Welcome to the three hundred and forty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with literary mystery and non-fiction author John Brooke. 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, John. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
John: I grew up in Toronto. I moved to Montreal in my early 30’s, following an opportunity in the film business. I enjoyed film but realized I would be happier working on my own and so transformed myself into a freelance writer. I continue to pay the weekly bills writing public relations oriented material for corporate clients, and also doing some translation from French to English. (Montreal is a good place for an Anglo with good grammar and workable French to set up as a freelance writer / translator.) How did I become a writer of books? By writing screenplays I couldn’t sell. Rather than tossing them in a drawer I thought – John, you’ve created a complete storyline with good characters here, why not try to expand these unwanted scripts into books? So I taught myself to write books.
Morgen: 🙂 I wrote the first 102 pages of a script for ScriptFrenzy in April 2010 and didn’t enjoy the process so converted it into the beginning of a novel… I’m just embarking on the editing of that and four completed works. What genre do you write?
John: My primary ongoing project is a series of ‘literary mysteries’ featuring a French cop named Inspector Aliette Nouvelle. I have just published my third. My other published book, Last Days of Montreal, is about life in Montreal during the time of the Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections in between those books? If so, how do you deal with them?
John: Many, many, many rejections. It used to take a few months, sending out packages and waiting for the one-line form note. Now, with the internet, you can submit to and be rejected by dozens of publishers and agents every week. It wears on the soul. How did I deal with it? After being angry, after despairing, I rolled over and told myself, This is what you are meant to be doing. The market can reject but it can’t stop you from BEING a writer, so just get on with it. I learned to enjoy the writing for itself. I continued writing and seeking publication at a slower, less desperate pace and eventually luck came my way.
Morgen: That’s the thing, isn’t it – you just have to keep going. I’m rubbish at sending things out but having quit my job I’ll have to soon. 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
John: I believe I was lucky to be living in Montreal at a time when the political situation was fraught. The first short story I ever published spoke to that situation. It was accepted by a small literary review in Ontario and went on to win the Journey Prize, which is Canada’s largest prize for a short story. You have probably heard of James Michener. His book Journey, about the Alaska gold rush, was published in Canada by a Toronto publishing house. Michener was hugely successfully and graciously returned his Canadian royalty cheque to the Toronto publisher, directing them to put it into a trust and initiate the annual Journey Prize competition. Winning that prize got me a call from a publisher and my career as a mystery writer began. I also won a CBC short fiction prize for another short story – about golf.
Morgen: Oh, wow. Yes I have heard of James Michener and what a generous gesture (well done, you :)). You mentioned earlier that you’ve tried to get an agent (as have I), do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
John: I have a sense they may not be as vital as they once were. If agents are the gatekeepers for the publishing industry, with the proliferation of social media it becomes increasingly harder to tell where the gate begins and ends, and the agent role becomes problematic. That said, it would be good to have an agent to act as a guide in securing foreign publication.
Morgen: I’m pretty sure that on the whole they earn their keep. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
John: My three Inspector Aliette Nouvelle mysteries books are available in e-version. Last Days of Montreal will be soon. I’m with a ‘small publisher’ – basically a one-woman operation. I think she understands that offering her catalogue in e-format is not just an opportunity, but maybe a necessity. She has the technical skill and the right people around her to make it work. My only involvement in the process has been proofing each e-manuscript. I could do that by downloading an Adobe Reader package (free) and then receiving her file to proof. So far, mine are the only eBooks I have read. I do not yet own a Kindle or the like. I had no problem reading my e-manuscripts – my eyes actually liked it. As long it could be easily seen on a beach, it would be much lighter than carrying six books in my suitcase.
Morgen: I think that’s why most people go for it… as do I – the portability. It’s great knowing I have 400+ books with me at any one time and sometimes my bag feels too light without it. 🙂 Being with a ‘one-woman operation’, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
John: I used to do as much as could be arranged around Montreal and in the Toronto area. It was never a lot – I did not have the knack of ‘selling myself’ and a small publisher in Winnipeg had limited resources. Some radio interviews. A TV interview, if I was lucky. Some readings. The sum of it all failed to give any sense of momentum. Now, with this latest book, I am dipping my marketing toe in this new world of social media. (It’s why and how you are reading this interview.) I find that I’m enjoying being a virtual person and making contact with interested literary people all over the world each day. Not sure what the result will be viz sales (if any), but there is a new energy there and I am enjoying riding it, exploring. As to myself as a ‘brand’? No. If anything, I’ll work to create a brand for Inspector Aliette Nouvelle. (Catchier than John Brooke, n’est-ce pas?)
Morgen: Un peu, peut etre. 🙂 I heard the other day that readers remember characters names easier than authors which is why series do so well (not the only reason for sure). I have had sales (of the guests’ books) through these interviews so fingers crossed… 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?
John: I love each book as I am doing it. Or try to. I can’t / won’t measure the quality of that love against the previous experience… I had some French actors in my mind for the roles in the Aliette Nouvelle series, but they’ve been replaced by a new generation. I thought Fanny Ardent would be perfect as Anne-Marie – a poodlish ‘street girl’ who runs like the wind but hardly talks. Emmanuelle Béart for Aliette? Yes, at a certain point. Not anymore… Your question has sent me Googling in search of straw blonde actresses of note, ideally with ice blue eyes. Strange to say, but Lindsay Lohan could be Aliette Nouvelle. She’s a good actress when she’s not in jail. See A Prairie Home Companion.
Morgen: 🙂 I saw a film the other day where everyone’s eyes were crazily blue… ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ with Daniel Craig. I can’t remember the women being blonde though. Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz spring to mind. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
John: I have participated in the titles and covers of all my books. It is a vigorous debate-cum-brain-storming exercise with my publisher, and then the designer is brought into it for the cover. For this most recent book, Stifling Folds of Love, I lost the title I wanted, but won the cover on a two-to-one decision with the designer on my side. Unless highly sensationalist in the topical sense, I’m not sure how important a book title is in and of itself – i.e., if it were displayed on a plain cover; but the juxtaposition of title and cover image can create a very enticing power.
Morgen: I love titles but they don’t make or break books for me although ones with unusual titles will get looked at first. What are you working on at the moment / next?
John: I am currently struggling through the first try at a next Aliette Nouvelle.
Morgen: Oh dear. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
John: I admit I do not write every day unless I am in finishing mode – then I can’t stay away from it. If I am in the ‘struggle’ stage (like now), I leave it for a day, sometimes both days of the weekend. Yes, I get blocked. I have never known the kind of writer’s block that goes on for months and years, touch wood. When I get stuck, I force myself to get something down on a page. It is worth the pain because when I return to it, I can usually mine a useful idea from very futile seeming material.
Morgen: That’s what people suggest: to go off and do something different, refreshes the brain I guess. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
John: I wish I was the kind who can plot out a story from A to Z. I start with an idea. I fit my idea with a beginning scene and I have a notion of how it will end. But the only way I can find the complete story is to write it out. This can involve several false starts. With a crime series, you already have a voice and point of view; that helps to begin.
Morgen: It must help to know your regular characters better, so they become even more real to us. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
John: No method. Inspector Aliette Nouvelle is who she is. The tensions that lead Aliette to a solution are routed through the other characters. Creating an interesting villain is a central challenge. But all characters have to offer something that helps the central character carry the story. It means all characters have to be both useful and colourful. Tossing out a character, or two, and blending their situation and / or observations with another character’s is often the answer to a big problem where it comes to keeping the story tight. It can take a draft or two before I understand who has to go. This can be painful – the coach loves all his guys.
Morgen: But maybe they could go into other stories – just be put on the sidelines for a season. 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
John: I try the odd essay, but I am never pushed in that direction by the same level of energy that wants to write a fiction. I have some short stories that I keep working on. I send them out, they come back, I work on them again. That also applies to a couple of novels… There is an up-side to having these rejected projects. They’re more or less fully formed, and they’re there to work on when I don’t have the energy or courage to start something completely new. When I get back into them, I begin to love them again. It makes me believe their time will come.
Morgen: Being a fan of short stories I’ll keep my fingers crossed for those. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
John: Lots of editing. I will never be a genius who can write the perfect sentence, let alone paragraph, first time through.
Morgen: Does anyone? 🙂 Do you have to do much research?
John: I do what’s required to give validity to a character or a scene. Sometimes you have to create a credible expert character within the story to explain things. Other times, all you need is a sentence or two. Invariably, you throw away far more research than the reader will ultimately read.
Morgen: That’s exactly how it should be; too little and it’ll feel as if you haven’t tried (or couldn’t be bothered), too much and it’s showing off. 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
John: I like third person. The first section of my first novel is in the first person; that helped me give voice to the character of Aliette Nouvelle and get her going… But in general, I find that the writing can be just as artful using the third person to convey interiority of a character. I can’t think how you would write an entire book from second person vantage. I see second person as a helper – a device to get closer to the “voice” of a character, usually when he or she is musing or otherwise in a more interior philosophical mode. Whether I’m writing in first or third person, I shift to second person as a way of adding universality and (paradoxically) intimacy to the thoughts or sentiment emanating from a character at a given moment. In other words, ‘you’ can help to better express something ‘we all’ feel – and thus help the reader connect deeper to the character. ‘You’ is a good way to add meditative pith to the beginning of a chapter or section, for a sentence or paragraph, before shifting back into the active ‘he’ or ‘I’.
Morgen: Yay, an author who’s used second person. 🙂 You mentioned going back to other pieces, do you have any that you think will never see light of day?
John: Yes. (I hope to be delighted by them when I look at them when I’m old and almost gone.)
Morgen: “almost gone” I love that (or is that me being morbid?). What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
John: What I like most is the sense of creating something that is complete. And I cherish the freedom. My least favourite thing is supposedly smart literary people who presume without really delving – it is always so obvious they’ve been lazy readers. I’m surprised by instances of inspiration that seem to come in by the back door – unexpected, not part of the plan, but it works! Pure artistic luck that sometimes moves things along.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
John: Try to enjoy it for itself.
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)?
John: I’m not sure who those three who be, but I am certain they would be characters from books, not the real world. I would serve pasta.
Morgen: That does sound like fun. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
John: My business writing. Apart from earning a modest living doing this writing, it’s often a welcome break from the stress of trying to ‘find’ a story.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
John: I play hockey at Jarry Park, ten minutes from my house, on ice skates in winter, on roller blades in summer. I’m sixty and I love it, but I know I am getting close to my body’s limit. I also enjoy golf when I visit my parents in Ontario. And riding my bike through the valleys of the St. Chinian wine district in the Midi region of France when we visit Annie’s family. I do my tai-chi, jog and otherwise try to stay fit – I believe it helps when you’re sitting in front of that empty page / screen. Our life in this part of Montreal is such that can we walk almost everywhere we need to go. Or ride our bikes. I read. I listen to music.
Morgen: I find having a dog is a great way of getting away – have a rainy day (he’s a wuss) and I’ll be here for hours (not good). Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
John: I have been participating in some LinkedIn ‘writers and books’ forums. I am pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy it some days. How valuable? My presence here on this blog attests to the fact that a writer can build his profile. Taking a practical measure is probably impossible – but value is also a feeling.
Morgen: So many of my interviewees have come here because of LinkedIn – it’s a wonderful tool and I am of course very grateful that it sent you here. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
John: I think electronic book selling, self-publishing tools and social media will bring a new level of excitement and possibility to a writer’s life. I think the present is showing us a future with more and more writers offering attractive, self-produced books. Their ranks will far outnumber the writers who come to the public via the traditional publisher. But the percentage of self-published writers who will ‘make a living’ from their writing will be far less than the already small percentage of traditionally published writers who do. But that will not stop people from trying their hand – and I say good. Writing is the best way to learn. Writing does not make noise.
Morgen: And in my opinion, there’s nothing like the creation itself – I often sit at my desk and clap to the screen. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Brilliant, thank you, John.
I then invited John to include an extract of his writing and this is from the prologue to Stifling Folds of Love:
They were keeping a close eye on Inspector Nouvelle that spring. The way she’d been smiling lately. Had she finally found someone? Everyone in the third-floor Police Judiciaire detachment at rue des Bons Enfants was attentive to the investigator’s every move. PJ Commissaire Claude Néon nodded knowingly. Monique Sparr, Claude’s secretary, was positive she saw something. Which meant that everyone was catching snippets of surmising as they filtered down to Commissaire Duque’s busy City Police station occupying the second and first. Cops of all description beamed their curiosity when they encountered the inspector on the stairs. Pathologist Raphaele Petrucci observed her carefully whenever she came down to his basement morgue to view a body. Forensics specialists Charles Léger and Jean-Marc Pouliot of Identité Judiciaire were both sure they’d spotted traces of a blooming passion.
For her part, Aliette had to wonder, Does it really show when you’re in love? Because in fact she was. Or hoped so. Still early days, one moves cautiously. There’d been no talk of anyone moving in. My place? Your place? It depended on the night. But it had been a beautiful change in her life since New Year’s Eve and it was still going strong in April when the problem of Pearl Serein arose. A gentle, unseasonably warm spring was a perfect time for love and the inspector was enjoying it. She just didn’t broadcast it. It was private. Love had not affected her professional abilities—as her results showed clearly. Au contraire, she told herself, being in love helped her do her work. They could speculate till they dropped. Aliette Nouvelle stayed mum and carried on.
John Brooke lives in Montreal. He is the creator of the Inspector Aliette Nouvelle stories, a series of literary mysteries set in France. The most recent (2011) is Stifling Folds of Love.
Update November 2012: My new Aliette book went to the printer this week. It should be out in about 2 or 3 weeks. I hope the e-version will be available within the same time frame. And a re-do of my website to include the new book.
Update December 2012: The Unknown Masterpiece is now published. This is the fourth in the Inspector Aliette Nouvelle series… Murder, art fraud and difficult Swiss counterparts as Aliette goes back and forth across the border trying to determine the who and why of a slain Basel art gallery security guard found at a gay gathering spot on the French banks of the Rhine. Her own confused and breaking heart is a heavy distraction…
You can find out more here: http://www.aliette.ca and here: http://www.signature-editions.com/index.php/books/single_title/the_unknown_masterpiece.
Thank you for the support – and especially to Morgen. The best to all writers and readers in 2013!
You’re very welcome, John. Great to have you here, and thank you for the updates. 🙂
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.
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