With his latest title hitting the shelves today, (Black Chalice, reviewed below this interview) we grabbed a quick word with Steven to find out a few things about his own “Chivalrous” nature.
Here he chats to us about writing, what he can’t live without and how addictive little things like Coffee can be to a writer, dammit….
Falcata Times: How would you say that your perspective has changed about selling your own work with multiple novels under your belt?
Steven Saville: I’m not entirely sure it has. Like a lot of writers I still have this little voice inside me still whispers “Shhh be quiet, you don’t want them to find out you’re making this up as you go along…” and occasionally mocks, “I can’t believe you’re still getting away with this.” I think a lot of us feel something similar, like we can’t believe we get to do this for a living and expect someone to turn up at any moment and say, “Hey, Sav. You’re a big fat faker.” Actually, amusingly, I’m listening to Ben Folds’ A Working Day from Lonely Avenue – lyrics written by Nick Hornby that starts all gung-ho about his creative genius then rapidly goes down hill, including things like, some guy on the net thinks I’m shit and he should know, he’s got his own blog, and I’m a loser, I’m a poser, yeah really, it’s over, I mean it, I quit, everything I write is shit. So I guess that’s a perfect encapsulation of the inside of my head when it comes to my confidence or lack thereof.
So, invariably what happens is I send stuff off to the agent thinking “There’s no way anyone is going to like this…” and when an offer comes back that little voice says “I can’t believe they fell for it AGAIN!”
It’s a very strange game this. I am genuinely humbled though by every single person who goes and spends money they’ve worked hard to earn to buy one of my stories. So more than anything I think I am more appreciative of readers than I was when I was younger. Back then I think it was more of a divine right of writers to be read, now my thoughts are more in line with ‘you sacrificed 7.99, meaning you chose it over a McDonalds or a movie ticket, or a latte and cake down at Nero’s, so I know I have to give you at least that back in value.’
FT: How would you sell yourself as an author?
SS: Does very cheaply count? The truth is for a long time I’ve been able to hide behind franchise names like Warhammer and Stargate and Torchwood, but over the last few years I’ve stepped out of the comfort zone and into creating my own worlds, like Black Chalice, which whilst on the surface appears to be part of a created concept is 100% me, for good or ill, and Silver, my debut thriller, which as of writing is tearing up the Amazon UK charts and hovering around #13. It’s exciting to be out there alone. If I were meeting a prospective new reader who wanted to know what of mine they should read those are the two I’d pick out right now because I think they’re the best examples of where I am as a writer. As to a sales pitch though, I don’t know. I write across the board. Horror, thriller, fantasy, science fiction, dramatic comedy… you name it, I think I am probably a sales guy’s worst nightmare as you never know what it’ll be next.
FT: How would you say that your experience of writing and publishing has changed your methods of writing?
SS: The answer is probably radically. I used to think of writing as a great adventure. I remember sitting down to write The Secret Life of Colours (The Last Angel) without a clue what was going to happen from that opening line: It was another day in hell. I had no idea what was going to happen from then, and my hero, Dan Manelli, a good old hard drinking Italian cop became Gabriel Rush, a Native American psychic before the ride was over. With The Sufferer’s Song I spent about two months creating dozens of lives in Westbrooke, the fictional Northumbrian village, spinning stories about them, and setting up a brother vs. brother showdown for the last chapter, only to start writing and have one of the two brothers go and kill himself before I was 100 pages in, meaning right up until the day before I finished the 160,000 word manuscript I had no idea how it was going to end. Or Laughing Boy’s Shadow, the first chapter of which came out in a rush after getting home from watching Aimee Mann in concert, and like Secret Life was just a rush of ‘ooh what’s going to happen next.’
Then I got my first professional writing gig and found I needed to write a series bible of about 10,000 words covering themes, characters etc, and a detailed 10,000 word outline of the novel, for the editors at Black Library to take to the acquisitions meeting so the marketing boys knew what they were going to be selling. It was the same with Sláine and Necrarch and Primeval. Torchwood: Hidden was a little different, it was just a case of pitching an idea and the editors signing off on it, though the story I really wanted to do, Dr Who on a submarine with zombie submariners was nixed, there was a lot of freedom.
It was almost an act of rebellion with the last 3 novels, Silver, London Macabre and Black Chalice, that I only worked off a single page concept, which was much more liberating than the extreme confines of having done such detailed outlines before, but still offered the safety net of knowing exactly where I was going beat for beat.
FT: With the experience you’ve gained now what do you wish you could have told yourself when you were starting out?
SS: I think this one links to the last one, in that, at the end of the day you need to find the method you’re most comfortable with – outlining isn’t evil. I kinda wish I could tell the 20 year old me that. Might have saved me some very weird moments… then, I think the only other thing I would have said would be something like ‘have faith’ or … no… actually… ‘Be the best Steven Savile you can be. Don’t try and be the best Stephen King or Clive Barker or Jonathan Carroll or David Gemmell. Be the best Steven Savile you can be, because no-one ever got to St Peter only to be told, ‘man, if only you could have been more like Clive Barker, then you’d have really been using the talent God gave you…’
FT: What characteristics of your protagonists do you wish you had, and why?
SS: Oh man, my protagonists are almost all badly damaged human beings, like Alymere in Black Chalice, or Noah Larkin in Silver. I don’t write big strong heroes. My ex-father in law used to joke ‘when will you write a happy story’ and I never had an answer for that. The only happy story I ever tried to write ended up being utterly heartbreaking, so I guess the answer is probably no time soon. But, I think all of my protagonists have something in common, and that’s courage to carry on even long after their self-belief has waned. It’s something I like to think I’ve given them, but in truth I think they’re very much idealized version of the man I wish I could be. I wish I had their strength.
FT: Which characters are most like you and why?
SS: That’d be telling, wouldn’t it? If we look at the cast of Chalice, I don’t have the confidence of a Bors de Ganis, who is modelled after my grandfather – a man who used to carry pit ponies on his shoulders and carry sacks of coal 10 miles home for his mother when he was young. He was a giant of a man with a beautiful big heart. I don’t know if I am more like Lowick, who is something of a bear, a brave caring soul with massive internal conflicts tearing at him, or more of an Alymere, in that I frequently doubt myself. Probably somewhere between the two.
FT: What of life’s little addictions could you not live without and why?
SS: An easy one: coffee. I’m a coffee shop writer. Right now I am in Akademibokhandel in Hötorget, Stockholm, which is our version of Borders, basically. I’ve got a large latte to my left and a cinnamon bun to my right. Without these things no books would ever get written.
FT: With regular trips for book tours around the country as well as to various conventions, what is the absolute travel essential that you couldn’t do without?
SS: As sad as it sounds, it’s my iPhone. I’ve got documents to go running on it, it’s got Bluetooth obviously, and I’ve got a little stowaway keyboard. I can write, listen to music, surf the net, do the social networking rubbish and it fits into my pocket. Steve Jobs basically owns my soul.
FT: How has multiple novels under your belt changed how you accept criticism?
SS: Having had some charming souls inform me during the writing of one particular novel that they wanted to come to the local signings and slash my face with a knife my ability to cope with folks saying they don’t like a book is much easier. I really only get frustrated nowadays when someone says something like ‘I thought this was great, but I’ll only read the next one if it is discounted and has good reviews…’ it’s like the reader doesn’t trust their own judgment. The fact is the more you sell the more people you’re not going to please, so if you can hit 33-33-33 love-meh-hate you’re doing okay as a writer and have done your job. Remember you should be pushing yourself, meaning you’re going to write stuff that will turn some readers off just because it touches raw nerves or goes against something they believe. At the end of the day NOT reading your reviews would be a much healthier way to go. I know lots of writers who say they don’t, but can still quote every one star review on Amazon. Trying to think about it a little more honestly, I guess the first few reviews still feel fairly important, so I’m very much on edge waiting for those to come in, but I can still remember when my first couple of things came out and you wouldn’t hear any sort of feedback for months until the trades like The Bookseller ran a little review, or it was covered in genre fanzines etc. It’s a brave new world now with barriers well and truly torn down.
FT: On long journey's, reading is often the pleasure of choice, who's work will you grab at the airport to ensure a good journey?
SS: I have a few favourite disconnect writers that I always associate with travelling – David Nicholls (One Day, Starter for Ten, The Understudy) for instance, Mike Gayle (The Importance of Being a Bachelor, The To Do List), Lee Child (Jack Reacher books), stuff that I can just kick back and immerse myself in. Nothing too heavy. Oddly my flight patterns seem to be tied to the release of certain authors. I’ve found myself landing in London the same week as Douglas Coupland has had a new novel out every time since the release of JPod. He’s one of the few writers who I find laugh-out-loud funny whilst also being deeply connected to my generation. My current ‘wants’ are all laced with nostalgia for the 80s and my youth. I guess it means I am entering my mid-life crisis.
FT: Out of all your novels, which is your favourite and why?
SS: It’s supposed to be the one I’m working on, obviously, but I am still going to plump for one that’s not on any shelves yet – London Macabre. My agent describes it as the bastard child of Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman. It’s quite different from anything I’ve ever done… is massive in terms of story. It’s one of those I can’t give an elevator pitch for. Not even remotely. I sat down almost 2 years ago and started to write, knowing I finally wanted to give everything to trying to get it right. London Macabre was the result. In terms of the ‘next’ one… of all the ideas percolating right now, Glass Town is the one that excites me the most because it is every bit as unique as London Macabre. I think I finally have the confidence to start telling those stories that are unique to me. It’s taken a while, now I just have to hope it’s worth the wait.
FT: With everyone having their own personal view as to who should be cast in a film version of their work, who do you think should play your principle protagonists and why?
SS: Hmm, let’s pick Silver because it’s actually one a friend of mine asked the other day and I’ve been thinking about ever since:
Konstantin Khavin, Jean Reno, without a doubt.
Noah Larkin, Rufus Sewell.
Orla Nyrén, Orla Brady, her namesake.
Jude Lethe, Justin Long.
Ronan Frost, George Clooney.
Sir Charles Wyndham, Sir Ian McKellan.
A veritable cast of erm six.
FT: Authors are generally a superstitious lot and upon completion of novels follow a certain ritual, what is yours and how has it changed from the original?
SS: You know, I genuinely don’t. And I’m completely unsuperstitious. When I finished Chalice for instance, I seem to recall taking the next day off to read a book and watch tv, then dove into doing a short story I owed Jean Rabe for an anthology. When I finished Silver my folks were over from Newcastle so we went out for a meal to a steakhouse in the city. When I finished London Macabre I wound up doing about 4 interviews the same day to promote Fantastic TV. I feel like I should have a nice single malt and smoke a cigar or something. That feels like the writerly thing to do.
FT: What was your impression of an author’s lifestyle and status and how has that interpretation changed since you've published a number of books?
SS: When I was young I used to correspond with a few writers I loved like Richard Laymon and Stephen Lawhead, and I always held these guys up on a serious pedestal. I adored the different places they could take me and was in awe of their gifts. I always imagined in my head landing the first book deal would change my life. It didn’t. I carried on with the day job for years before I finally walked out. Now I understand that a writer is a businessman as well. I get that beyond the actual writing you need to be at least passingly familiar with so many other trades, like accountancy, marketing etc. It ain’t all waiting for the muse.
FT: What are the best words of wisdom or tip that you'd give to a new or soon to be published author?
SS: One’s already appeared up top, about being the best you you can be, not the best some other guy who’s already out there. The other is that it isn’t a race. If you write 3 truly brilliant short stories a year and 1 brilliant novel every 2 years, and have a career that spans 30 years you’re looking at 90 truly brilliant stories and 15 brilliant novels and that by anyone’s yard stick is one hell of a career.