Thursday, 1 October 2009

INTERVIEW: Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Aaron was 19 when he realised that he wanted to be a writer after discovering that he "was too much of a slacker to be a paramedic." Not that it wasn't a calling at the time but something that he'd always done since an early age, so after working a number of jobs (some in the computer games and roleplay sector) and with some capital behind him, he quit it all to write to his hearts desire and currently hasn't looked back. Tracking him down to his lair in York we decided to have a chat about how he works, his sith abilities and above all his love of writing...

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?

Aaron Dembski-Bowden: Jesus, this is a bit deep for an opening question.

There’s a truth to that statement, I guess, and I’ve heard it a lot myself. There’s also an underlying pretension to it, though.

I mean, yeah, whether I was working to be published or not, I’d still be writing. I’ve always written – for myself as a kid, with crazy little stories – and it’s fair to say that most writers are always writing for themselves first and foremost. George Lucas once said he makes the kind of films that he wants to watch. There’s definitely an element of that in writing. Sometimes you can’t sleep for all the ideas in your head, and you need to spill them onto a screen or let them flow onto a notepad, almost as if it was a physical pressure behind your eyes.

It’s a passion, and people are often driven by passions, for better or worse.

But there’s still a ring of pretension in there. Writing is no more intense, passionate or demanding in its need to get out of someone’s head than the pressures also felt by painters, or video performance artists, or video game designers, or musicians… or whoever else loves what they

Passions drive us all, and when they’re creative passions, it usually just means you’re lucky enough to put your heart and soul into your career. Most people don’t get the chance to do that, and it can get a little romanticised as a result.

No, it’s not an affliction. It’s an urge. It’s one of life’s very difficult and demanding passions.

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

ADB: When I realised I was too much of a slacker to become a paramedic. I was 19.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, at least in the sense of going professional… More of a realisation that I was never going to be anything else. I’d been writing for years by that point, but always with the belief I’d be a writer “one day” and “at some point”. Only when I was 19 did it hit me that I had no other choices open to me anymore.

As a kid, I was always taught and told that writing was something that began late in life; it was something earned through decades of hard work, saving money, and no one but the most massively successful authors could sustain themselves purely by writing.

Part of that was, uh, responsible adult influences trying to tell me to get a real job and not risk everything on writing. Most of it was also nonsense.

When I was old enough to start thinking about the fact I needed to carve out a career path in order to be able to afford food, clothes an
d an FX replica Mace Windu lightsaber, I knew deep down I was only good at one thing.

I wanted to be a paramedic, though I was self-ware enough to realise that was never going to happen due to a long and varied list of exciting character flaws. The only constant talent I’ve had in life, consistently reinforced by others, was writing.

Queue a series of part-time jobs until I could quit to write full-time at age 24.

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?

ADB: I think, in all fairness, that’s insane.

Some musicians are guitarists, some are singers, and some are bassists. You’ll usually find a decent guitarist has spent enough time immersed in music that he can give a good stab at the drums, maybe generate something sweet by hitting the keys of a piano, and that he can play bass as well. Hell, some people are great on all of them.

But they’re not the same instruments.

Short stories are as different from novels as they are from poems, screenplays and song lyrics. If you can write a short story, that probably means you have a solid writing style, a decent grasp of grammar, and understand the standard truths to short story writing.

It’s no guarantee you’re in full possession of how novels are structured and flow, or how poems hit the high notes of emotions, or how song lyrics fit into their own niche.

There’s often a trend where people consider short stories as the basic first step of being a writer. I don’t buy that at all – it’s a discipline as difficult as any other – but it’s only tenuously linked to other forms of writing. Most novelists and poets I know actually struggle with short stories, for various reasons.

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?

ADB: Man, I’ve worked in a bookshop. People don’t want to be annoyed like that. If you have a good cover and a decent back blurb that sums it all up like a killer movie trailer, that’s your best bet.

If it came to persuading someone to try my writing over someone else’s, I’m fairly sure I’d rely on word of mouth and reviews for that. I’m not crass enough to plot out how I’d arm-wrestle someone into giving me a shot. I trust people. I’m naturally positive, and overwhelmingly arrogant enough to think they’d like my writing without me pitching it to them. Show, don’t tell… right?

Something I’ve noticed is that some writers don’t seem to have much of their own style. They’re the ones that you can read and read, yet their voice and tone isn’t markedly different from X, Y and Z other guys and girls.

Like it or loathe it, I don’t have that issue, and I think that helps people get into (or out of) my work.

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

ADB: I’d ask Marketing very nicely to do it for me, and pray they’ve got a decent cover artist.

Failing that, if we’re talking about Cadian Blood, it has a target audience of Warhammer 40,000 fans already. I’d say what I always say:

“It’s the Cadians on a shrineworld, without reinforcements, against zombies, Typhus, and the Death Guard.”

Kinda sounds shallow, but it’s worked a treat so far.

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?

ADB: I’m not a gleaming, glowing beacon of affection for most of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi genre, all said. I’m ruthless in the amount of writing I really enjoy, and a chunk of that is outside the genre.

Robin Hobb is a favourite of mine, and although I can always understand the occasional criticism levelled at her (amongst her infinite numbers of hugely positive reviews) she is the only writer that I always, always, always have on pre-order. She writes characters with this stomach-lurching, intense realism, and character-driven writing always appeals to me above any other.

Edgar Allen Poe is pretty much the polar opposite to her, with everything being about the events and the description of scenes. He’s so skilled at weaving images into the grey, juicy junk behind the eyes, but he’s been dead for a while, so I can’t say I sit up late at night scanning Amazon for his next bestseller.

I also like David Gemmell (may he rest in peace, that bloody genius) and Stephen King. Their writing is very elegant, very simplistic, pure storytelling. I’ve always found that sort of awesome, though I’m not very good at that stripped-down elegance myself. When I say simplistic, I don’t exactly mean simple like “basic”. I mean their sentences are carefully constructed to read smoothly, with this honest and earnest simplicity. Very skilful. It rocks.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? i.e. Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

ADB: I have nothing but awe and a slightly dizzy, confused admiration for writers capable of meticulous planning beforehand. I’m in the c
amp of writers with 800 ideas and a vague idea of what is possible in the course of a story set in the particular world I’m imagining. So I go from there.

When my editor asks for a pitch before a novel, I wish a lifetime of unpleasant sexual misadventures upon him, and feel my skin crawl as if my blood was trying to sweat its way out of my body. It’s a special kind of agony.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to realise that despite my burning core of hatred for the planning process, it’s pretty useful. As long as it’s not too formal, the dedicated unleashing of ideas onto the page is pretty much just writing, anyway.

Word of advice: if you hate planning, then make sure you have a good editor. Get someone who spots the holes you don’t always see. He or she won’t patch the holes for you, but they’ll show you where they are so you can fix them.

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

ADB: My main way of relaxing is actually to write – just not to write anything with the pressure of looming deadlines or with the need to be paid for it. But failing that, we’re looking at a series of pretty low-key hobbies that allow me to seal myself off from the world and maintain the image of a sarcastic, irritable, pedantic hermit.

I spend my time sucking at playing Halo on Legendary; dying to artillery opponents in Dawn of War; wasting too much time in World of WarCraft; playing D&D with a group of very close friends; reading a lot of books and liking perhaps 10% of them; subscribing to sci-fi magazines I don’t really need; arguing with people on internet forums about trivialities; and forcing my stone cold fox of a girlfriend to wonder just why she puts up with me.

The last three books I read were: Deus Encarmine by James Swallow (which I recommend), The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear, by Walter Moers (which I recommend even more), and The Hand of Oberon, by Roger Zelazny (which is one of the best books in the Amber saga, and I will fight anyone who disagrees).

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

ADB: Ugh.

I… um… kind of like… Babylon 5.

A lot.

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?)

ADB: I have a cat called Merlin, though he lives with one of my exes now. His defining character attribute is that he’s the prettiest cat in the world, and anyone who says their cat is as cute as him is a filthy liar.

He liked to go under blankets and sit there, looking out from them as if he were wearing some kind of Sith hood, or trying to be a Ringwraith. I used to talk to him while he did it sometimes, and quote the Emperor. “Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be QUITE OPERATIONAL when your friends arrive… Right, Merly?”

The boredom in his eyes broke my heart every time.

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

ADB: Define “latest”, here. I’m the slow kid in the class.

In Cadian Blood, it was the sanctioned psyker Seth, because psykers in Warhammer 40,000 are always so freaking cool to write about, with all the mess going on in their twisted heads.

In Soul Hunter, it was Uzas. There’s not enough detail in the 40K lore about what Chaos Astartes do in their downtime. I love the thought of him terrorising his slaves and staring off into the warp, too corrupted most of the time to attend to the repairs of his armour, but with a fading idea of everything he’s losing.

Tragic, but sort of funny.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

ADB: Captain Thade in Cadian Blood and Talos in Soul Hunter are both very unlike me. They’re as rational and thoughtful as I’d like to be, but they’re both far too together and in control of their own thoughts to be much like their oh-so benevolent creator.

Seriously, I’m not a big fan of putting real people into fiction. It works when it’s funny, but I’m not Chaucer and I’m not Douglas Adams. I’d be too worried it would feel false, and if it feels false, it becomes false – your gears grind to a halt when you don’t believe in what you’re writing.

Occasionally, characters will say what I like to imagine I’d have said in their position, but nope, that’s about it.

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

ADB: See question 8. They only influence my work in the sense that I’m immersed in the kinds of things I like to think and write about most of the time.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

ADB: The backs of cereal boxes, and teams of the finest child labour that money can buy.

I can’t believe you asked that question.

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

ADB: I haven’t, at least, not yet.

What I do suffer from is being a slacker. The more free time you have, the easier it is to convince yourself you’ve ‘still got time’ to get things done. That equates to starting projects late, and while I’m usually pretty killer at nailing deadlines, I won’t pretend there aren’t some days when I just think “I can’t write today. I might have another bath and then call people names on forums for a while.”

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?

ADB: Christ, certain (beloved) family members are always on at me about this. To say certain friends and family call me antisocial is to miss the mark by a wide degree.

I just don’t get much done in the daytime. I don’t know why. Stuff just doesn’t click the way it does at night. For me, there’s a definite distinction in my mind: the daytime is for pretending to be a real human being, talking to people, hanging out, worrying about bills, and so on. Once the sun is down, I can retreat into myself and work.

I’m prepared to admit it’s a lack of self-discipline, but I’m not prepared to care enough to change it. I worked hard to dive into a job where I can choose my hours, after all.

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?

ADB: Music is the best way of “closing the door”, which is a phrase Stephen King uses to explain the state of getting into the writi
ng and ignoring the outside world.

I write to very loud music on heart-achingly expensive headphones. In a house full of overpriced nerd junk, even if every other possession I had was garbage, I’d spend a lot on headphones.

I absolutely love music, yet have no desire to make it. It’s kinda weird. To write most of the time, I listen to metal, rock, industrial and darkwave with very repetitive choruses and verses that therefore don’t penetrate my head with a lot of shifts and changes. Dance music is also pretty good for it, but I’m not so keen on a lot of that. I never realised why I was doing it for a long time, but it was an unconscious way of absolutely nullifying one of the only senses not involved in the writing. Helps gives me tunnel vision and focus.

I like a lot of softer stuff in the early hours of the morning, almost like a ritual. Electronica, 80s stuff, rock ballads, or whatever. Yeah, yeah, I suck. I know.

Several battle scenes in Soul Hunter were written almost entirely to “All Nightmare Long” by Metallica. It felt like a bit of a theme tune for my characters, to be played when they were doing something big.

Before you mention it, yes, I am aware of how lame it is to give your characters theme tunes. It wasn’t intentional, I swear.

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

ADB: Mainly that it was only old people that broke into it. See question 2.

It’s not easy to get into it, and I’m beginning to realise how fortunate I was to bounce into full-time writing in my mid-20s, but it’s not impossible.

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

ADB: Not much, sorry to say.

As much as I’d like to gush and tell all, it’s for the Horus Heresy series. That means it’s locked in secrecy like some precious, fragile secret weapon until my editors give me the go-ahead.

Suffice to say it’s about a major faction within the Horus Heresy, and deals with their reactions to the emerging corruption spreading through the Imperium.

Wow, that’s vague as hell. I’m getting good at this.

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

ADB: I am so tempted to lie here in order to sound interesting, but no.
1. My realm forum, for World of WarCraft. I was arguing with someone.
2. YouTube, to watch Rammstein videos.
3. Facebook. Shut up, you do it, too.
4. My email inbox, because I check it compulsively every few minutes.
5. Faith No More’s website. Tour dates, man.

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

ADB: I did a writing degree at university in Liverpool, which was a combination of short stories, poetry, genre discussions and screenwriting. I’ve also flirted with my fair share of similar courses over the years. It was a pretty generic deal.

With the greatest respect to writing degrees (which isn’t all that much, as it happens), I believe formal courses are mostly only good for getting you writing frequently, and giving you an understanding of grammar if you’re not on solid ground already.

You can learn more from Elements of Style and On Writing than any degree. I’m willing to bet my treasured copy of The Maxx on VHS on that, which is the closest thing to a family heirloom I’m every likely to pass on to any future kids.

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

ADB: I’ve, uh, not been rejected very much. It’s not been a problem, really. Call it luck, call it charm, call it raw talent of unholy magnitude.

Joking aside, not that I mean to sound like an ass, but… Yeah. Not been much of a hurdle for me.

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

ADB: It’s the best job in the world. Anything where you’re given time and space to live out your passion has got to be the best job in the world. Even when it’s a grind or you’ve got deadlines slicing past you like a blind man’s gunfire, you have to realise how fortunate you are.

The worst aspect isn’t the money. If you’re good enough, you scrape the coins together in order cover your back one way or the other, even if you have to dip into other jobs to make ends meet once in a while.

Nope, the worst aspect for me is the fact I sometimes look at the rising sun through the window of my study and wonder who the hell I’d be if I’d managed to live a more normal existence. I’m difficult to be friends with, and I’m a hard person to like, let alone love. I’ve come to accept these things over recent years, and I value my friends and family a great deal for the
ir tenacity in sticking with me.

But I often wonder what kind of person to be if I didn’t always obey the selfish urge to lock myself away for half of my life, only surfacing at mental hours.

On a more coldly logical note, self-employment tax forms are the bane of sanity. You want the worst part of being a writer? Filling out those bastards once a year. They really suck.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Sounds like he has true writer sense. And a real belief in his ability to write. Good luck with the career that clearly suits you!