Welcome to the five hundred and thirty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with biographer and science-fiction author Nigel Kelly. 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, Nigel. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
I have been inspired by Quentin Crisp since seeing the TV movie The Naked Civil Servant in 1975. Since then I had followed his life and when he died in 1999 I launched a website dedicated to him, www.quentincrisp.info, which became very successful.
My writing came about by accident, literally. In 2007 I was off work for some months recovering from a road accident and I got the idea of trying to write a book on Quentin. To keep me occupied. So I wrote a few pages and then very tentatively mentioned this to one of his friends Penny Arcade. I told her that I wasn’t sure if I was justified in writing about Quentin as I had never met him. Penny immediately and very generously pointed out that many biographers have never met their subjects; that I already had a vast knowledge of my subject; and that I had her, and all his other friends who would all help in any way they could.
And it turned out to be true. Guy Kettelhack, who wrote the forward to my book, told me that he would have done anything for Quentin when he was alive and still would. So I plunged in and over the next three and a half years finished my book.
Finally in October 2011 Quentin Crisp The Profession of Being was published by McFarland of the US, with world-wide distribution.
Morgen: Wow, what a great thing to have come out of having enforced time off. Good out of bad, for sure. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Nigel: Since my first book is a biography, I have to say biography. But I have currently no plans to write another. My second and third books are science fiction, but only because it was that genre which suited what I wanted to write about.
Morgen: Do you write under a pseudonym?
Nigel: I use my real name Nigel Kelly. Quentin would approve of this. What is the point of writing a book, all that time and effort if no-one knows that you wrote it?
Nigel: During one of his live shows Quentin said to the audience – ‘If I was to drag onto this stage a huge great lump of concrete, with a hole in it, everyone would say – “It’s a Henry Moore.” But if I was to drag on Henry Moore, none of you would know who he was. So what’s the point?’
Morgen: I love that. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Nigel: With my biography I was incredible lucky. One of Quentin’s friends put me in touch with a publisher who very quickly said yes. But then as time passed it seemed that his enthusiasm was starting to wane. When I gently pressed him, he suggested that he might not be the right publisher for my book. What could I do but agree? I still don’t know what happened.
So I was back to the beginning and needless to say very disappointed. I put together a submission, which I actually hadn’t done before, and sent it to two publishers, one in the US and one in England. To my amazement both wanted it! I picked the US publisher McFarland, because it was an academic publisher, which I thought was a better fit. Also they had worldwide distribution.
With the novel, it has been very different. I have had at least a dozen rejections. I have been surprised that the fact of having already written a worldwide acclaimed biography, which is even being translated into other languages, seems to hold no influence. Most publishers of course just say no-thank-you, which leaves you nothing to work with. I very much welcome genuine constructive criticism.
I have sent my MS to several people, including some third parties, whom I do not know and will never meet, so they have no reason to be dishonest, or hold back in any criticisms. They have all loved the book! I have had some observations and suggestions, some of which I have taken on board and incorporated into the MS. I have people with worldwide reputations who are ready to promote the book.
A rejection is frustrating of course and I think that anyone who says otherwise – well you wouldn’t send the submission in the first place if you didn’t want them to consider it. But I have an attitude which is this – ‘No matter how hard you try you may still not get anywhere. But if you don’t try then you definitely will not get anywhere!’
Morgen: It’s great that you’ve had the feedback on your book – even negative, as long as it’s constructive, can be helpful. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Nigel: I have not entered any competitions, though some people have told me I should.
Morgen: They’re not right for everyone but there are plenty of book competitions out there (I have a few on my competitions page). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Nigel: No agent. I have approached a couple of agents with the novel, but again, no interest. There are pros-and-cons, in my own opinion, in having an agent. Of course they take some of your money, which is perfectly correct as they are in effect working for you, but some publishers, at least here in Britain, still will not accept submissions except via an agent. I think this situation will not continue for much longer. Having an agent working on your behalf is a powerful ally. They need to sell your book to make money. But I don’t think it is vital. I have my biography to prove that.
Morgen: That’s very true, and I know of a couple of agents who have become publishers because, I guess, they’re finding less work despite there being more authors. Many small presses prefer to deal with the author directly which makes the agent’s job all that much harder. Is your book available as an eBook? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Nigel: Yes the biography is available on Kindle and other ebook formats. I had no input into that. The publisher did it automatically. Despite my working in IT when it comes to books I’m an old-fashioned boy – I prefer a physical book. However I would read an ebook if it was not available in physical form and I recognise that in a short time ebooks will be the preferred option for most people. Just last Christmas Amazon’s ebook sales exceeded hard copies for the first time.
Morgen: Most people I’ve spoken to read both but couldn’t imagine not having a physical book (and still prefer them) but these days it’s all about convenience. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Nigel: For the biography I have done almost all the marketing and promotion. The publisher did include it in their magazine, which they send out around the world, and they sent out over thirty free promo copies of the book, some to persons I suggested, which was great. But any other promo was down to me. I was again lucky here in that all the people I had made contact with through my website and writing the book, helped with promoting the book. I also have my QC website www.quentincrisp.info and my personal website www.nigelkelly.com. I am also on www.facebook.com/nigelkellyauthor. I am registered as an author with amazon.com and.co.uk and have an author page on their websites. I am also registered as an author with www.goodreads.com and www.librarything.com.
With the writing of my second book and now onto the third, I am trying to promote myself as an author, more than just promoting a single book, as I have been up to now.
I have made contact with many authors throughout the World, and got to know some of them quite well. They all tell me the same thing, that today publishers do not put time or money into promotion, unless you are already famous and your book is going to make big money. This is why I am considering self-publishing my novels.
Morgen: Self-publishing does seem the way many (myself included) are going. I’ve seen librarything mentioned a few times, I should check it out. Did you have any say in the title / cover of your book? How important do you think they are?
Nigel: Yes I chose the title and cover image for my biography. Though the publisher had final say, I am pleased that they agreed to go with my suggestions. I think that it helps to take full ownership of your book. But I don’t think it is vital.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Nigel: I’m working on the second novel, while considering whether to continue looking for a publisher for the first novel or to self-publish. Also my biography is in the process of being translated into Turkish.
I have also gone into the public speaking racket (as Quentin called it), and give talks on Quentin and myself – how I came to write the book etc. They have been very well received and I find I enjoy them very much as well.
Morgen: Excellent. I’ve done very little public-speaking (open mic nights, hosting panels / workshops at the recent booQfest) and have been booked for my first ‘just me’ talk (as Queen Blogger) next March… eek. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Nigel: Weeks can go by when I don’t write a single word. I tend to write in spurts. But I will think about the story though, sometimes for quite a while before writing it down. So when I finally sit down to type I already know what I’m going to say. So I suppose it could be said that I write the stuff first inside my head.
Morgen: I’ll be starting my fifth NaNoWriMo in a few days and it’s the best way to get me writing a chunk (50K+). I have been writing a short story a day but am going to take a break from that for November / December. There are only so many hours in a day. With your fiction, do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Nigel: With the science fiction novel I started with a number of concepts which I wanted to put down in writing. I had an idea for the overall story and then just started writing, working out the details as I wrote.
Morgen: That’s the way I work, and most authors I’ve interviewed have said the same, some describing themselves as ‘pantsers’. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Nigel: I start each character on the basis that they are just ordinary people. They have to be to be believable and so the reader can identify with them and then care about what happens to them. Then you need to put them in situations where you discover some extra or exceptional character trait in them, which makes them really interesting. I believe that each of us has an ability, we just need to identify it.
Morgen: Absolutely. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Nigel: I tend to sit down and just batter away at the keyboard. Because I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking the story through in my head, by the time I sit down I know what I’m going to write, and it just flows so quickly that my fingers can hardly keep up with my thoughts. Then I leave it for a while and kind of let it mature before going back and reading it again. Then I edit bits which I haven’t worded properly, add, delete if necessary to make sure I’m really saying what I intended to say. This can also be a very rewarding process. It is also like the calm after the storm. I’ve got it all out of my head for the moment so I can sit down, relax and enjoy it.
Morgen: Leaving writing to stew is the best way of seeing, when you return to it, of imperfections… so you’re no longer too close to it. Do you have to do much research?
Nigel: With the QC biography I had of course already done years and years of research, as Penny Arcade had pointed out to me. But during the writing I did enormous research. So much so that there were times I felt like I could use a secretary!
Morgen: I could use a secretary too.
Nigel: There was so much correspondence flying around the world that it became dizzying. I had already gotten to know some of Quentin’s closest friends through running the website. But now I made contact with so many more people. Some directly and some through existing contacts. They were such a diverse group of people, actors; writers; directors; producers; artists; poets; journalists; musicians; make-up artists, even a world famous Hollywood gossip columnist. And they were from all around the world – Britain, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan . . . But the two things they all had in common was that they had known Quentin and admired / respected / loved him. The other thing was that they were all such nice people! And I tested their patience. But not one of them even once refused to answer my stream of questions, even though they were busy people.
But for the novel I did almost no research, it pretty much all just came out of my own thoughts and imagination.
Morgen: Although all-consuming, it does sound like your research for QC was enjoyable (and clearly very rewarding). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Nigel: The novel is written entirely in third person. I just naturally wrote it that way without thinking about it. So I guess third person is my nature writing style. But I would certainly try second person – might be interesting.
Morgen: I love it and write a lot in it (most of my Tuesday Tales stories were in it and every Friday’s 5pm fiction are second-person). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Nigel: I suppose every author wonders if their current work will ever see the light of day.
Morgen: With self-publishing though, anything that’s good enough can. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Nigel: I love everything about the actual process of writing. It is some of the other stuff which I dislike – trying to sell it to agents / publishers, who will read maybe a chapter, or even just a synopsis and on such a flimsy basis decide if you are worth bothering with or not. It is of course such a subjective world. You can quite possibly have written the greatest piece of literature ever, but it may never be published. I always find myself thinking about the first Harry Potter book. It was rejected by fifty-seven publishers – imagine how sick they all feel now! It just shows how precarious the industry is. It also shows the truth in what the great Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said ‘Nobody knows anything.’
Morgen: Fifty-seven? Wow. I’d heard fourteen or sixteen. I bet they are. I think publishers are just as cautious these days of taking on new projects. It does help to have a series (which I don’t but would be fun). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Nigel: It depends I think on what you want to write. But for me I took Quentin Crisp’s advice very much to heart (which seemed appropriate). Quentin said that if you want to write a book you should not read other books in the same field. If you do you will think that you have to write like those other authors do and this is a mistake. You will lose the uniqueness of your voice. Quentin said that each of us has our own unique way of speaking; the words we use; the phrases we use; the cadence in our speech; and that we should write as we speak. This then makes our writing style, not just unique, but enriching to read. Quentin was one of the very few authors who wrote exactly as he spoke. When you read his words, it is as though he is sitting in front of you talking to you. I love this style of writing. The actor Dirk Bogarde wrote like this as well and I love his books.
So that was what I tried to do while I was writing the biography. I thought ‘If I was sitting in front of someone telling them this story what would I say?’ And I seem to have succeeded in this because so many people have said that reading the book is like having a conversation with me.
So I tried to do this with the novels. I’m not sure if I was as successful here. Hopefully time will tell.
With regards to publishers I would say be careful. It is such a thrill when a publisher accepts your book. But take a deep breath and pause for a while before signing on the dotted line. Because getting the wrong publisher can, I believe, be worse than publishing it yourself, especially, as is likely, they will do nothing to promote the book.
Any success my biography has had, frankly, has very little, if anything to do with the publisher. It is down to my own efforts and the combined efforts of my many friends and contacts around the world, to whom I will be eternally grateful. I think today many publishers actually function just as printers.
Morgen: Some have said these interviews are like we’re sitting in front of the fire. It’s a great compliment. 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)?
Nigel: I would choice Jesus, Quentin Crisp and the Dalai Lama. I have no idea what I would cook, but because of his Holiness the Dalai Lama it would have to be a vegetarian dish. I’m sure the other two wouldn’t mind.
Morgen: I’m sure they wouldn’t. My mum, aunt and uncle are vegetarian so we have the same whenever I visit and it’s delicious. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
“The essence of happiness is its absoluteness. It is automatically the state of being of those who live in the continuous present all over their bodies. No effort is required to define or even attain happiness but enormous concentration is needed to abandon everything else.”
Morgen: Not difficult for me when it comes to writing-related matters, which (generally) make me happy. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Nigel: As an I.T. analyst I spend a lot of time writing in programming languages. I appreciate that most people will not see this as writing in the normal sense, but it is actually a creative process. A group of local writers, including myself and my wife, are trying to start self-help writers group. My wife is also very interested in writing and has some really excellent ideas which she is developing.
Morgen: Excellent. I have a school friend who, I hadn’t known until late last year, had always wanted to write a novel and after one of our friends died, it came up in conversation (writing usually does when I’m around) and he’s living and breathing it (when he can) now (I might have had a slight hand in that). What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Nigel: There is of course my day job which takes up most of my time. I live in a beautiful seaside village at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and my wife and I love to walk the shore and the mountains anytime we can. We both love movies and going to the cinema and we both love reading. We’re both also enthusiastic cooks.
I used to be a bodybuilder, (in my youth), and I still workout three days a week, but now I am getting into powerlifting.
Morgen: Wow. I guess that gives you time to think about your writing. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Nigel: There are absolutely masses of writers’ forums out there and I’m sure they are all useful. My problem is that I have little time to write and so can’t really spend much time on things like forums. I am on Facebook and have found this very useful for getting news out into the world instantly and to many people, much more efficient than an email.
Morgen: Social networking is an invaluable tool for a writer but can be oh so time-consuming. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Nigel: I think that actually the future holds more freedom and opportunity for writers. This is due to how accessible self-publishing has now become. Of course self-publishing has been around for quite some time, but now with the internet and even more so with ebooks it has become a totally viable alternative. This is especially true today because as I’ve commented earlier, many publishers now do not market books, unless you are already famous. Which leaves the perspective author asking the question ‘What is the point of having a publisher?’ Personally I believe that had I self-published my biography it would have been at least as successful.
But before deciding which route you are going to take – publishing house versus self-publishing – you need to realistically consider what means you have of promoting your book. Because you can write a brilliant book and have it on Amazon as a physical book and kindle but if no-one knows it is there they aren’t going to buy it.
The advantage of a publishing house is that it still carries a certain cachet with it and people will automatically assume your work is worth reading.
But the public are in the end ‘the’ critic. If your work is good and you can get it out into the world then it will sell.
Morgen: Absolutely. A lot of recommendations go on word of mouth and reviews. My editor only buys eBooks which have 20+ reviews and are 4.5* or above, but then she needs to rarely buy any as she’s given so many anyway. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Thank you, Nigel.
I then invited Nigel to include an extract of his writing and this from the end of the first chapter of his novel ‘The Humanity Factor?’. It is part of a conversation between the lead character Anna and an alien being called Tsintaeo. The alien starts the conversation…
‘It is time to show you that you are not dreaming.’
‘So how are you going to do that?’
‘I’m going to let you open your eyes.’
Anne was suddenly aware that she could feel her eye lids again. She slowly opened them. She was startled at first, but only for a moment. ‘So I really am just dreaming.’ She thought.
‘Why do you think that Anna? Even after seeing what you have just seen.’ The voice was still with her.
‘Because I appear to be floating thousands of feet above the earth. Yet I’m not falling, I’m not suffocating due to lack of air and I can’t even feel wind on my face. Since this is impossible, I must be dreaming it.’ Anna actually felt a bit relieved.
‘That is very good. You are the only one who has not panicked in fear at what they saw. Your reasoning abilities are excellent. Perhaps better than I had judged them to be.’
‘What do you mean the only one? How many have there been?’
‘You are the one hundred and fiftieth.’
Anna was starting to get concerned again. She felt disorientated and confused and her headache was getting worse. If this was a dream, it evidently was one she could not wake from.
‘Well are you trying to tell me that I really am floating thousands of feet above the earth?’
‘Then where am I?’
‘You are inside me.”
And a synopsis of one of his books, and again this is of ‘The Humanity Factor?’
At only eighteen years old Anna seemed to have the world at her feet. On her way to New York to start a new life with her loving and devoted husband. The next two years would be full of love and promise. A baby son, and soon after happily expecting another baby.
Then in one evening she lost her husband, her unborn child, and the world she thought she knew.
For the next eighteen years her life would be a very different one. But there would be honesty, loyalty, friendship.
Then Anna’s life will take another turn. Another man knocks on the door of her life. Only this man is not human. A being as far advanced beyond us as it is possible to be, travelling between dimensions and between galaxies as we put one foot in front of another.
Anna discovers another truth about her entire human race which goes beyond our own little world and into the vastness of the universe.
But is this a truth which Anna, or indeed humanity really wants? Anna must decide if she should help this being or fight against it.
But what can one woman do against a being who possesses the knowledge of the entire universe, move between dimensions at will, and can control every device on the entire planet with the power of its mind?
Nigel Kelly grew up in Northern Ireland and left school early without qualifications to take an apprenticeship as a carpenter. The company folder within a year and in the ensuing years he drifted from job to job, until the mid 1980s when he started studying computers. Initially working as a Technician until the mid 1990s when the Internet was taking off. He realised this was the place to be and started moving into that field. By the end of the century he was now a member of British MENSA, had graduated three times and was working on the websites for the capital city Belfast where he is still employed.
He had been inspired by Quentin Crisp since seeing The Naked Civil Servant in 1975, and in 2000 after Crisp’s death, created a website dedicated to him. Then in 2007 he was unable to work for some months following a road accident. During this time he started writing a biography on Quentin which after 4 years of work was published in 2011 by McFarland of the USA.
Encouraged by this success he set to work on a novel which would incorporate a number of ideas he had for years. This science fiction novel is now finished and entitled ‘The Humanity Factor’. Nigel is currently working in a sequel to be titled ‘The Anna Factor’. He is currently looking for a publisher for these novels, though is also looking into self-publishing as a viable option.
Update November 2012: Since we last talked I have gone into the public speaking racket (as Quentin called it). I talk about why Quentin inspired me, tell the story of his life (in a much abridged version) and how I came to write his biography. So far they have gone very well and I have another on 7th November and then an After Dinner Speech on 19th December (free food which Quentin would have approved of). I also have a publisher who ‘might’ be interested in my sci-fi novel, but I’m not banking on anything yet and if that falls through I will probably self-publish. Hollywood Gossip Columnist and writer David Hartnell is going to do a feature on it when he does his next gossip column.
Morgen: Congratulations, Nigel. How exciting!
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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