Tuesday, 6 October 2009

INTERVIEW: Steve Augarde

One thing that you tend to learn about authors is that they usually have more than one string to thier bow, ie they're generally a talented bunch with thier fingers in more pies than a leper at a pie baking contest.

Steve is no exception and as a successful artist he's had a hand in helping others realise thier publishing dreams by supplying artwork. But what many don't know is that he's also a talented Jaz musician. With the release of his new novel, X-Isle, we thought that it was high time we caught up with this author to discover a bit more about him and about his accident prone elephant (Bump)...

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?

Steve Augarde: I’d like to be able to say that I'd write anyway, whether my work was likely to be published or not - but that's a hard one to live up to. I do believe that wanting to be an author isn't a good enough reason for deciding to write a book. There has to be some other drive, a desire to bring something worthwhile into the world, a feeling that you might be able to give more than you take away.

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

SA: My first attempt at writing and illustrating a story was when I was ten years old. My teacher suggested the idea. I’d just taken my 11+ exam, and there were a few weeks left until the end of term – I think she was just trying to keep me occupied. But I enjoyed doing it, and the finished result stayed on the school bookshelf for some years after. The Adventurous Four, it was called, a tale of three boys and their pet otter. I was desperately keen on otters, having just read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring Of Bright Water.

At art college, in my late teens, I thought again about writing and illustrating a children’s book. I put something together, and started doing the rounds of publishers. They were so encouraging that I began to believe this could actually become my job.

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?

SA: I think it’s more probably true that if you can write a novel you can write a short story. I’m in touch with short story writers who fall apart at any attempt to write a novel. The loneliness of the long distance runner vs. the sprinter perhaps.

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?

SA: Offer them five pounds to read the first chapter. If they want to carry on reading they’ll have to give me the five pounds back and buy the book. If they don’t like it they can keep the money. On that basis I’d need about a five-to-one take up to remain in pocket.

Would I lose out? Well, if you have no confidence in your book then you’ve no business publishing it.

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

SA: Flooded world, society shattered. Marooned boy slaves build mighty weapon to free themselves from oppressors. But dare they use it?

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?

SA: As a lad I guess it would have been Malcolm Saville, or Anthony Buckeridge. Nowadays, I don’t know. Guardian crossword, probably.

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?

SA: With The Various I just began writing, stopped after a couple of chapters, and then cast about for opinions as to whether I had the necessary ability to write for this age group. It scared the life out of me when David Fickling bought the option more or less on sight. I hadn’t a clue where the story was going, or what it was about. But I figured I must be doing something right, and so I simply ploughed on. I was probably about another hundred pages in before I realised that this was going to be a far broader saga than I’d imagined, and that it might actually need a bit of planning.

Subsequent books have been more carefully thought out – though they can still occasionally jump up and take me by surprise. It seems to me that stories pre-exist in some sense, and that it’s a writer’s job to unearth them.

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

SA: Game of snooker, local quizzes. Had a day at Haydock races last weekend. I’ve been re-reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Watchmen is special.

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

SA: Haha, you’ll never know. But it’s an interesting question. Reading children’s books as an adult used to be a guilty pleasure – particularly books from the 1920s-50s. Now of course I have an excuse. I call it research.

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?)

SA: I have no pets. My kids had the usual assortment when they were little – cats, hamsters, chickens, guinea pigs. I’m actually rather fond of guinea pigs, but now that I live alone I wouldn’t want the responsibility of looking after animals.

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

SA: Ray was the most fun to write, but to explain why might be a spoiler.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

SA: Probably not dissimilar. Baz’s predicament is one of moral confusion and doubt. His life is almost certainly under threat, but does that justify a pre-emptive strike? Should he use a lethal weapon to attack those he believes are about to kill him and his companions? It’s not an easy question to answer, and like Baz I wouldn’t want to have to take the decision.

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

SA: Playing music, although I don’t know that I’d call it a hobby. At times it’s been as much a part of my living as writing or illustration or paper-engineering.

I’ve played double-bass with a jazz outfit called the Gents for many years, but guitar is my main instrument. I often go out on a Friday and play in one of the local music pubs. Keeps me sane...ish.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

SA: Sometimes ideas pop into your head unbidden – like dreams – and for no apparent reason. Or maybe you’ll overhear a snippet of conversation, a snatch of music, a voice on the radio. And sometimes you just have to damn well come up with something good or starve!

Atmosphere is often a starting point for me. With The Various it was the smell of a hay barn, remembered from childhood, that wonderful mixture of warm hay and oily machinery, a tractor engine still cooling after a day’s work in the fields.

FT: Do you ever encounter writer’s block and if so how do you overcome it?

SA: Yes, I’m familiar with writer’s block. A quick look at my mortgage statement is usually a pretty effective cure.

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?

SA: I’m best in the mornings, useless in the afternoons, not too bad in the evenings. When I’m seriously down to it I try to do a thousand words a day, which often means working very late. But if you have it to do, you have it to do.

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?

SA: I’m always amazed by people who can write with music playing in the background. My daughters seemed able to do their school and college work whilst simultaneously texting, instant messaging, and talking on the phone – and all with music blaring out of their sound systems. I can’t hear music without listening to it, and so I must work in silence.

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

SA: Not too many misconceptions. I learned an important lesson very early on: always hope, never expect.

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

SA: A voyage of discovery. It’s truly astonishing to complete a novel, and then look back at all that you’ve seen and learned along the way.

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

SA: I can tell you that it’s a homage to all those gung-ho 1930s adventure stories that I love so much. It’s set in South Africa at the outbreak of WW2, and it’s called The Boy Aviators.

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

SA: Zoetrope.com, a writer’s site that I belong to. Ebay, where I like to look at musical instruments and old cars. YouTube, in order to pick up a couple of songs I need to learn. My internet banking site, rarely a joyous prospect. And my blog at http://steveaugarde.blogspot.com.

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

SA: No. I was published at an early age, and I don’t think it would then have occurred to me to go to writing classes. If I was starting again, and struggling to find a publisher, then I’d certainly consider it. I do belong to a writers’ site (see above) where there’s a lot of discussion and workshopping of ideas.

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

SA: Well again I was fortunate. The editors that I encountered early on were genuinely encouraging, and though they rejected my first efforts they made it clear that I was welcome to return when I had more to show. In fact, on my second visit to Andre Deutsch they accepted a story that they had initially turned down. I realised then that sometimes it really is a matter of being in the right place with the right manuscript at the right time.

But rejection should be viewed as a natural part of the process. To this end it’s a real psychological help to always have something ‘in the post’ - another project out there doing the rounds perhaps, or maybe just a new idea that you’re still playing around with at home. The pain of seeing one idea rejected can be alleviated by the hope that the next one 'in the post' will be viewed more favourably. To feel that your whole life is hanging on the acceptance or rejection of a single manuscript would be too much to bear. I'm lucky in that I'm an illustrator and paper-engineer as well as a writer, so I've usually got more than one iron in the publishing fire, but I would do the same if writing were my sole outlet - begin thinking beyond the manuscript that's sitting on somebody’s desk somewhere, so that there's a contingency plan if that one should fail to find a buyer.

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

SA: Your hours are your own. But you still have to put in those hours. And hours...and hours...and hours...

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