of an edge. And pretty dark. So there's a shock ;)

PL: Donegal, the Glens... is this all love for the wee province of Ulster, or are you just combining holidays with research? ;) Will we know you've made it when you start doing Death in Paradise-style books? And I'm all for combining fantasy with crime - well, SFF with anything out of genre really, but particularly fantasy and crime. What do you read out of genre?

JZ: Well... research, holidays... once I make some decent money I can set my books anywhere :D

Seriously - I like Ireland. It's nice to write and it's nice to connect with the place around me. But since I'm also planning a new Abendau trilogy and a frontier fantasy-sf duology and musing on an Inish Carraig Two I probably still have a lot of variant stuff going on!

I read loads out of the genre. I read some crime - loved Robert Galbraith's Cormoran Strike books - and lots of mainstream books. I also really love plays - I studied theatre - and will even happily curl up with some poetry. :)

You can see why Jo likes Ireland - this view is in the book

PL: Names! The people (well, me), demands names of these things. Also, what's the biggest thing you've taken from your theatre background to your writing?

JZ: Oh, the pressure of a name....

Plays. I really like a lot of Irish stuff. Waiting for Godot always makes me laugh. But I also enjoy Eugene O'Neill.

Poems. More 20th century on rather than the classics. Louis MacNeice, Robert Frost, Auden. I also like Wendy Cope.

But I do read more fiction than anything else.

The theatre thing is an interesting question. I think I use those skills mostly in getting to know my characters and being able to switch between them easily. So, I don't sit down to write as Kare as opposed to Lichio, or Amy rather than Simon. I just sort of write as if I was them - in the same way I would act like they on the stage and each would have different mannerisms.

I'm thinking of trade marking it. Method writing. Of I would if I actually knew how i do it ....

PL: I was about to ask does the theatrical background make you one of those always dream casting your characters for a film but then it occurred to me it might be jarring to see an actor do it when you'd already done it yourself. Do you have any ideas on who should be taking the lead roles come Wild and the Water's hollywood release?

JZ: Whisper it - I am completely face blind. I don't see my characters at all. I think it's why I struggle with description. Which either makes me a casting officer's dream - whatever! I'll go with it - or a nightmare!

But Amy could be played by someone like a young Anne Hathaway and Simon by Richie Grey. You'll know who that is, oh rugby a holic!

PL: Is there any scene you'd love to see put more into film more than any other?

JZ: In Waters.... I think the initial waterfall scene could be really good. Very suspenseful. But, also - the little vignette scene with the outdoor play in the garden where her mum drinks in her fairy daughter could be a fabulous little spooky short.

I had fun with that scene, choosing the lighting and dressing each stage :) 

Waters and The Wild is out now in kindle and paperback. Thanks to Jo for her time and if you want to read more from her, check out her website and blog.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Musings on Harry Potter and YA for boys

It probably didn't escape your attention that Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone turned twenty this year. It didn't escape mine.

The book did escape my attention at the time though. I would have been just eleven then, the perfect age for it. I'd have probably identified with him a lot more strongly then, although ironically I was in the opposite situation to Harry - home and family was my refuge from school. I was thinking those sort of thoughts back then too, for The Philosopher's Stone was released in the summer, when I was preparing to go to secondary school.

I spent most of that summer on the Isle of Wight, making up my own stories as I ran up and down the garden or by the creek for want of enough reading material. We'd visit Freshwater Library regularly to try and obtain more but it was a small library without much in the way of the fiction that appealed to me - sports and fantasy. I don't recall ever noticing Harry Potter though.

I'm not really sure when I did first realise Harry Potter was a thing. I think it was around the time of the first movie by which time I'd have been fifteen. Some would argue that fifteen is a good age to get into Harry Potter but that really wasn't the case for me. My school library was stocked pretty much exclusively with fiction for ' grown ups' - Pratchett, Eddings, Feist, Jordan, Rankin, Brooks and so on. Going to an all boys selective education school meant certain assumptions were made about us and they were mostly correct. We wanted to read clever books and that meant books officially aimed at people a lot older than us. By the age of fifteen, the only YA books I was reading were Brian Jacques' Redwall books.

Honestly, if someone had given me Harry Potter at that age, I'd have been very snobbish about them. That's kids stuff. The whole idea of young adult would have struck me as complete idiocy back then although, once I'd have calmed down, I'd have seen a use for it. The same use that yellow and black together serves in nature. Not that I knew about the concept back then. It wasn't until I was seventeen or so that I finally noticed the existence of the label, back in Freshwater library. I'd read everything else in the place and noticed a new shelf. It had some of the Terry Pratchett books on it, although mostly the ones I'd avoided due to them being for kids. I read the Tamora Pierce Song of the Lioness quartet that summer. I liked it.

I forget when I finally got around to reading Harry Potter, although mid to late twenties sounds right. I think my sister might have prompted me. I loved them. I've read most of them at least twice. I've been to most of the major Potter tourist attractions in the world and while that was more at my good lady wife's urgings, I was a willing and enthusiastic participant. And as she will be the first to say, I hate fun. I love Harry Potter though and I think I'd have loved him even as a teenager. Gods knows how much I'd have loved him when me and him were the same age.

Where am I going with this? I hear fairly frequently that teenage boys don't read, that YA is aimed squarely at girls because that's what sells. I've also heard that JK Rowling styled herself that way in an attempt to fool said teenage boys into thinking they weren't reading a book by one of those cursed cootie carriers, with boys being far less likely to read books by and concerning women than they would a book by a man concerning men. Well it didn't work on me, although not for those reasons. My loss.

I've no idea how typical or atypical my childhood and that of my friends was. But if you want to talk about why teenage boys don't read, then yes, maybe my data is of some relevance. If there's one thing I think I can pinpoint with fair accuracy over most of the boys I know, both then and now, its the desire to appear grown up. That's the one place where I'm sure I was fairly typical. It's part ego, part perception that a lot of life's pleasures are restricted to the older. And it's pretty difficult to look grown up when you're reading a book everyone knows is for kids.

How do you tackle that? I don't know. Part of me even wonders if its worthwhile to try. It's not like there's any shortage of adult fiction that can fit to the tastes and limits of a teenage boy while also fitting the constraints of what a parent is willing to let them near. But that only works for those that want to read. Can there be a form of fiction out there that is well suited enough to the tastes and needs of teenage boys that it can break down the societal walls and convert the unconverted?

Again, I don't know. JK Rowling probably managed it, regardless of my own experiences, but she was a lightning strike. A cultural phenomenon telling everyone that the uncool was cool. That seems to me really what you need - and not just one Rowling but a number of them. But that will only happen when people write the right books.

Until they do though, I imagine there'll be a lot of teenage boys happy not reading, a handful of boys mostly reading books for grown-ups, and a YA genre with a mostly female fan base. Just as it is today. It's not the worst thing in the world. But if you wanted to grow the market for books, its something you'd target.

So far though, it seems the publishers are just as ignorant as I am on how to do it. Good luck to them - they'll need it getting through to the kid I was.

Thursday 20 July 2017

In Defence of Elves

If I was to create a Fantasy forum bingo game, then I would definitely reserve a square or three for elves. Or to be more specific, elves and the criticism of them. It feels like a month doesn’t go by without some comment about automatically avoiding all books that contain elves, or how elves are so overdone, or can I make my elves different and not the standard tree-hugging Mary Sues. Elves often seem to be held up as the standard bearer of all that is tired and should be forgotten.

The truth is that elves are not in the majority of fantasy books but, thanks their prevalence in fantasy media, have been presented in a wide variety of different ways. My own very old school trad fantasy orientated reading lists would indicate maybe a quarter of books contains them. That may be on the high side. Looking through Goodreads’ top fantasy books of the 90s - - I’d say maybe five of the top 50 have Tolkienesque elves. If anyone has some complete data on the score, I’d love to see it and use it rather than my lazy eyeballing.

Of course, everyone will have their own idea of what constitutes overdone, but it seems rather unfair to put the elves there. Understandable, given how large they loom in fantasy’s history and in gaming, but not reflective of the reality of the book shelves we browse. Or at least, the ones I browse, and I feel like I’ve been around enough forums to have a decent idea of just how different they are to anyone else’s. Which is not very.

What are different are elves. There’s so many different types. I’ve seen them strutting the streets of Seattle with a ten in their hand and a gleam in their eye; I’ve seen them as feral near-animals roaming forgotten tombs in the icy wastes. They’ve been the most civilised of races and the least civilised, they’ve built great steampunk contraptions and they’ve relied only on magic, and they’ve ridden everything from stags and wolves to birds and lizards. Some have been insufferably noble and incorruptible; more have been willing to take their morning dump in your mouth just because. They’ve taught magic to mankind and they’ve killed mankind’s mages. They’ve been everywhere from outer space to deep under the earth and sea, they’ve worshipped everything from demons and their dead to nothing much at all. And I’ve seen them be completely mortal, completely spirit, and a few versions in between.

The baddest elf alive (/) - bad meaning bad and bad meaning good

In all the “How do I do elves but different discussions”, I’ve seen only three ideas that I’ve thought are truly out there. Everything else has been done somewhere. Which isn’t to say there are no new ideas out there, or that it isn’t worth trying to find them. Simply that attempts to make elves super-new need to step up their game. Maybe I’m being too demanding because I spend a lot of time gaming and there’s been a lot of really cool elf ideas there. But I really doubt I’m the only guy whose view of fantasy is as much coloured by Bethesda, Games Workshop and TSR as it is by Tolkien, Jordan, Martin et al.

But then, when we get down to it, I don’t really see why people feel such an aching need to reinvent the elf. Elves are awesome. They really are. They’re the stuff of fantasy itself - immortal and beautiful. Human plus. I can see why some hate that but, well, they’re wrong. What sort of hero can resist that some of bookmark to measure themselves against? What sort of fairytale doesn’t have a use for a people who have all the power and seemingly no price - of course, there’s always a price.

In fact, I’d far rather see people explore elves than reinvent them. How does immortality change a culture? How does it feel like to fall out with a brother you'll be seeing every Christmas for a good millennia or three? What must it be like being an elf among humans? Do they ignore the doughy ants, or bathe in the adulation, or do they feel like the girl in those really creepy examples of the worst of gamer behaviour? Do they feel under pressure to be perfect?

Well... maybe some of them do

Right now, it feels like fantasy is all about the exploration of the human psyche. Well, why not explore the elven psyche? Or use them to consider how humans think and act. They're the perfect metaphor for the 1% - or for all those high flying students trying not to go crazy. They're every cool kid clique you wish you could be part of (or not). That's even before you get into all the stuff about nobility mirrored, or the idea of being truly god-touched and driven to altruism, or responsible use of power. And everything else.

From that angle, if anything, elves are underdone. One of the great totemic clich├ęs of fantasy has been left behind on the shelf. There's a lot of potential there for the writer who wants it. And sure, when they do, a lot of people will complain.

But not me. For me, giving the elves some page time is overdue.