Welcome to the two hundred and thirty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with fantasy, magic realism and satire author Malcolm R, Campbell. 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, Malcolm. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Malcolm: Hello, Morgen. Now this is a rather broad, open-ended question that, if not carefully handled, might tempt me to write a short memoir here. I’ll resist that temptation—for now.
Morgen: Don’t worry, I can talk for England so it’s about time I met my match. 🙂
Malcolm: My father was a university professor, teaching journalism for many years while writing a number of textbooks and hundreds of articles about newspapers, reporting, writing styles and press freedom. That influence, plus the many shelves of books in the house, led me to decide that writing was a career I could not escape. I have tried to escape (can I say that here?)…
Morgen: of course 🙂
Malcolm: …but something, some paranormal force or being, keeps catching me and sitting me down in front of a blank screen or an empty sheet of paper.
Morgen: How horrible but we’re baring up, aren’t we? 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Malcolm: Two of my books are contemporary fantasy, one is magical realism, and one is satire. I’ve considered writing more nonfiction and—don’t tell my publisher this—doing mysteries that play mind-games with the readers about who might be guilty and where all the bodies are buried.
Morgen: Your secret is safe with me. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Malcolm: Most of my writing career was focused on computer documentation and related training materials and press releases, so I came into the world of fiction relatively recently, beginning with the publication of “The Sun Singer”, a contemporary fantasy, in 2004. My latest novel, “Sarabande”, also a contemporary fantasy, was released by Vanilla Heart Publishing in August. While it’s the sequel to “The Sun Singer”, it can also be read as a standalone novel. “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” is magical realism and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” is a comedy / satire. Seeing a book on a store shelf is a wonderful experience for an author; the first time I saw “The Sun Singer” in a store, I kept staring at it like it was a mirage.
Morgen: 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Malcolm: A recent essay in the “Los Angeles Review” suggested the idea that creating “literary space” might be more appealing to some writers than the idea of “Building a Platform” or “Creating a Brand”. I see literary space as an extension of my novels, while the platform and brand focus appears separate. When I worked as a corporate communications director for a computer software company, we focused on the features and benefits of the programs we sold. Our approach was that our product filled a prospective buyer’s utilitarian needs by automating what s/he hadn’t been able to computerize before and / or by doing tasks with greater speed and accuracy at a reduced cost. Now, bluntly put, one might say that a prospective reader looks at a book in a bookstore or at an online retailer and thinks (one way or another) “what’s in it for me?” While the book’s cost is a factor, the larger factor is the prospective reader’s investment in time—the number of hours or days it will take to read that book as opposed to reading another book or going to a movie or spending an evening at the bowling alley.
My novels and the characters in them are, in many ways, extensions of me in that they include myths and magic, a respect for the land, a forward-looking hope that all of us are capable of great things, and that sometimes a wild sense of humour is a good ally. It’s easy, then, for me to write posts, tweets, Facebook status updates from the point of view that I am creating literary space rather than selling a product. If I hadn’t written the novels, I would still be posting, tweeting and writing about conservation or about specific environmental issues in the Rocky Mountains where my books are set. I would still be commenting on blogs that focus on writing techniques, mythology and shamanism. So, just being myself indirectly creates this literary space because being myself tells people about the books. Writers who like the “platform” and “brand” concepts might say, “well, that’s what I’m going, too”. They’re probably right; I simply have a higher comfort level not thinking of my books as products with features and benefits.
Morgen: The quickest way to get de-followed on Twitter is for an author to do little else but tout their wares and making it less sales pitchy and more interactive is definitely the way to go. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Malcolm: The first edition of “The Sun Singer” was a named finalist in the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. First of all, it’s an honour winning a contest, receiving an award or being a finalist or one of those on the shortlist. Such honours can translate into book sales or an increased level of interest by editors, publishers and the media as well.
Morgen: Absolutely, it’s a nod from your peers and something for the CV. Do you ever use a pseudonym?
Malcolm: My novels are written under my own name. However, in 2006, I self-published a book called “Worst of Jock Stewart” written under the pseudonym of Jock Stewart. The book was a collection of posts from my blog Morning Satirical News. That blog features satirical “news stories” about real and imagined events written by my alter-ego persona Jock Stewart. Later, I used this same character in my novel “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.” I describe Stewart as an anti-establishment, film-noir-style reporter. Since my blog comments and Facebook updates often sound like my Stewart character’s pun-filled sarcasm, people keep asking me if I really am Jock Stewart. Naturally, I give them a firm maybe, often citing randomly informed sources in my answer.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Malcolm: My books are available on Nook, Kindle and in multiple formats at Smashwords. Like the Borg in the “Star Trek” films, e-books are taking over the universe with a “resistance is futile” campaign aimed at removing paper books, libraries and bookstores from our consciousness. I do have Kindle for PC because it allows me to look at books I’m using for reference very quickly and cheaply. Otherwise, no, I don’t read e-books because I stare at a screen all day and don’t want to see another screen while reading the latest novel. Since my publisher took care of all the formatting and uploading, my experience of the e-book process was limited to saying, “wow, there it is in the Kindle store.”
Morgen: A high proportion of people I’ve spoken to still prefer paper books but like you are embracing (to whatever level) eBooks but think they’ll run alongside each other, as I do. Who designed your books’ covers?
Malcolm: My book covers are designed by Kimberlee Williams, my publisher at Vanilla Heart. She’s quite adept at finding the appropriate of type fonts and images to convey what my stories are about.
Morgen: What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Malcolm: My first acceptance came from the former Sunday magazine of the Atlanta Journal & Constitution (AJC) in Georgia when they published a profile I wrote about my grandfather. My wife answered the phone and then turned to me, saying “It’s the AJC. They need to know your social security number because they’re publishing your piece about kite flying with your grandfather.” While I use my SSN so often, I have it memorized, I recall having a little trouble conveying that information to my wife. On the day the paper came out, we rushed out at midnight and bought a copy even though we had a subscription and would find the paper on our doorstep five or six hours later. Looking at the profile piece was another one of those this-has-got-to-be-a-mirage experiences. And yes, being accepted is still a thrill.
Morgen: 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Malcolm: I’m contemplating (that’s a writer’s word for not yet doing anything substantial) another book with many of the same characters from “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande”. They’re so many stories I could tell about my look-alike world hidden in the mountains of Montana, that I’m having a little difficulty narrowing down my focus.
Morgen: Do you have to narrow it down? 🙂 I love bringing back characters, especially where they were more of an incidental character before. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Malcolm: My friend Smoky Zeidel describes so-called writer’s block as a necessary fallow period in an author’s cycle of active projects. I see that as similar to the cycle of life that begins with a seed “waiting” deep in the soil until the time is right for it to put up its first shoots and leaves. One can only write what is within himself or herself. Sure, writer’s block can be an avoidance-of-work habit, but, like Smoky, I see it as a time for reading, getting out in nature, and more or less recharging my heart and soul so that when it’s time to start a new project, I’ll be ready for it.
Morgen: Variety can do wonders. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Malcolm: I think one’s inspiration arises out of his or her passion for certain subjects, locations and types of characters. Writers are said to ask “what if” about a lot of things. That’s true. When you’re passionate about a place, you’re likely to think of all kinds of things that might happen there. My passions are the northern Rocky Mountains, nature, myths and legends, and transcendent themes. So, I put these loves together into contemporary fantasy set in a mountain environment. Now, I have a large cast of characters and numerous potential real and imaginary settings I can draw upon for prospective novels. In a way, I’m mixing what I know and love with a dash of imagination and a bushel of “what if” questions and turning it into fiction.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Malcolm: When I have an idea for a novel, I start writing with only a rough idea in my head about the plot. Of course, I’ll delay getting started by doing research for a couple of weeks first. But once I start, the words come out of nowhere. Recently, I was asked what made me think of using a coyote as a character in “Sarabande”. I had to confess that I didn’t think about it. Coyote just showed up and pretty soon she was interacting with my protagonist and becoming an important magical character in the story. I don’t have a clue how the process works and so I just tell people my muse is dictating the work. Of course, that might actually be true.
Morgen: I love it when the characters take over. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating yours, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Malcolm: I “see” the characters in my fiction in the same way people “see” friends, family and co-workers in their memory when they’re thinking about them or telling stories about them to other people. Since I “see” these characters, I avoid making lists of traits, physical features, hopes and dreams, and other such details on sheets of paper. Doing that feels like wearing a straightjacket to me, though I know many find it helpful. Since the same characters are in multiple books, I do keep lists of timelines that include when the characters were born, got married, went on trips, etc. just to make sure that I never have anyone getting married in one book when another book says that in that year they hadn’t been born yet. I try to make all of the characters, including the minor ones, three dimensional. I do this by finding the things that characterize them the most and using those as themes. In “The Sun Singer”, for example, a minor character named Tor is always being stymied by the big words other people use, so he’s typically going to misunderstand something or inform others the latest new word he’s learned. This adds humour and, over time, gives readers a three-dimensional character without the need for wordy backstories and descriptions.
Morgen: One of the tasks I set my writing workshops are filling in character sheets with a dozen or so attributes from quirks to regular sayings, siblings etc and it’s wonderful what comes out. How much research do you have to do for your writing?
Malcolm: I like blending magic and reality. When you have both, they play off well against each other. Since my books are set in real locations, I try to be very careful about such things as temperatures, growing seasons, the times when flowers appear, the typical weather, distances between places, and other details. Glacier National Park in Montana, where my books are set, is over 1,800 miles (as the crow flies) from central Georgia where I live. Getting there is costly and time consuming. So, I rely heavily on mountain-related web sites and books to make sure the real world behind my magic is accurate.
Morgen: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Malcolm: I have read that author Pat Conroy (“The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides”) writes the first drafts of his novels with a pen on yellow legal pads. My hand feels tired just thinking about this. I started out writing on a typewriter, but was more than happy to switch over to a computer. The computer lends itself to my no-outline, seat-of-the-pants method of writing because it’s so easy to move scenes around, go back and add material, and make other adjustments that are really tedious in longhand or with a typed manuscript.
Morgen: So many interviewees have complained about the legibility of their handwriting. Mine’s not bad but every Monday night workshop I realise (and sometimes get frustrated by) how slow it is, so definitely a computer for me. 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?
Malcolm: While I usually like quiet, I wrote two of my novels while using music that fit the stories and that helped “channel” the information from my “muse” into the manuscript. While writing “The Sun Singer”, I listened exclusively to the new age instrumentals from Deuter’s “Nirvana Road” album; while writing “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey”, I listened to the native flute music from Mary Youngblood’s “Beneath the Raven Moon”. The music became an important part of the writing process for those novels because, in hearing it, I immediately fell into what felt like a near trance and could see in my mind what was happening in the story.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Malcolm: I write in third person restricted because I like to see an entire book as coming from the thinking of the protagonist. I made an exception to this in “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” where I not only had sections of omniscient narrator and second person, but had the characters talking about what point of view was best to be using at the moment. I’ve also experimented with some short stories written in the second person, basically implying that they were about whoever happened to be reading them. So far, magazines are not deluging me with offers to publish those stories.
Morgen: Snap. I think second person is incredibly difficult to place, although I was encouraged to see a competition second person runner-up and feedback on my second person eBook has been wonderful. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Malcolm: My favourite part of the writing life is that moment of writing when I’m so connected to my characters and story that I feel like I’m watching it happen rather than making it up. My least favourite is trying to figure out how to answer the question “what are your books about?”
Morgen: Hopefully the former will solve the latter. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Malcolm: Read every day. Find fiction that inspires you with its stories, characters and writing techniques. Find nonfiction that helps build up your store of knowledge about the locations, clothing, buildings, and career fields you are planning to use in your stories. I have a shelf of books about myths and legends and another shelf of books about Glacier National Park. Other writers collect books about police work or the legal system or about exotic locations.
Morgen: Or books about writing in my case. 🙂 What do you like to read?
Malcolm: I read a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction and, depending on my mood, you might find me with Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium Trilogy” one week and with Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” a few weeks later. I enjoyed both authors’ work though they’re very different. In each case, the stories and characters were compelling and drew me into the world that began with the author’s imagination and that took shape so well on the printed page that the words and my imagination pulled me into the story. It’s difficult to list favourite authors, so I’ll just say the books that have made strong impressions on me include: “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy, “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, “Memories of Rain” by Sunetra Gupta, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell, and “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Malcolm: Two quotes have always haunted me. The first comes from one of my favourite authors, Virginia Woolf: “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” The second comes from mythologist Joseph Campbell, a man whose work has had a great influence on my writing: “If you want the whole thing, the gods will give it to you. But you must be ready for it.”
Morgen: 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Malcolm: These days, Facebook, GoodReads, LinkedIn and Twitter have been valuable because they’re a way to meet and get to know other writers, and also because they are rich with links to interesting and helpful blogs, writers’ discussion groups, publishing news and reviews. Backspace, Funds for Writers, Query Shark and Smoky Talks are also very helpful.
Morgen: Ooh, I like the sound of those. Where are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Malcolm: I live about sixty miles northeast of Atlanta, Georgia in the United States. This gives me the benefits of a small town and a large metro area.
Morgen: How valuable do you find networking sites?
Malcolm: Over the years, I’ve met a lot of friendly and helpful writers on the long-time CompuServe Books and Writers forum. If you want to participate, you’ll need to get a free AOL screen name.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Malcolm: I think the world will always need storytellers even though the ways their works are read and/or viewed will constantly be changing. When I was in a college, it was a typewriter, magazine and printed books world. Today we have cell phone and Twitter novels and e-books. Right now, the Internet is providing writers with a lot of new ways of getting their stories seen and heard. At present, the danger comes not only from book and video piracy but from the fact people are coming to believe that material on the Internet is free or ought to be free. Writers can’t pay the rent that way, so figuring out just how to be compensated for one’s work is a bit of a challenge.
Morgen: Is there a question you’d like to ask me? 🙂
Malcolm: How in the world do you keep up with such a busy weblog?
Morgen: Not enough sleep and good secretarial skills I guess. 🙂 I’ve recently discovered the scheduling option so I don’t have to be at my computer 7am / 7pm when the posts are supposed to go up… although I’m usually up / here anyway because I have just as scant a social life. I also do it all because I enjoy it. 🙂 Thank you Malcolm.
I then invited Malcolm to include an extract of his writing and, in his words: “Here’s a short excerpt from ‘Sarabande’ in which my protagonist is floating down a river. ‘Mni Sose’ is the Lakota name for the Missouri River.”
She lost count of the men and their appetites long before she was discharged from the lake through a large pipe, and then it was the river again, cold and fresh in the company of trout until the water turned muddy. Soon, she heard a new voice and knew she had found the Mni Sose, happy here beneath the sandstone cliffs and the cottonwoods.
Men, some with women, paddled canoes and floated in odd-looking craft during the daylight hours. They talked about the wind, the scenery, and the rattlesnakes. When the moon rose at night, coyotes howled throughout the river’s wide, deep-walled valley. She loved the voices of coyotes and feared the voices of men. With her broken leg, bruised face and arms, and much of her stuffing pulled out, she was easy prey to the two-legged predators along the river.
Sarabande wedged herself between two branches of a floating cottonwood deadfall as the Mni Sose approached a bridge at the western edge of a reservoir. The relative calm she had experienced while passing the high canyons and breaks topped by Ponderosa Pine slipped away as the water eddied into twisted shapes beneath the cloud draped moon. She felt watched. The tree caught briefly on the bridge pier closest to the center of the river. Then she saw the silhouette of Danny Jenks’s truck. The velvet drapery of spider webs between the piers transformed into a trot line.
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