Monday, 16 November 2009

INTERVIEW: Philip Palmer

Writers, are an unusual bunch as they tend to spend hours alone generally in small rooms, yet ask any about their lives and they'll tell you the most fantastical things about what they've done. Not all are true however and when you hear Philip Palmer you'll soon understand the attraction of a life of the mind over a life of the mundane.

With his second novel, Red claw recently released we wanted a chat with the author who shot his "best friend without a qualm" alongside "betraying my country for the sake of a beautiful spy." Here we chat about life, the extraordinary and perhaps more importantly how it is to visit an alien planet in the future...

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?

Philip Palmer: As afflictions go, it’s a nice one. And there’s no doubt there’s an obsessive quality to most writers: we keep going no matter what. And, yup, it’s true that most writers are only happy when we’re writing, or when we’re grumbling about the idiots who don’t buy our work/muck up our work/don’t invite us to the cool parties.

They say that everyone can sing - although I may be the awful exception to that - but I certainly think it’s true that everyone can write, and everyone has a story they want to tell. Often it’s a coming of age story - our way of making sense of who we are as adults.

But first and last writing is a trade, an honourable profession. It’s our job to tell stories that other people want to hear. To be able to do that, you have to be very emotionally honest with yourself - you have to reach into dark places in your soul. But this isn’t therapy, it’s storytelling - so the soul-searching always has to have a pragmatic writerly purpose. Like the way Stephen King writes about a man who’s had a terrible accident in DUMA KEY - King himself had a terrible car accident so he’s certainly plumbing his own depths in this book. But he’s doing it for a solid, writerly reason - to make the character real.

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

PP: I wrote a short story for my school magazine called ‘Beyond the Pearly Gates’, a comedy about a bank robber who is killed and goes to heaven, and then embarks on a heist to steal God’s treasures. It was a daft comedy, but for weeks afterwards the bullying tough kids in school would come up to me and say, ‘Great story, Phil!’ At that moment, I knew I’d found my place in life.

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?

PP: I was writing for twenty years before I sold a short story (to New Horizons). For me, the short story is a different discipline, a different kind of storytelling. I’m happier writing larger stories - either in prose or drama. Basically, I don’t think it’s true that if you can write a short story you can write anything. But for many writers - if not me - it’s a great way to start.

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?

PP: It’ll blow your mind, and make you smile.

It’s a runaway train with a five star cuisine and your favourite rock band playing in the dining car.

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

PP: Buy this, or else.


New Amazon. A jungle planet. Dangerous, beautiful, and full of aliens to be studied.

Then all hell breaks loose…

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?

PP: Neil Gaiman and Stephen King do it for me every time - both great storytellers, with a genius for lyrical, dynamic prose. Richard Morgan, Kim Newman, Al Reynolds and Naomi Novik are also on my ‘must-read’ list. Though I tend to read in spurts - buying great stacks of books just before I go on holiday.

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?

PP: With Debatable Space and Red Claw I had the concept firmly defined but no real idea what the story would be, other than that good would fight evil, interestingly. I have two approaches to writing really. For television and sometimes film, I plan meticulously, and write long treatments and ‘scene by scene breakdowns’ (basically the script without the dialogue) in advance. With radio, I got into the habit of just starting with the first scene and seeing where that took me. And that’s how I write novels.

It’s a dangerous approach - I always fear I will get to the end and realise there is no way of resolving the story that I’ve just spent a year writing. (Oops!) So far that hasn’t happened though, and I love this way of writing because I surprise myself.

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

PP: My relaxation and my work are eerily similar - books, telly, movies, sitting on my arse. I do run and go to the gym though, which clears my head.

I recently read Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, which had me totally gripped - it’s the definitive sword and sorcery series, exciting and funny in equal measure, and he writes like an angel. Also, Stiegg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, which isn’t SF, but is way cool.

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

PP: All my guilty pleasures are common knowledge. Chocolate, booze, Halle Berry. I have never learned to hide my guilty pleasures. Damn! Too late now.

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?)

PP: Lucy is our border terrier, the most adored dog in the local park. We put a lot of effort into training her to be docile and obedient - what a waste of time that was! And she looks like the kind of dog you’d get in a comic - waggy tail, melting eyes, the works.

I’m working in a backburner kind of way on a piece about Dolphs (who feature in Debatable Space) which features a boy Dolph with an octopus pet who of course I have named Lucy.

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

PP: Macawley is a minor character in my latest book, Belladonna. She’s part cat person, very young, has rock star holos on her wall. She’s a kick ass warrior, but she’s also in many respects a teenage girl - of which I have one - so that character was a pure joy to write.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

PP: Not a bit. Flanagan in Debatable Space is a super warrior - not me! The Professor in Red Claw is a super brain - not me! And the Cop in Belladonna is a super warrior and a super brain. Doubly not me!

Hugo Baal, one of the main supporting characters in Red Claw - the tubby geeky one who’s hopeless with girls - now that’s me.

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

PP: I love music - and play bad piano - and that had a very direct influence on Debatable Space, where music is a major theme. I love jazz, and I tend to write in riffs and digressions. Beyond that - my hobbies are my work. Books, telly, movies, factual books, meeting nice people…I sometimes think I should take up accountancy as my hobby, just for variety.

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

PP: I steal them, from myself. I take themes or styles from earlier works, and embellish them. Debatable Space started as a version of ‘Faerie Queene’ (which I adapted in a very free version for BBC Radio Drama) set in space.

When I write, I try to get into a place where ideas start coming at me without me having to seek them. From somewhere, nowhere, it’s all a bit of a mystery. And I often write it all in a great big jumble and make sense of it later.

Ultimately, all ideas come from life. From things you do, people you’ve met, ideas that have inspired you. The hardest thing is to decide what KIND of thing to write. Hard boiled crime? Baroque space opera? Gritty social realism? Everyone has their own ‘thing’, their own range, and you can spend years finding it.

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

PP: I used to run writing workshops for theatre writers where I’d get them to write ‘five minute plays’ on the spot. Great things resulted - from writers who went on to have fantastic careers. But I could never write anything! Not a word. I don’t know why. I guess because I was the ‘teacher’.

I used to have writers block quite often, until I realised there’s no such thing. If you can’t write it, it’s because you can’t write it yet. So now, I take time off, read books, go to movies, until I despair, decide I can’t write it at all, contemplate giving up. But then I think - hold on a moment! Actually I think I know it might start! And then I do start, and it all flows from there. (I call that ‘ambushing the imagination,’ and it’s pathetic really, but it works.)

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?

PP: I used to write essays through the night at University, and for a brief while I tried using the same technique for scripts. But I didn’t work - I just fell asleep and woke up cranky.

However, there was one long sleepless night when I had a restless child to deal with when I mentally plotted an entire screenplay.

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?

PP: I always used to have a soundtrack for every story - and I’d go for runs with the requisite music on my Walkman (as was) to inspire me. I even used Minimise on my computer to get a soundtrack going as I write. I haven’t done that for a while though - don’t know why.

But when I’m really writing, I like silence.

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

PP: I thought I was one of a small handful of people inspired to write, one of the elect as it were, or perhaps more like one of the Dirty Dozen. Ha! I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I’ve learned - and what I’m still learning - is that there are SO many would-be writers out there. The field is crowded, everyone and his dog wants to write, and many of them are very talented (especially the dogs…) So it’s a crowded market for scribes.

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

PP: Writing is chocolate, without the weight gain.

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

PP: It’s called Belladonna, and it’s a crime novel set in the far future. It was inspired by one of my favourite novels, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (I love Raymond Chandler, but Hammett was THE master of the hard boiled crime novel.) And the main character in my story is a cyborg cop, indomitable and ruthless and the fastest draw in town, who keeps dying. (But hey, that doesn’t even slow this guy down.)

Belladonna is the name of the planet where the action takes place. And as well as the crime narrative, the story features a scary bunch of aliens. It’s a genre-mash - crime mixed with hard sf mixed with a bit of fantasy. I start with concepts taken from the true but wacky world of quantum physics (where the impossible can happen and does) and it makes for a deeply weird story.

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

PP: Amazon. Love Film. BBC iPlayer. Orbit. Debatable Spaces.

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

PP: Nope, I’m totally self taught. That’s why I love to teach screenwriting - because I firmly believe no one else should be as dumb as I was. For writing can be taught! It’s very easily taught in fact - it’s all about giving feedback and identifying the main principles of writing, which consist of: a) start with a strong idea and b) do justice to its implications and c) give a shit.

However, in the world of movies there’s a lot of theorizing about writing which can be very annoying. Writing is not like arithmetic; there are no dos and don’ts. But there are many rules of thumbs that it’s useful to know about.

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

PP: You need a thick skin, self belief, and amnesia.

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

PP: Worst things: The uncertainty. Always being judged by others.

Best things: There is no better job. You get to create a whole other world, and live there for a while.


Michelle said...

I'd agree that writers are happiest when writing - or talking about writing, LOL!

And Phil's dead-on (bad pun?) about King and Gaiman having a lyrical, very descriptive style.

S B Frank said...

Cool interview. Thx!