Welcome to the three hundred and ninety-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with suspense / mystery thriller author Gabriel Valjan. 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, Gabriel. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Gabriel: Unlike most writers I’ve read or heard interviewed, I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. As a child I read voraciously, so I was quite awed, quite intimidated by the great talents on the bookshelves at my local library. When I did start writing, I wrote only poetry and then one day someone asked me if I’d ever considered writing a novel. I came up with a litany of excuses: dialogue is difficult, multidimensional characters are challenging and so on and so forth. I sat down one day and found that all my excuses were true, but I was hooked. I had finished writing that novel, surprised that I had been able to do it. I had had the stamina to sustain a story across 300+ pages – but I have to say that I think decades of reading had helped me. I had known where to look for inspiration. Reading shaped my writing because through it I had developed a vast repository of linguistic and literary knowledge. Oh…I’m from Boston in the United States, and I’m an RN, a registered nurse by profession.
Morgen: I’d say half of my interviewees have said they’ve always wanted to write, the rest (like me) came to it when they were ‘grown-up’s. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Gabriel: I write novels that are suspense thrillers with a dash of mystery. I try not to think about genres too much because I think a good story is a good story. I don’t preclude other genres for myself, but I haven’t felt a compelling need to write a horror story, for instance. My short stories explore a variety of genres, from magic realism, children’s literature, and slice of life stories in different time periods and cultures. In my short fiction, the theme that is most prevalent is redemption — of people finding constructive ways to deal with pain and hardship. Another thread is regret. Short fiction is excellent exercise in challenging a writer to develop technique. I spent one year writing a short story each week. Were they all good? No. I’ve had about ten short stories published.
Morgen: I’m the same. I say I write dark and light but really I write everywhere in between. Short stories are my favourite format although I think I came up with an idea for a novel at yesterday’s Towcester Literature Festival when I had to write a short story on an index card (I wrote two… on two cards). 🙂 What have you had published to-date?
Gabriel: Several of my short stories have been published in print and online. I provide a list of my publications on my Facebook wall and Linkedin page. Readers can find some of my stories online with a Google search. In terms of novels, Winter Goose Publishing published Roma, Underground in February 2012 and will publish the sequel, Wasp’s Nest in November 2012. They are aware that I have written a third novel in the series.
Morgen: Reader love series – it’s all too easy to fall in love with a character and never see them again. I love bringing incidental characters back and giving them a meatier role. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Gabriel: Numerous — too many to count, but here is the peculiar thing about rejections: often they are based on subjective assessment or fate. Let me give you two examples. My second publication “Back in the Day,” is a hard-boiled piece set in Boston. Several editors rejected it. When a journal finally accepted it, management at the journal had changed, rescinding all the acceptances. I was out of luck. The editor was apologetic when he had informed me. I entered “Back in the Day” into the Fish Short Story Contest and Ronan Bennett shortlisted the story for the Fish Prize. The lesson there is to move beyond the rejection. Another quick example: I wrote a flash-fiction piece, which I normally don’t do. Rejected numerous times and then accepted by online journal that folded. More rejections ensued and I submit it to ZOUCH and it wins first prize. If an editor gives you constructive criticism then listen and make a decision about revision. Otherwise, I recommend developing thick skin, not taking it personal, and researching where to submit your stories. Duotrope Digest is but one excellent online resource for where to shop your stories. Previewing the writing in the journal for the types of stories they accept will help you decide if your writing matches their editorial sensibility. You write for an audience so shop for that audience. Submitting short stories is a function of marketing research.
Morgen: I get the Duotrope digest, it’s brilliant. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Gabriel: Fish in 2010 for “Back in the Day.” “Dead of Night,” a 110-word one-sentence story, won me ZOUCH’s inaugural Lit Bit Contest.
Morgen: 110-word one-sentence story… wow, that sounds like a challenge (that would be fun to do for my 5pm Fiction one day). 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Gabriel: No, I don’t. As to whether an agent is ‘vital’ to an author’s success, I really don’t know. The consensus is that an agent helps an author by leveraging their social network. The impression that I get is that you are perceived as more successful if you do have an agent, but there are writers who have gotten published without one. I do know that the publishing industry is undergoing many changes. I have tried to get an agent and I get the canned rejections, the rejections with terrible spelling and poor grammar, a rare nasty piece of condescension, and some very courteous, and encouraging ones that in effect said, ‘We can’t take a chance because of the economy. We’re sticking with established authors only.’ The stories I like are when the underdog wins, with or without an agent.
Morgen: Me too. The British are famous for it, I think we are often the underdog ourselves. 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?
Gabriel: Winter Goose Publishing has made Roma, Underground available in print and e-format through Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the US and Foyles Bookshop in the UK. The sequel, Wasp’s Nest, will be no different. In fact, WGP does print and e-format with all the WGP authors. As for ‘process’, I was involved with the editing, galley-proofing, and had a say in the design art.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Gabriel: I do all of it. WGP – not unlike many presses these days – does not have the budget or resources as larger publishers or retailers do. The onus of promotion falls on the author. It is a daunting hurdle race. You cleared Hurdle 1: a publisher accepted you. Loud applause is heard. A pat on the back is given. Hurdles 2,3, and 4 are the tests of patience: editing and the back-and-forth to create the best presentation. Hurdle 5 is promotion, keeping your child alive in the world. I write a blog, gabriel’s wharf, maintain a Facebook wall, Tweet to build a community and support other authors — and WGP authors are a supportive bunch – and I have sought reviews from other bloggers, reading groups, and other authors. You try your best; the rest you don’t know, but I like the challenge.
Morgen: 🙂 I’ve only had one author say their publisher (a Top 6, I think) does their marketing but the author is still active on Facebook and Twitter which are two of the major tools these days. 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?
Gabriel: Excellent question. I have written two series, but have seen only one accepted for publication. Winter Goose is publishing The Roma Series, which is about an American forensic accountant in hiding from her employer. In this series, I enjoyed creating Isidore Farrugia, an Italian detective who is Calabrian and Spanish. I’d love to see Idris Elba play him because Mr. Elba has a manner about him that I think captures Farrugia’s intensity and rage. In the second series, The Good Man, the series starts out in 1948 Vienna and continues in the United States, where the early days of the intelligence community, the tension between the CIA and the FBI, are played out against the backdrop of McCarthyism in Hollywood and in New York. I created a British spy, Leslie, who pushes the boundaries of options available to women. She is intelligent, as well as an emotional enigma. Kate Winslet would be my choice for Leslie’s character.
Morgen: Both brilliant actors (actress in Kate’s case). Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Gabriel: Absolutely. After Winter Goose accepted Roma, I was asked what my ideas were for the cover. I told them it had to be subterranean, possibly a catacomb. Their graphic design artist surpassed my expectations. In fact, the original cover had all the letters in white, but when Jordan Adams had finished reading the novel she emailed me and said, ‘We have to make the ‘R’ in ‘Roma’ red.’ I read the suggestion and I said to myself: “Of course it has to be and it was so obvious as to why.’ You have to read the novel to understand Jordan’s reasoning. WGP cared about the artwork. I do think a handsome book makes a difference. It sounds superficial, but I can tell you that I’ve seen books on the shelf, had no idea what they were about and who the author was, but I purchased the book. This was how I discovered Europa Editions.
Morgen: That’s the great thing about the smaller presses, there’s bound to be more contact with their authors, and more give and take. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Gabriel: I’m writing the third Good Man novel at the moment. I’m about half-done. In my non-working moments I’m revisiting my poetry. I should mention that Winter Goose has a strong commitment to poetry. Although I’ve had a series of poems published by kill author, I’ve been reticent about submitting my poems. I have at least two volumes of poetry. I may think about submitting my poetry…one day.
Morgen: Or you could self-publish as eBooks. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Gabriel: I do write daily. I revise during the week and devote long blocks of time to writing on weekends. I detailed my process in Áine Greaney’s book Writers With A Day Job. No, I have not suffered writer’s block. That is not to say, however, that I haven’t had my days of misery with what I wrote. But no, I’ve never been terrorized by a blank screen. Something always comes.
Morgen: Me too (phew). I only have to think of a word and something comes. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Gabriel: I don’t plot or storyboard. The way my imagination works is that I have to visualize the very first scene of the novel. In that sense I think as a reader: ‘Will this hook me into reading and wanting more?’ and ‘Where will it go from here?’ I do make notes while I write so that I don’t forget important concerns or matters.
Morgen: It’s the way many authors go and I’m the same with my novels. I plotted more for my first one but thereafter did less and every time it went off-piste, which is what I love about writing fiction. You mentioned some of your characters earlier, do you have a method for creating them, and what do you think makes them believable?
Gabriel: I don’t have an explicit method. I might think of a personality type or a quality I admire in someone and then I’ll start thinking about a flaw in that same character in order to make that character three-dimensional. I observe body language all the time. I listen to how people talk and watch old movies, because the older films, unlike movies today, are dialogue-intensive. Contemporary movies are by and large visual and action-oriented. Respect your reader: show them how your characters act in situations and let them decide whether they like the character or not. Readers will forgive plot if a writer gives them a character that they admire and care about.
Morgen: Absolutely. You mentioned poetry and short stories, do you write any non-fiction?
Gabriel: No non-fiction.
Morgen: Me neither. Well, that’s not strictly true – I write articles about writing. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Gabriel: This is a tricky question and I don’t know if the nuance is intentional. Writing and editing are two different processes. They are not the same thing. Few writers make good editors of their own work or I should say that they don’t edit their own work objectively. I’ve also noticed that when writers edit another writer they’ll edit the writing as how they would’ve written the piece. The nuance I hear in ‘as time goes on’ is if I edit less because the writing has gotten better. You always have to edit. Nobody writes a perfect piece. It can be close but there is always one little thing that could be better, but there is a point where you have to let it go. ‘As time goes by’ in your question could also mean ‘you found your voice.’ Others who read and edit your work will recognize your voice before you do. When someone says to you: ‘I read this piece that you never showed me and I knew it was you.’ That is voice and it is different than ‘style.’
Morgen: I always say a writer has to have a second opinion. Regardless of how long we leave a piece, we’re still too close to it. Writing groups are brilliant although first readers and editors are best for longer pieces of work (I have both). Do you have to do much research?
Gabriel: Yes. It’s absolutely necessary for authenticity. I’ve researched cars, food, and foreign language. Roma deals with Italian culture and language. Research was essential for the authenticity. The Good Man series is immersed in American culture, but of a different time period, so I had to know the music of the time, clothes, and other subjects. I’ll give one quick example of a mistake that would have diminished my authenticity. I was writing dialogue in The Good Man and I had typed Ms instead of Miss. I had done it without thinking. I had reread it and still hadn’t caught it. It was anachronistic for 1948. Silly mistake but a major blunder, but an editor saved me from the thumbscrews that I would’ve deserved.
Morgen: Readers know everything about everything, there’ll always be someone who points out mistakes. I know it’s happened to Alexander McCall Smith (the reader was right) and Simon Scarrow (Simon was right). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Gabriel: First-person narrative is to me very gutsy. I’m not ready for it. It is also the most accessible, most visceral, but also the most limited in terms of knowledge. I use third-person. I’ve never tried second person because I don’t feel comfortable with the lack of distance between the reader and me. Second-person makes me feel like I’m indicting my reader, although reading is a complicit act between author and reader.
Morgen: I love it but really it only works for shorter pieces so you’re wise not to use it for your novels. Third person is the most popular (or so agents have told me). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Gabriel: Yes. I know a lot of writers who push to publish everything they write. I think this is a huge mistake. You have to be honest with yourself and say that the story didn’t work and if it has resonance with you then try to figure out why it didn’t work after you get more experience.
Morgen: I wouldn’t put out something I’m not happy with but then I’ve been writing for seven years and I have written over the golden 1,000,000 words so I like to think I (sort of) know what I’m doing now (although we all still learn). What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Gabriel: I like writing and feel weak with editing. By ‘editing’ I mean proofreading and line editing, two separate processes. My friend Dean Hunt has proofed everything I have written and that has been a blessing. I’ve hired out Dave King to line-edit finished manuscripts. Dave I work through a manuscript in fifty page batches, after he has read the entire novel first and given me a strengths and weaknesses diagnostic. It is not that I don’t take to criticism well, but I have to have others read my work; it is just that when it comes to proofreading I don’t see the skipped word or certain mistakes because I have been over the sentence so often that I literally complete the sentence in my head before I get to the end stop. What has surprised me is that line editing does look different to me and I can see the improvements more readily. I think that is because in line editing the editor knows authentic speech and has a keen sense of flow after they read and met the characters and know the story. Line-editors will read the entire novel and think of all the necessary elements symphonically.
Morgen: Because I write far more short stories than novels I must admit that it’s the threading of the novels that I find the hardest. I hope to write a series of books which can (and I think should) have loose threads at the end but each should be stand-alones so that’ll be fun. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Gabriel: I cringe at giving advice. Who am I? My observation with writers is this: most lack the discipline to write because they think they are geniuses out of the box. I’m sorry — it doesn’t work that way. It certainly didn’t happen with Shakespeare. I’ve met many writers who think that they are instantly publishable. Great writers have been great readers. The converse is often not true. My advice is: Read, read, and read some more. You need to read writers who are good even if you dislike their subject matter and to analyze why their writing ‘works.’ Hemingway is an excellent example of this. I couldn’t care less about fishing and hunting or impotence, but you have to look at the marvellous way he uses his language. Compare his minimalism to Fitzgerald’s romanticism. A better example is Faulkner, who is a far more versatile writer than he is given credit for. He calibrates his writing to the story. Compare any of Faulkner’s novels to his last novel, The Reivers. It’s the same author. After all that, my advice is: have discipline. “Hard work will always trump talent that does not work hard.”
Morgen: You are certainly well-read and it is important. However much you love or hate them, Kindles must help by the sheer accessibility of reading material (some better than others, of course). 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)?
Gabriel: I’d invite Arnold Rothstein, the American gangster, Humphrey Bogart, the actor, and Carole Lombard, the actress. The meal would be take-out from Lindy’s Deli and I would make sure that there were extra figs around because AR believed that they were “brain food”. All three were incredibly intelligent individuals and I think the conversations would be memorable.
Morgen: 🙂 Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Gabriel: In theatre, when one wants to wish luck, you say, “Break a leg,” but I like the Italian version and the response: ‘Into the wolf’s mouth.’ In bocca al lupo. The response is not polite: Crepi il lupo! ‘May the wolf croak!’
Morgen: I love that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Gabriel: I maintain a blog, gabriel’s wharf, where I try to comment on writers or literary matters that are often overlooked or ignored.
Morgen: Ah, the underdog. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Gabriel: I enjoy yoga and working out. I find it helpful. As for hobbies, I enjoy classic films, particularly noir. Sorry, no party tricks.
Morgen: That’s OK. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Gabriel: I found Dave King and Rennie Browne’s book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, very helpful. Duotrope’s Digest web site has been helpful in researching places where I can submit stories. There is an absolutely wonderful podcast called Miette’s Bedtime Stories and while that might sound erotic, it isn’t. Miette posts podcasts and reads stories from hundreds of authors (literally) and she has a beautiful voice, a wonderful sense of humor, and makes the word come alive.
Morgen: Oh yes, I’ve come across Miette. She certainly has a distinctive voice. Sort of English but not quite. Interesting to listen to. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Gabriel: I’m on Linkedin, which is a career networking site. The forums and discussion threads related to writing and all aspects of publishing have been very helpful.
Morgen: LinkedIn’s great. Earlier this year I was running low on interviewees so put a shout-out on the dozen or so writing groups I belong to and am now booking into January 2013. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Gabriel: It would appear that the days of mentoring are gone. Publishers have done away with proofreaders and line-editors, so the writers are responsible for putting their best work forward. The matter of self-publishing remains unsettled since there are no gate keepers on quality and by that I mean anyone can publish, which has both good and bad aspects to it. Great talents are sure to surface but there is a lot of flotsam to wade through. With the digital age writers are forming virtual communities to support each other, but it also opens the door for criminal activity, where writers may not be able to protect their work.
Morgen: I do think reviews will steer readers. A writer can only have so many friends. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Gabriel: I am on Amazon and Barnes & Noble with my novel. Winter Goose Publishing has an Author’s Page on me, and you can Google me and find gabriel’s wharf, my blog. I am also on Facebook and Twitter.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Gabriel: Support your local bookstore and indie publishers. If you go to a reading and like someone’s work, tell them. A compliment goes a long way and it is remembered on those days when you question your existence as a writer.
Morgen: Please do. I love receiving emails (email@example.com) about my writing – constructive is good too, it’s now we learn. I’d rather know there was a mistake in something than it put people off or think it’s my level of writing when (hopefully) it isn’t. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Gabriel: Is writing opposite-gender or from a child’s perspective difficult for you?
Morgen: What an interesting question. It’s not, no, but then I tend to write short stories which I think is much easier. The first novel I wrote (for NaNoWriMo 2008), which I’m in the process of eBooking, is a lad lit and I just imagined I was him. One of my first readers is a male friend (who’s known me almost 30 years so tells me like it is!) and he reads pretty much anything. I have children living next door and they’re always delighted to read things, although I write very little for children… I should do more really. Thank you, Gabriel.
I then invited Gabriel to include an extract of his writing and this is from Roma, Underground…
Freedom of the road is an American concept. In Rome, it is bare-knuckle survival that borders on the Darwinian, with a cosmopolitan twist. In terms of pecking order, one need only look at traffic at stand-still or as it zoomed around the roundabout: the Fiats are at the top of the list for the indigenous species. Then there is the occasional Citroën or Peugeot for the fun-to-ridicule French, and the Mercedes or BMWs make their proxy statement for German engineering. The rare-as-a-unicorn Ferrari or Lamborghini will always part the traffic out of respect. But it is the Vespa that is the mercenary of the herd because nothing instills more terror or a thrill for all concerned than a scooter zooming between moving automobiles. The Italian driver respects the Vespa; pedestrians rank with pigeons.
EXCERPT COPYRIGHT © 2012 by Gabriel Valjan, courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing
‘Roma, Underground’ book cover courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing, the photograph by Patric Lentz.
Gabriel Valjan lives in New England but has traveled extensively, receiving his undergraduate education in California and completing graduate school in England. He is also an accomplished triathlete and enjoys yoga. Ronan Bennett short-listed him for the 2010 Fish Short Story Prize. Gabriel’s short stories continue to appear in print and online literary journals. He recently won first prize in ZOUCH Magazine’s inaugural Lit Bit Contest. Roma, Underground is his first novel. Winter Goose Publishing will publish the sequel, Wasp’s Nest, in November 2012.
Update November 2012: My second novel, Wasp’s Nest, the sequel to Roma, Underground, is out 23 November 2012 in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The e-Book version for Kindle and Nook is available 7 December 2012. Wasp’s Nest is now available for pre-order from Barnes & Noble. Readers can find an excerpt of Wasp’s Nest here.
Renegade accountant, hacker in hiding, Albaster is in Boston investigating Nasonia Pharmaceutical while trying to avoid her former employer, Rendition, a covert U.S. agency. As she tries to understand how Cyril Sargent, a rogue entrepreneur, might alter cancer research and treatment with his manipulation of wasp genetics, an assassin is also in Boston…
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