Author Interviews

* you can find the original interviews and much more on my 'everything writing' blog (http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com), including author spotlights, guest posts, book reviews, flash fiction or poetry - new items posted 6am UK time Monday to Saturday and writing exercises at 6pm very weekday.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Author interview no.694 with multi-genre writer Benjamin Gorman

Back in November 2013, I interviewed author Benjamin Gorman for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...

Welcome to the six hundred and ninety-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Benjamin Gorman who I also interviewed back in July 2011. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
BenjaminMorgen: Hello, Benjamin. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Benjamin: Well, the simple story goes something like this: Boy moves from San Diego to Cincinnati during eighth grade. He does not adjust well, and decides to hide in books. When his English teacher assigns a short story, he turns in the first 60 pages of a novel and decides he could write the books he loves to read. He spends the next 20 years learning that the quantity of prose does not equal quality, and studying how to craft the kinds of books he enjoyed so much. That’s the simple story.
But then, simple stories are all-too-often deceptively simple stories. A more honest version of how I came to be a writer would require my whole autobiography, because almost every part of who I am is intimately connected to my writing.
Morgen: “hide in books”, I love it, and that’s what it feels like to write them… for me anyway. And I’m definitely consumed by writing. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Benjamin: My first completed novels were Sci-Fi. Then I tried and failed at horror. Then I had some really bad luck: I wrote a book about some Old Testament miracles taking place in the modern day and being covered up by the government. I finished it right before 9/11, and afterward it would have read like a crazy conspiracy-theorist defence of the 9/11 hijackers. Disheartened, I went to what I knew; since I teach high school kids, I wrote a couple YA novels. My most recent novel falls into the loose definition of literary fiction. More specifically, it could probably be described as contemporary fantasy (since it’s an adventure story involving the interaction between mythological characters and modern people) or magical realism (since the world of the supernatural and the natural overlap seamlessly in the book). I admit I wasn’t driven by much of a commercial impulse when I wrote it, so I didn’t have a clear genre in mind, but the final product came out so well that I feel compelled to publish it even if there isn’t a specific shelf for it at your local bookstore.
Morgen: It’s interesting that you tried different genres. I did the same and have settled on crime, although I’m currently taking a break for NaNoWriMo and continuing one of my 5pm Fiction stories, about a talking dog with attitude! What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Benjamin: So far, I’ve only had short stories published. That frustrates me because short stories really aren’t my strength. I still have the copy of the literary journal from my university somewhere, and I was pretty excited to see my words in print, but now short stories are a means to get my name out there. I’ve had stories published with a few online literary journals (like amwriting.org) and I’ve tossed three of them up on Amazon. Now I’m excited to finally publish a novel, a form I’m far more comfortable with.
Morgen: Most writers are, although if I had to pick, I’d write short stories. Have you self-published? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Sum of Our Gods eBook coverBenjamin: I have self-published The Sum of Our Gods. Technically, it’s published by a small publishing company called ‘Not a Pipe Publishing’. Since I’m the publishing company’s sole proprietor and only employee, I think that qualifies as self-publishing. I resisted self-publishing for a long time, sending out query letters because I was under the increasingly archaic perception that the gatekeepers had the power to provide authors with legitimacy and certain marketing advantages. While I waited and checked my inbox 10 times a day, the reality of the publishing industry was shifting under my feet. Now I wish I’d jumped into self-publishing a couple years earlier, when the market was younger. My reluctance probably did me some favors, though. It made me go out and hire a really excellent editor, something any self-respecting author should do before letting an error-riddled manuscript accidentally reach the eyeballs of readers. My reluctance also gave the market time to mature enough that I could find a host of excellent resources and models to use as I built my website, designed my cover, tinkered with interior layout, etc. I may have decided to self-publish, but I want my novel to look and feel just as high quality as anything coming out of a New York or London publishing house.
Morgen: I did the same thing; submitting / meeting 15 agents but they weren’t looking for what I was presenting them with (my chick lit novel). I’ve written the first two of a serial killer series which I think is more their thing, but I’ll see when I eBook the other four I’ve written (two lad lit, a mystery and a standalone crime). Readers, on the whole, want you to have more than one book available so that if they enjoy one, they have more to buy. That’s what we’d like too. Is your published writing available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Benjamin: I have three short stories and my novel available in eBook form now. I put the short stories up because I thought they were worth sharing and because the process would teach me about eBooks and how they work. At the same time, I started reading eBooks. I still love the heft and texture of a paper book, but I am warming up to the convenience of an easily transported library. I’m glad my novel is in both forms, so readers can decide which they prefer.
Morgen: Some people I’ve spoken too are worried that paper books will fade away but very few of the (692) other writers I’ve interviewed have said they only read eBooks. Some readers buy both formats; if they love the eBook, they’ll then buy the real thing to have on their shelves. They (shelves) would look pretty odd without books on them. Do you have a favourite of your stories or characters? If any of your stories were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Benjamin: I can’t help but stunt-cast my own books. My new favourite idea involves a character who only shows up in my novel for a single chapter: the ghost of the prophet Muhammad. His appearance alone would probably bother some particularly sensitive people even though he’s painted in the most sympathetic light. He’s a nice guy. He gives Jesus some good advice. I think everybody will like him. But if the novel were to be made into a movie, I would absolutely love it if her were portrayed by Salman Rushdie. I think Rushdie could nail the part, but based on his life experience, he might be reluctant to take on that particular role. Still, if he’d be game, I’d love the irony.
Morgen: He seems to have more freedom these days but yes, he would certainly have to think about it. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Benjamin: I was absolutely shaped by the authors I read as a child. I loved H.G. Wells (I still teach his novels today in my Science Fiction Lit. class), Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, and Isaac Asimov. By high school I was reading a lot of Stephen King and Charles Dickens. In college I finally caught up with J.R. Tolkien (who I’d somehow missed as a kid) while also reading a lot of Milan Kundera and George Orwell. Leading up to the writing of The Sum of Our Gods, besides reading a lot of great YA to keep up with my students, I was marinating in the bitter worlds of Cormac McCarthy and the lush worlds of Margaret Atwood. When I read, I actively look for lessons I can take away as a writer, and every one of these authors has made me better. I’ve also improved thanks to some really terrible books that have shown me what not to do, but I won’t mention those writers’ names, even to give them backhanded compliments, because I think we have a have a collegial responsibility to promote the good and stay mum about the bad; if you can’t say anything nice, leave the slagging to the critics.
Morgen: Which some people have great pleasure in doing. Isaac Asimov said one of my favourite quotes: “I write for the same reason I breathe … because if I didn’t, I would die.” A little melodramatic but it’s how I feel. Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Benjamin: Yes, self-publishing has given me a remarkable amount of control. Even that control isn’t unlimited, of course. We’re still hemmed in by some market forces. For example, I still think my novel’s original title was more fitting. I was going to call it, And Lo, God Took His Coffee Black. It’s a bit long, true, but worse, I couldn’t imagine anyone comfortably recommending a novel with that title to a friend. The Sum of Our Gods gets at one of the central themes of the novel. It might be a little to on-the-nose, and it might make a reader think the comedy of the book relies on puns (It doesn’t! I promise!), but I think it’s a lot easier to recommend to a friend.
Morgen: I’m a big titles fan and don’t mind long titles (one of my favourite short stories, submitted to the 2011 H.E. Bates Short Story Competition, which I’ve been judging for the past three years, is ‘The Bus Driver Who Stopped and Then Didn’t’ by Dan Purdue, who won last year with a different story). I love quirky titles and above all, they have to grab the reader as much as the cover does. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Benjamin: When I’m not devoting far too much of my limited writing time to marketing the book that will drop soon, I’m working on a novel about the aftermath of the second American Civil War. Dystopias are very cathartic to write because they allow the author to provide a warning in the most extreme, hyperbolic terms. This one has given me a space to rail against the polarization and institutional blindness of American culture by describing the worst possible outcome of a society that’s more concerned about scoring a few points for a political team than for the good that team should do in office. If I have to stand by while my countrymen argue about things like growing income inequality or global climate change without doing much about potentially existential issues, at least I can enjoy describing the danger of such foolishness through an entertaining story.
Morgen: Two client novels I recently edited were YA dystopian (they were very good) and the genre is certainly popular with readers. I think anything that makes our lives feel better is a plus. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Benjamin: When I have time to sit down in front of the computer, I hardly ever suffer from writer’s block anymore. I’ve learned so many tricks in an effort to teach high school students to overcome the dreaded condition that I have a lot of arrows in my quiver. My larger struggle is on focusing on a particular project. There are always ten things I could write (that blog post, that email reply, that book review, that tweet), so I have to remind myself that I have a novel to finish.
Morgen: But variety keeps the brain active and the writer fresher. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Benjamin: I’ve done both, and, as I tell my students, there’s merit to both approaches. If an idea has legs, I say, “Let it run!” However, it’s important for me to remind myself that this kind of writing requires more revision. Plotted stories are less likely to take wild turns that later need to be cut entirely, but they may be the ones that find their own way to twists I never could have thought of while writing an outline. This last novel was a pleasing hybrid; it started as an idea that took off from page one, then grew into something which required an outline. Once I’d plotted it out, I had an easier time getting to the ending I wanted, but when I went back and discovered what my own novel was about, I realized I could punch up the ending significantly. I guess I could say that I ran with it, then outlined it, then let it outgrow the outline.
Morgen: Most authors I’ve interviewed / spoken to go with the “let’s run” method, as I do, although I’m sure we all make plot notes as we go along. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Benjamin: I use resources like a book of baby names and Wikipedia’s lists of common surnames by country to find names that feel right for characters (or, in some cases, intentionally and interestingly wrong for characters). I’ve tried writing background stories for some characters before, but I find that the best way to get to know my characters is to give a lot of thought to the choices they make in the moment. People are no more or less than the masks they choose to wear. I’ll give you an example: One of my main characters puts a lot of energy into the choices of prints of famous paintings he hangs in his house. Joe recognizes that he is an art fan rather than an artist. He can’t see that this is a metaphor for his central conflict in the story, though; he is a man consumed by his frustration caused by his inability to take control of his own destiny. Joe is like Hamlet. He dithers. He can’t decide what to do. If Joe were to take up too much of the book, it would be terrible, but he’s surrounded by active characters, gods from various religions, who are making all kinds of choices, mostly without any concern for Joe’s wellbeing, and they provide most of the story’s entertainment and action. Hamlet eventually decides what to do, and a lot of people get poisoned and stabbed, but Joe’s foil isn’t his mother or stepfather, it’s a particular god, the Hebrew God Yahweh, who is treating him the most callously. Joe can’t exactly stab God, right? Or can he?
Morgen: The great thing about fiction is that you can do whatever you like. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Benjamin: I edit. And edit. And edit.
Morgen: Glad to hear it. I’m a freelance editor and I have a page of writing tips that I encourage my clients (and non-clients of course) to read through first to see if it helps with the project they intend to send me and their writing ongoing. Even long-time writers need guidance / second opinions and I have a great editor for my writing. With picking such complex topics, do you have to do much research?
Benjamin: It depends on the project and the definition of “research”. For my current novel, I’m mostly taking in current events (I read online newspapers like a junkie who needs a fix), and I don’t think of it as research until some little factoid appears in the book. For The Sum of Our Gods, however, I had to do a lot of research on the various gods in the story. That was a ton of fun, because their stories are fascinating, often ridiculous, and sometimes shocking. I learned a lot while writing this book, but I’m so grateful that the protection of fiction allowed me to pick and choose which details applied to the characters in my book and which ones I could toss out when they were inconvenient for my story.
Morgen: Some books exude research to the point where the reader feels the writer is showing off. It’s a fine balance to give just enough information for them not to go scrabbling to their dictionaries / encyclopaedias every five minutes. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Benjamin: I’ve tried 1st, 3rd omniscient, and 3rd limited, and I tend toward the latter. It allows me to give some description of the character but stay very close to them. I’ve written a couple novels where chapters stay with one character, but the book jumps from one to the next. That’s what I did in The Sum of Our Gods. I find that gives the characters more depth than a more distant narrative voice, and it makes the reader sympathetic to the characters’ conflicting motives. A great revision exercise is to take something and write it from a different perspective. I use that to see if I’m choosing the most effective perspective for the story. As for second person, I’m not convinced it exists. I know that some stories are categorized that way when the author makes “you” the protagonist (e.g. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books), but I’m of the opinion that the narrator still isn’t “you,” it’s a narrator telling a story about you, so it’s really still third person (unless I am telling you what you do, in which case it’s first person). Regardless, to answer your question, no, I’ve never made you, Morgen, the protagonist of any of my works, but I could try it if you like!
Morgen: I’ve written numerous short stories for 5pm Fiction and you’re right, the narrator isn’t the subject of the story, the reader is. It’s my favourite point of view but even I wouldn’t recommend it for anything other than a short story (one of my longest is The Dark Side (a free short story on Smashwords. It’s very tiring to write and read and like Marmite (readers / writers generally love it or hate it). You mentioned earlier that you write short stories, do you write any poetry or non-fiction?
Benjamin: I’ve written all three. In college, I had a professor who told me I wasn’t much of a poet, and that really put the brakes on my poetry writing for many years. Now I realize I do enjoy writing it and that some of my poetry is pretty good; it’s just very different from her poetry. I make a point never to tell my students what they should not write. Instead, I encourage them to try new forms. I’m most comfortable writing novels, but some of my short stories have come out well. I write non-fiction all the time, and I enjoy it, but there’s something special about the freedom and power a writer can find in fiction.
Morgen: It’s very easy for someone to be put off by what someone else says. I always try to be firm but fair with my feedback, and remind my clients that it’s just my opinion / experience and that they can agree or disagree. My parents were told at my secondary school’s parents’ evening that I should give up physics (which I gladly did at the first opportunity). I was almost put off writing by my first evening class tutor who annihilated a poem I’d written but the homework was to write a short story which I loved doing and is probably why they’re still my first love. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Benjamin: Oh, I certainly hope so! I’d love to write something so brilliant that someone would be inclined to look into my past writing, but I think all they’d find is that I used to really suck and I’ve been working hard for years to get better. I don’t think that would be any great revelation to anyone.
Morgen: Life is all about practice. We can’t be expected to be good at something (writing, playing an instrument, painting, drawing) until we’ve tried it for a while. If we enjoy what we do, we’ll keep going until it becomes second nature. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Benjamin: I’ve received lots of rejection letters over the years. Though sometimes curt, they’re always polite and generally have an “it’s not you, it’s me” vibe. Still, receiving them is never pleasant. I remind myself that there’s a guaranteed way to prevent rejection: Write something so good they can’t say no. Then I get back to work.
Morgen: Good plan. It’s usually just that the piece isn’t right for them. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Benjamin: I haven’t won any, though I’ve placed very high in a few, so I suppose I don’t know which ones to recommend because it depends on whether the reader prefers to lose by a hair’s width or by a long mile. Now that my novel is in print, I’m on the lookout for good contests for first novels. Hope springs eternal!
Morgen: I have a list of competitions on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/competitions-calendar, which includes novels, so hopefully they’ll be something of interest there. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Benjamin: I don’t have an agent. I used to think they were vital, but that was back when they were more vital. Now I feel pretty sorry for them. Every agent I’ve met personally has been wonderful, and these people have a remarkable amount of knowledge about both the industry and the craft. Unfortunately, they also satisfy a need that is dwindling. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be literary agents!
Morgen: Some agents have become publishers or writers, and others have retired, or gone off to do something completely different. Publishing has certainly swung more in our (writers) favour. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Benjamin: Even though I recognize the value of branding, my stomach still contracts at the thought of it. It worth remembering that branding involves burning the name of a ranch into the flesh of a cow. Sure, I would love it if thousands of people were on the edge of their seats, holding their breath, desperately waiting for the next novel by Benjamin Gorman. But if that means that I can only write in one genre (fenced in like some farm animal), or behave in a way that never challenges the preconceived notions of the persona I’ve chosen to project, then that does not appeal to me. Sure, I tweet and blog and have a website for the book (www.TheSumOfOurGods.com), but I’m not going to permanently scar myself with a metaphorical hot poker just to make sure readers know what to expect from my work. Marketing is mostly a necessary evil, though there are elements of it that can be a lot of fun (I enjoyed designing the cover of my book, for example), but I try to remember that every second spent on it is a second I’m not writing the next book, and that every brick that builds the brand forms the fortress that could make me frightened to go outside and try something new.
Morgen: “Marketing is mostly a necessary evil” sad but true. Only two of the writers I’ve interviewed have said they don’t do any (that their publisher does it all) but they’re still active on Facebook and Twitter. Has anything surprised you about your writing life?
Benjamin: I’ve experienced a handful of those moments where I reread a bit of my own writing and am surprised by how much it affects me, as though the words came from somewhere else. A psychologist named Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” for that state of complete immersion in, and perfect focus on, a project. When I’m in that state, sometimes I feel that the story is being told to me. When I was younger, so much of my focus was on writing a lot of words, and in that state of flow I’d produce thirty or forty pages at a stretch without getting up from my chair. Now I place a lot more emphasis on quality over quantity, so when I achieve that state I occasionally come back to the work and am surprised by a particular sentence or turn of phrase. I love those moments, both the wild creative abandon and the surprising rediscovery.
Morgen: :) What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Benjamin: I start out my Creative Writing classes by talking about the difference between Art and Craft. Art may have some intangible, ineffable aesthetic quality that’s beyond our conscious control, but I would tell any aspiring writer to focus on the craft of writing. That’s what we can control, and that’s where our energy pays off.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Benjamin:  I think Socrates would be a lot of fun to hang out with. He’d complain about his wife, trick people into answering yes or no questions that lead to the next point he wants to make, and probably drink too much. Voltaire and Oscar Wilde would be a lot of fun, too, though their shtick could get tiring pretty quickly. I would love to get some of my favourite living writers, like Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Sherman Alexie in the same room to talk about writing. But my limit is three, right? I think I’d go with Socrates, Salman Rushdie, and Abraham Lincoln, or maybe Lincoln being portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis, which feels like a good way to cheat and get four out of three. Then I would provide them with a buffet of a whole bunch of really low-brow foods just to see what they would like. My guess: Socrates would like hotdogs, Daniel Day-Lewis / Abraham Lincoln likes shortbread cookies, and Salman Rushdie drinks Dr. Pepper out of glass bottles.
Morgen: A cheat but yes, you could have DDL. I wouldn’t mind getting inside his brain too. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Benjamin: I’m a high school English teacher. Among my other classes, I get to teach a creative writing class and a science fiction literature class. Both of those give me opportunities to work with students on their writing, but also to work on my own writing as a way to demonstrate to my kids that the learning process never ends. I’m a firm believer that teachers have an obligation to model what we teach. I don’t think that means that every English teacher has to write a novel, but it does mean that kids have a right to question the importance of our content if we aren’t willing to participate in it ourselves. If a history teacher isn’t interested in reading about history, kids won’t take her seriously. If a math teacher doesn’t push herself by trying to solve harder problems than she assigns her students, they won’t believe her when she tells them it’s good for them. Similarly, literature teachers need to read, and writing teachers need to write. I share my writing with my students, model taking feedback, and show that I’m learning. That makes me a better teacher, and they make me a better writer. It’s a win-win.
Morgen: Readers can always tell if a writer was bored writing the piece (especially when they have a character that’s bored!). We have to love what we’re doing or it won’t translate on the page – which is where editing plays such an important role. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Benjamin:  I have stacks of books on writing on my desk, but I find that my most useful tools are sites like WikipediaBabynames.comBiblegateway.com, and the digital archives of various newspapers. My most useful tool is Google; it can help me find quotes, answers to grammar questions, maps, …pretty much everything I need as I try to immerse myself in the settings of my stories or create new universes for them.
Morgen: You mentioned Facebook and Twitter (are you on any forums or other networking sites)? How valuable do you find them?
Benjamin:  I’m a social media maniac (@teachergorman or https://www.facebook.com/TheSumOfOurGods.com). I’ve connected with some wonderful writing communities through those, like the #amwriting community on Twitter and the Indie Author Promos community on Facebook. In the Meatspace, I’m a member of the Willamette Writers, the biggest organization for writers in the American Northwest. My local chapter, meeting in Salem, Oregon, allows me to connect with my peers here in my own community. All those groups have been very helpful.  The best support and training I’ve received in years came from the Oregon Writing Project, a chapter of the National Writing Project. NWP is a government grant funded program hosted by universities where teachers come together to study writing instruction and to work on their own writing. Teaching writing and doing it aren’t the same thing, but they definitely inform one another. The group I worked with at Willamette University not only helped me become a better writer, but because a writers group demands such openness, they quickly became friends.
Morgen: I’ve made some wonderful virtual (and real) friends from blogging (which I started March 2011) and being online since before then. I’m so glad I’m a writer now and not pre-internet. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Benjamin:  I think it’s a great time to be a writer but only if our aspirations mirror the changing landscape. The writing world has changed in a similar way to the world of pop music. Once, there were huge arena rock bands with lots of institutional promotion, lots of money, huge fan bases, etc. I admit there are elements of that which sound great, but it’s worth remembering that there are downsides, too. Those mega stars often became lost touch with their fans. Think of all the one-hit wonder acts that put out sophomore slump albums because they couldn’t relate anymore. Now musicians have a much tougher time climbing to the top because their market is so segmented. There is no single list of the week’s Top 40. But there are lots and lots of great musicians making their livings playing to smaller crowd in smaller venues and promoting their own work online. The writing world is changing in the same way. More books are being sold than ever before, but individual writers are cultivating smaller, more devoted fan bases. The writers can interact with those fans in real time. I believe that writing, like all art, is a mechanism by which an artist and a reader communicate and negotiate meaning. All this increased communication should lead to more fruitful negotiations.
Morgen: I think one of the best things about being a writer is reader feedback. We all (hopefully) write to be read and knowing that’s happening is gold. To recap then please, where can we find out about you and your writing?
Benjamin:  I’ve created a website for the book, and I’ve shifted my blog over to it, also. www.TheSumOfOurGods.com. The site is pretty slick (thanks to a web designer friend). Besides the normal static pages about the book and my bio, it has a couple distinct blogs, a guestbook, and a page I update as new press about the novel rolls in. That should provide some different avenues for people to communicate with me about their experience with the novel, something I’m really looking forward to. I also use Twitter (@teachergorman), and the novel has its own Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheSumOfOurGods, so I’m pretty easy to find.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Benjamin: My novel, The Sum of Our Gods, came out on Amazon yesterday, November 22nd. People should go and read it, give it 5 stars, and force it into the hands of all their friends. I think I’m supposed to mention that a dozen times in every interview.
Morgen: Then you have a few mentions to go in this one. :) Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Benjamin:  How do you find the time to provide all the services you offer to writers and still do your own writing? It amazes me!
Morgen: <laughs> By having very long days tied to my computer most of the time. Actually a large chunk of it is spent editing other authors’ novels and short stories, which I really enjoy doing. I’d love more time for writing (although I have been writing a flash fiction for my blog’s 5pm Fiction slot every weekday until I’ve paused it for this month’s NaNoWriMo, my sixth time) so I can’t complain. It’s been great chatting with you again, Benjamin. Thank you for stopping by.
I then invited Benjamin to include a self-contained excerpt of his novel, The Sum of Our Gods…
Jesus scratched his belly absently and found a fragment of a sour-cream-and-onion Pringle lodged in his bellybutton. About two inches of his gut was sticking out below his shirt, and the crumbs of his chips had formed a layer of rough sediment there. Jesus wasn’t particularly fat, though he’d allowed himself to lose the toned physique he’d maintained back in his carpentry days. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t had much to do for at least, what? Seventeen hundred years? Eighteen? Plus, they didn’t have Pringles in Palestine during the Roman occupation. Once Jesus had popped, he couldn’t stop.
Jesus took the crumb in his bellybutton as a sign, stood up, and brushed the chips off his stomach onto the shag carpet. He’d kept the orange and brown shag when his dad had the rest of the house re-carpeted to keep up with the style. Jesus liked shag. It hid stains fairly well and felt comforting. Stainproof carpeting was a terrible invention, in Jesus’ opinion. It made a person feel obligated to clean up the stuff magically floating on top. Jesus wanted it all to grind in and hide. That was how he felt about a lot of things, lately. Lately being the last couple millennia.
He noticed that the Pringles had also left dark little stains on his gray sweatpants, and near the bottom of his Queen t-shirt. The mottled gray of the sweats hid the stains better than the faded black of the shirt, and he thought about changing before going out. Oh, who cared? He wasn’t trying to impress anybody.
Jesus stretched, groaned as he reached down to get the remote off the wagon-wheel coffee table, and aimed it at the TV. He hated that Maury Povich had gone to all-paternity-testing all-the-time. Jesus knew who the fathers were, but he couldn’t help watch the mothers’ reactions when they heard the news. Regardless of the outcome, he felt so badly for them. Even when the tests revealed the baby-daddy they preferred, Jesus would watch the woman look at the prospective mate’s expression, hoping he’d be happy to find out the news. Jesus could empathize with her hope and terror in that moment. He could also sense the audience’s disappointment. They wanted tears, screams of denial, dramatic storming offstage followed by a jiggling handy cam. Instead, they “ah”-ed reluctantly, and Jesus could see the fleeting relief twist into jaded judgment; she still didn’t know which one was her baby-daddy, so she’s a bad person.
This particular girl would escape that judgment, Jesus knew. Maury was about to tell her that the father wasn’t her current boyfriend, or the one before that, but the one-night stand Maury had hidden backstage. Povich stretched out the pathos of the opening of the envelope as long as he could, then read the name. The woman mouthed “No, uh-uh,” before slapping both hands in front of her face and screaming.
“We’ve brought him here. Would you like to see him?” Maury asked.
“No!” she screamed. Then she ran off the stage and nearly smacked into the man she didn’t want to see. The cameraman with the handy-cam chased after her, then turned around them as the mother-to-be sank to her knees, screaming. Despite his best efforts, the cameraman couldn’t avoid glimpses of her generous ass-crack poking up through the orange spandex shorts, and the tattoo of a Chinese symbol on her lower back. She thought is said “Pride,” but Jesus knew it said “General Tso’s Chicken”.
The soon-to-be father tried his best to speak to the woman kneeling at his feet. Jesus watched the tender, awkward way he put a hand on her shoulder without any effect. Jesus felt some solidarity. Then the man looked right into the camera, shrugged, and smiled.
Hard cut to Maury, still sitting on stage next to Cheyenne’s empty chair. “We’ll be right back with Ronnie and Cheyenne, so don’t go anywhere,” Maury said. He sounded excited, but Jesus could tell Maury was bored.
Then the screen flicked to an image of a large, curvy, gentle “A” and “L” followed by a smaller, sharper “T” and “V.” A woman’s soft voice said, “You’re watching the After Lifetime Television network. Pass the time with us.”
It cut to a commercial for a service wherein angels would hand deliver mint juleps to your front porch and bill your credit card. Mint juleps were all the rage, as it had been unusually warm that summer in Hel.
Jesus pulled up the digital guide and flipped past the Afterlife News Network (motto: “Heaven’s Perspective on Earthly Events. Great Distance=Less Bias.”). That channel was strictly for the recently deceased. It was something of a joke in heaven. How could you identify a Newbie? They still watched ANN. Since the dead couldn’t interact with the living, and since the events of the living had so little impact on the dead (rates of immigration— that was about it) it really didn’t matter to PLPs (post-living-persons). Of course, Jesus did care about the folks down there, but their intrigues only bummed him out. He had the ability to go down there whenever he wished, but he hadn’t been in a while. He didn’t enjoy playing a superhero, rescuing people from overturned cars or burning buildings, and he’d seen what happened whenever some likeness of his face appeared in the lichen on a rock or the burn marks on a grilled cheese sandwich; he didn’t want to imagine what would happen if someone took a picture of him with their cell phone camera…”
*
And a synopsis of The Sum of Our Gods…
Joe has been cursed. He must meet with Yahweh, the Creator, once a week for coffee, and listen to God complain. Unfortunately, Yahweh is a crotchety old deity with a pantheon of family problems. His son, Jesus, has been hiding out in the basement for 1700 years since he discovered his wife, the goddess of the Church, has been whoring it up with the gods of the state, of wealth, and now the goddess of anti-intellectualism. God's wife, Frigga, has basically stopped talking to Him, except to keep nagging Him about retiring. It seems like there will be a coup at every board meeting of the gods. Oh, and Jesus' estranged wife, Inanna, is plotting a terrorist attack to try to start a holy war. God is fed up with all the drama. He's perfectly tired and infinitely irritable.
God doesn't seem too interested in human problems, but things are rocky between Joe and his wife, Christy, who is considering cheating with the handsome new adjunct professor who works with her at Western Oregon University. Also, the curse goes down to the fourth generation, so Joe has to figure out a way to protect his seven-year-old son, Dawkins, from sharing his fate. Joe's life is a comedy as black as God's coffee.
**
Benjamin Gorman teaches high school English in Independence, Oregon, where he lives with his beautiful, smart, and infinitely patient wife, Paige, and their essentially perfect nine-year-old son, Noah. His website is www.TheSumOfOurGods.com. The links to his novel are...
***
** NEW!! You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle / Kindle app via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com **
Cover montage 2You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books (including my debut novel The Serial Dater’s Shopping List, various short story collections and writer’s block workbooks) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.
For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.
As I post a spotlight or interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. If there’s anything you’d like to take part in, take a look at Opportunities on this blog.
I welcome items for critique directly (see Editing & Critique) or for posting on the online writing groups listed below:
Morgen’s Online Non-Fiction Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group
We look forward to reading your comments.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Author interview with multi-genre novelist Carmen Reid

Back in November 2013, I interviewed author Carmen Reid for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...

Welcome to the six hundred and ninety-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with contemporary women’s, young adult, and historical novelist Carmen Reid. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Carmen. Please tell us something about yourself, and how you came to be a writer.
Carmen ReidCarmen: I’ve been reading and scribbling for as long as I can remember. I studied English at university, went on to be a journalist and in my late 20s, decided I had to get on with writing fiction because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m now on my 19th novel. I’ll always write even if no one reads a word, because it’s how I do my thinking, really.
Morgen: I write to be read, and love it when I get reader feedback (positive or otherwise) because it means it’s being read. I have six novels in files (waiting for final editing) so no one will if they stay there. You live in Scotland, as do many other authors (especially Edinburgh and Glasgow), do you think the country has a particularly literary pull?
Carmen: The rain, the long dark winters… maybe we’re an indoors nation so there is lots of writing going on.
Morgen: Not a bad thing. You’re best known for writing contemporary women’s fiction but you have also written young adult and a standalone historical novel. Do you think the genre boundaries have softened in recent years and, have you considered other genres?
Carmen: I think genres are useful because they signal to readers what kind of book they are picking up. The boundaries have definitely blurred, because writers push at them. If love stories are allowed in crime novels, why not have a crime in a love story? I never worry too much about what the genre demands. I write the stories I’m bursting to tell and just hope readers find them as interesting as I do.
Morgen: I’m sure they do. You’ve had 18 novels published to-date, all as ‘Carmen Reid’, have you ever been tempted or, or indeed written, under a pseudonym?
Carmen: No, I’m not sure I get the pseudonym thing. If you’ve written something, especially in the social media age, don’t you want to talk about it, champion it and stand up for it? Even if you have to explain to your readers that you’re doing something different.
Morgen: I think that’s where publishers have been keen, up to now, for authors to have other names (Caroline Harvey = Joanna Trollope, Barbara Vine = Ruth Rendell etc) because they don’t want readers to expect one thing and get another and possibly be disappointed, although they’re covers tend to have ‘x writing as y’ which sort of defeats the object. It’s hard enough to market one name let alone more. Have you self-published? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Carmen: I’ve self-published some of my backlist in the US for Kindle. The best part was working with a designer to get the covers just as I wanted them. The titles leap up the charts when they are free or heavily discounted, but I don’t do that often as I’m not sure I want to encourage people to think that books which take a great deal of time and effort to write should cost less than a cup of coffee.
Morgen: There’s a debate about this on LinkedIn at the moment, with some saying there shouldn’t be free ones. I think it’s hard enough for beginning writers to be seen or taken seriously so if they make, say, the first in their series free or cheaper then hopefully their readers will enjoy it and buy the rest. I guess it’s try a bit of everything and see what works. Are all your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Carmen: My books are all available as eBooks in the UK. I still prefer a paper book, but for travel I load up the laptop with the help of the Kindle App.
Morgen: Most people do, although many (myself included – I gave up two rooms for two lodgers (housemates)) have run out of room for more books and as you say, Kindles are so portable. I have c.2,000 books on mine. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Cross Your Heart FINALCarmen: I love Annie of The Personal Shopper series, Niffy from Secrets at St Jude’s and Nicole the heroine of Cross My Heart. They are all so determined, individual and fiercely independent. I’ve spent endless enjoyable hours in their company and I can’t really imagine who would sum them up for me.
Morgen: Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Carmen: Roald Dahl, Richard Adams, Hemmingway, Louisa May Alcott, Noel Streatfield, Nancy Mitford, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, The Chalet School books. I think everything you read leaves an impression. Jo from Little Women absolutely inspired me to be a writer.
Morgen: Ah yes, Roald Dahl is one of my favourites. I love writing dark twists in the tale and he was the expert. Reviews are an important part of an author’s marketing (I spotted a review you did of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The White Queen’ on http://www.bigissue.com/reviews/book-reviews/2856/white-queen-philippa-gregory-review), have you ever received great or bad reviews that have shaped your writing?
Carmen: A good review which shows the reader really got it, really understood your story and was deeply moved or entertained is truly wonderful. It makes all those long lonely hours worthwhile. Bad reviews are the flipside. Sometimes you can shrug them off, sometimes it’s wounding and you wonder why you’ve exposed yourself just to garner comments like that. I take well-meant criticism very seriously because I am always, every day, striving to raise my game.
Morgen: That’s exactly how we should be. I’m a freelance editor and like to think I’m firm but fair. Many of the authors I’ve worked with have said my feedback / suggestions have improved their writing ongoing, which is a great compliment. Some of your books are audiobooks at a variety of outlets, were you involved in that process at all? And how close are they to how you pictured your characters being?
Carmen: I did help to choose the voice of Annie because in my head she has a distinctive Luhndun accent and that had to come across.
Morgen: I love the sound of that. Your books have also been translated into ten other languages, do you get sent copies of these? Have you had any overseas reader feedback from them?
Carmen: Yes, I have a shelf of foreign editions. Some of the covers are brilliant – Italy and Holland especially – some are utterly weird. I got an Eastern European hardback once which was covered in scribbles and looked like an electronics textbook. The joy of Facebook is messages from readers all over the place. Lots of lovely girls from a school in Pakistan are Facebook friends because of St Jude’s.
Morgen: How wonderful, and flattering. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Carmen: Writing is my day job. I get to the desk and I crack on. I’m not just writing but planning, researching and re-writing. I’d say writing is quite like cycling, some days it’s uphill all the way and a struggle to get even one scene right. Then come the amazing days when I freewheel and whole chapters come out almost exactly the way I want them to.
Morgen: I love it when that happens. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Carmen: I’m definitely a plotter. It totally works for me to know where I’m going and who I’m going with and I like plot twists, convolutions and a big reveal – so I always need weeks of planning before I get started.
Morgen: After 18 novels you would certainly know what works and what doesn’t, and I guess plotting so much does make the writing process easier. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Carmen: Research is really important. You have to go to the places you’re writing about or at least Google Streetview them! Talk to people who’ve done the things your characters have, or read autobiographies. Old newspapers, available at most libraries are a really useful source of what it was really like at the time. No matter what your imagination can come up with, someone who’s been there and done it will have insights and anecdotes you could never have imagined and these will make your tale properly authentic. It will taste and smell and feel much more real.
Morgen: So important. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed, and does your editor make many changes?
Carmen: I do a lot of re-writing. Advice supposedly from Hemmingway is up in my office: ‘the first draft of anything is sh*t’. I also bear in mind a news editor’s advice on simplifying my style: ‘Just because it’s easy to read, doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.’ Good editors are worth their weight in GOLD.
Morgen: They are, and I have a great one for my writing. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Carmen: I’d always written third person, until I did Cross My Heart in the first person present tense. I’m hooked. The book I’m working on now is also first person. I love this style. It feels diary like, confessional, true and there’s an element of suspense… will she make it to tell the rest of this story?
No never tried second person; that could be creepy!
Morgen: It certainly can be… probably why I like it. :) Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Carmen: I used to fill whole notebooks with poetry. I was a teenaged poet. I spent several months this year writing non-fiction, then decided it maybe wasn’t for me. Short stories I do now and then for magazines or anthologies but actually, I prefer getting stuck in and writing a novel.
Morgen: And most readers prefer reading novels. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Carmen: Yes… probably those thousands of words of non-fiction. Never mind! And hopefully all those notebooks full of teen angst poetry, not to mention my teen diaries.
Morgen: :) Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Carmen: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… although sometimes it just kills you a little bit. When my first novel was being rejected all over the place, I started writing my second. I’m not sure if this is good advice, or madness!
Morgen: It clearly worked. Do you think having an agent is vital to an author’s success?
Carmen: I think it’s difficult, but not impossible, to be published by a big name publisher without an agent. Agents know the market, they know what publishers are looking for right now and can help to make your manuscript good enough to sell.
Morgen: Again, they can be worth their weight… What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Carmen: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Re-write, re-write, re-write. And repeat.
Morgen: Absolutely. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Carmen: I always enjoy a good dip into Robert McKee’s ‘Story’. It’s so encouraging and packed with great advice. I love his insistence that if you write a magnificent story, the world will beat a path to your door, no matter what. Mind Your Business by Michele Wallerstein is also a very good guide for writers and I also enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing.
Morgen: Ah yes. ‘On Writing’ is the most recommended book here. ‘Story’, I’d say, is in the top five. You are on Twitter and Facebook / author page (any others?)? How valuable do you find them?
Carmen: I’m @thiscarmenreid and www.facebook.com/carmenreidbooks. To be honest, I’d say I’m only just starting to work out what that’s all about! Not as scary as I’d imagined all this time.
Morgen: The fear of the unknown can be very off-putting. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Carmen: I think people will always want to lose themselves in wonderful stories. Will we still be reading in 100 years time? Who can say? Maybe it will all be screens, chips in our brains and virtual reality. But the spinners of amazing tales that touch and teach us will always be important to our society. They always have been.
Morgen: Hear, hear. Your website is http://www.carmenreid.com – are you involved in updating this?
Carmen: Yes, this website is mine, all mine. Though my lovely web designer does anything too technical.
Morgen: Like me with Jane Wenham-Jones’ blog. You have a Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_Reid), how accurate is it, and are you even tempted to edit it?
Carmen: OMG who wrote that??! I’m definitely going to edit that page. Light fiction indeed!
Morgen: <laughs> And now a personal question, your website’s http://www.carmenreid.com/about page says you’re “six foot plus” (I’m 5’10”), has being tall ever featured in your writing?
Carmen: Niffy of Secrets at St Jude’s is a gangly tall teenager like I was. I’m quite clumsy and accident prone – especially when nervous – and many of the embarrassing pratfalls that happen to Annie Valentine have happened to me. Nicole of Cross My Heart is particularly small, barely five feet tall. Maybe being very tall has made me a bit more height aware of my characters than other authors.
Morgen: Me too. Izzy in my chick-lit novel is the same height as me and the first guy she meets is also 5’10” but perfect in every other way so she’s disappointed. There’s a lot of me (and some of my dating experiences!) in that novel. Great fun to write. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Carmen: What inspires you to write?
Morgen: Everything. I already have far more ideas than I could possibly write and more stream in. Whenever I’m walking my dog (two or three times a day) and spot a juicy conversation, I pretend to turn up my iPod’s volume but I’m actually pausing it so I can listen in. Newspaper articles are very useful, especially the quirky ones. My free short story Feeding The Father is inspired by an article and sticks in my brain because a reviewer on Goodreads had loved my free short April’s Fool so much she looked forward to reading more but then read FTF and hated it so much she vowed never to read anything by me again. Although disappointing, it made me smile that my writing could affect her so much, either way.
I’m very fortunate in having a good imagination and since being a writer, I’m more aware of the world around me and it doesn’t take much for something to inspire. Mainly it’s finding the time to write although I have been running a daily-then-weekday 5pm Fiction slot which got me writing almost/every day. That’s on hold while I do NaNoWriMo and I’ll probably not run it again for a while as it’s been keeping me too busy to edit my novels or submit stories elsewhere but it got me writing and really, that’s what we should be doing. Thank you, Carmen, for joining me today.
I then asked Carmen for more about Cross My Heart, her new book for YA readers, and here follows the back jacket summary…
How far would you go for freedom?
Would you lie to your family?
Break up with your best friend?
Follow the boy you love into danger?
Would you risk your life?
It's 1940. Europe is at war, and fifteen-year-old Nicole's city has been invaded by the Nazis. Desperate but determined, she joins a secret group of freedom fighters – and learns that she's not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak, or put her life on the line.
**
Carmen is a British bestselling author who has sold close to one million books and e-books in 11 different languages. Her 18 novels range from contemporary romance to romantic comedy to young adult fiction. Carmen’s website is http://www.carmenreid.com.
***
** NEW!! You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle / Kindle app via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com **
Cover montage 2You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books (including my debut novel The Serial Dater’s Shopping List, various short story collections and writer’s block workbooks) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.
For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.
As I post a spotlight or interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. If there’s anything you’d like to take part in, take a look at Opportunities on this blog.
I welcome items for critique directly (see Editing & Critique) or for posting on the online writing groups listed below:
Morgen’s Online Non-Fiction Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group
We look forward to reading your comments.