Wednesday 26 December 2018

"The Knight is no Fool": An interview with Thaddeus White

While searching for more victims, Thaddeus White bravely volunteered. Probably that Yorkshire grit. As a long time fan of his work, I immediately accepted and here's the result...

PL: Where exactly did the idea for Sir Edric and Dog come from? I've always been curious as I could see lots of guys who look like Sir Edric in fiction, but was never sure which ones in particular you were inspired by.

TW: The idea for Sir Edric came after I wrote Bane of Souls. It's a story centred on a fictional city, with an array of characters (as you'd expect). Amongst them is a pompous chevalier, and a self-regarding and quite corrupt Captain of the Watch. Somewhat disconcertingly, I found it very easy to write a wealthy, selfish bounder of a man and, as such a man lends himself to comedy, I thought I'd give it a crack. When what became the opening to the first book went down well on SFF Chrons, that was a green light for me to continue.

Dog's a bit different. I wanted Sir Edric to have a sidekick but to avoid either a Blackadder/Baldrick approach (the servant being an imbecile) or the reverse, whereby the knight would be useless. Whilst Dog's utterly heroic and Sir Edric's motivated by self-preservation, the knight is no fool.

PL: Ah! Bane of Souls. We'll have to return to that later. But right now Sir Edric. The rough level of equality between the two is definitely unusual and I do like the dynamic it gives. Do you find there's a difference in writing character dynamics when writing straight-up comedy and when writing more serious books?

TW: Yes, although that's at least partly down to Sir Edric's stories being entirely from his perspective, whereas my 'serious' stories are multi-POV. That means everybody's defined by Sir Edric's relationship with them. There's also, often, a vast yawning chasm between his internal monologue and his actual words/deeds (which is something I think we can all relate to. When your boss gives you an impossible task or your girlfriend has ordered a salad but decides to steal half your chips, most men have a gulf between their thoughts and words).

The Sir Edric-Dog relationship is the key one. They're clearly not equals, but the relationship falls into a grey area between friendship and master-servant. Dog's heroic in almost every way, but his pathological loyalty to a man who absolutely doesn't deserve it makes a vice of a virtue.

PL: Personally, people who steal my chips find out what my fork is actually for... but enough of that. I have to say I've always found Dog's pathological loyalty to Sir Edric puzzling. Do you ever plan to reveal why, or is it one of those secrets that are better to keep? Are there any other of Sir Edric's relationships you find particularly fun to write? And what's your favourite character dynamic in Sir Edric and the Plague?

TW: Sir Edric and Corkwell are quite nice. He's obviously a womaniser, but having a dominatrix paramour introduces an element of control and danger if he strays too much. It also prevents her from being 'just another bedwarmer'.

In Plague, I liked Jasper a lot. He's a twelve foot golem, practically invincible, but has the mind of a small boy (he's only four). Sir Edric and his other companions are more sophisticated but Jasper's uncomplicated and affable, and the contrast works well. 

As for Sir Edric and Dog, that's going to remain a secret. Probably.

PL: Ah, I was hoping you'd mention Jasper. He was a definite highlight of the book for me. You use a very wide Fantasy palate when it comes to Sir Edric if that makes sense - is that deliberate? Or just one of those things where if you think it'll be fun you throw it in?

TW: In terms of both drawing on different areas of fantasy and comedy, that's something I try to do. There are plenty of monsters from Greek myths used (and the elves use mostly Greek-ish names), but there are odd references to classics like Lord of the Rings and the Eagle Question. I think it works because Sir Edric's a cynical realist, so the fantastical nature of elves and magic often founders on the rock of his (fairly) down-to-earth perspective (hence mocking them as wand-fondlers). Varying the comedy often comes from changing who Sir Edric encounters, from the enthusiastic but naive, to violent man-eaters (like Orff No-Balsac). Variety helps keep things fresh.

Speaking of fresh, here is Sir Edric himself with a large amount of foliage

PL: Speaking of variety keeping things fresh - lets go back to Bane of Souls (my first and favourite of your books) and your other more dramatic books, such as Kingdom Asunder. What about writing those stories scratches the itches that Sir Edric can't?

TW: I like comedy a lot, but it has a necessary comic strain running throughout. A comedy that doesn't make you like or smile doesn't work. 'Serious' books can have more emotional highs and lows, differing moods, and can retain occasional comedy (in Kingdom Asunder I like James' flowery repartee, and in Bane of Souls think Roger, and Rufus' commentary on the challenge of trousers, quite amusing). It's especially difficult trying to mingle comedy and sorrow, as they're such diametrically opposing emotions, expressing levity and gravity.

PL: Are there any further plans for more of these non Sir Edric books?

TW: Well, I need to finish off The Bloody Crown Trilogy, so there's definitely that. Sometimes I toy with the idea of a plague aftermath story or something similar. I like Sir Edric and Dog a lot, but other styles of writing too so (final part of the trilogy aside) it's likely I'll keep writing 'serious' stuff, although I don't have any specific plans at the moment.

PL: How do you go about writing your books anyway, to change topics? Are you a planner or a discovery writer?

TW: Generally, I plan the whole story fairly closely but leave (for comedy) some play in the chapters to add or remove things, or alter them, based on how things are going. I think planning's useful scaffolding for keeping things pointing in the right direction, to mix metaphors horribly, but sometimes things work a lot better or worse than expected. When that happens, it's daft to be chained to a plan.

PL: And is this how you've always wrote? Or has your process changed as you've finished more books?

To paraphrase AC-DC, dirty deeds at a dirt cheap price

It varies quite a bit. For serious stuff, particularly with Bane of Souls (which is the first I wrote set in the same world as Journey to Altmortis and The Bloody Crown Trilogy) I did a lot of world-building before I even started writing, because I wanted to keep the world consistent and cohesive. For Sir Edric's assorted shenanigans, I had certain ideas in mind (him loathing elves, and the Ursk [nine foot tall slavers who see humans as a sort of edible currency]) but I mostly fill in the details as I go along.

With the earliest Sir Edric stories I'd make up 95% as I went along. That's huge fun but can also make it slow going when things get bogged down. Because of that, I plan a little more now to help stop slowdowns (worked well for the latest work-in-progress. Excepting the first two, each chapter only took an average of three days or so). Experience is also helpful because redrafting and editing means you sometimes spot future problems at the drafting stage, saving pain down the line (same as for most activities, you stop making rookie errors when you're not a rookie any more).

PL: Ah yes. Poor elves. I've always wondered whether that was just you finding it amusing or you disliking elves. Are there any fantasy tropes you particularly dislike?

TW: Hmm. Whilst I'm not fond of elf-worship (there can be a tendency to portray them as wiser/more in tune with nature/fairer than humans) I don't dislike them as Sir Edric does. Took me a while to think of a trope I dislike, but the end of the Lord of the Rings, which exemplifies the fodder race trope, does irk me a bit. Inherent pure evil or goodness, even in high fantasy, seems quite incredible. Couldn't an orc make a decent mercenary? Or guard? Or blacksmith?

PL: No such thing as a decent guard. Anyway - are there any fantasy tropes you'd like to see more of?

TW: Not necessarily a trope, but I do enjoy morally ambiguous characters. The uncertainty means you can't predict the plot as easily, and also gives a character a greater range of actions because they're not pigeon-holed into good or evil. (Sir Edric's not a villain or a hero. Amidst the comedy, he does do quite a number of dubious things, and it's nice being able to have him just smack someone on the back of the head if it makes sense for his desired self-preservation).

PL: Finally - my standard question - what's the best and worst pieces of writing advice you've been given?

TW: Not sure I listen to advice enough to give a good answer to that. Mind you, at school an English teacher advised that writers overuse 'said' and other dialogue tags (declaim, shout, protest etc) should be used. That's rubbish advice. 'Said' is one of those words that becomes almost invisible, and countless pointless variations can just look like the writer swallowed a thesaurus (obviously, sometimes other tags are needed, but mostly not). The best advice, and I can't remember who gave it, alas, was that the first draft is like telling yourself the story. It doesn't need to be perfect or anywhere near perfect. Like scaffolding on a construction site, as long as it gives you the skeleton of the story you can change the rest in redrafting. Don't stress about a first draft being a bit rubbish (recently wrote a blog about this for Kraxon, incidentally. Ch4 of The Adventures of Sir Edric was a mess at first, but thorough redrafting made it perhaps my favourite in the whole story).

Thanks to Thaddeus for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to learn more about his books, visit his blog here or go to his Amazon author page to buy them.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Weekend Five: What I've been reading

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Thanks to the magic of kindle sales, I finally caught up with one of the big "Everyone's read it" fantasy releases of recent times. I kinda wish I hadn't heard all that hype as maybe that warped my expectations. In any case, after the opening pages I was expecting a dramatic and gritty adventure against desperate odds. What I actually got was a Eddings-esque romp in which invincible heroes and deus ex machina removed pretty much any sense of drama and desperation. A lot of fun and a cool idea, but that expectations thing disappointed me.

A Warning by Kit Power

Thanks to the magic of publicly begging, I also get to catch up with this. Its a short story anthology built around an Invisibles-esque framing device of a future malcontent accessing memories of a history no longer known about. There's a good story to be made out of that alone, but fun in this collection lies in Power's ability to capture the essence of a very wide variety of human reactions. Very highly recommended for short story enthusiasts.

Horse's Arse by Charlie Owen

Yes, this is the set of mini-reviews in which I admit to reading non-fantasy. Horse's Arse is the tale of a fictional group of cops set in the 70s, back when villains were villains and the cops were also villains. Just on the right side. Well. I say fictional but they're probably not all that fictional, which is basically fucking terrifying. That aside though, the book is scatologically hilarious and a great view into a vanished world. The plotting isn't fantastic but the individual scenes are.

Waylander by David Gemmell

Seemingly every time I write about Gemmell here, it is non-stop marveling at how effortlessly he melds simple action stories with shrewd insight into the human condition. So it is again. There's times when Waylander feels a tad corny, a tad convenient; you can tell tis an earlier book. But the sub-arc with Karnak in particular is wonderful, and the whole thing is an absorbing read that sticks in the memory.

The Poppy War by RF Kuang

I didn't actually realise this book was a big deal when I picked it up on kindle sale. I promoted it to the top of the list after MD Presley told me he'd been jarred by the contrast by magic school and sadistic war. He's not wrong about it begin jarring. There were many times I considered DNFing the book. But many passages of the book are also extremely good. I'll probably do a full review of this some time, somewhere, once I've sorted out how I feel about it. But for now, I'd recommend everyone at least have a peek at what this book is about and think about whether its worth a shot for them.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

"Fantasy does immersion best": An Interview with Daniel E. Olesen

After reading Daniel E. Olesen's debut, The Eagle's Flight, I had a lot of questions for the guy. When I found out he was releasing a new book, it seemed the ideal opportunity. Fortunately Daniel was in an obliging mood...

PL: Congrats on the new book release! But before you tell the nice people about the new book, I have to ask about your first book, The Eagle's Flight. Its is one of the densest and most detail driven fantasy books I've ever read. Like, Wheel of Time but with more medieval realism. What was behind the decision to go that route?

DEO: For me, fantasy rests on three pillars. Characters, plot, and world-building, in that hierarchy too. The first two are obviously integral to any good story in any genre, but fantasy like nothing else can really get the reader immersed. I believe that's the secret behind the biggest successes of the genre - the reader can vividly imagine living in this world. For me, getting into all those little details, scrounging them out of history and using them as suits me, was my method to make my world as immersive as possible.

PL: Did you do a lot of research to get those details? And have you taken that approach forwards into Prince of Cats?

DEO: Very much, yes. I've always been reading history books as I'm that kind of nerd, especially after I knew I wanted to build my own world. Now, when I have something specific to work out, I usually seek out articles that might cover the topic. Same goes for The Prince of Cats, yes. As prepatory research, I read 5 books on the history and architecture of Moorish Spain/Andalucia to get the culture and cityscape of Alcázar right, and I consulted with an Arab reader for all my uses of Classical Arabic sprinkled across the story.

PL: Nice. Moorish Spain is definitely something that deserves more love from authors, so I'm excited to read this book now - as if I wasn't excited to read a book called Prince of Cats anyway. Has it been a change of pace writing about thieves instead of politicking nobles, or much the same?

DEO: A very big change! I intentionally wrote this as an entirely different kind of story in every way; in part to entice new readers, in part because I needed a change of (writing) pace. The setting is the only thing my books have in common. And I did have enormous fun allowing myself to write from Jawad's perspective, his observations, his inability to keep his mouth shut, not to mention how much easier it is to write a book with a small cast and singular plot!

PL: I'm not surprised. I'm still slightly stunned that you chose a behemoth like that for your first book. Or was it? How long were you writing prior to getting The Eagle's Flight out there?

DEO: I started writing a bit in my teens, and I tried my hand at a novel when I was 19. It was atrocious, and I deleted the whole thing, starting over. About a year later, I realised I was not at all skilled for this. I spent my twenties studying literature at university and practising on short stories until at age 29, I used the few useful bits of my first attempts to make a third attempt. So admittedly, it may not have been wise to go for such a beastly tome as my debut novel, but it was the story that had been knocking around in my head for a decade, and I had to get it out.

PL: Where did the story come from originally? Is there any particular moment of inspiration you can remember? Or was it an idea that built up slowly?

DEO: It was very much the latter. I can barely remember when I first started thinking about this story, except a vague notion of a city between mountain peaks and a civil war between noble houses with a few notable, minor players. The very original version had those bones along with characters like Godfrey, Brand, Arndis, and Theodoric, which is what I salvaged. Everything else has slowly arrived over time, usually as I read or watched something, whether fiction or non-fiction, that I wanted to add to my world and story.

PL: Did you have the same process of creation for Prince of Cats? Or was it different, what with having done so much world building and writing prior?

DEO: I guess the process was much the same. I still needed to do a lot of research into fleshing out this part of the setting and make sure I got all the details right. With both books, I started with a rough idea of where the story started, what major beats it should go through, and where it should end. I usually only outline a few chapters in advance when I write, so I don't get 'locked' in, writing the plot in a direction that turns out to be forced. So I only outline based on where I am in the story right now, and what it makes most sense to happen next. In that sense, the only difference between my process for my two books was that each of these outlining steps was a lot easier for The Prince of Cats, because the cast and plot was much simpler.

A tenner says he's thinking "I can see your house from here"

PL: So you're outline a bit/write a bit over and over? You ever tried outlining everything or nothing?

DEO: Yes, exactly. I've never tried either of those approaches. I think outlining everything would feel much too constricting for me, but perhaps writing without outlining anything would be a worthwhile experiment one day!

PL: At some point you and Matt should argue it out on that approach vs outlining everything - its the only way to make Critical Hits even nerdier! But to go back to the creation process - were there any major beats in Prince of Cats you were really excited to write?

DEO: I'll let him know! And yes, definitely. About two thirds through, Jawad reaches a breaking point, running through a burning city, where he feels everything unravelling and the full ramifications of his own actions hit him - I think that was the best characterisation work I've done in this book. And then last 10 pages, where all the strands of the plot come together, all the character interactions reach their climax, that was extremely satisfying to write.

PL: I look forwards to reading that part then! And weird random question that just popped into my head - if you could get Matt to cook you any fantasy animal, what would you want to eat?

DEO: I did not see this question coming. Let's go with a chimera - there's got to be at least one part of it that tastes good!

PL: I'm trying to mix up my ratio of absurd oddball questions to deep probing ones :D back to the deep probing (i like it because it sounds wrong) - would you say there's any authors you particularly admire for their ability to provide characterisation? Or any particular types of characters you love to write about?

DEO: The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the book I've read most often, in part because I find Edmond Dantes to be perhaps the most interesting character I've ever come across in fiction. Myself, I like to write intelligent characters caught in situations out of their depth - forcing them (and thereby me) to use their quick wits to somehow resolve their conflicts. Having them fail is also a wonderful excuse to delve into their mental state and how they handle failure.

PL: That segues quite nicely into the next question I had in mind actually. I presume that as someone who's studied literature, you've read a lot of not-fantasy. Do you think that's shaped your approach to the genre compared to people who read less outside the genre?

DEO: I imagine so, though I am speculating a little here. If there is a difference, I think it's that I am less interested in the supernatural for the supernatural's sake. For me, fantasy is an excuse to design a world entirely to my preference, so I can tell exactly the story I want. I only include the supernatural sparingly and with a very specific purpose: usually to create a character or plot situation that could otherwise not exist. I guess I'm trying to take the best of other genres and plant it in a fantasy world, and see what I can harvest from that.

PL: *steeples fingers evil mastermind style* And what best of other genres have you been planting in your own fantasy garden?

DEO: From horror short stories, such as Poe's, I have stolen tension; specifically, leaving the reader uncertain on what is true and what is imagined, especially concerning the supernatural. From epic poems, such as the Iliad or Paradise Lost, I've ribbed language and how to use an archaic tone that's still readable. From historical novels, I've taken realism even in small details to make the past (or another world) seem vivid and believable. From modernistic novels, I learned to be sparse with details concerning my characters, and instead write to let the reader connect the dots and form their own conclusions. And postmodernism taught me to be mindful of my narrators as I write them, and that they always tell the story with an agenda in mind.

Its like a doom metal version of A Song of Ice and Fire

PL: And that right there is the glory of the hybrid. Do you think there's any particular part of storytelling that the fantasy genre provides better than others?

DEO: I think fantasy does immersion best of all genres. Nothing else will activate the imagination to such a degree and transport you into the story so vividly. I think this also allows fantasy to offer some of the most sublime reading experiences, where you truly feel as the characters feel. Those are my goals with each story I write - get the reader as immersed as possible and give them situations with emotional intensity, as real to the reader as those moments are to the characters.

PL: Hmm. I will think about that answer and one day argue with you about it. But for now - how do you think having studied literature has shaped your approach to writing? Do you find there to be any particular difference in focus between the writers you know from your studies and the writers you know from elsewhere?

DEO: I think my studies has helped point out all sorts of ideas or aspects of literature that I would otherwise never have noticed. So I probably approach writing with a much more theoretical footing. For instance, Lessing's theory of Leerstellen (empty spaces), leaving gaps in the reader's knowledge to force them to draw their own conclusions, is exactly how I like to write. I wouldn't say there is a difference in focus maybe, but definitely in whether literature is considered a form of (aesthetic) philosophy or a craft.

PL: So you'd definitely do it again?

DEO: Without a doubt. It exposed me to so many theories and thoughts, as well as literature from all over the world that I'd never have picked up on my own.

PL: Gimme another cool theory that I'v probably never heard of!

DEO: Sure! Gadamer gave us the idea of horizons melting together (if it sounds odd, I'm translating from German into English, and neither is my native tongue). His thought was that any text was written in a given age, in a given society, by an author influenced by a host of factors. The reading of any text happens in another age, another society, by a reader influenced by a host of other factors. The text and the reading have their own 'horizons', and the interpretation is where those horizons melt together, as we try to reconcile our understanding of the text with how it was originally written. His point was that we could never understand the original intent of a text due to the differences between author and reader; at best, we can approach it.

PL: I'm not sure I understand the original intent of half the stuff I write either tbh. Okay - I feel like I've heard a lot of the best writing advice you've been given - what's the worst?

DEO: One that always sticks out to me is 'Readers like to be spoonfed', which is basically the opposite idea of Leerstellen, so naturally I am against that. Otherwise, any advice that claims to be a rule. There are always exceptions when going against conventional wisdom in writing will make sense. But I do encourage to follow the advice when you have no reason to discard it - it's conventional wisdom for a reason. So break the rules by all means, but only if you know what you're doing!

PL: Okay. I want to keep asking questions but there comes a point where I have to respect my readers' desires to read an interview and not a novella, so I'm going to go with one last question - if you fell through a portal into a fantasy world, what would you want your story to be?

DEO: I want to be a skald or bard. Find myself a patron, earn my keep by making some nice verses when the need calls for it, and generally live a relaxed life without manual labour or other expectations upon me.

A big thanks to Daniel for his time, even if his last answer there is sheer cowardice! The Prince of Cats is out now and you can find more details about it and Daniel's other books at his website, the Annals of Adal

Saturday 24 November 2018

Five things I learned about stories from Scrubs

I'd explain why I want to write this article and think it might be useful but I've got a stinking cold so I'm going to borrow from Kelso. Blah blah blah, nostalgic story, on with the article. Oh, and spoilers ahoy.

1) Laughter and Tears

Scrubs is a lot of things but mostly its a comedy. The majority of things that happen are played for laughs. But like all comedies, its founded on bad situations. Most - at least in Britain - have the bad things happen to bad people. But not Scrubs. In Scrubs most of the core characters are good people, and a lot of the bad things happen to their perfectly pleasant patients. There's some pretty hefty gutpunches; there's an element of pathos usually missing from the comedies I grew up with Fawlty Towers and Blackadder.

And I think that adds to the appeal. I can empathise with the Scrubs characters in a way I can't with Basil and Edmund. I get a wider spread of emotional stimuli. I think it also makes it funnier in some ways. Humour often relies on unpredictability and the greater the range of possible outcomes, the more unpredictable things are.

Its not a particularly original statement that humour needs to be cut with something to increase the effect, but Scrubs is what really brought it home to me.

This is the reaction I'm expecting to this article

2) The importance of opposites

Scrubs is a comedy about a young doctor's (reluctant) coming of age. I feel kinda bad putting it that way as it's a lot bigger than that but at heart, that's what it is. I mean, good grief, the kid's narrating almost every episode and they're all called "My X". It really is all about JD. And the fact that Scrubs is a comedy that's about characters changing rather than a fairly immutable situation puts a certain amount of stress on the storytelling. The story has to be more than a vehicle for the laughs, but it can't get in the way.

This is where having secondary characters who mirror the MC's most important traits are so important. The inherent conflict in that contrast not only makes for easy laughs, but its the straightest and truest path to showing what a character really is. JD's weird relationship with Cox betrays JD's insecurities about his non-alpha male nature and desperate need for approval. His tight bromance with Turk helps to highlight just how slow JD is to grow up compared to his peers. And of course the on-off relationship with Elliot showcases front and centre his fear of commitment and tendency to self-sabotage. Again, the value of characters that have natural conflicts with each other built in is not new, but Scrubs is what helped me understand it.

3) The importance of secondary characters

You might have got a hint from that I think JD's a tad unbearable. That's because he is. He's a egotistical special snowflake with huge maturity problems and - the kicker - not that funny. Fortunately Scrubs is filled with characters who are less grating and also a lot funnier. There's times when I want to call it a ensemble comedy. You've only got to go up a few paragraphs to know why its not true but in terms of making the story, it's deffo a group effort.

Now, pretty much everyone says that the secondary characters are always more fun and that MCs have to be a bit duller due to their everyman status. I think Scrubs is a good example of this. We see the secondary characters when they're going to make the story interesting. We see JD all the time. Of course he's going to be less interesting. That means that the secondary characters really need to bring it.

I'm on Bobbo's side here

4) Flawed people should lose

I didn't learn this one entirely from Scrubs. It took Brooklyn 99 to bring it home as well and I've made that point before here on the blog. But I'm going to make it again. A lot of Scrubs' characters are pretty decent humans but some aren't. Bob Kelso in particular is a piece of work. Perry Cox is a fundamentally altruistic and upstanding human being, but its cloaked by so much insecurity that he openly admits that he needs people to appeal to his giant ego to help. And so on and so on.

But when the Scrubs' characters flaws come up - when you see them being overconfident or narcissistic or overly needy - you know there's a damn good chance they're going to lose. And characters need that. Not just to fit my morals - although I won't lie and pretend that has no part of that - but because characters struggling with their flaws make them more interesting.

5) You can break your own rules and people will love you anyway
This is the big one and the one that made me write this article. Among the many gutpunches that Scrubs has delivered over the years that has really stuck with me is when Dr Cox is talking to a pyschologist that "relationships don't work the way they do on television". Its the start of a speech that goes straight to the heart of the matter in a way that fits the general theme of Scrubs. That theme is generally that everything worthwhile is hard so you simply have to face up to it, work hard, stay with it... and maybe it'll happen. Maybe. Maybe not. But it won't if you don't.

Except of course JD's and Elliot's relationship does indeed end working out like it does in television. They're right for each other and they finally realise it and that's that. They're not wading through the same crap everybody else does. There's a few more fairytale endings in the later seasons that feel like they came from a different place. And? Know what? I don't think anyone really cares now. Maybe that's part of why the show is no longer on the air, but it doesn't taint the memories most people have. Because ultimately mistakes here and there don't matter as much as the whole.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Letting Off Steam: An Interview with Mark Huntley-James

A while back, short of victims for the interrogating chamber, I put out a plea for attention and Mark Huntley-James answered. So I read his book Hell of a Deal, enjoyed it, and decided to go for the old third degree. Read for yourself what a wily answerer the man is...

PL: What gave you the idea for your book series Demon Trader and the trader himself, Paul Moore?

MHJ: It was an accident. Honest.

I was doing a job 200 miles from home, stuck there on my own for months on end. On the way back from the nearest shops with a bottle of milk I passed a nail salon called Monica's. In my head, I wondered what they would sell if they were called Demonica's. So, I started a file, wrote the opening line (no idea where that came from) and kept writing during my 'down time' to keep from going nuts. I had to go back and re-work the first chapters once I had an idea of what was going on. It was never meant as a series - that only came about because a reviewer asked about a sequel. 

Paul himself came about because I wrote it first-person, when I was pretty isolated and grumpy whilst dealing with one challenge after another, and I think that coloured the writing. At the time I was juggling a dozen things at once, so it wasn't much of a stretch to write about a guy who's trying to keep his business going, fight the demons and save the world.

PL: Well they do say write what you know! What about Barrowhurst? Is it influenced by anywhere in particular?

MHJ: Barrowhurst is not any one place, but very much influenced by the places I have lived and worked. It is primarily a cut-down version of Reading, Berkshire - that's where I went to uni and then lived for twenty years - with a touch of Launceston, Cornwall thrown in to confuse the mix. Both of them have odd alleys off more major streets and pockets of old industrial sites. Reading changed a lot over the time I lived there, but some of those alleys in the centre of town were home to all sorts of small and interesting shops, including my favourite - Keegan's secondhand book store.

There really is a Race Hill in Launceston - not as steep or long as I made it, but it drops down into the centre of the town, running along the side of a hill so on one side the houses truly do sit atop high retaining walls. I crossed that with Summer Hill in Bristol, just down the road from where I grew up. Strictly speaking, Summer Hill is not that bad, it's Vale Street just a little further along that is officially the steepest in England, at about 22 degrees gradient!

PL: I can very much believe Reading would have that many demonologists and sexual deviants. So some of its influenced by your own life - are there any writers who've particularly influenced or inspired you?

MHJ: I think it's fair to say that Reading is a very diverse town. I ought to use it as the location for the headquarters of the British Association of Demonologists.

It's hard to pin down specific influences - I'm too much of a book sponge, devouring every bit of sci-fi and fantasy in the local library, the school library, finally reading Lord of the Rings from the hall of residence library during a bout of gastro-enteritis in my first year at uni. (I was later advised that it was best to eat elsewhere over holiday weekends.) Then I discovered secondhand book shops...

I do have a particular set of favourites. It almost feels like a writerly cliche for penning fantasy, but I do adore Terry Pratchett. His characters are often boldly drawn stereotypes, but for me that is some of the power of it - I know personally some of those stereotypes, or I've worked with them, and no matter who they get to play Lord Vetinari in the various tv adaptations, I STILL see my first boss. I also have a great fondness for Lois McMaster Bujold and I'm currently re-reading her Vorkosigan saga - again boldly painted characters who also feel real because I have met their paler, real-life counterparts.

I'm sure I also have a whole raft of subconscious influences. In my teens I read Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat (my copies are pretty well-worn) and someone compared Paul Moore's Simone to Jim diGriz's Angelina. I didn't consciously put in the psychopathic girlfriend, and hadn't registered the parallel myself, but it really feels like a powerful influence echoing out of my teen years. I'm sure there are others simmering away in the back of my head.

PL: I can only agree with your love of Pratchett and second hand book shops. Are you one of the writers who dream casts who'd play the characters in the screen adaption of their book?

MHJ: So, short answer - No.

Longer answer - Definitely no.

OK, sometimes my partner says things like 'if they ever made it into a movie...', but really my head doesn't work that way. I see people online who put a 'cast list' at the front of their books, which boggles me completely. Fair enough if attaching an actor to a character helps with the writing, but putting that detail at the front of the published book feels like listing the world-building, hinders the reader from visualising a character the way they want and the really boggling bit for me, feels like an admission from the writer that they couldn't describe their characters with actual words. Perhaps if I had it stuck in my head that Paul absolutely had to be John Cleese (or not!), and that was somehow really important to me, I *might* sneak a mention of it into an afterword right at the end of the book. I haven't felt the need so far...

OK, *small* confession - in another book, nothing to do with Paul Moore, I have a genetically engineered large cat (which doesn't speak, do magic, guide characters or do anything other than spit up very big hairballs) who is based on one of our cats. I even used her real name, secure in the knowledge that she will almost certainly *not* sue.

I have some bad new for you Mark...

PL: So you've been reading a long time. How long have you been writing and at what point did you think "I could publish this"?

MHJ: I started in my teens, but lapsed whilst I was at uni. I really started again when I met my partner which was more than twenty years back. From my point of view, ebooks and self-publishing have been a game-changer because I was getting so many rejections with phrases like ‘not quite right for us’ at the end, along with invitations to submit further work. That gave me a serious indication that I could write, but not necessarily stuff commercial publishers wanted, so I decided it was time to go Kindle.

Perversely, I was mostly looking at publishing science fiction, but wanted something ‘easy’ to try the experiment. There’s plenty of advice out there, but nothing beats actually doing it and learning from the copious mistakes. So, I published Hell of a Deal, in the mistaken belief that it was pretty much ready to go, just a quick final editing pass and press go. That took nine months and would have been a one-off learning experience but someone asked about a sequel...

PL: Are you working on another sequel at the moment? Or anything else?

MHJ: I’m currently multi-tasking between the third Paul Moore book and a time-travelling space-opera that I actually started writing at about the same time I did ‘Hell of a Deal’.

There were never supposed to be any sequels to ‘Hell of a Deal’, but someone raised the topic which got me thinking and resurrecting(???!) an old idea about supernatural parking enforcement which resulted in ‘Road to Hell’. 

That would have been it, but something on the telly got me stamping around the house grumbling that “There’s no such things as bloody vampires” which was such a Paul thing to say that it got me thinking again. So over the summer I wrote “Hell of a Bite” which now needs a ton of work with an aim to publish round about March 2019. (Then I can write number four, “Hell Tied”, the Paul-Simone relationship foundering on the sacrificial altar whilst the lead demons thrash out their own family issues.)

Rather than dive straight into editing I wanted to let “Hell of a Bite” lie and have a change of pace, so I’ve taken the opportunity to get back to finishing book three of that space-opera so that my partner can find out how it ends. Strictly speaking, it tells you how it ends right near the start, but then people start time travelling and changing fine details twisting the story out of line, and some of my characters have the dubious facility of remembering the things that no longer happened. (Which, in a non-fictional context, is the sort of thing to get you locked up in a cell with soft furnishings on the walls.)

Then there are the Moore Letters, humorous flash fiction which is really just a bit of doodling on my part. The first one is out with an online magazine - Lore Publications (
Lore Fiction – Medium) – Paul writing to the local council because they are hassling him over planning consent for newly installed mountains in his garden, and the public hazard of keeping dragons.

PL: You seem to gravitate towards the more comedic end of the genre. Would you agree with that?

MHJ: Yes. And no.
OK, mostly yes.
There is usually a streak of humour in what I write, although Paul Moore is probably the closest I come to outright comedy. Even when I’m being serious, I’ll often slip in bizarre moments or incongruities – humour can be a powerful tool for slipping something powerful/vile/surprising past the reader, and letting the reality sink in later. When you take apart some of the detail of Hell of a Deal, it has some outright, even gross horror aspects to it, but they get toned down by the covering wash of nervous laughter.

I think that the comedic style also comes from the way I wrote it – letting off steam when I was working away from home and not an entirely happy camper. There are not that many one-liners, and most of those are somewhat wry or ironic, but there are a lot of situational jokes. Really, most of the humour comes out of Paul getting dumped on by life, the universe and the supernatural community. At the time I was writing it, no matter how bad my day, Paul Moore was having a worse one.

My humour also tends to the dark side – call it Fifty Shades of Black – and simply adds to the Lois McMaster Bujold dictum of working out the worst thing you can do to your character. When there are so many ‘worsts’ to choose from, I go for the one where there are only two choices – laugh or run screaming down the street brandishing a machete and hope that a police marksman will put an end to the misery. I also hope that some of Paul’s narratorial comments will hit home with the reader, conveying my own cynical observations on the world.

That space opera I’m writing in the background has its own ‘humorous character’, not as overtly comedic as Paul Moore, almost a stereotypical grumpy old fart railing at the universe. Or, as I have sometimes admitted, me but with the brakes off. I hope that hidden away in his foul-mouthed railing against all and sundry in the far future, there are a few meaningful commentaries on modern life.

Modern life sometimes makes me feel like this too

PL: So its less you've set out to be funny, and more you've looked at humour as a way to make the unpalatable? The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down? It feels rather remniscient of the interviews about Pratchett being an angry man (and, incidentally, what is your favourite Discworld?)

MHJ: I think it’s more a life-style rather than a specific writing strategy. Both my life and writing (with humour added) is done by the seat of my pants – figuring out what I did and why comes later, when the dust has settled. Even more interesting is figuring out why I *shouldn’t have done it* – I’m not so good at learning from my mistakes but great at using them as guides for plot embellishment. So whilst I’ve never cooked Ground Zero Rice, I did once eat a spoonful of spicy stew and bite into a surprise chilli pod. I know my head didn’t *actually explode* but it felt like it.

Yes, a while back, I read an interview with Neil Gaiman talking about Pratchett being fuelled by fury and I can hear that in his books – the railing at the brain-aching stupidity of the world in general and people in particular. I think I always heard it, but never had a name to put to it until I read Gaiman’s take.

I think that’s where a lot of my own humour comes from. It’s socially unacceptable to smack people’s heads against a wall, but I am allowed to make jokes about them instead. 

As for a favourite Pratchett – that’s like opening a huge box of chocolates and asking me to pick one. I mean, they’re all so tempting. Of course, if you were presenting the chocolates AND a selection of Pratchett, I’d go for “Guards! Guards!” (With “Men At Arms” snaffled whilst you’re focused on the chocolate.)

PL: Well, I am a sucker for chocolate... I mean, ahem, are there any moments that were particularly cathartic to write?

MHJ: I really had to think about that one – the whole writing process was one big mental diversion from my own life at the point, so real high points are not so easy to identify. After due consideration, I have two. 

Number One is actually easy: Mickey Twitch, all of him, from generic arsehole at the start to specifically nasty arsehole towards the end. I’ve worked with several Mickey Twitches (OK, Mickey’s an exaggeration, but there are some serious real-life influences there) and writing him in all his foul glory felt good. When I first put him in, Mickey was no more than a one-liner right at the start, the archetypal low-rent, high-risk rival demonic broker, but when you’ve got a toilet-roll ornament of that magnitude, who needs a demon to be the villain? My blink-and-you-miss-it one-liner turned out to be a complete sack of instant monster: just add innocent bystanders and stir into a froth of horror. 

Number Two: that was harder to pick out, but it’s the chapter where all Paul had to do was pick the right “wrong priest” to perform the ceremony and it would have all been over. The thing is, Paul is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. In fact, the whole book is a sequence of revelations of just how little he knows, and how much of what he does know is wrong. That chapter was where I felt I had the first serious culmination of his mistakes - all he has to do is pick a priest and it’s over. How hard can it be? I definitely had a blast writing that one. Weeks of frustration offloaded onto my character in one arse-kicking catastrophe.

PL: Paul's moment of realisation after the wrong priest was a definite highlight for me.

Shifting the line of questioning - has how you write changed at all since you were young? Do you do different things that you think makes you a better writer?

MHJ: I’m now more concise.
Sorry. Couldn’t resist, but I think an improved economy with words is one of the obvious changes when I go back and compare what I do now with my earlier writing. I no longer write everything in long, rambling sentences. I’ve also mostly got over Adjective Incontinence, dialled down the Purple Prose, and seriously cut out the adverbs. It’s like a writer’s low-carb diet – aiming for the lean and mean style, with a hint of ribs showing through. And maybe a sacrificial knife caught between those ribs.

I hope there are a lot of things that now make me a better writer, but the first thing that springs to mind is I’ve stopped trying to be clever. I used to get a lot of notes on my first drafts about stuff being unclear or downright obscure, most of which came from trying to be too damned clever. When I wrote Hell of a Deal I was too tired and grumpy for clever and just went for fun, and working off frustrations. It seemed to work quite well so I’m sticking with it.

My approach to point of view has definitely changed. When I look back, I have previously done a few first person narratives, but now I find that’s my default. My crazy time-travelling space-opera is done as four first person narratives interwoven, which is not quite as nuts as it sounds and great fun to do. For me, the first person viewpoint helps to keep the plot compact, even if there’s lots of stuff going on that the reader “doesn’t see” because my narrator wasn’t there. I also find that the first-person plot focus carries over when I opt for a third person narrative, winnowing out unnecessary scenes.

The most satisfying change is that I’ve got better at producing a “clean” first draft, which is great for my partner. I’m not sure it's necessarily something I’m consciously doing differently and more a matter of practice. In the dim and distant past, I wrote a rambling fantasy trilogy. I really enjoyed writing it, the story zings along and it has some fabulous characters. It’s just a shame that the writing is total ****. It’s so bad that my partner did the alpha-read, scribbled on it and then expressed a desire not to read it again until it’s totally re-written. I tried to re-read it myself and decided that the best thing to do was start again. When my partner first read Hell of a Deal, she actually commented on how smooth it was, and even that required nearly nine months to set straight. Paul Moore the Third (Hell of a Bite) is probably going to take a couple of months to clean up, but it’s pretty good at first draft stage.

PL: Well played sir *quiet applause* I know you credit here and Absolute Write in the credits for Hell of a Deal. What would you say is the best and worst pieces of writing advice you have received?

MHJ: The best advice is easy – I was talking to Jo Fletcher at FantasyCon many years back, when she was commissioning editor at Gollancz, and she told me to read my writing aloud. It highlights so many things – repetitive word/phrase usage, bad story flow, badly structured sentences, clumsy phrases, typos. It’s like Domestos bleach for authors, kills ninety-nine percent of crap. Reading aloud gives you what’s there without the mental auto-correct hiding mistakes by fixing them in your head as you read, and it gives you time to notice things not working. In the end, I did a complete read-aloud on Hell Of A Deal three times. It’s exhausting, but absolutely worth it.

Worst advice is harder to pin down. There’s a lot of it out there, and frequently heavily didactic as if there is only one right way to write. I think the very worst advice I got was “you need to write this sub-genre, it’s hot at the moment”. It might be the right approach if you dream of making a living as a writer (ignoring the extremely low likelihood of that actually happening) but it strikes me as the route to frustration and middle-of-the-road, cookie-cutter writing. Whatever my faults and failings, I don’t think I’m middle of the road. In the gutter, maybe, or smeared along the tarmac with the other road-kill, but not skipping along the white line in the middle.
It also strikes me as self-defeating advice. If you chase emulating what’s hot now, by the time you’re ready to pitch it or publish, it will be yesterday’s news. So, I pretty much do the opposite – write what I want to write, enjoy the buzz and hope people like it regardless of whether it’s in fashion.

Thanks to Mark for his time and thought. You could find his blog here and his Amazon author page here and his short stories on medium here