Exclusive Interview with
When did you start writing?
I've been a scribbler all my life, but only began creating novels when I retired in 2014. My first attempts were rather mediocre: six novels that I self-published quickly taken up by friends and family then petered out. Since completing a creative writing module with the Open University in 2019 I've re-invented myself as an author. Hence, I consider 'To Run Before the Sea' my first quality work.
What makes writing your passion?
For me, it's all about the Characters. I feel I know them intimately and get a real fillip when I create stories around them. There are times when the stories seem to write themselves, and when that happens I get a sense of disembodiment, as if I've handed over my soul to an external force - I guess that's what tradition calls the Muses. This is hugely motivating and drives me on at the keyboard for many hours: often forgetting to eat and sleep.
How long have you been writing?
Well, I'm 70 now, and as I said in answer to the first question: all my life - at least, since I was in my early teens.
What was the feeling when you published your first book?
Strangely, after writing 'The End' I felt empty, washed out; as if I'd come to the end of a Great Adventure. I knew of course that self-publishing a novel, especially a first one, was rarely successful without a costly promotion campaign. So I took a realistic view and pressed on with my second.
What’s the story behind your choice of characters?
Primarily, there is always a maritime connection. I spent my first twenty-five years of working life in the Royal Navy, and although afterwards I went into a career in computing, the hankering for the sea and all things nautical stayed with me. So my first novel, 'Return to Africa' was about a naval petty officer who got himself into all sorts of trouble during his ship's visit to Mombasa. When I retired in 2014 I bought an old yacht and began sailing around the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean, and that began to inform my later choice of characters. At some stage I was drawn to novels about strong female leads, and so Rosie Winterbourne came into my writing. With all her flaws and qualities, Rosie epitomizes my choice of character types.
What annoys you the most in pursuing a writing career?
I wouldn't say anything really annoys me. I get frustrated at not being able to find an agent to help get my work into the commercial mainstream, and get irritated by the amount of time I spend on (mostly fruitless) self-promotion. And of course, the enormous number of independent authors out there make discovery of my books just about impossible. That makes me sad, but not annoyed.
How do you get over the “writer’s block”?
I have a simple solution to what some writers call 'writer's block'. I read a good novel. At some point during that reading, I generally get an idea that drives me back to the keyboard. If, however, I really don't know how to begin, or where the story is going, I just write - anything, rubbish, if you like. Because a writer should always remember two things: 1. the act of writing itself is what sparks the creative electricity, and 2. what you write first can always be deleted later. Consider the garbage you wrote first merely a springboard to creativity. Works for me.
We all know the writer’s path is never easy, what makes you keep going? What advice would you give to new authors?
If you want to be a writer - I mean REALLY want to be a writer, then write. All the time. Write what you see, what you hear, smell and touch. And write about how those sensations make you feel. When you get an idea for a story, don't wait until you know the ending, because, and this is important, you rarely know where your story is going to end until the moment you get there. This is what makes the craft so exciting. And when you know the ending, you need to write the beginning again. As Neil Gaiman once said, (and I paraphrase) the art of editing your story is to make the reader think you know what you're doing.
If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say?
Keep a diary, or journal, and write in it every day - not just what you did and what happened, but how it made you feel and how others acted and spoke. Keep your journals safe because these are your toolbox for the future. That last part is important, because, for reasons I won't go into, I lost everything I wrote before the age of forty.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones?
Yes, always. I hate to say it, but I've never had a bad one... yet. I'm sure it will happen. Harsh criticism I can take, if it is accompanied by suggestions for improvement. Bad-mouthing for its own sake is another matter which my instinct tells me I should just ignore and move on. If there are many bad reviews, however, I think I would look to improving my craft or doing something else.
What is the feeling when you get a good review?
Obviously, good reviews leave me with a warm glow. But on a different level, one can't help feeling aggrieved that if this person liked it so much, why aren't sales going through the roof? Sometimes I want to shout 'Don't tell me, tell the World!'.
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?
I do it all the time. 'Write what you know' is the age old mantra. My stories are about the sea and sailing, and I'm an experienced yachtsman with many hair-raising incidents to call on. For example, in 'To Run Before the Sea' Rosie encounters a sperm whale in mid-Atlantic that nearly capsizes her boat. This happened to me while sailing alone from Bermuda to Azores.
Which of your characters you can compare yourself with? Did you base that character on you?
My first novel, 'Return to Africa' was partly biographical, I guess. Though, I must confess, Patrick Redman was far braver - and willing to greater risks - that ever I was in my thirties. So perhaps he is a somewhat idealized version of me.
What do you think, the book cover is as important as the story?
No, certainly not. A stunning cover will certainly help sell the book, as will a good blurb. But once the story is underway, who cares? The only important parts of a book is what's inside: characters the reader cares about and and a story that engages the imagination.
Do you connect with your readers? Do you mind having a chat with them or you prefer to express yourself through your writing?
I often talk to people I know that have read my books, frequently for feedback from First Readers. I do however, prefer to express myself in writing, as you put it. When I listen to authors being interviewed on BBC Radio 4, I'm constantly amazed at how fluently they talk about their work. I'm sure I could never be so articulate in a live audio interview. No, I value time to give a considered response and ensure my reply is coherent, as in this interview.
How do you feel when people appreciate your work or recognize you in public?
I'll let you know when it happens (a wry grin).
Who is your favorite author? Why?
I'm a prolific reader and have had many different favorite authors over the years. The writer that has perhaps engaged me most is the late Terry Pratchett. I've read the Discworld series many times over, and even now dip back into them when I want a ripping yarn with plenty of lighthearted philosophy and satire. I have had the pleasure of meeting Terry on two occasions.
What’s the dream? Whom would you like to be as big as?
Realistically, I started writing novels too late in life to be huge. I think Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) and his Strike series would be a good model for the Rosie Winterbourne series.
Would you rewrite any of your books? Why?
Actually, I'm doing exactly that. I'm intending to rewrite all those early books that were good stories, badly told, and poorly written. I took Rosie Winterbourne's character and story-line from an earlier novel that I've since scrapped.
According to Stephen King, the first draft of your manuscript should be shown to nobody - that is just you telling yourself the story.
See: King, Stephen (2010) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Hodder & Stoughton.
If you could switch places with any author – who would that be?
Absolutely nobody! And I doubt any aspiring author would say otherwise. The idea is to be recognized for oneself. Of course, their are other motivations, such as money and a better life, but they are not what drives greatness.
What would you say to the “trolls” on the internet? We all know them – people who like to write awful reviews to books they’ve never read or didn’t like that much, just to annoy the author.
I'm not yet successful enough to gather Trolls in my reviews - doing so would thrill me, because then I'll know I've made it to recognition. As for trolling per se, I would totally ignore it, and NEVER respond.
What would you say to your readers?
A person has only one life - a person who reads can live many. If you enjoy a good adventure with a truly original action heroine, then take a look at Rosie Winterbourne in 'To Run Before the Sea'.
Share a bit about yourself – where do you live, are you married, do you have kids?
Currently, I live in Elgin, Scotland. I am not married, but have been in the past. I have four children: two girls, and two boys, all adults now with children (and grandchildren in some cases) of their own.
What is your day job if you have one?
Officially I'm retired, so you could say writing is my Day Job.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your free time?
I have a yacht, currently in the Azores, which I plan to live aboard again after the present pandemic either goes away or we find a way to live with it. Meanwhile I have resumed studies with the Open University after a break of three decades. I also like walking and cycling.
Did you have a happy childhood?
Is there a particular experience that made you start writing?
Yes. My History Teacher, Mrs Searle, stays in my memory as the person who most influenced me: both my yearning to write and my love for the English language. I once wrote a long and detailed account of the French Revolution, for which she took me aside to tell me how good she thought it was. I think that was the moment I realized I might be able to do this writing lark. Unfortunately, life got in the way and I joined the navy.
Do you have unpublished books? What are they about?
What do you think should be improved in the education of our children? What do we lack?
I'd like to see greater emphasis on language and grammar. They seem to teach English only as a stand-alone subject, whereas back in my day, biology, history, geography all required a high standard of essay writing that was scrupulously marked for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, as well as argument construction and technical coherence.
If you were allowed 3 wishes – what would they be?
What is your favorite music?
Rock and Classical
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