Welcome to the six hundred and twenty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical and crime fiction author Colin Falconer. 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, Colin. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Colin: Hi Morgen with an E! I’m sitting in a beach house in a tiny coastal town about fifty miles north of Perth, Western Australia at the moment. It’s a weekday and there’s absolutely no one around. By contrast I was born in a terraced house in North London, and first came to Australia when I was 20, when a football club brought me out here. I’ve been a full time writer for nearly thirty years. I had no choice – there was just nothing else I wanted to do with my life. Took me a while to get there, but I never regretted it.
Morgen: I felt / feel I had no choice either because I love it so much. I living the pauper lifestyle (sort of) but I’m living the dream (by not having a ‘proper’ job) as are you, by the sound of it. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Colin: I write mainly historical fiction, from BC to twentieth century, though I have written some crime fiction. I used to go where the stories took me, but I don’t think that was a very smart move now. Neither readers or publishers like you jigging around too much, so I try to keep my butterfly mind focused these days.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Colin: Colin Falconer is a pseudonym, yes. I have published about forty books all told, including some autobiographical stuff under other names – one was a huge bestseller in Australia, only Dan Brown kept me off top spot! – as well as some YA that I wrote for my kids. Even won some awards here for it. But I keep that other stuff under wraps these days. I focus on what I’m doing now and plan to do in the future, which is my historical fiction and historical thrillers.
Morgen: Wow. Congratulations. Have you self-published at all?
Colin: I’ve been traditionally published all my life, and I still publish through Corvus-Atlantic in London. But I’ve never been able to break through big time in the US. The Big6 say I’m too far away to promote, even though 85% of my blog followers are from there. It’s stupid. And the advances are way down in the US – 10K is the new 100K. Getting stuck on someone’s midlist is the kiss of death, so in the last year I’ve decided to take more of my destiny back into my own hands. I get very frustrated with traditional publishing. They say they can’t publish more than one book a year but it’s clear that readers will accept as many good books as you can write, and I’ve always been very prolific. I’ve been listening to guys like Bob Mayer, who are the real visionaries in the business now.
Morgen: I know a first time author who’s doing the agent hunt wanting to secure a publisher with a decent advance. As you say, it’s more difficult than ever these days. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Colin: I’m in the process of releasing all my books online. The great thing about historical fiction is that it doesn’t date! Books like HAREM for instance, which was massive in Europe but did not get huge support in the US. I re-edit every book line by line before I re-release it; I like to think I’ve learned some things over the last few years that can make the books even better. I originally put the books online myself, but then decided to go through CoolGus publishing, who could do a much better job than me of formatting and covers. But I’m involved in all stages of the process now, which is something you couldn’t do back in the day. I have had some truly awful, awful covers put on books by print publishers. No idea. Doing it this way I retain some creative control over it. Plus I like eBooks. I actually prefer reading on a Kindle.
Morgen: I read more on my iPad than I do paper books but it’s great having both. So you’ve had mixed experiences of the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Colin: There’s that old saying: people judge a book by its cover, and I believe they do. (I didn’t initially buy WOLF HALL, because the cover was so dull.) I have had some fearsome covers from publishers and sometimes they give you no say at all. ‘We know best.’ Then when the book bombs they blame you. I had 100% input on the print of ANASTASIA and it sold bucketloads. The original cover they showed me was just bad, appalling, slit your wrists bad. I couldn’t believe they were serious. For my eBooks Jen Talty works through every one with me and I’ve been really happy with the results. She’s produced some great covers for me. They are important and they’re not easy to get right and I think some designers are under pressure to just belt out any old thing. I have seen covers in a bookshop that have made me want to weep blood for the poor author.
Morgen: Natasha Yim and I discussed covers yesterday and how much control authors have. The joy of self-publishing is that the author gets full control but you would have hoped that traditional publishers would know what they’re doing. It must be very hard for an author who really dislikes the packaging to sell it. 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?
Colin: I love Ruby Wen in the THE EYE OF THE TIGER. I knew a Ruby Wen once; a real bitch, but you can’t help liking her. For a while, anyway. I loved Michael in ANASTASIA, so worldly and so naive at the same time. William in SILK ROAD. Another thoroughly nasty piece of work but such fun to write about. Cam and Kate in BITTER MOON LANE. They paint themselves into corners because of their pride and I just want to shake them and shout: Don’t do this! But you know they will. If they made SILK ROAD into a movie, I’d want Russell Crowe, Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig as the celibate self-flagellating priest. He has such a perfectly tortured face.
Morgen: Isn’t it great being able to create such diverse characters out of nothing. I love it. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Colin: Can’t tell you, or I’d have to kill you.
Morgen: A crime story then. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Colin: I do write every single day and I love it. Why would you want to be a writer if you don’t have heaps of stuff to write about? Or that’s what I used to think. I’d scoff at people who had writer’s block … until it happened to me. In fact, it was nothing to do with writing. I had some very serious stuff happen to me and I started to come undone. Not for a few weeks, a few years. Kept writing the same things over and over, like The Shining – but without the axe, obviously. Finding my way out of the maze was tricky. Now I love writing more than I ever did but I’ll never sneer at writer’s block again.
Morgen: Many writers say they don’t believe it in, but I’m sure we all get to points in every major project we write where we don’t know where to go next. I write a variety so just switch to something else and come back later. It works. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Colin: For me, story-telling as well as an intuition. Take the word playwright, for instance. It is structured like ‘cartwright’ or ‘shipwright’, the ‘wright’ signifying fashioning something with precise and expert care. I believe a novel is crafted carefully in its structure, to make it work. I’m not a slave to an outline, but I make sure the basic story principles and frameworks are there in place before I start writing. It helps me; more importantly it’s very important for the reader.
Morgen: Ah yes, ‘craft’. Writing really is, just like playing the piano or painting. It takes us years (in my experience) to feel that you know what you’re doing. We’re all still learning… and why we should practice every day. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Colin: Yes, I do have a method for creating characters. I think it’s a pretty good one. But like Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that…
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Colin: I spend much less time editing than I used to. Once it was all about just getting a draft down and reworking from there, These days I feel about that like I feel about putting an egg back together after you’ve made an omelette. I try to spend much more time at the front end now, before I start writing.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Colin: I spend a hell of a lot of time on research. Then I throw 90% of it away. The thing I love about Wolf Hall, for example, is that there’s no exposition at all yet you feel like you’re there – you know that Mantel has done her research meticulously. It’s the John West salmon principle: ‘it’s the fish we reject that make our salmon the best.’ I try and aim for that.
Morgen: I met Hilary back in 2006 at a local library during her ‘Beyond Black’ book tour (there were about 20 of us!) and she was (and I’m sure still is) so sweet. Living in England, I’ve probably heard the John West slogan. It’s a good mantra to live by because if we put too much research in our books it can feel as if we’re showing off. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Colin: Third person is the most accessible. I tried first person in Anastasia and it worked well, but that was giving the first person POV from two characters in alternate chapters. The book did well, and I got good feedback from readers. Second person? Not in popular fiction. I tried it once for a contemporary novel but the publishers made me change it back to third, and I think they were right. I like experiments but readers generally don’t.
Morgen: Sadly publishers will do that. I’ve written a lot of second person but only short stuff. Even though I adore it, it gets tiring to read after a while. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Colin: I have written non-fiction under another name, but not for a while. It was mostly humour stuff. It’s how I paid the bills in the early days. My novel HAREM, for instance, came from an article commissioned by Playboy many years ago.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Colin: I sure do! I thought they were great at the time. Now I’d like to meet the editor who rejected them and take them out to lunch.
Morgen: <laughs> So you’ve had rejections. How do you deal with them?
Colin: SILK ROAD got rejected by every publisher in New York last fall, even though a lot of them really liked it. It got great reviews in the UK. Rejection is a part of life. If you were worry too much about getting rejected, you’ll die never having had a girlfriend or a book published.
Morgen: I like your thinking. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Colin: Funnily enough, I don’t mind rejections but I won’t enter competitions because I sulk if I don’t win. It’s an unattractive side of my personality so I try and discourage it. I’m very competitive. I guess it comes from a lifetime of playing sport. That, or a major personality flaw. I prefer to think it’s the sport thing.
Morgen: I used to enter competitions (and had a mixed bag of results) and particularly liked the themed ones because it got me writing something new which I still had for another purpose if it didn’t get anywhere. How much marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Colin: I am working very hard on this right now and doing as much as I can online. Once, authors had no choice but to sit back and hope the publisher did the right thing. That’s no longer the case. And of course, if you self publish and don’t market yourself, you’re toast. Though I don’t even know that ‘market’ is the right word. I don’t look on marketing as onerous or unwelcome; just incredibly difficult.
Morgen: It’s usually the answer to the ‘least favourite’ part of my next question… What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Colin: The thing I don’t like is that it’s solitary. I’ve been in teams all my life – football, AFL, volleyball and then part of an ambulance team for about 13 years. I really miss that. That’s the big drawback. It’s sedentary and I love anything where I have to think on my feet.
Morgen: After 20 years as a secretary, I love being on my own, although I’m not completely; I have my dog during the day and two housemates in the evenigns. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Colin: I read Dean Koontz when I first started out. He had 6 tips for new writer. 1. Read 2. Read. 3 Read. 4. Write Write 6. Write. I still think it’s great advice. There’s lots of places you can learn the technical aspects; structure, characterisation, pacing but in the end no one can teach you writing, you have to learn it yourself, learn your own method. It takes a lot of practice. Oh, and luck!
Morgen: It does. I like Dean’s advice. He was apparently rejected 500+ times. 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)?
Colin: I’d serve Genghis Khan a Vegan meal, just to see his face. Marie Antoinette – cake. And John Batman, the explorer who founded Melbourne, Victoria here in Australia. Then I could come out of the kitchen and shout ‘Dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner, dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner – Batman!’
Morgen: <laughs> You’re a funny man. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Colin: ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ And ‘Don’t get in a pissing match with a man on a balcony.’ That’s a Bob Mayerism. He cracks me up. I quote him all the time.
Morgen: If we’re passionate enough for writing, we’ll just keep going. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Colin: I blog three times a week. I love it. I love the interaction with people who read my stuff (and often I read theirs too). I like the feedback and the interaction. I love writing every day about things that I find really funny or interesting and I love that I can publish it and get a reaction right away, not in a year’s time.
Morgen: Me too, because I get to speak to people like yourself. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Colin: I cannot possibly show you my party trick. This is a family blog. I play a little guitar these days. Lately, I don’t have much time for much else. I’m very social when I’m not working. And I travel a lot.
Morgen: I’ve always wanted to learn the play the piano… properly. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Morgen: I’m interviewing Bob next Monday and from everything you’ve said, I can’t wait. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Colin: I blog regularly for HISTORY AND WOMEN. PAST TIMES runs some of my posts. I am on Twitter and Triberr, of course. But not so much any of the others. I think you can go overboard on that stuff. You need to strike a balance.
Morgen: You do. I’m on probably far too much but some (like Tumblr) tick over without me because new WordPress posts link there (and Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yahoo) automatically. I love technology. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Colin: I honestly don’t know. I believe we’re going through a revolution right now as profound as the invention of the printing press. I hope I’ll still be here when the dust settles. I plan to be. But I’m still not quite sure what that future looks like.
Morgen: If you want to still be here then you will be. Because every writer is also a reader (at least they should be) and not every reader a writer (although they should, writing’s fantastic!) there are plenty of readers to go around. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Colin: The blog I talked about is the best spot. I write there all the time, updating with posts about history or writing three to four times a week and I also post details about anything I’m doing on there. The website has become a bit static because of that. So LOOKING FOR MR. GOODSTORY is the place. The website is www.colinfalconer.net.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Colin: Just thank you for the interview. I appreciate it.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. Great to have you join me. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Colin: Do you ever get tired of interviewing authors?
Morgen: I thought I would but even though the questions are generally the same (for prose authors anyway), the replies are surprisingly different… I hope so for the readers too. I do get tired of the associated emails (I get 100+ a day) and it’s become a full-time job and then some (so I’m cutting the interviews down from daily to weekend mornings only) but upped the spotlights and guest blogs. Without all the submissions the blog wouldn’t be what it is so I’m very grateful to everyone who’s taken part and is planning to do so. Thank you, Colin.
I then invited Colin to include an extract of his writing and this is from his upcoming novel, STIGMATA: Corvus Atlantic, London.
‘I had a friend in Outremer. He was a southerner, from the Languedoc. A good man. Once I saw him knock some ruffian down for abusing a horse. And twice he saved my life. He was devout in his faith, went regularly to communion and would never do any man harm. But the manner of his death was beyond imagining. He took a wound to the belly in a skirmish and died a week later, still howling. He deserved a sweeter fate. Other men, they wore the cross even while they raped women and took the greatest pleasure in torturing their prisoners, yet they survived our wars in good humor and good health. I confess, I do not understanding the workings of God or the life he has put us in.’
‘Yet we are here, and we must make the best of it.’
Philip laughed. More a bark really, abashed at having spoken so plainly with his own squire. ‘Yes, you are right. We must to our duty. And yet . . .’ He traced the carving of her name on the stone. ‘Sometimes, if you take a single man or woman from the world, it is suddenly empty.’
‘She left you something to remember her by.’
‘This runt of mine took her life from me.’
‘I am sure he did not wish to be without his mother. He is as wronged as you in this grief. And what of your good wife in heaven now, pray God? Would she want you to abandon him?’
Philip sat up reluctantly, and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘How did you come to be so wise when you have only eighteen summers? You are right. Enough now. Show me my son.’
and a synopsis and this is from ANASTASIA, available now from CoolGus Publishing.
‘Some men don’t fall in love, they get lost. I was lost from the moment I saw Anastasia Romanov in the taxi club that first night …’
When Michael Sheridan jumped into the Whangpoa River to save a woman he had met in one of Shanghai’s taxi clubs, his life changed irrevocably. A Russian refugee, Anastasia Romanov bears an uncanny resemblance to the princess of the same name, who was rumoured to have survived the brutal murder of her family at the hands of Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The fate of the last Czar’s youngest daughter has become one of the most talked about mysteries of the time, but Michael’s Anastasia is suffering from traumatic amnesia and remembers nothing of her life before Shanghai. So who is she?
Unraveling the mystery of Anastasia’s identity and past takes them both from the streets of Shanghai to the decadence of pre-war Berlin, from the London of flappers and Charlestons, behind the grim curtain of Bolshevik Russia and finally to New York just before the Wall Street crash.
Born in north London, Colin worked for many years in TV and radio and freelanced for many of Australia’s leading newspapers and magazines. He has been a novelist for the last twenty years, with his work published widely in the UK, US and Europe. His twenty novels have so far been translated into eighteen languages.
He travels regularly to research his novels and his quest for authenticity led him to run with the bulls in Pamplona, pursue tornadoes across Oklahoma and black witches across Mexico, go cage shark diving in South Africa and get tear gassed in a riot in La Paz. He also completed a nine hundred kilometre walk of the camino in Spain.
He lived for many years near Margaret River in WA, helped raise two beautiful daughters with his late wife, Helen. While writing, he also worked for many years in the volunteer ambulance service. “I’d be at my desk typing, then thirty minutes later I’d be crawling into an overturned car.”
He’s also on Wikipedia. 🙂 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Falconer_(writer)
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