Wednesday 1 September 2010

INTERVIEW: Mike Shevdon

With his second novel hitting the bookshelves today, we wanted to have a word in the ear of the new British Urban Fantasy author who has grabbed the Fey world by the unmentionables, squeezed and added a vicious twist at the end to create something almost totally unseen within the genre.

Here we chatted to him about writing, shooting targets with lots of arrows and just how good a sausage roll can be (apart from your figure. LOL)...

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?

Mike Shevdon: I wouldn't regard writing as an affliction, since I chose to write. I could have stayed a reader, albeit a more critical one, but I decided that it was wrong to criticise people for doing something I hadn't tried for myself. I know what people mean, though, when they say they feel compelled to write. Having started writing I could not set it aside now. It is part of me. I still regard it as a gift - to be able to create stories and have other people read them for enjoyment. In fact, I'd go further than that; it's a privilege.

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

MS: Not until I was in my forties - it crept up on me. I had been a critical reader for a good friend who had been a published author for some years, reading her drafts and commenting. I think it was through the critiquing process that I came to believe I had my own stories to tell. I had seen the process in action. Even then, I was terribly naive when I came to write for myself.

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?

MS: My first work of fiction was over 150,000 words and I really struggle to write anything under 5,000 words. I don't know whether an accomplished short story writes can write everything, but I suspect not - the two forms are quite different. It's a bit like saying a good pastry chef can cook anything, which is fine until you have to eat their mushroom and banana risotto.

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?

MS: I would tell them that it was fantasy for grown-ups. I would describe the eight hundred year-old Quit Rents Ceremony and ask them a simple question - If you wanted to hide a magical ritual in the real world, what better place to hide it than in the Royal Courts of Justice in the heart of the realm?

A definition? It's a contemporary urban fantasy containing dark, comedic and romantic elements, based on a real historical mystery, or to be more succinct: Urban fantasy for the 21st century.

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

MS: Ordinary guy inherits ancient magical bloodlines but the Seventh Court of the Feyre want him dead. How will he survive?

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?

MS: I have multiple favourite authors. I adore Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels - they always make me laugh. A new Robert Crais will get my attention - I've read all the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels. In my own genre, Neil Gaiman is always high on my want-list. I'm not allowed any more hardbacks, though, until I have made some space on my bookshelves.

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?

MS: I have an outline for the main plot of my stories before I start writing, but I don't necessarily stick to it. I think there's a danger in outlining too deeply because it takes all the fun out of discovering the story. Being flexible allows things to emerge as the characters interact in the context of the plot. As long as I know broadly where I'm going, that's enough.

Characters, on the other hand, emerge organically for me, though I have been known to write some prequel scenes to get a feel for a character before they enter the story - it sometimes helps in establishing voice and temperament. There's also quite a lot of factual research that goes into the background and setting - history, folk-lore, rituals and events. I like to ground the fantasy in reality, allowing me to visualise it.

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

MS: To relax I spend time shooting arrows at targets with various bows. I have an American compound bow, a Magyar (Hungarian) short bow and an Olympic style recurve. Archery is a great discipline and practising can be a meditation.

I read for enjoyment and mostly manage to switch off my inner editor when I'm reading for pleasure. I just finished Snake Agent by Liz Williams - an oriental urban fantasy with great style and panache and I am starting Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which is surprisingly funny and beautifully crafted - It begins, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again." - one of those iconic opening lines.

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

MS: Warm sausage rolls fresh from the bakery on the High Street. Not good for my waistline, though.

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?)

MS: I used to keep fish, but the water in Bedford is very hard and they kept dying. After the second lot, I couldn't bring myself to buy any more. As you will appreciate, it's very hard to put fish in a novel, but I almost managed it in The Road to Bedlam.

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

MS: I think Raffmir of the Seventh Court is the most fun to write. Some reviewers have said that he's not evil enough as a baddy, but he was never meant to be evil. The monochrome distinctions between good and evil are too simplistic for the real world. Raffmir simply operates under a different morality, a different world-view, and that makes him unpredictable and interesting to write. He will tear apart the human world, not because he's bad, but because he doesn't believe it's worth saving.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

MS: When you write a story in first person it is tempting to place yourself in the protagonists role and because of that Niall and I share some traits, but Niall's life has been very different to mine and he has been shaped by events, some of which will become more evident in book three. As the books have progressed he has changed - I'm not sure we'd get on now, if we were to meet.

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

MS: I've already talked about archery, and I studied Aikido for about twenty years, though for a variety of reasons I'm not actively practising at the moment. Martial arts gives you a knowledge of conflict that others don't have, in particular of hand-held weapons such as knives and swords, and I think that influences my writing.

Among other things, I'm a keen cook. I love food from South East Asia, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian and have been trying to make the perfect peanut sauce for satay for more than twenty years. I also cook things from closer to home; spit-roasted chicken with lemon, garlic and rosemary, a delicate saffron risotto or light fluffy yorkshire puddings. I'm making myself hungry.

And reading - what you read influences what you write and how you write. Then there's history and folk-lore, science and technology, all of which fascinate me. If I had more time I'd do more things.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

MS: People I meet, places I go, things I've forgotten or remembered, conversations on trains overheard or half-heard. The half-seen reflections in shop windows at twilight. The problem is not the rationing of ideas but making sense of them - bringing them into a cohesive whole to create a story.

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

MS: No, I don't get writer's block as I understand it. I do get times when I'm not ready to write something, where I need to dwell on it before the right words will come.

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?

MS: I write when it's quiet, or when I'm on trains. I'm not really an anti-social writer. You'd probably have to ask my wife to get a true answer to that question.

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?

MS: I don't write to music. I prefer quiet, though I don't mind background noise - I can block out everything and just be immersed in the story. I have been writing on the train before now and completely missed my station when there have been announcements and people has disembarked around me. The train has stopped and started again and I've not noticed until about twenty minutes later.

Music does influence me, though. Waking the Witch by Kate Bush was one of the inspirations for Sixty-One Nails, not so much in the scenes, but in the atmosphere. It held something of what I wanted to create, and it inspired Blackbird's name, though not her nature.

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

MS: Having worked in the music business I don't think I was too surprised by the business aspects. I think I'm probably more commercially-minded than many writers. On the plus side, I am continually surprised by how kind and generous people can be to someone they only know through their writing. It restores my faith in human nature.

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

MS: If music is the food of love, then writing is the wine of truth. If you write the truth, you can become drunk on it, and then you'll make a fool of yourself.

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

MS: The Road to Bedlam follows on from Sixty-One Nails, but like the first book it is a story in itself. It's about what happens when Niall's daughter comes into her power in an unexpected and catastrophic way. It's about coming to terms with the loss of a child, but also about hope and faith and a search for closure. It explores how the hidden world of the Courts of the Feyre interfaces with the human world and what that means for humanity. Its about magic versus technology, science versus power. And it's about someone's quest for revenge.

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

MS: - my regular dose of off-the-wall humour - one of my favorite forums - keeping up with the twitterati - planning for FantasyCon in September - looking at interesting historic buildings

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

MS: I went to Robert McKee's Story seminar on screenwriting, which I recommend to anyone interested in the art of constructing stories. He irascible and cranky, but he knows his stuff. It's three intense days of story-craft and well worth it.

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

MS: I try not to see criticism as a personal attack but as an opportunity to improve my writing; it helps to view it that way. Like anyone else, I don't like being rejected or unfairly criticised, but if you're going to be a writer it comes with the territory and you have to be pragmatic about it. Luckily, most people seem to like my work.

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

MS: I think most authors would agree that the worst part of writing for publication is receiving unfair reviews when the comments made seem to be more about the individual doing the reviewing than your work. It's an odd thing that you can suffer because someone else is having a bad day, and yet you have no right of reply. All you can do is move on.

The best part of being a fantasy writer is that you get to create worlds for a living. How cool is that?

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