We here at Falcata Times, always love an author with a twisted sense of humour and judging by his latest novel, Simon Morden more than fits the criteria to become one of our firm favourites.
Here we chatted to him about the complexities of writing by the seat of your pants, crazy characters and how "all proper authors have cats..."
Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Simon Morden: I can’t imagine anyone really sitting down, rationally weighing up their options, and coming up with author as a career choice. Writing really, really doesn’t cut it: you closet yourself away for hours on end, week after week, with no prospect of earning so much as one red cent, all the while having to do a different job to pay the bills. So, yes. It’s a stupid way to even attempt to make a living: authors have to be driven by something other than money or success. That other thing is often sheer pig-headedness and their refusal to roll over as rejection after rejection piles up. Those that survive the process aren’t exactly the most well-adjusted of people…
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
SM: I know you hear tales of authors who only ever wanted to be an author: I came to this quite late on, and by a very roundabout route. I was – am still, when I get the time – a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, but I was a reader, not a writer. I discovered Dungeons and Dragons in my early teens, and played an awful lot. Many years later, at university, I started running campaigns myself: the whole epic history, maps, cultures, races thing. From there, it was a natural progression into writing, but that didn’t happen until I was so disgusted at a sequel to a well-loved book that I decided I could do it better. So I did.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
SM: Ooh, tough one. A novel is more than a series of short stories, one after another. Novels are (or at least, ought to be) more complex, deeper, wider, richer. Shorts are inexplicably sharp, they are the surgeon who makes a single cut and it’s over before you realise. Novels are wine to the short story’s crack. I’ve done both (long and short fiction – not cocaine!), and they’re very different disciplines. Some novel writers can’t do the short form, and some celebrated short story writers just can’t write long. I’ve never written a short, then expanded on it for a novel – what I have done is used the shorts as a sort of prequel, like I’ve done for the Metrozone trilogy.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
SM: Ah, good morning, sir, madam. May I interest you in a fine piece of future fiction? Not your usual read? Certainly, there are other books available in this emporium, some of them even rooted in the traditions of Wollstonecraft, Verne, Wells, Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury, but only I can promise you fencing, fighting, torture, true love, hate, revenge, giantesses, hunters, bad men, good men, beautifulest ladies, pain, death, brave men, coward men, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion, Stalin lookalikes and giant fighting robots. The till? Certainly: this way. A wise choice, if I may say so.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
SM: It won’t stop hurting your eyes unless you open the book and start reading the words.
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
SM: Bradbury. People must be getting sick of me saying that now. Ray Bradbury is brilliant. Ken MacLeod is funny and wise. Michael Marshall Smith. Neil Gaiman. That kind of thing.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?
SM: I’m very much a seat-of-the-pants writer. I start with a scene, sometimes just an image, and I have to work out who these people are, how they got there and what happens next. That scene can happen anywhere in the story, too. Once, I had an idea that gave me the final frame of a novel. That was hard work… The thing is, is that if I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m excited by the narrative, some of that should come through in the words I’m using to describe it.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
SM: Relax? I don’t have time to relax! Not at the moment, anyway. Everything is stupid busy, even without the stress of having three books published in three months. However, when I can be persuaded… me and my disreputable writing friends go out drinking once a month. When I say, ‘Go out’ what I really mean is we sit in a pub and moan about publishers while drinking some particularly fine ales and eating Tyrell’s crisps. I also enjoy a good strategy game on the computer: something from the Total War series, or a spot of Civilisation. If I’m really letting my hair down, I have a guitar, and I (sort of) know how to use it. That’s the complete Rock’n’Roll lifestyle, right there. Go me! Woo!
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
SM: This section is redacted for security reasons.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
SM: All Proper Authors have cats. Cats are full of win because they sleep half the time and never need taking for a walk. You can pretty much forget they’re there if you have to (deadlines or other such nonsense), and yet they’re always available for chin-scratching, ear-tickling or purr generating. They’ll let you know when they need feeding – usually by sitting in front of the computer monitor and staring really hard at you – and they even bring you gifts to show how much they love you! We have two cats, brothers from a litter of strays: one is a normal-sized moggie, the other has a passing resemblance to a Viking Longcat.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
SM: Petrovitch is cool, in a ‘what the hell is the crazy bastard going to do next?’ sort of way. On one hand, he’s completely unpredictable: think of the most hair-brained scheme possible, and to Petrovitch, it’s a sure-fire plan. On the other hand, once you get inside his head, it All Makes Sense. He’s someone you’d want on your side when the chips are down, but I’d forbid my daughter to marry him.
Epiphany Ekanobi doesn’t appear much, but has some fantastic lines, and in Book 2 (Theories of Flight), Valentina is just a complete star, in a very matter-of-fact, doggedly loyal way.
FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
SM: I really hope the answer to that is not at all. My wife, however, has suggested that in Russia, Petrovitch is you. In reality, I’m nowhere near as smart, sweary, brave, stupid, careless or Russian as Petrovitch. Yes, we do have things in common, like an interest in science and gadgets, but I have far more patience than he does, I’m actually civilised, and I don’t drink vodka for breakfast.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
SM: Up until recently, writing has been a hobby – in that getting paid for it is a new thing. But I guess that’s not what you’re asking. I like making stuff. I live in an old house, so there’s always some sort of bodging to be done, if not a full-scale project that means knocking a room back to the brickwork and starting again. I also build things to take into school: I teach Y6 kids Design Technology, so there’s always bits and pieces of bridges, cars, rockets and hovercraft lying around.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
SM: I steal them from Charlie Stross books. All the cool kids are doing it these days.
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
SM: Yes. No. Maybe. There are times when I’ve written myself into a corner, and I have to take a couple of days to realise what happens next. I’m never worried, though. I have fantastically inventive characters.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
SM: There are other people living here with me? Really? That would account for the strange noises I hear occasionally and the missing food from the fridge. I’m not a morning person, in the way that vampires aren’t morning people. It normally takes several mugs of really strong tea to bring me round, so I tend to do ‘jobs’ – tidying, cleaning, putting the washing on, playing with the cats (important part of the day, you know!) – first thing, and slowly ease into the writing thing. If it’s not a school day (I’m a part-time teaching assistant), I tend to keep going till stupid o’clock. Some of my best work is done when everyone else is asleep…
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
SM: I’ve tried to have music on when I write. I just can’t do it, even instrumental pieces where there aren’t any lyrics that might distract me. Not that I need silence –regular urban noises are fine, and in summer, I have the windows open and I get birdsong and lawnmowers, dogs barking and kids shouting. None of that is at all intrusive, but music (and speech radio) is a no-no. Other than that, I listen to an eclectic mix of early Church music, eighties electro-pop, rock and modern folk. YouTube has introduced me to all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff lately.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
SM: I didn’t think it would be easy getting published. I didn’t think it’d be as hard as it was. I thought I could write a decent-enough story. I soon realised I had masses to learn. I thought I could work out what an editor wanted. I eventually discovered that they were as much in the dark as I was, and all I could really do is write the stuff I wanted to, then see if it sold.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
SM: It is the whole of creation, caught between a folded piece of card. Only when you open a book will the probabilities collapse into what is written. Until that moment, anything, quite literally, is possible. So choose wisely…
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
SM: Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. How about the next, next novel: a wide-screen space opera mil-SF epic. It’s a cross between Dune and the Forever War.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
SM: BBC News, Ship of Fools, B3ta, Facebook and Google.
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
SM: No. I would argue I was entirely self-taught, but when I look at my book shelves, I can see how much of a lie that would be. I learnt how to write by reading, reading and reading some more. That’s how it should be. Read anything. Read what works, read what doesn’t, work out the difference between the two. Go read some more. Eventually, you’ll realise what it is that makes a good story, and what makes a bad one. Resolve to write like the good ones and less like the bad ones. Go write some more.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
SM: I used explosives, and lots of them. There’s nothing like controlled demolition for … hang on, different question. Humility by the bucketload comes in handy. Patience, likewise. But all of that has to be wrapped around a steely core of determination that you’re never going to give up until you’ve cracked it. By the time you’ve done that, stopping is unconscionable.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
SM: Best? Having an audience, no matter how small, who appreciate what you’re trying to do and encourage you to do more.
Worst? The hours. Writing isn’t hard work like being a lumberjack or a brickie. But it is hard all the same.