Welcome to the two hundred and eighty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author and spotlightee Andy ‘AJ’ Kirby. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. I’m fairly famous (amongst the people who know me) for cutting a short story long and talking for England… I hope you’re sitting comfortably because today I’ve met my match. 🙂
Morgen: Hello, Andrew. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Andrew: Hi there Morgen, hi there everybody. I’m really pleased to be here, thanks for inviting me.
Morgen: You are so welcome. 🙂
Andrew: Allow me to introduce myself. I’m AJ Kirby, the author of the novels Perfect World, Bully and The Magpie Trap, as well as numerous short stories and non-fiction articles on sports, food, cinema and theatre. I’m also a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books.
I live in Leeds, not far from Roundhay Park, in a house which may well be eaten at some point soon by the massive hedge in the front garden.
Morgen: Now there’s a plot. 🙂
Andrew: Our house is right next door to some woods which once joined with the fabled Meanwood of Leeds, which is the wood a certain J.R.R. Tolkien looked out on when he worked at the University of Leeds and was starting to write about the myths and legends of a place called Middle Earth. Looking out onto those woods every day I suppose I couldn’t help but be a writer. But there’s another reason too. I’m originally from the ’burbs in Manchester; a small town which was dubbed the most criminal town in the country way back in the 1950s, and it’s not changed much since. It’s at once a sleepy backwater and a madhouse, beautiful and ugly. When it rains the houses all turn black and frown at you, especially if you’re not from round ’ere. I’m glad to be away from it, but I miss it every day. It’s a place which is full of stories and not particularly well-kept secrets, and an ideal breeding ground for a writer.
Morgen: It sounds wonderful in a Edgar Allen Poesque fashion.
Andrew: Finally, I write stories because stories have always been important to my family. My grandparents were all brilliant storytellers, and my mum and dad too. I remember my dad writing me a story when we were on holiday once of a young footballer called AJ Kirby who took the sports world by storm. I was about six at the time and it was the best thing I’ve ever read! On that same holiday I wrote my own first story, The Temple of Jerosca, which was pretty much a word for word copy of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, only it featured an alien called Bibby instead of Harrison Ford, for some reason. I’ve been writing ever since (with a rather large gap between the ages of 16 and 24 when I thought I was going to be a rock and roll star instead!)
Morgen: But you went for a more stable career instead. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Andrew: In the main, I’m a horror writer, though I also write science fiction and crime thrillers. As an author of dark fiction, I’ve had one novel published with another on the way in Spring. My first published novel, however, was in the crime fiction genre, and its sequel is due for publication in late 2012, early 2013 too. I’ve also recently completed a comic / literary fiction novel, provisionally entitled Things that a nice cup of tea and a four cheese pizza from Milano’s won’t fix (of which more later) and have won and been short-listed for numerous literary festival competitions for this style of writing, as well as being published in a number of relatively high-profile anthologies. As well as my existing projects, I have a number of new projects which I am working on at the moment, including a biography, which I’ve certainly never tried before. I’ve been asked to pen the life-story of a woman who ran a nightclub in Marbella which was frequented by all the A-list stars in the late seventies, early eighties (Diana Dors, Bernie Eccleston, Larry Hagman etc) and I’m quite excited, though daunted too, by this.
Morgen: Apart from the biography (and sci-fi) you’re a bit like me; dark and light. You’ve mentioned a couple of things there but what have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Andrew: To date, three novels, one short story collection, two novellas and a novelette, as well as numerous short stories which can be found variously in anthologies, magazines and journals, across the internet, in webzines, e-books, as audio dramas and even as iPhone / iPad applications. Coming soon, I’ve got a new collection of shorts out, this time focusing on my crime fictions. It’s called The Art of Ventriloquism and it’ll be published by Solstice. Then there’s my novel, Paint this town Red, which is slated for a Spring 2012 release through Wild Wolf Publishing. Here’s what early reviews of the book have said about it: “Like Jaws on land…” (Cassandra Parkin, author of the 2011 Scott-Prize winning New World Fairy Tales); “Reading this book is like trying to get to sleep after drinking too many vodka red bulls…” (Leeds Student Newspaper); “Reminds me of the film Cul De Sac; shaken up with a healthy dose of thrills, chills and bellyaches.” (Manor House Book Reviews.)
I write as AJ Kirby rather than Andy, which is what all my friends know me as. I’m not sure I can even remember why this is now, though I do believe that at the time I started writing, I thought it would lend my work more gravitas if I used my initials (a la JK Rowling).
Morgen: It does make you genderless (a la Morgen) which can come in really handy. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Andrew: Hundreds. And I don’t deal with them at all well.
Morgen: Oh dear. 😦
Andrew: I’m a bit fragile, self-confidence-wise, at the best of times, and though I tell myself the rejection is not necessarily a rejection of me and my writing style – it may well be that I’ve simply submitted at the wrong time, or in the wrong genre, or the publisher’s just published another story which features all hell breaking loose in a small town in the last issue – I can’t help but feel down about it. But, over the years, I have built my own coping mechanism. This involves, firstly, going for a long walk through Roundhay Park. As soon as I get to the middle of the park, and after checking there’s no kids about, I shout, very loudly. A barbaric yawp. Then I walk home and boot up the old laptop, and I search for a different publisher or a different magazine, and I send the story right back out there. (Sometimes I polish the story before I do this.)
Morgen: Good plan. You probably just have the right thing for the wrong person. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Andrew: I’ve been lucky enough to have won, been runner-up, or shortlisted in a number of writing competitions over the years. Perhaps the most important of these was back in 2008 when I won third prize – £400 – in the Luke Bitmead Memorial Bursary run by Legend Press in 2008 for my novel When Elephants walk through the Gorbals. Luke Bitmead was the talented author of two published novels who tragically ended his own life in 2006 when he was only 21. The Bursary was established by Luke’s family and his publishers in order to help new authors. I was absolutely overwhelmed to win third prize, and to be awarded the prize fund, as it seemed like much needed affirmation at a time when it seemed my writing was going nowhere fast. Having won it, I felt able to renew my efforts and write with a new sense of freedom. I’ll be eternally grateful to Luke’s family and Legend Press for that. Though Elephants wasn’t picked up by Legend for publication, it has now been accepted, four years later, for publication by the US publishers, Whiskey Creek Press.
Morgen: Oh yay, well done. 🙂 I’ve spotted Luke’s bursary a couple of times in the writing magazines so it’s great to meet someone who’s benefitted from it. It obviously sounds like a great boost to you after taking the rejections so hard.
Andrew: Other than this success, I won the Big Issue in the North’s genre fiction award in 2011 for my short story ‘The Siege’, and was awarded runner-up in the Dog Horn Publishing Fiction Prize (for which I’m in the forthcoming prize anthology, Bite Me, Robot Boy. I’ve been runner-up in the Huddersfield Literature Festival short fiction competition, and have been short-listed in competitions run by the Ilkley Literature Festival, Mere Literary Festival, the H.E Bates Short Story Competition, Cinnamon Press and People in Action. In 2011, I was also shortlisted for the Paperbooks ‘Tale of Two Halves’ competition and I’ve received an honourable mention in the worldwide Best Horror of the Year, judged by the esteemed editor, Ellen Datlow.
Morgen: Wow wee. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Andrew: I don’t have an agent. When I first started writing, I subscribed to quite a lot of writing magazines and attended a few So You Wanna Be A Writer classes, and at the time, the feeling was that you absolutely had to have an agent in order to succeed. So for a month or so, I blitzed the agencies with my cover letter and the mss of my first novel The Magpie Trap. And for three months after that – three years my postie might say – I received those letters and manuscript samples back on a daily basis, without much more than a standard cover letter from the agents in response to my submission. It got so I didn’t even want to open my mailbox in case there was another rejection lying inside, waiting to bite at my new-day optimism. So instead, I started to write, furiously. I wanted to write the book which proved them all wrong. And somewhere along the way, I discovered there were other routes to publication other than agents. Suddenly, friends who attended those same Wanna Be A Writer classes and subscribed to those same magazines said the feeling was that having an agent was no longer the be all and end all. I’ve attained publication through careful research of the independent and small presses, both in the UK and across the Atlantic. I’ve done this without an agent. And though these small presses may not have the marketing might of some of the larger houses, whose doors I could only seemingly enter with a nod from an agent, I do believe that if you find the right kind of independent press, young, hungry ones which are full of ideas, they can be just as good for you as a writer. I work with a number of different publishers, and all of them are just as keen for my book to be a success as I am, and they put in the time and effort to make it so. And I appreciate it. And the books are doing well, too. In particular the e-books, for which the royalty rates are very good (and aren’t shared with any agents). This is not, of course, to rule out the possibility of trying to find an agent in the future. I just feel that right now, with the type and genre of fiction I’m writing, I’m better off working more closely with the publishers themselves.
Morgen: Things have definitely changed over the past few years and I, for one, am pretty excited for what it means for authors… which leads me nicely on to the next question… you’ve mentioned them a couple of times but are your books available as eBooks? If so, were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Andrew: Yes, 90% of them are e-books. The only ones that aren’t are Mix Tape and The Magpie Trap. I took a very conscious choice to go the ebook route. I’d read with great interest all the horror stories about the publishing industry being hit by recession, libraries being placed under threat of closure, and knew first-hand about high street stores such as Borders going into liquidation (I launched Bully at Borders in Leeds and toured five stores in Yorkshire the month they went bust. They owed me a decent chunk of money and I’ve still not seen a red cent. Nor will I. According to the liquidator’s report I receive on an annual basis, plotting the disappearance of my fortune… Ahem) And I was started to get worried that it might be a difficult time to be a fiction writer. But then, I’d also noticed the articles which were starting to appear in mags and on websites which trumpeted that sales of e-books would for the first time out-stripping those of traditional hardbacks (and even paperbacks in some cases) in the US, and then, a year or two later, that same dramatic shift in the UK to boot. So, this brave author took the daring step of publishing my third novel, Perfect World, in ebook format only.
The reasons for doing this weren’t only financial. The novel is set in the near future, when the influence of the internet over our lives has grown even stronger, dictating almost everything we do. So it seemed fitting to reflect the high-tech themes of the book in its actual publication.
At first I was a little worried about this decision, after all, I’d always subscribed to the theory that nothing can replace that feeling of holding a book in your hands or the smell of the pages. And after all, you can’t take a Kindle into the bath with you. But after receiving an ebook reader for my birthday last year, I was well and truly won over. I read my first book on the device without great expectations, but I was soon pulled in, and even found myself physically trying to turn the pages at one point. And now everyone in my family is won over because it means I don’t have to flood the house with new books all the time. We’re already fast running out of shelf space.
Perfect World has done well so far as an e-book, and it’s been a learning curve for me all the way. One of the difficult aspects of publishing an ebook is marketing and publicity. Many of the tried and tested traditional routes to market – in-store signings etc – aren’t open to the ebook author. However, it just means marketing-clever, and networking, networking, networking… What helped was the fact I wasn’t going it alone. Though I chose the ebook route, I went with a publisher, TWB Press of Colorado, US. This decision has been one of the best I’ve made in my writing life, as Terry Wright, the head honcho at TWB, has proved a simply amazing publisher whose insight into the marketplace, as well as his eye for craft and the nuts and bolts of story not only made the book more saleable, but more readable too.
Morgen: Not having experienced eReaders until fairly recently, I’d always preferred paper books (and I still do) but they are wonderful devices. I do still maintain that eBooks are for away and pBooks are for home (in my case certainly as I have so many of them) but it’s wonderful knowing I have a whole library in my bag. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Andrew: If there is an AJ Kirby Brand it’s a schizophrenic one. Inside me are three authors screaming to get out – and now I’ve said that out loud, it sounds horrible. You’ve got the horror / dark fiction author, the crime-writer and the literary / comic fiction writer. Oh, and then there’s the reviewer-me and the journalist-me too. Oh dear. Too many voices! But also, I suppose, a few additional revenue streams.
In terms of self-promotion, something a lot of writers find difficult and awkward to do, I believe I have a bit of an edge as I’ve worked in a marketing environment for nine years now and have completed qualifications in digital and online marketing. I don’t have too much of a problem in shamelessly promoting myself – hell, if I did, I’d only ever sell to my parents and friends. Nor do I have a problem in appearing in person at festivals, book-signings, literary talks, the York Writers Festival, and as part of Legend Press’s New Horizons university tour in 2009. Though I am a quiet person, as comes from working on my own much of the time, I do believe that if you’ve got the opportunity to ‘sell yourself’ in front of an audience, you might as well enjoy it rather than hating every minute. One of the daftest things I’ve done in terms of self-promotion was at a bookstore in Yorkshire (I won’t name the town) where I’d been consistently ignored at my signing-table for two hours. I’d drunk too much coffee by this point, and decided to climb on my chair and shout ‘I’ve written a book!’ The staff asked me to get down as I was a health and safety risk. Nobody came up to the stand for a good five minutes, but then I sold a couple of copies…
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have a favourite book or character? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Andrew: What an excellent question!
Morgen: Why, thank you. 🙂
Andrew: I’d like to answer the second part first, if I may because that’s the part that intrigues me the most. Okay, here’s a brief role-call. I’d love to see any of my novels make it into film. I’ll take Paint this town Red first as it’s probably the most filmic (having already been compared to Jaws and Cul De Sac.) With the Jaws theme in mind, I’d like Richard Dreyfuss to take on the role of my bad guy Manny Combs. I know Dreyfuss is generally a genial good-guy actor, but consider the case of Robin Williams, whose best role by far was his portrayal of the psycho-killer in Photo Booth.
Morgen: Oh, I agree completely. I loved him in that. And I’d love to see Richard in a bad guy role. 🙂 He may have done already but as you say he’s generally a good guy.
Andrew: I’d also have the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite as Yoghurt Rhodes, the reluctant hero of the piece, as Yoghurt’s first scene involves him hiding all the Napoleon Dynamite DVDs in his local shop as he’s being teased for looking like the eponymous hero. Julie Walters would be excellent as my Ruth Sharp (and a Brit too, I’m aware that I’m already including too many Americans in what is, at heart, a very north east English story). In terms of Bully I’d almost definitely opt forThomas Turgoose (of This is England fame) as Gary Bull, and as the hero of Perfect World, I’ve got Andre Royo, Bubbles from The Wire, absolutely nailed-on.
As a point of interest, I do write radio drama. Here’s a link to one you can listen to online for free: http://listenupnorth.com/drama-page/387.
Morgen: Oh yes, Rachel’s been here already. 🙂
Andrew: As to the first part of the question, my favourite books, films and TV shows change all the time, but at the moment, they’d be the following. Books – The Dark Half by Stephen King; Animal Farm by George Orwell; Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien; Atonement by Ian McEwan; One Good Turn and Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson; New World Fairytales by Cassandra Parkin; Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; Life of Pi by Yann Martel to name but a few… Films – The Shining, Se7en, Groundhog Day, La Haine, Lord of the Rings, Uncle Buck. TV – The Wire. Just brilliant. The portrait it paints of a city in full, is simply astonishing. Dialogue and characters better than any other show I’ve ever seen.
Morgen: Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite actresses and she kindly released ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ on my birthday in 2010. I’ve not read it yet but I have everything she’s had published (pretty much actually including a play script and anthology stories) and would love to have an Atkinson weekend (including watching the rest of Case Histories which I still have stored on my Sky+ box from last year!). Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Andrew: Titles and covers have arguably never been more important in this new world of on-line bookstores and libraries. Your book’s cover has to be able to stand out; its title must be able to set it apart. I thought of the title of my first book, The Magpie Trap, even before I’d thought of the plot. It came from a dream I’d had in which two caged birds were fighting over a precious stone. The dream probably stemmed from the fact I’d been talking to a friend who’d just moved to the countryside earlier. I’d asked him if he’d moved there because he wanted to get back to nature, and he, giving a typical sweeping statement full of embroidery and exaggeration, said that nature was all very well, but he thought a lot of people he’d met in the countryside hated animals, or, if not hated, they at least thought of all kinds of ingenious ways of killing them. He talked about the fox hunts which still went on, the badger baiting… And about his neighbour who boasted a magpie trap in his back garden. I don’t think much of what he said was true, but after the dream, I couldn’t shake the idea of a magpie trap. Magpies are often seen as greedy, and thieving, and I began to conceive of an idea for a story in which some sinister agency devised a deadly human magpie trap in order to lure in his avaricious prey. The rest, as they say, is history.
After The Magpie Trap I for some reason decided that my book titles had to consist of one word only. There were two reasons for this. The first was the fact I was reading a lot of thrillers at the time, with titles like Reaper, and Betrayed, and Testament and I just thought they sounded bold and uncompromising. The other was I’d come this close to having my second novel When Elephants walk through the Gorbals picked up by a major publisher. In the end, the novel was rejected, but the publisher’s words stayed with me. They’d loved the story but wanted me to make some changes, the first of which was to the title. But even under the revised title of Big Game, the story wasn’t actually picked up (though it did win third prize in the Luke Bitmead Memorial Bursary, run by Legend Press.) I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel based in a small town in England which is haunted by a disturbing past for a while, and straight away, I knew the novel was going to have a one word title (it ended up as Bully.)
When Bully was first released, it was issued with a cover which was a lot different than the one you see today, and part of the reason it was changed was because of the advent of e-books. The original cover, though good, was not striking, and both Wild Wolf Publishing and I wanted to be able to make real in-roads into this new marketplace. At the time, one of my shorts was being published in an anthology called Dark Hoard, which was compiled by a Harrogate-based writer-stroke-artist-stroke-graphic-designer extraordinaire named Nick Button (www.nickbutton.com). And Dark Hoard was by far the most beautiful book I’ve ever been involved with. Nick’s designs and imagery were absolutely stunning. As such, I floated the idea to him that he have a go at designing a new cover for Bully. I had great expectations for the new designs, and Nick managed to better them. I loved his new design and I’m sure it’s had a lot to do with the continuing good sales figures for the book. Nick Button has also designed the cover for my second release through Wild Wolf Publishing, Paint this town Red, which is also attached.
You might notice that Paint this town Red is not an uncompromising one-word title. Nor is Perfect World, but both seemed the right titles for the books, from the text, which, ultimately, is the most important thing.
I’d like to finish with a note about one title which has caused me no end of trouble. That’s Things that a nice cup of tea and a four cheese pizza from Milano’s won’t fix… Or, at least, that’s what I’m calling it at the moment, though not for much longer. This novel will be coming out as an ebook later on this year, however it’ll be coming out under a very different title. The publishers have already told me that. I already know that. Problem is, no title jumped out of the text, or arrived fully formed in my mind as they did with all of my other books. And it’s way, waaaaayyyy too long. Longer even than When Elephants walk through the Gorbals. It’s nearly too long to save as a file name. And it’s definitely too long to sell on Amazon, for example. The novel’s a comedy, a bit of a departure from my usual genre fiction, and I think I was trying to be too clever with the title. Or maybe – whisper it – give it a title which was so weird it might generate publicity of its own, like A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian… I might have a rethink. I might open the floor to suggestions from my readers. I don’t know yet…
Morgen: Oh do. I love titles, especially quirky ones and there are awards for the quirkiest. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Andrew: Phew… Well next is the publicity and marketing merry-go-round for Paint this town Red. As well as guesting on a number of blogs, setting up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, organising reviews etc, I’m also planning a smaller, friendlier kind of book tour. For this book, I’m looking to do something different from the norm and I’m actively looking to try and do a number of events, signings or readings in independent shops, libraries, local arts hubs and book groups. (And if anyone’s interested in my putting in an appearance to read, handle Q and A sessions etc, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.) I’ve already signed up with a number of small shops to host events there and I’m always looking for more.
Other than that, I’ve got some seedling ideas in my head for two new novels. One of which is a sequel to Perfect World, in which Eva, the heroine, comes much more to the fore. (Actually this idea was planted by one of the reviewers of Perfect World, so thank you for that! You know who you are.) The second idea is for a murder mystery set on a remote farmhouse. I had a vision – man that sounds a bit weird – okay, I got an image in my head, complete and whole and ready to write as I walked through Roundhay Park last weekend. Now all I have to do is work out how my characters get to that point. Oh, and write a hundred-odd thousand words. I don’t worry I’m putting too much pressure on myself though. I simply love writing.
Morgen: I have met my match. 🙂 So do I. So much so that the day job’s going in a couple of weeks (5 working days) then there’ll be no stopping me (other than temping when my savings run out). 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Andrew: I try to, and I know I should, but sometimes it’s just not feasible, especially when I’m weighed down with marketing etc. But I’ll be taking along notebooks this time around for any of the quiet periods.
For a while, after Bully, I really struggled to finish a book or a story. That was my writer’s block. I had what I thought were excellent ideas, and I’d start writing at break-neck pace, but then I’d run out of steam after a week or two and simply abandon the story. Now I carefully plan what’s going to happen in the story before I get to that point. Of course, sometimes the characters take me off in completely different directions, but I always like to know the end point I’m aiming for.
Morgen: I love that; that they just do their own thing. Have you always plotted?
Andrew: I’ve completely changed the way I write. I can’t believe how much time and effort (and blood, sweat and tears) I spent, trying desperately to follow-up Bully immediately. I think I taxed my brain to come up with something whole and fully formed and sometimes writing ideas don’t work like that. Now I plan meticulously and have voluminous ideas and cuttings file. Before I sit down to write, I’ll go on a number of good, long walks to clear my head and make sure the central idea behind a book is worth a hundred-odd thousand words…
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Andrew: Steal! Shamelessly! And I don’t mean copy them from other writers or write down exactly what a friend (or enemy) says or does all the time because they might be funny down the pub or because you have a grudge against them from work. I mean go out. Listen to how people talk. See how they act around other people. What’s the first thing you notice about a stranger standing in front of you in the queue at the post office? Do they look like an Adrian or a Carl, or a Beyonce or a Heidi? What would their nickname be? Are they trying to cover up a crime? Do they have secrets? I don’t think you can write believable characters unless you spend a lot of time with people. Unless you’re a psychologist, like my friend Guy Mankowski, who manages to get inside his characters’ heads better than any other writer I know (and I’m not just saying that.)
Take your characters from your observations, sprinkle in some gold dust from your imagination. And then exaggerate. Not too much, but enough. Your characters need to jump off the page. Your readers need to be able to hear their voices when they close the book and shut their eyes and get ready to drift off to sleep. Your characters need to shake your readers awake! Read one more chapter. Go on. See if you can guess what’ll happen to me. Creating characters is my number one most favourite thing about being a writer. Birthing them, raising them, teaching them language and giving them jobs and then killing them off. Absolute joy!
Morgen: If you’re friends with a writer you have to be prepared for being stolen. 🙂 And yes, I love the fact that we can kill legally. Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Andrew: I write a lot of short stories and non-fiction, but no poetry, I’m afraid. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because my style is more conversational or something…
Anyway, here’s some links to my on-line short fiction and some for my non-fiction stuff:
– ‘A Question of Trust’, published online in the Wordland 1 zine from The Exaggerated Press. January 2012. URL: http://wordlnd.weebly.com/a-question-of-trust.html
– ‘The Pacemaker‘, published online by Five Stop Story, November/ December 2011: URL: http://www.fivestopstory.com/read/story.php?storyId=679
– ‘The Dancing Queen’s Last Dance’ (URL: http://thenightlight.co.uk/2011/05/the-dancing-queens-last-dance), and ‘Mistletoe Pompoms’ – Parental warning, explicit lyrics (URL: http://thenightlight.co.uk/2011/09/mistletoe-pompoms), published online by The Night Light, 2011
– ‘Psychopompery’ published on-line in the Sein und Werden ‘Monsters’ issue, 2011: http://www.kissthewitch.co.uk/seinundwerden/april11/page12.html
And my online reviews: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/j-kirby
Morgen: Wow. And by the way, I don’t do poetry either – I have two brilliant poets in my writing group so I’m more than happy to leave it to them but then they don’t really write prose so I guess we’re even. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Andrew: Editing is a fact of writing life, I’m afraid (see my spotlight article on this site). Though the more creative right side of my brain absolutely detests it and just wants to get straight back on with making stuff up, the left side likes to clear stuff up and make sense of it. Without editing, you wouldn’t be able to go make and notice the hidden underlying themes in your writing and then develop them. You wouldn’t be able to improve your story and add flesh to your characters. You wouldn’t be able to hone dialogue and weed out those mistakes you’ve read over about six times and missed. Editing’s not the best thing about writing, but it’s not the worst, either. The worst is having a reader, a reviewer, or a publisher contact you in order to point out that very obvious mistake on page six which for the life of you, you can’t see how you missed. The mistake which makes you look a fool, or an amateur, or a chancer. Train yourself to enjoy it, and to see the benefits. Nothing is ever fully formed when it comes out, just as no book is ever finished (we just get sick of the sight of them!) But when you look back on that same mistake five years later and it’s now become the first thing you turn to in your story, you’ll know you should have worked harder at your editing. And I know I’ve used the word ‘you’ a lot in my answer to this question, but really it’s a buffer. The author responsible for the terrible mistake I’m talking about was actually me. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it was. My cheeks have glowed scarlet even in writing this…
Morgen: Oh dear. 🙂 It does happen though – I quite often spot mistakes in published works. We’re only human. Do you have to do much research?
Andrew: I do. Sometimes too much! I love research and I’m probably a bit of a closet geek. Maybe I use research sometimes as a stalling device… Up until recently a lot of this research was web-based, but for the last book I wrote – the forthcoming Paint this town Red – I did quite a lot of ‘on the ground’ stuff, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve set this novel on a tidal island which is very much like Lindisfarne, just off the north east coast of England, and I visited the island on a number of occasions in order to get that sense of place just right. I spent a lot of time up at the monastery, and on the beaches, and talking to locals too. The book’s about myths and legends and how they can come to life, and I got some great ideas simply by ‘networking.’ The drive up to Lindisfarne from Leeds became a bit of a chore, but once I left the A1 and joined the tiny road leading down to the causeway, I always felt that lurch of excitement in my stomach. The causeway’s under the sea when the tide’s in and Lindisfarne is inaccessible over land during those hours. And there’s something about driving across that causeway, feeling the crunch of sand and seaweed under your tyres rather than gravel and tarmac, which never failed to make me feel as though I really was making a journey. As though I was crossing some kind of invisible boundary, or as though I was going back in time. I wanted to recreate those feelings in the book.
I also watched quite a lot of films, because I wanted to get the pacing right on this one. There’s quite a large cast list for the book and it was a fine line I trod between having too many characters or too much plot. Early reviews seem to think I’ve got it just about right – somehow – with one critic calling the work ‘like Jaws on land’ and another comparing it to the movie Cul de Sac (with teeth). Cul de Sac was set on Lindisfarne.
Morgen: I’m not a fan of research but that really doesn’t sound like a chore. 🙂 Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc., do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Andrew: I write in my small office (the second bedroom) at home. I don’t listen to music, or have the telly on, and I’ve even got my back to the window, because I’m quite easily distracted. I do, however, have a noisy co-worker, who tends to interrupt me like some furry Person from Porlock even as I have the idea for the greatest story ever written… And then lose it.
I’m talking about my cat, Eric, who is the real boss in our house, and very demanding with it. He’s a hard task-master who’s always after strokes and food, and particularly a game of ‘mousie’. Mousie involves me throwing a very realistic toy mouse around the house, up and down the stairs and into all kinds of nooks and crannies, and then Eric haring after it and fetching it back like a dog, meowing all the way to alert me to the fact I’m due another pitch. Eric doesn’t seem to like my being slumped over a laptop, typing, and is definitely not the literary type – he bites the corners of books – but I suppose that without his noise, I might go a little mad. Eric’s also starred in quite a few of my stories, in one form or another, and in Paint this town Red he grows to about ten times his normal size and becomes the black panther which is on the loose, stalking the town in question. That Eric doesn’t go chasing toy mice.
Morgen: 🙂 I have a dog who’s sort of similar (except for the growing part); he lets me know when he’s bored and somehow (digs into my subconscious) ends up on my lap – just as well I have long arms. 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Andrew: You know, I haven’t, though sometimes I do find I can slip into that type of writing for a particular phrase. I do like having a quite cosy relationship with my readers, and my style could be described as more conversational than literary in some cases, but I’ve never gone the whole hog and brought the reader into the story. My writing to date has been split fifty-fifty between first and third person narration. I generally choose the style to suit the subject matter, with Bully being very much a first-person story as it’s about the mental unravelling of the protagonist in the aftermath of war (and I needed to get in to extreme close-up here) and Paint this town Red being told very much in the third-person because it’s as much about the town as the individuals within it, and I think this style lent more to the collective spirit of the novel.
This may change though. You’ve already got me thinking here. I suppose that kind of writing would be especially effective in terms of live storytelling, that kind of thing, and as I seem to be doing more and more of that type of event, you never know, the next AJ Kirby story could use that exact narrative mode.
Morgen: Ooh great. 🙂 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Andrew: I’ve got a few actually. I mentioned my many novel false starts and cul de sacs in the spell after my novel Bully was released. These all now sit in a folder which sits on my desktop. It’s called ‘Unfinished Docs’, but maybe it should read ‘Failures’, because I never see that yellow folder without thinking about those aborted stories within and what I could have done with them. Some of them are great… Or maybe they’re not. I do clench my jaw, steel my nerves and open that folder every once in a while, hoping to pillage some scene or character from them which might be worth recycling or transforming in some way, and I have, on a couple of occasions actively tried to pick up the threads where I left off. But I’ve never managed to regain that same hot-blooded intensity I wrote them in and now, when I read them, I can barely imagine what I was thinking in some cases.
The only one I think I might be able to resurrect might be a story called Leap Year, which I got farther into than I did with many of the other false starts. When I wrote it, I thought the story was too big for me at the time, but that it might be worth saving. Stephen King did the same with both 11/22/63 and Under the Dome. Twenty years after the fact, he dug those old, dusty boxes out from an attic and re-started them with an older, wiser head on his shoulders, and completed both and presented them to the world. You never know, Leap Year might be my version of those novels. As for the rest? Well, every time I have a clear out on my laptop, I get closer and closer to pressing the delete button on them for good. That old Writing 101 phrase keeps echoing through my head: be ruthless, kill your darlings!
Morgen: Please don’t! 🙂 I keep everything (good and bad) because you never know. As you say you have an older, wiser head and even seeing the terrible stuff (certainly in my case) it’s made me realise how far I’ve come. What’s your favourite aspect of your writing life?
Andrew: There’s so much I’ve enjoyed about writing and being a writer, not least of which is the friendship and fellowship of other writers. Writers are a good bunch, by and large, and over the years I’ve been overwhelmed by the various offers of support, tips, friendly reviews, and general pointers in the right direction which I’ve received. It’s surprised me how even the highest profile of writers, those whom you wouldn’t imagine had a spare minute, will bend over backwards to help, or at least will offer a kind word. Amongst the goodies I’ve met? Will Self, Yann Martel, Martin Amis, Cassandra Parkin, Guy Mankowski, Rod Glenn, Ramsey Campbell, Conor Bowman, Alison Littlewood, and a certain Morgen Bailey.
Morgen: You smoothie. 🙂 I’ve been amazed actually how generous the writing industry is. Maybe it’s like learner drivers; we’ve all been at the bottom rung of the ladder and we remember our journey (some of us haven’t got very far but hey :)). What about least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Andrew: Least favourite? Would it be too mercenary to say the hourly recompense? One of my favourite quotes about writing is this one, from Jules Renard: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” But to be honest, much as I would like writing to make me a millionaire, I’ve not come into this with my eyes closed. I could reel off the stats about how little the average published author earns, and how rare someone like a J.K. Rowling or a Stieg Larsson is. I’m not expecting to be rolling in money from my next novel, or to suddenly sell the rights to one of my past publications to Hollywood. And so I’m okay with it. No: what really hacks me off is people who come up to me at a stand when I’m selling books in a bookshop, and talk to me for ages, and then, when I ask them whether they’d like me to sign a book for them, they tell me they don’t read. Well what are you doing in a bookshop then?
Morgen: Which leads me nicely on to my next question (as authors usually say to read)… what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Andrew: I’d have to follow the master here. Stephen Kings says that you can call yourself a writer when you finish something. When you demonstrate you have the perseverance and the craft to keep going through all the aches and pains and writer’s blocks and collapse over that finish line. It doesn’t matter how many copies you sell, or even whether you’re published or not; if you finish you’re stories, you’re a storyteller, a writer. And what makes you even better is editing that book ’til it’s spick and span and the best you can make it and then, without hardly taking a breath, going again. Writing something else, and finishing that one. And editing it. And with each one, you’ll find yourself becoming a better writer, more practiced, your craft better honed. You’ll know how to write yourself out of traps like writer’s block. Indeed, you’ll know writer’s block as something of a myth, because when you’re a writer, you write. It’s what you do, your passion, and your obsession.
Morgen: Yep, and I have both. 🙂 My mum said to me recently that I shouldn’t let writing take over my life – I didn’t like to tell her she was a few months too late. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or invite three people, hiding the takeaway containers)?
Andrew: Ah! It used to be I could get by on beans on toast for a week when I was a student. Now, being in my thirties, I seem to have lurched into becoming a budding amateur chef (who judging by my rapidly increasing waist size enjoys my own food a bit too much). So you’d think I’d enjoy hosting a dinner party, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m almost as nervous in having people try my food as I am read my writing… Anyway, my dinner party would have very strict entry criteria. In order to attend, you’d have to be called Eric. And here are my three favourite Eric’s:
– Eric (the King) Cantona – my all time hero in terms of football and artistic temperament.
– Eric (George Orwell) Blair – author of one of my favourite books, Animal Farm.
– Eric Idle – to sing ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’ in case the food’s no good.
Morgen: Not being a football fan (well, I am female) I’m certainly with your choice of the other two Erics. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Andrew: Okay, this is another one which changes from week to week. As I’m reading A Dance with Dragons, the latest of the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones series, I’ll go with this one:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. (…) The man who never reads lives only one!
Morgen: I do like that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Andrew: I write regular book reviews of both novels (for The New York Journal of Books) and short story collections and anthologies (for The Short Review). I also cover football in the north west of England for the Professional Footballer’s Association, and write food and nightlife criticism for a number of mags and webzines. I’m also a regular blog and feature writer, having previously written for Essential Writers, BBC Sport, Sense Magazine (Natwest Bank), Writers’ News, Risk-UK magazine, IP Focus Magazine, and Itchy Leeds Magazine.
Finally, I’ve also written a script for a spoof documentary about a boy-band along with three friends. Here’s the write-up: They were a genuine boy-band sensation, thrust upon the nation in the late 1990s; women swooned, men wanted to be them. They lived fast, but clean. Who could forget their string of Top 40 hits which included ‘Let’s Get Together’, ‘Save me Tonight’, and ‘Shake yo’ Ass’?The writer A.J Kirby joins musical gurus Micky P Kerr, Davoc ‘Ladyman’ Brady and Matt ‘The Echo’ Knee as they chart the reunion of Love Triangle in this amusing rocumentary. Here’s a sneak preview of all the thrills, spills and bellyaches which will be coming soon.
Morgen: I’ve probably read some of you actually. Ooh, I do remember that you were featured on the front page(!) of Writers’ News… not that long ago… well, I’m way behind with my reading but there’s nothing new there. And I think I have a couple of Short Reviews. 🙂 I’ll have to have a look. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Andrew: When I’m not writing, or reading for review, or planning my writing, or marketing my writing… erm, I sleep! Or watch films or pretty much any series screened by Sky Atlantic. I recently finished watching the fifth and final series of The Wire though, which leaves a bit of room in my busy schedule however. Out of the house, I enjoy sport, though not so much playing it any more. I’m a season ticket holder at Old Trafford, and until the recession bit, I followed United across Europe. Now I only go to the home matches. I make a point of getting a bit of culture every month or so, going to the theatre or opera or art galleries, and then go and spoil it all by watching too many soap operas and episodes of Family Guy. I also love travel, and have a burgeoning list of places I have to see before I die.
Morgen: I love Family Guy; Brian and Stewie make it for me. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
A: Stephen King On Writing has been my Bible, but I’ve also been helped by a number of books (including The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, as well as David Lodge’s excellent The Art of Fiction) and websites (including peer-review sites like Youwriteon.com, general writing sites such as Writers Online and also networking sites and forums such as Pen and Palette and Writing Calendar) Increasingly though, I’ve done my networking over Twitter and Facebook.
Morgen: That’s pretty much where it’s at, isn’t it? And I really like LinkedIn. ‘On Writing’ has been the most popular suggestion here. Stephen King will be proud. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Andrew: Whilst it is indisputable that difficult times lie ahead for writers at all levels, I’d say there are also some great opportunities for writers. Writers can carve out new niches for themselves in terms of new platforms like e-books, for example. And writers have never had a better advertising medium than the internet. Many of the barriers to publication have shifted and self-publishing is now not as frowned upon as it has been. But I’d add a caveat. Because the barriers have been lowered, there is an awful lot of dross out there, and this is only going to increase. The slush pile which used to land on a publisher’s desk is not found on the Amazon (for example) site, ready to purchase. The old criteria still remains: marking yourself out as a writer of quality, becoming a trusted brand, and penning excellent stories, will be the only way writers will be sure-fire successes in the difficult financial climate.
Morgen: I think reviews will have the last word. A writer can only have so many friends. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Andrew: Ah, that killer question, the open one. In job interviews, this is usually the moment I’d go ummm and ahhh and then try desperately to think of something to say which won’t make me sound like an idiot. And then I’ll go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘where’s the toilet?’ Or, ‘do you think wearing a tie that colour, dear interviewer, might suggest you are a closet serial killer?’ So I suppose I’ll try and be succinct here, for once in my life. (Keep to the facts, AJ, that way they can’t come back and challenge you!) What I’d like to mention here is my own blog – http://andykirbythewriter.20m.com/cgi-bin/blog – which features all my latest reviews of other people’s writing (from The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books), as well as general chit-chat about upcoming events, signings and readings. It also features extracts and links to free stories which have been released online (and, on the homepage, Paypal links if you want to buy the novels / collections). It’s updated fairly regularly, and is probably the best way of keeping up with what I’m doing in terms of writing, globally.
Morgen: You certainly have variety… to stop you getting bored. 🙂 Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Andrew: There’s lots. Here’s a couple – I’ve been looking over your bibliography and a couple of things stood out for me. The first being The Dark Side which I’d love to read, the second being your long list of stories ‘to follow’. I was wondering, what with all the ‘other’ writing related stuff you do – including taking time out to do interviews such as this – how the hell you manage to get anything done? Do you set yourself deadlines etc?
Andrew: And, I’ve read in one of your spotlights that you love reading Stephen King (as do I) and that you usually buy new offerings from the master of dark fiction on their days of release. Two things. One, I was wondering if you’re such a fan that you queue up or camp out?!? And two, what did you think of 11/22/63? Personally, I liked it… No, loved it as I do everything he writes, but there were some worryingly long sections about lindyhopping etc. which read like an episode of Glee…
Morgen: Actually I stopped after the book after Misery. I don’t even remember what I was so disappointed by it that I didn’t want to read any more. Shame. I did read a short story that accompanied The Cell (I think) and really enjoyed it (the name escapes me)… terrible memory haven’t I? 🙂 Thank you, Andrew, I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.
I then invited Andrew to include an extract of his writing and this is taken from Paint this town Red, Wild Wolf Publishing, 2012.
Lewis Dowsing knew better than to linger by the Old Mason house. The words of his mother rang in his ears, not too subtly underscored by the voices of Mr. Buckby, the newsagent, Jabba Johnson, the headmaster of his school, his friends; the concerned of Limm Island.
‘Don’t get close to the Mason place,’ they dawn-chorused.
‘Avoid it like the plague.’
‘Run when you pass it, or pedal fast, because if you don’t then whatever’s in there is liable to come out and get for you.’
And usually, Lewis listened to the voices like a good boy. Using the momentum gained from the steep slope of Dye Lane, he bombed past the Old Mason house every morning, barely even pausing to take a proper look at the place. But today was different.
The chain had come loose, and now that he was leaning in to inspect the damage, Lewis saw the clean break in the greasy chinks of metal. He’d been so rigorous in his checks, and his maintenance programme. For it to snap like that, so out of the blue, seemed a very bad thing. Like an omen. And now his ginger hair – definitely ginger, not strawberry blond as his mother so often contended – was shining out like a beacon for all to see. The only thing that his father had ever given him – thanks dad – was now going to be the thing that got him into a whole world of trouble. And his mother had always warned him that trouble wouldn’t be far away if he turned out anything like him, hadn’t she?”
AJ Kirby is the award-winning author of five novels (Paint this town Red, 2012; Perfect World, 2011; Bully, 2009; The Magpie Trap, 2008; When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals, 2007), two novellas (The Black Book, 2011; and Call of the Sea, 2010), one novelette (Bed Peace, 2011) and over forty published short stories.
He is also a sportswriter for the Professional Footballers’ Association and a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books.
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.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. I welcome critique for the four new writing groups listed below and / or flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays. For other opportunities see (see Opportunities on this blog).
The full details of the new online writing groups, and their associated Facebook groups, are:
- Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group (http://novelwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/508696639153189)
- Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group (http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/388850977875934)
- Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group (http://scriptwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/319941328108017)
- Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group (http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/544072635605445)
We look forward to reading your comments.