Saturday, 1 October 2011

INTERVIEW: Colin Falconer

Many authors dream of writing a novel and whilst research online can get you so far, it can’t give the writer the full flavour that they seek. For this reason Colin Falconer is known for travelling and taking part in events that would scare a great many which adds a layer of authenticity to his writing. Now taking to the Ancient Silk Road in his current title we just had to have a chat with him to see what he thought.

Here he talks to us about favourite title’s, favourite past times and how differing character personalities…

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?

Colin Falconer: It sounds like such a cliché, doesn’t it? But my experience was the same as many other writers – writing was something I just had to do. It felt like a burden for a long time – because I didn’t have the skills to get the stories out properly. Now I get much more enjoyment from it – which is as it should be. But choosing to write for a living – why would you? Statistically it makes no financial success. If I’d stayed in advertising I could have retired a very wealthy man several years ago. It’s a vocation in a way. Like being a priest - only with more sex, obviously. Hopefully.

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

CF: I told my parents what I intended to do when I was eighteen. They were of course rightly horrified, even though it took me another twelve years to do it. As Kurt Vonnegutt said: “If you really want to hurt your parents and you don't have nerve enough to be homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.” I didn’t want to be homosexual or hurt my parents but to this day my mother still has no idea how I make my living. I think she secretly thinks I sell drugs on the side.

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?

CF: I’ve never written a short story; it’s too hard! It takes 125,000 words to round out characters, and tell a good story, in my opinion. The best short I ever read was Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. They made it into a movie with barely a change to her narrative. That’s some piece of writing. Don’t think I could do that.

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?

CF: This kind of pre-supposes everyone will like what I’ve written and of course if someone loves Jodi Picoult or Stephen King then no amount of spruiking on my part is going to sell them my book - or if I do, they’re going to take it home and be disappointed and I wouldn’t want that either.

So I’d find out first if they ever read any James Clavell, or had enjoyed The Last Samurai or The Last Emperor or Gladiator. Even if they said they preferred fantasy or broad canvas thrillers, I think I could convert them as well, because SILK ROAD has both elements, even though it’s an historical novel.

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

CF: “An epic reminiscent of James Clavell and the Last Samurai with such haunting characters it will keep you up till 4am reading.”

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?

CF: Clavell’s Shogun, so obviously if I was waiting on the doorstep I’d be in for a long wait. Books I’ll never let go of: Word of Honour, by Nelson de Mille. Grey’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver I have read five or six times. I love John Le Carre’s dialogue and characterisations. I don’t like spy thrillers but I read most of the things he writes just to try and learn. I read all the Flashman series. The man knew his history and how to pace a story. I know it was formulaic but he just got me in every time. Catch-22 I have had since I was 17. That’s just great art. But there’s still no one writer that has captivated me and I want there to be. Wolf Hall I loved. I will be waiting there on the doorstep for her sequel, though I guess that’s still a few years off. Meanwhile I keep looking for my next big thing.

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 ideas develop as you write?

CF: I have the story in my head before I start and then I let the characters take over once I start writing. In SILK ROAD for instance I had no idea that William of Augsburg would do what he did. It sent a chill up a spine when I saw where he was headed. He took me by surprise a bit.

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

CF: I played sport all my life so I’m still restless on weekends. I used to scuba dive a lot but there’s no good diving where I live now plus a few too many white pointers. I play guitar in my quiet moments. I’m reading Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle.

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

CF: You’re kidding, right?

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?

CF: I had a pink sand grey parrot called Hemingway. He was a bastard, like the real one. Ate all the furniture. Occasionally he would try and eat me, always when I least expected it or had given him some new treat. Treacherous to a fault. Gave him to a bird park when my first daughter was born I didn’t want him eating her. Then I had a beautiful Border Collie called Scout (named after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird.) Even when I was in the middle of a book she made sure I got plenty of exercise – she would just lie there and whine at four o’clock, whether I was in the middle of a paragraph or not. I still miss her. She was a complete pushover for attention with beautiful eyes who would rather eat than breathe. I tried to avoid female characters like that in SILK ROAD.

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

CF: All three main characters in SILK ROAD were fun: Khutelun because she was so feisty and unpredictable; Josseran because he was stubborn, brave and had such a dry sense of humour; and William of Augsburg because he made life so impossible for himself and everyone around him. I’d think: now what is the very worst and idiotic thing he could do right now and I’d know it was WELL within his character to do it – and all the time saying it was what God wanted. Brilliant!

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

CF: There’s a bit of me in every character I write, past or present. An aspect anyway, or the characters don’t really work. Any character that comes out wooden, I know I haven’t drawn deeply enough on my own psyche or my own experience. It means trying to be transparent about my dark side, or my fears and vulnerabilities, as well as my strengths, and projecting them. I certainly see hints of myself in all the main characters in SILK ROAD.

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

CF: No hobbies as such, but travelling is one way of inspiring myself. The shark diving, jumping off two hundred metre bridges, running with the bulls – these all helped me acquaint myself better with my fears and that helps me write. I don’t want to put a character in danger if I don’t know what it feels like to really sweat. I worked on an ambulance as a volunteer for fifteen years – I became very familiar with death and high stress and how people deal with it. I draw on some of that. My partner Diana is a counsellor – I have learned a lot from her also, about psychology, how people think and react,

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

CF: I think it’s Stephen King who tries to tell people he gets them from an internet site, but he’s being mischievous. I keep a notebook, like most writers. A character, a place, an incident. I write it down. Sometimes it can spark something. SILK ROAD came just from my interest in the name and the journey. I read more and more about it and then I started to imagine what westerners might have gone along the road back in the time of Khubilai Khan and Shang-tu (Xanadu) and why and who they might have met and before I knew it I had a story.

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

CF: I always used to think that writer’s block was for wimps. That it just meant not getting ideas, and I always had ideas. I never imagined that I could lose my mojo, lose the fire, the inspiration to write, or the ability to write in a fresh and vibrant way. But I did, a few years ago.

Things I have no wish to talk about happened in my private life. They scarred me. I wrote about them and that helped for a while. But when it came to writing fiction again I found I couldn’t do it. I regurgitated some old stuff and got by for a while but then for four years, nada. I only found my way back with Diana’s help and then wrote SILK ROAD - and suddenly it came back as quick as it left. Writer’s block was for me a completely horrifying experience. I know this sounds perhaps overly dramatic, but it was like someone had stolen my soul.

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?

CF: When I had a wife and family I would keep to civilised times. I wanted to watch my kids grow up and be there when it happened. I knew too many fathers whose kids could probably not pick them out in a police line up and I didn’t want to be one of those. But after they grew up I would write whenever I felt like it and I still do, mostly. But do I ever stop working? Probably not. Somewhere in the back of my head, I’m still reworking the plot.

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?

CF: Music throws me – I have to write mostly in silence. I would get Hans Zimmer to write the soundtrack for SILK ROAD. (He did Gladiator and Last Samurai – I’m sure he’d do a great job.)

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

CF: I thought that if I finally got something published the rest would be easy. I had not heard of the concept of ‘publish and perish’. I thought that it was like a club, that once you were in, they couldn’t fire you. Boy, was I in for a shock!

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

CF: What a great question! I never heard that one before. If music be the food of love, writing be the urging of the spirit. I think. Every writer, published or not, is moved to do it by something inside. How well we do it depends on practice and learned skills and that indefinable X factor, but the original seems to something we often cannot control or explain. (It surely can have nothing to do with logic!)

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

CF: I can tell you it’s finished and that it has a stunning one word title. The backdrop is the Albigenisan crusade against the Cathars of Southern France in the 13th century - the first war of genocide ever undertaken in Europe – and it was ordered by the Pope himself.

It’s about a minor nobleman and a stonemason’s daughter who need each other to survive in a world gone mad, and the search for meaning in a world that God appears to have abandoned.

It’s a love story about hope and courage and kindness - set in Hell.

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

CF: That’s tragic, isn’t it? The Huffington Post, to read an interview with Kathryn Stockett (author of The Help.) so I could get the guitar tab for Wonderful Tonight for Diana so I could play it for her. WordReference. Com for the Italian dictionary because I’m trying to learn Italian. (I know some rude words and how to say my name but not too much else yet – a bit like Berlusconi!.) And a product review site so I could write a scathing review of Mondial Travel Insurance who have proved yet again that we all need to get insurance against insurance companies.

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

CF: The best book I ever read was by a New York agent called Donald Maas. I wish I’d read it years ago. Other great writing books I used were by screenwriters. Linda Aranson taught me a lot about story structure. Readers might forgive you bad prose but they won’t forgive bad storytelling and screenwriters have to be good at crafting story or they don’t survive. The other good advice was also from a scriptwriter too: Writer in the mornings businessman in the afternoons. Wished I paid more attention to that one.

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

CF: The best thing I ever did was look up a book I absolutely loved on Amazon – Wolf Hall. Bear in mind that it won the Booker and sold 400,000 copies – then read how many one star reviews it got from readers. I thought: - well that’s puts things in perspective. If they can say those nasty things about such a great writer, I won’t feel so bad if someone is less than kind about me. Something else I wish I’d done years ago.

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

CF: The best – the people I have met – other writers, people I have interviewed for research, publishers, editors, agents, marketing people who have helped me so much and taught me so much. There are places I have been that I would not otherwise have gone. I wouldn’t change a thing. The worst – the office Christmas party. I am sick of blowing up the balloons myself. I’m a very social creature and I hate that I can’t work as part of a team. But then everything has a downside and the ups more than make up for it.


Anne Michaud said...

Once again, a great interview and a new book added to my TBR pile. Thanks, fellas:)

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an excellent in depth interview. Really enjoyed it and teh book itself sounds fantastic. I love an involved author! :)

J D Waye said...

Another amazing interview. Colin seems very grounded and personable. Another book to add to my TBR stack. Thanks guys.