Despite what the title might lead you to expect, think of this as more of an anti-biography, because I’m of the firm belief that the writer should remain anonymous.
In the same way that actors should be kept in a cupboard and only brought out when working, I think authors should be like the character actors whose work we recognise but whose name always eludes.
Being anonymous has an internal logic, but it becomes much more of a challenge to explain out loud when measured against what I’m trying to do. I’m very aware of the contradiction between my desire for anonymity and the marketing of my books. Even the writing of this becomes hypocritical. But in the same way a film can be spoiled for me by an actor being too well known, so I don’t want the personality of the writer intruding into the story.
Reading a novel may involve trying to establish the author’s motives but, to me, the presence of anyone who isn’t a character in the story is only ever a distraction, an abrupt pull back from becoming lost among the tale. My reading pleasure has suffered over the years by finding out that I don’t much like the author – the legend of Hemingway can be too much of a presence, the personal life of Greene an unwelcome intrusion, and the character of Chandler an undermining of that of Marlowe.
I have to accept though that the above may be an excuse for a deeper personal reason; a reaction connected to getting so many rejection slips. For years I kept my writing quiet, preferring to fail in private. Oddly enough, I never considered a pseudonym. Although I use initials, this is mainly to avoid the books being judged on gender.
Apart from this, the idea of trying to sell something that I’ve created from scratch, and which nobody has asked for, always strikes me as being egotistical. To then go out and publicize it with the childhood-taught mantra of ‘self-praise is no praise’ ringing in my ears tends to leave me conflicted. So why publish? Because, to me, writing a novel is a challenging puzzle with publication the ultimate solution.
Yet, part of my holding back is also connected to self-publishing itself. I developed my writing during a period when vanity publishing was scorned and for a long time that was how I viewed self-publishing. It took me a while to take the plunge and although it worked for me in that I was able to put to rest earlier work and move on to new stuff, I’m very aware how the mainstream views self-publishing and I still feel as if I lack the validity that comes from a publisher taking me on.
Although I waited until I had received some credible feedback, the much earlier, ‘you need to go away and learn the craft of writing’ still infects me. I don’t know if I’ve done that yet and self-publishing hasn’t provided the evidence for that.
That said; the primary question people ask seems to be where do the ideas come from and the answer to that has to involve some personal background.
For me, inspiration comes from many places. It can be a lyric, a place, an unusual conversation, or a scene in a film. Years ago I saw a Naval Officer walking up the steps of a government building, which then prompted a 100,000 word story; although, ironically, that scene never made it through the edits and that manuscript never became more than a poor, bottom-drawer derivative thriller.
Madness of the Turtle was also an earlier attempt at a thriller that was abandoned for many reasons, the primary one being that it was dire and felt like something that would have been pulped in the 50’s, but it contained the character that was to become Father Gerard Limerick. In looking to see what could be salvaged, I considered he was the only interesting part of the 90,000 words and decided to expand on the theme of his self-delusion and how that infects those around him.
This led to the uneducated bandits being a metaphor for the way that the wider population seemingly embrace their own ignorance. They became those vigilantes who once mistook a paediatrician for a paedophile, and those who wilfully wreak havoc on the lives of others. They became those who want simple black and white solutions to what are grey problems because they’re too lazy to invest the time in understanding before reaching for an opinion; often somebody else’s.
This style of rant rolling around in my head about the feckless and the criminally adept became a prompt for was Played by Walter Johns, a home for the politically incorrect conclusions I kept reaching about society’s ills. The idea that the elderly become intolerant of the changes happening around them and censor their opinions less and less seemed the ideal place to find a hero who disliked those changes to his world – despite the reality that the ignorant and ill-informed have always been with us. What could be better than a young man in a coma and a belligerent old man to become the repository for a spotlight on all of those irritating human traits?
Yet with that railing is returned hatred, making the outspoken a target for those they attack and so the story becomes a whodunit with all of the worst aspects of life becoming suspects.
The background for The Collection of Heng Souk was completely different, its genesis beginning in real life rather than simply forming inside my head. It was prompted by a discussion with my mother about my father (photo) who died when I was very young.
He spent all his working life in the Navy, becoming a CPO at twenty-five and coxswain of a frigate. I asked her if he had ever seen action. She told me he had once been shot at as a young man while taking a boat up a river during the Korean War.
It was a short conversation and she seemed to know no more than that, but it prompted the scene where Ephraim Luther falls from the boat and, as with most fiction, that then begins to promote thoughts of the who, what, why and when of those who would be affected.
The focus for The Seventeen Commandments of Jimmy September began as a consideration of the way religion is warped and abused by those with their own agenda, to create the character of the African soldier who claims he wants power for his people but really wants it for himself. But it also prompted musings on how far a parent might compromise their own life to ensure the safety of their child. In this case it became, unsurprisingly, as far as necessary.
Clearly my stories have recurring father/child themes and for anyone who might wonder why, then the fact that my father died when I was young, together with the relationship I have with my own children, becomes a strong focus for me.
So, to strike the balance of revealing enough about how the reality affects the fiction has proved difficult for me to get right, and I can only apologise if this is too far along either end of the scale.