E: Hi Simon and welcome. Pull up a chair. I’ve locked Charlie in the closet so you should be safe for the time being. We’ve been working on his impulse control but it’s not going well. Corpses. What can you do?
S: Not a problem. If I’d only known, I’d have brought my shovel.
E: You have your debut novel coming out very soon. What is the name of it and what can you tell us about it?
S: It’s called The Visitors, and it’s equal parts mystery, thriller and coming-of-age. The main character, Flora, is a 17-year-old girl living on a remote Scottish island. She would very much like to leave, but then two weird strangers turn up – and islanders start disappearing. Unravelling the mystery takes Flora to some terrifying places, and leads her to question her entire sense of self. The story is bound in Scottish folklore, too, and rooted in the Scottish islands. It’s about isolation and friendship. It’s a murder mystery about love.
E: What has the process been like for this book? What has been the most frustrating and the most rewarding parts of the journey?
S: It’s been a relatively short journey, I guess – just under three years from conception to publication. Most frustrating have been occasional parts of the editing process. I enjoy editing, but I did three or four huge redrafts of The Visitors, including a partial reworking that damn near finished me. But for all the hard graft, there’s nothing like that feeling when the story accelerates away from me – when I’m no longer in control of my characters, and they’re deciding for themselves what they want to do next. That’s why I write – for that dizzying, exhilarating moment when I’m part of something bigger than myself.
E: You also have a book of flash fiction pieces out. What can you tell us about it?
S: That’s called Marrow. It’s a collection of 28 stories ranging between 13 and 1,000 words. The subjects flit from voodoo to lion tamers, fighter pilots to guinea pigs, and avocados to the end of the world. I love flash fiction. In 2010, I started writing 140-character stories on Twitter. I’ve pretty much stopped now, but I’ve written about 1,500 of them over the years. I moved onto longer flash fiction when 140 characters simply wasn’t enough. I love working in a 300-500 word range – it’s plenty to shape a sense of character, or a glimpse of a world. Telling a good story in that space is a real challenge, but it’s fun, and when I’m so strapped for time, flash fiction gives me the hit I need to stay sharp. I’ve also started reading and performing my work at open mics and spoken word nights more often, and that’s fuelled the need for shorter stories – I prefer reading flash fiction to excerpts from longer works – it’s more satisfying to share something complete, and flash fiction encourages a bit of theatre.
E: You chose to self-publish this one. What are some of the major differences you encountered between self-publishing and having a publisher (either pros or cons)?
S: I self-published Marrow for a few reasons. I didn’t think there was much hunger for flash fiction collections from traditional publishers, for one thing. But as The Visitors was going through the editing process, and I was learning more about how a book is put together, I decided that I wanted to learn some of the skills for myself. So I taught myself enough InDesign to lay out and typeset the collection, then flailed my way through Photoshop to design the cover, and bounced the roughs off my friends for feedback. I liked being in charge of the process and creating everything from the ideas in my head to the finished book in my hands. I’ll probably self-publish the next collection, too. But my experience of traditional publishing has been life-changing, and I wouldn’t change it for all the tea in China. Thanks to Quercus Books, I have a phenomenal editor who challenged and encouraged me to develop the story far beyond my original manuscript. Her ideas and guidance have massively improved my book, my process and my writing. Working with the Quercus team has been really positive. The copy editor picked up inconsistencies no-one else had noticed, and the designer created a cover that took my breath away. The book looks and feels better than I could have achieved with self-publishing, and the story is stronger. Quercus have managed all the online listings, and we’re now starting to plan events around the book that I couldn’t have done without them. They’ve been incredible. It still feels like I should be waking up.
E: You’ve just finished a novella, The Year of the Whale. You work with multiple story lengths: short stories, flash fiction, novellas, novels. Do you have a favorite length to work with?
S: The story dictates the length. Of those 1,500 Twitter stories, I’ve found myself going back to redraft some of them in longer forms, because 140 characters simply wasn’t enough for the idea, and it was bugging me to leave them unfinished. Generally speaking, I seem to gravitate towards the extremes of flash fiction and novels, missing out the short stories and novellas in the middle. I started with short stories, and they were how I learned to write, but it’s only in writing novels and flash fiction that I’ve improved my storytelling – flash fiction taught me to be precise and concise, and novels gave me the space to expand on my ideas and make a world of my imagination. The Year of the Whale is a peculiar piece. It was all I could salvage of a novel I abandoned at 50,000 words a few years ago. I was left with 15,000 words of a character I loved and an idea I couldn’t shake. I’d been wanting to finish it for years, but The Visitors, Marrow and next novel The Hollows always came first. Then I discovered a novella competition with a month before the deadline, and decided the time had come to wrap it up. Cue long days and late nights to get it finished in time. I don’t think I’ll write another novella in a hurry. I have so little time to write, and the next novel is shouting louder than ever. It’s about a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them. It’s almost 20,000 words in, and I’m starting to know my characters. It’s beginning to evolve, and that’s really exciting.
E: You have an agent. What was that process like? What advice would you give to other authors who are currently seeking representation?
S: My agent is a wonder. She’s called Sue, and she’s incredible. I was very lucky. A friend of mine heard she was taking on new writers, so I sent her a short story about a WWII fighter pilot and an outline for the novel, which at that stage was three-quarters finished. She liked the story and was intrigued by the novel – so I finished it as quickly as I could, spent months and months redrafting, then submitted it. A week later, she wrote back to say she loved it. That was The Visitors. I wouldn’t have found Quercus without Sue. She’s heavily involved with the editorial side as well, which is brilliant – she totally gets me and my ideas, and it’s fantastic to talk to her about my stories. She’s also extremely nice; whenever I call her up to discuss some part of the job, we usually spend half an hour talking about Game Of Thrones or the mice in her office. As for advice on finding an agent – do your research. Make sure your work is a good fit with the agent you’re approaching. Follow their guidelines. Be realistic about where your work fits the market. Be nice. Read the Slushpile Hell Tumblr, and don’t do any of the things on there.
E: What is the most difficult part of your journey as a writer and what are some ways you overcome those difficulties?
S: The hardest part is time. I work very hard as a teacher at a local college, I make short films for local businesses, and I have a wife and daughter I want to spend more time with. As a result, I don’t get a lot of time to write, and I find that frustrating. I often work very late, or cram a lot of writing into my days off (I once wrote 11,000 words in a day). But that means I get tired and stressed. I crave writing, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do, but at the moment my hands are tied by real life. I have my next five novels lined up and good to go, but no space in my head or time at my desk. I try not to beat myself up about it, but it does get me down sometimes. Writing is all I want to do. One day, I’ll find a way. For now, I have my half-hours of flash fiction, and half-days of my second novel.
Good questions. Thanks for having me along!