[Interview] Allen Ashley

Allen Ashley has worked as a performance poet, a singer/songwriter, music critic, football journalist and book editor. In addition to this, he is the author of two non-fiction books: The Golden Void -- Hawkwind 1970-1975 (Hawkfrendz, 1991), a chapbook of music criticism, and The Days of the Dodo (Dodo London Press, 2006), a collection of cultural commentary articles that first appeared in The Third Alternative between 1999 and 2005.

His short stories have been published in over 40 literary magazines, among them Interzone, The Third Alternative, Postscripts and Prism. They have also been featured in around 10 anthologies that include Triquorum One (Pendragon Press, 2006); Poe’s Progeny (Gray Friar Press, 2005) and New Wave of Speculative Fiction (Crowswing Books, 2005).

His debut novel, The Planet Suite (TTA Press, 1997) was followed by two collections of short stories, Somnambulists (Elastic Press, 2004) and Urban Fantastic (Crowswing Books, 2006).

In a recent interview, Allen Ashley spoke about his writing.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I would have to say receiving the 2006 British Fantasy Society “Best Anthology” Award for The Elastic Book Of Numbers (Elastic Press, 2005) is the best moment of my writing career so far. After 24 years as a published author, I felt I fully deserved this recognition … and I celebrated accordingly.

What is The Elastic Book of Numbers?

It’s an anthology of brand new stories all based around the theme of numbers. This concept, I believe, had never been done before.

Sitting in the editorial chair for The Elastic Book Of Numbers was obviously a somewhat different experience to writing one’s own collection. Editing can be very frustrating -- for quite a long time I was worried that the book wasn’t going to work because I wasn’t receiving enough material that fit the book’s parameters and was of the required quality. There’s so much more to editing than simply compiling and arranging.

I’m as proud of The Elastic Book Of Numbers as any of my other books because of the huge amount of work I put into its success.

What are your latest books about?

My two other recent books are both collections of short stories. Somnambulists (Elastic Press, 2004) collects 16 of my best stories which have been described as “borderline science fiction”, “Slipstream”, “urban fantasy”, “psychological horror”, “Twilight Zone”.

My very latest book is a second collection of my short stories -- Urban Fantastic (Crowswing Books, 2006). 21 stories this time, including my very first ever publication plus seven pieces brand new to the collection.

How long did it take you to write them?

I’d been touting a collection of short fiction for several years before Andrew Hook at Elastic published Somnambulists. The stories spanned about 14 years. The time span for Urban Fantastic, which took in my first success, “Dead To The World” from 1982, was even longer. Whereas the turn-around with my novel The Planet Suite from conception to publication was more like three years.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the books did you find most difficult? And which did you enjoy most?

Every aspect of writing and getting published involves several layers of difficulty. Having consistent concerns or over-riding themes and yet not repeating oneself is a major challenge in the actual writing. Making the slightly fantastic or unusual convincing is another big concern. Maintaining a story’s internal logic is hugely important to me -- speaking as an editor, I feel it’s where a lot of novice authors fall down. If you contradict the premise of your piece, you’ve lost your reader’s suspension of disbelief and you’ve totally blown it.

As for the business of getting published: that can often be more tiresome and troublesome than creating your story in the first place. Every author of any longevity has plenty of shaggy dog tales about magazines going bust just before your opus was about to see print, books being accepted and never published, editors never replying even after 24 months, and so on. The advice I would offer is to persevere and to research your markets properly. This latter means buying magazines you want to be published in and books from publishers you want to be published by. And read their guidelines thoroughly. You’d be amazed how many people send poetry collections to publishers whose output is strictly novels.

I enjoy every aspect of writing and editing, dealing with editors, publishers, readers, other authors, artists, agents, etc. I love meeting and talking with people at conventions and writers’ gatherings; writing to and emailing people; reading new work and so on. It really annoys me when I read interviews with professional writers who complain about their lot or who claim to hate the business of writing. Yes, of course, on many levels it’s work, tough work at that, but if you don’t like the profession, pal, then push off out of the way and let the real writers through.

What are the biggest challenges that you face? And, how do you deal with these?

Every new story is a challenge. Seriously. There’s the story as it nebulously exists inside my head and there’s the best version of a compromise that eventually appears on paper or screen.

Then once that’s done, placing the story and getting it published is all part of the process. You have to learn to sell yourself and your work, even shamelessly sometimes.

However, I always caution aspiring writers that very few authors make an actual proper living solely from writing. I certainly don’t. Unless you’re J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown, you might do well and sell a short story for GBP 100 and a novel for an advance of, say, GBP 3000 to GBP 10,000. That’s all a great and just reward, of course, but -- well, a hundred quid will pay your gas bill for the quarter. Three grand? Three months rent or five months mortgage. Ten thousand? Britain is an expensive place to live and unless you’re holed up in a beach hut and not registered for council tax, at that rate, you’d have to write and sell two or three books every year to feed, clothe and shelter yourself. It ain’t gonna happen. Most writers -- i.e. those who are not household names -- have to supplement their income by teaching, lecturing, journalism, reviewing, temporary jobs … whatever comes along.

In a moment of self-realisation -- if that's doesn't sound too poncey -- I asked myself the question Kurt Vonnegut posed, which is, "Who are you writing for?" I eventually decided that I was actually writing to impress my 14-year-old self, writing the sort of exciting, innovative New Wave influenced work that I simply lapped up when I had the time and energy to read 150 books a year!

Going back to my earlier point about finances, I also made the compromise many years ago that I would “keep up the day job”. The beauty of this is that because I’m not relying on selling any given story for a four or five figure sum, I can experiment and write what I would like to read, not what a certain publisher demands … and not the same old tired Tolkien copy or Stephen King rip-off that Johnny Hack is churning out.

This is not to in any way suggest a lack of ambition on my part. I want to gather as many readers as possible. But I must stay true to my internal voice. Kafka did so. Enough said.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

On the technical side -- developing and maintaining an individual voice. I don’t want to sound like anybody other than Allen Ashley. All the great writers are recognisable even without their name on the page; that’s the height I’m aiming for, too.

Thematically -- The individual and his/her struggles to survive in an increasingly homogenised society. Identity/loss of. Lack of control over one’s own destiny. Notions of reality/fantasy/dream/alternate worlds. Conjectures on the formation of the universe, evolution, creation, prehistory, and archetypes. Myths, fairy tales, urban myths. Love and death. I hope that covers it.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

People see certain influences in my work -- Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, the “space poet” Robert Calvert -- but if I had to name just one author, it would be J. G. Ballard. Ballard has cast a spell on a whole generation of British writers such as Will Self … and my self!

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

It’s the old cliché, but I’ve always written, even as a primary school child. Writing is what I always intended to do.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Oh God, there’s a lot of my own life in what I write. For example, I was unemployed and seriously poor for a few years and that never leaves me -- so, often my lead characters are coping with suddenly losing things that they and other people mostly take for granted.

On the other hand, in a story such “There is nothing left to write” from my collection Urban Fantastic (Crowswing Books, 2006) even though I actually appear as a character right near the end, the main protagonist “Jessica Stone” was completely made up. However, some reviewers and readers have totally believed in her as a “real” person. That’s quite flattering. The fabulous Welsh author Rhys Hughes once wrote, “Ashley is a master of character”. I’d certainly like to live up to such praise.

What will your next book be about?

I’ve got several books on the horizon. There’s Slow Motion Wars, under consideration by Screaming Dreams Press for publication later this year, which is a collection of collaborative stories written with Andrew Hook. There’s an updated version of my novel The Planet Suite, also due this year. I’m negotiating with a publisher regarding another novel and a couple of novellas. I will also be undertaking another editorial project for Elastic Press. This is “an open secret”, details of which will be confirmed around about June -- so don't send me anything yet! That book is likely to see print in 2008.

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