Friday, 10 June 2011

Author Q&A with Tom North

Last month I read and reviewed Puttypaw, a YA fantasy that I really liked. Its author, Tom North, has kindly agreed to do a Q&A with me, but first a bit about him: 
Tom North lives in Oxford where he enjoys the refreshing and perpetual rain. He is in his mid-thirties. This, he has discovered, means that small white hairs grow out of his earlobes when he’s not looking. He spends a lot of time climbing rocks. He is the world’s worst snowboarder. Fact. Tom wrote Puttypaw, his first novel, in response to a dream about a cat that was stuck in a cellar. No, really, he did. He loved every minute of it. (Writing the novel, that is. Not the dream. The dream was weird.)

Tom has published a collection of nine short stories called Sketches of an Ending which has been likened by one reviewer to using a blowtorch to penetrate the surface of human emotions. This was, despite appearances, a compliment.

PuttypawWhen did you first think of becoming a writer and who or what got you interested in writing?

These things always seem to go the same way with me. For example, I love the sound of acoustic guitars and always have. So I spent most of the first twenty three years of my life (excluding the years in which I dribbled, cried, threw tantrums and had to get adults to help me with my personal hygiene - which, thinking about it, comprised most of the first eighteen) picking up people's guitars with the expectation that I would immediately play like Hendrix. I didn't. But then one day I sat down with a friend's guitar and book of songs and was hooked. After that I played for two hours a day for three years solid, and gradually weaned myself down to sane levels of practice over time. I still play a lot now - but not when I'm writing, for some reason. Anyway, writing went the same way. I have always loved reading, and always had the expectation that I'd be a writer at some point. Every time I opened a book I'd think, "I'm going to do this." The rest was very much a case of waiting for the motivation and the right time. When I was thirty-ish I borrowed a friend's laptop and rattled off a short story. It was called The Snow Demon and I was convinced that it was a masterpiece. In actual fact it turned out that; a) it wasn't and, b) it was the first of well over twenty short stories I have since written. I still haven't dared show anyone the first ten short stories. They're not brilliant, but they were great training.

How would you describe your books and style?

Most stories I write have three main ingredients: a fantastical element, an underlying reference to death and at least some pitiful attempt at humour. The proportions vary but I love fantasy. Not so much in the "I smote Scarinth, scourge of human-kind and guardian of the netherworld, with the double bladed Sword of my Elders, and he was right upset about it" sense, but more by using weird events and odd situations to put characters in places where we get to see what they're made of. Sometimes it's a talking pear tree or it may be an unusual storm or sometimes (rarely) it's missing altogether. The idea is that the strangeness of the situation allows us to get an idea of what the character is thinking much better than under normal circumstances (in which they'd be thinking about tea or when to walk the dog or something). Writers like Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakam use this device a lot and although they're very different authors with different agendas, it works the same way. In one of his short stories Murakami has a man helping a giant frog to battle the worm that causes Tokyo's earthquakes. It works because it's weird and interesting and the man responds to it in a very human and realistic way. In Puttypaw I have gigantic talking cats - which may very well be imaginary - because the way they interact with the main character, Toby, highlight what's happening in his head. Especially because we're never sure if they're fictional or not (okay, obviously they're fictional, but I mean within the confines of the book) they put the focus onto the journey his character has to go through. And the humour is inevitable. It's because I think I'm funny, despite having been told, repeatedly, that I'm not.

When you write do you have a particular routine you follow, and what do you find the most difficult part of writing a book?

The only routine I have is that I have to listen to music when I write, especially if I'm "splurging", by which I mean writing as quickly as I can anything that comes into my head as a first draft. On a good day I can splurge two thousand words and perhaps keep about eight hundred or so. I can never, ever, work and listen to music unless I'm writing fiction, because the music breaks my concentration. But for some reason when writing the music just helps keep my conscious mind out of the way so that the rest of me can get on with the job. Sometimes I worry about what crawls out of my subconscious onto the page. There have been moments where I've re-read a passage and thought, "Where the hell did that come from?" It's almost therapeutic. Some days I splurge, some days I obsessively delete, nitpick, cut and paste, and so it progresses. I tend to write in episodes, like scenes in a film. Short stories are a scene each, but the one-and-half novels I've written were written out of order: one day I'd write a bit of the beginning, the next a bit of the end, and then somewhere in the middle. The most difficult bit is getting all of the scenes to join up smoothly into a novel with one overarching and consistent narrative style.

Do you start a book knowing what the beginning, middle and end will be or does it take on a life of its own as you write?

I write the end first. That way I know where everything is heading (roughly). The rest I make up as I go, one idea leading to another. But because I know where all the paths lead, everything I write on the way heads in the right direction. That way of doing things seems to make sense to me. I have tried repeatedly to plan out where a book will go, but my brain doesn't work that way, sadly. I tend to find that the ideas for another section come when writing one of the others and so it progresses in stages.

Are you self-published or traditionally published, and what has been the best and worst thing about the route you have taken?

This is going to be a rant, I'm afraid. You'd probably better move on to the next section unless you've just finished writing a novel and want to know what it's like trying to get published. I am self-published. The best thing about self-publishing is that it is the antithesis of the worst thing about traditional publishing. My experience of traditional publishing is ghastly. I'd like to say from the outset that I am NOT thin skinned. I can deal with rejection. I do it professionally in my day job and if people read my book and decide that they don't like my writing that's fine. That's how it should be. One agent very kindly wrote to me saying that she thought that my writing was very strong but the subject of Puttypaw was too weird for her. That's brilliant: even though it's a rejection, it's a positive. It was also an exception in that she replied quickly and personally and had bothered to read my submission. What bugs me is that the guys involved with traditional publishing are rude. Not, you understand, that the individuals are ever actually anything other than polite and pleasant, but the nature of the process itself is rude. It's like playing the lottery very, very slowly. I have sent Puttypaw to three publishers and perhaps fifteen agents in the last year and a half. Most replied immediately with a polite "It's not for me" email but without having even read a word of the novel. This is itself extremely irritating but, for some reason, accepted as normal. As I write, though, there are three publishers and two agents who simply have not even replied to acknowledge receipt of the book. I now expect not to hear unless I phone them up to ask why. This is normal and very frustrating. To illustrate the horror that is trying to get published traditionally, here's the most positive experience I've had:

I sent a letter to an agent politely asking whether I could submit my novel to them (which they stated I should do on their website). I waited for three months without response. I eventually phoned up and did a bit of a sales job and she said, "Oh, didn't we respond? Why not email over the first chapters?" I did and waited for three months for a response. Nothing. So I had to phone up again and was told, somewhat tersely, that I had been emailed a rejection. I hadn't, and told her so, and there the conversation ended, leaving me feeling aggrieved but mainly phlegmatic. Two weeks later I received an email apologising and saying that my book had been put in discard pile by accident and that she had read my chapters and they were interesting and could I please forward the rest of the book? GREAT! I sent it over. And another three months elapsed and I phoned again. This time I had just pre-empted an email and we had a very nice conversation in which the agent was very encouraging but said that she had decided, on balance, not to take it, but that she enjoyed it and I should keep at writing. Fine. But the whole thing took nearly a year. And all the while my book had been sitting on my hard drive, unread by anyone.

So the best thing about self-publishing is that people actually read my books. The worst thing about self-publishing is that everybody, their dog and their dog's friends and their dog's friends' families are doing it with no vetting process (if the use of the word 'vetting' isn't strange in the context of novel-writing dogs). Unless you are lucky or particularly pushy, you'll quickly drown in anonymity. You rely on people leaving reviews and recommending your book to their friends. And you rely on luck - a public review in the right place at the right time followed by downloads that get you into the charts. An author acquaintance of mine likened it to being struck by lightning. You can do things to improve your chances of being struck, but at the end of the day it's back to waiting for lady luck. So I'm still playing the lottery, it appears, but now much faster, with a lot more tickets. And I'm being read!

If this isn't too much like asking a dad which of his children he likes best, which of your characters is your favourite?

This is an easy one. It's Theroros. I have an unpleasant sarcastic streak which I inherited from my father. I try to keep a lid on it and restrict the mickey-taking so that I still have a few friends who are willing to speak to me. Mostly it works but it's a constant effort and occasionally I'll come out with something horrific for which I later have to apologise. My friends think that I don't have a working social filter. Actually I do but it has a hell of a job to do and sometimes it simply breaks down, with disastrous consequences for my social life. It's probably not an accident that with Theroros I invented a character who was completely free to say whatever he wanted. I absolutely loved writing his bits. I spent most of that time chuckling and rubbing my hands with evil glee, possibly venturing the occasional snigger. I spent hours thinking, "Would it be nastier if he said it this way, or if he phrased it like this?" Of course Theroros has an ulterior motive for his behaviour and perhaps he isn't all bad (or actually isn't bad at all), but he still represented carte blanche to be as unpleasant as I wanted, even if it was only to two fictional characters. It was bliss. This makes me sound like a complete weirdo, doesn't it? (TC's note - nah, sounds like fun actually)

Finally, what are you working on at the moment that you can tell us about?

At the moment I am working on another novel which is sort of an investigation into how men like to distance themselves from emotional attachment and the consequences of this if they pursue it to the logical extreme. As usual with me it involves some very odd things happening which are a counterpoint to the emotional state of the main character. I probably can't go into it too much right now but it involves a terrible, terrible pun, being hunted by a strange, dark beast, a wound that will not close, a man traveling the world escaping from precisely nothing, and ultimately a realisation that it's never too late to let go and to simple accept things as they are. I think that this has probably been sufficiently vague a description that you'll never want to read it. I'm about 16,000 words in, and most of them are ones I want to keep. And I'm really, really enjoying writing it! Again, I find myself chucking at the occasional passage and feeling pleased with various bits of phraseology. So even if nobody ever reads another word of my work, at least I'm keeping myself amused.

Thanks to Tom for taking the time to do this, especially as I know he is abroad and probably out to be out enjoying himself, not slaving over a computer!

If you want to find out more links to both Puttypaw and Sketches of an Ending in all of their formats are available through Tom's Goodreads profile and his website.

Tom's Goodreads profile:
Tom's Smashwords profile:
Tom's website:
Tom on Facebook:
Tom on Twitter: @Puttypaw

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