Thursday, 23 July 2009

INTERVIEW: Angus Donald

If theres one thing thats well known it's that all Journalists love a good story. That said, however, very few can actually tell one. Having travelled the world in various guises (fruit picker, waiter, anthropologist) it probably would come as no surprise that Angus decided to give the world of literature a go especially after using it as a form of therapy to keep himself sane in an otherwise alien world to which he was inhabiting at the time. Here, after realising that the human race has changed remarkably little over the last thousand years, he tackled the myth of Robin Hood, bringing a more realistic, if barbaric Robin to the fore tempered by the cooling influence of his friends and told from the point of view of Alan Dale. We thought that we'd ask him about everything from practical archeology through to how he copes whilst travelling the globe...

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?

Angus Donald: I think it is ridiculous to talk about something a pleasurable as writing as an affliction. It’s true that I do feel, and as an adult have always felt, a compulsion to write, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I love writing; it’s cathartic and gives me a real sense of achievement.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

AD: I was in my early twenties doing fieldwork in Indonesia for a Masters Degree in Social Anthropolgy. I was studying magic and witchcraft in a small rural village and I was quite lonely as almost nobody in the village spoke English, so I started writing a novel (it was unfinished, unpublished, pretty much unreadable). But I found that writing was a marvelous antidote to my loneliness and that it made me feel very contented and self-contained. I realized that I could be happy anywhere with just a pencil and notebook and my own imagination.

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?

AD: I guess it’s true. If you can write, you can write anything. I don’t much care for short stories. I’ve written a few but the ones I’ve read have very often left me wanting a bit more from the characters that you can get in, say, 10,000 words.

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?

AD: I’d ask them if they were interested in a fast-paced action-adventure novel in the style of Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

AD: A dark re-telling of the Robin Hood legend in which the hero is a violent gangster: the Godfather of Sherwood

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?

AD: I’m a big fan of John Le Carre, but I also adore the Flashman books by the late, great George Macdonald Fraser. I love Bernard Cornwell, too, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. But I wouldn’t wait on a bookshop’s doorstep, I tend to buy my books online.

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?

AD: I always know how the book is going to end
– usually with a great climactic battle and the bad guy getting his comeuppance; and I have a rough idea of the story arc of each main character; and I also know some of the waystations, or landmarks in the plot, some big scenes I’m going to write. But apart from that I just sit down and start typing and see where the muse takes me. I enjoy that more than having a fixed plan and rigidly sticking to it. You never know what your characters are going to say and do. They constantly surprise me.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

AD: I like a nice glass of good red wine in the evening – actually, I usually have several. I’ve just finished reading A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre for the fourth or fifth time.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

AD: I’m not very good at guilt. When I behave badly or say something unkind, I don’t feel all that guilty. I just tend to shrug, apologise to the person, and try not to do it again. So I don’t really have any pleasures that I feel guilty about.

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?)

AD: I don’t have any pets. Maybe down the road a few years I might get a dog, as my wife would like one, but as I have a young baby at the moment, having a pet is not very practical.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

AD: The character I like most (apart from Robin himself, and the narrator Alan Dale) is Bernard de Sezanne, a drunken French troubadour, whose chief pleasures in life are wine, women and song. He’s a bit of a coward, and terribly vain, but he’s good-hearted and fun-loving so I like him despite his many faults.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

AD: There is a good deal of my teenaged self in Alan Dale, who is thirteen at the beginning of the novel. But he’s much braver than I am, much better at languages and a lot more musical. 

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

AD: I like to walk across the countryside in Kent where I live; I usually go with one of my brothers and we set the world to rights over a couple of hours of tramping, followed by a pint in a nice local pub. I find it very useful to have someone to bounce ideas off, and somehow the exercise seems to make my brain work more clearly. I also play golf (badly).

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

AD: All over the place. History books, mainly, I also browse the internet quite a bit looking for interesting facts to use in my books. I also steal real people’s mannerisms and expressions and give them to my characters.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

AD: Sometimes. Mercifully, not often. And then I just type my way through it. Even if I think what I’ve written is crap I just keep going. The act of typing seems to release something in my head, and ideas begin to flow. And you can always delete it when you look over it, if it really is awful. That’s the beauty of writing on a computer.

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?

AD: I don’t really work uncivilized hours. I have a routine but I don’t stick to it rigidly. If I feel like it, sometimes I take the day off. That’s the good bit about working for yourself. But the normal routine goes like this: I get up at 7am and get some coffee and, still in a dressing gown, go upstairs to my study and begin work. At about 9am, I have a shower and some breakfast and then go back to work till about 11am, then I go to the gym three days a week and do errands on the other days until lunchtime. After lunch I have some downtime, reading, napping, playing with the baby, whatever. In the early evening 4pm or 5pm I go back to my desk and spend a couple of hours looking over what I’ve written that morning. I clock off about 7pm.

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?

AD: Perhaps oddly, given that my hero Alan Dale is a musical genius, I hardly ever listen to music. And I can’t think of any scenes in the book that were influenced by music. I certainly can’t write in anything but silence. I do have an iPod but I only use it very occasionally, sometimes in the gym.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

AD: I thought I would be more involved in decisions about the blurb on the back of the book, the cover design, and the marketing. In fact, I’m very lucky to have a superb team of people at Little, Brown who managed to do all that very well without any help from me.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

AD: I think writing is “the flow of soul”, an outpouring of a person’s essence on to the page. Apart from telling a story, novels give you a glimpse of the novelist’s inner man.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

AD: The next novel is called Holy Warrior and in it Robin Hood, Alan Dale, Little John and everyone go off on the Third Crusade with Richard the Lionheart. It has plenty of bloody battles, treachery, torture, and quite a lot of sex. And it will be published next summer

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

AD: My website; the Media Guardian website; Wikipedia; Pimbley’s Dictionary of Heraldry; and the BBC weather site

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

AD: I never took any classes in writing but I did work as a journalist for more than 15 years before I wrote my first book. I started as a proof-reader on magazines in Hong Kong and it taught me to be very precise about the words I used. I also worked as a sub-editor, a magazine feature writer, and a foreign correspondent. All of that was good training.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

AD: I was very lucky that I didn’t really have to deal with rejection. I sent off three chapters of my book to an agent and within a week I had signed a contract with him; a month later I had four publishers wanting to publish a book I hadn’t even written by then and I ended up signing a two-book deal with Sphere (an imprint of Little, Brown). I’m bound to get some criticism in the future and I hope I can just take it with a pinch of salt and move on.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

AD: The best aspect of writing for a living is the freedom. I can do whatever I like all year, I just have to produce a book at the end of it. I love the magic of writing, too, when my characters come alive and speak to me. It’s like having an imaginary family. The worst bit about writing is the isolation. After working for so many years in a busy national newspaper, I find it strange that now I can spend days and days during which the only person I talk to is my wife, and maybe the postman. When she goes away to visit friends or family, I find I email people a lot just looking for a bit of human contact.

For more information of Angus and his upcoming work please visit his website.

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