Wednesday, July 4, 2007

[Interview] Maurice Suckling

Maurice Suckling has produced and directed plays for a number of British theatre groups. He has also worked as a radio and television scriptwriter and a creative consultant for a number of national and multinational companies.

Since 1998, he has been working as a writer, editor, designer, voice director and project manager in the computer games industry.

His first collection of short stories, Photocopies of Heaven (Elastic Press) was published in November 2006.

In a recent interview, Maurice Suckling spoke about his writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I think I always wanted to be one. I always wrote stuff, little ideas, thoughts -- that kind of thing.

The first story I really remember and was maybe worth remembering was called The Island of Blue Glass. I’m not sure how to explain it -- it was a kind of surreal love story in which I wanted to never write the word love, because I thought there were lots more interesting ways of writing about the subject. I wanted to try and write a love story without clich├ęs or laziness.

I never showed it to a publisher. Only a handful of people have read it. Amongst the people who read it were some of my brother Laurence’s students from across Europe . Some people wrote to me to tell me how much they liked it -- so I suppose it was received well, if not that widely.

How did you feel about this?

It made me feel fantastic -- that I’d communicated with people I didn’t know who lived thousands of miles away and that they’d felt something that made them want to write to someone they’d never met. I thought maybe I should write some more and see what else happens…

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

Everything I read, watch, listen to, everywhere I go, everyone I meet makes some kind of impression somewhere and it all goes in, and sometimes finds a way out. I tend to write about people who live now, are used to a technology-rich, consumerist-heavy and religiously- or spiritually-poor world. People like me, and people like my friends. Maybe that doesn’t answer the question.

To you, what are aliens?

Slimey green beings from other planets with lots of tentacles, though there are probably lots of different styles; some maybe wear human suits. I’ve never met any aliens (as far as I know) but I like writing about them because they are cool. They’re very pliable for dramatic purposes -- invasion stories, horror stories, stories about the strangeness and surprising nature of the universe, and also, because of certain imagery and preconceptions about them in popular culture, they also have lots of potential for humour.

What is your latest book about?

It’s called Photocopies of Heaven. It’s about how miracles are all around us but we don’t always notice them, about how the tiniest of everyday things is amazing, about how technology shapes our lives and the stories we tell about them, about how nothing means anything, and everything means something.

How many stories are in the collection?

28, though one is in six episodes.

What unites them?

I think they’re all about characters looking for meaning in their lives; about people who feel moments of intense spirituality but don’t have religion and don’t know what to do with those feelings, or about people who don’t feel any spirituality, but are surprised when they do (or feel something they have no better word for than ‘spirituality’ but it doesn’t fit with the way they view the world), or would be surprised if they could ever see the world more clearly. They’re stories about everyday miracles, the most amazing things that we take for granted, and, mostly, about people who are alive now and have the same kind of references to pop culture and contemporary technology as I do. In addition to that a number of the stories also share characters, sometimes re-appearing in minor roles, so you get this sense that people move on and they’re not just trapped in the character arc of one simple story. It’s quite exciting, because it means there’s a way of giving longer and richer character arcs to characters in short stories -- and I think this is something I’d like to have another look at in the future.

How did the idea behind the book come about?

I wanted to write about the kinds of people I mix with and meet in my life; people who don’t have lives like action movie plotlines, people who are scrabbling around, trying to make sense of their lives, and, for the most part, just trying to do the best they can. I’m interested in what these people think about, and how they live -- that’s really exciting to me. So much of our lives are shaped around popular culture and technology it seemed important to address that -- it seems that’s where we do a lot of our living. I also wanted to explore it without resorting to the laziness of cynicism. I wanted to find ways of writing about how amazing life can be sometimes and how people have feelings that are almost spiritual even if they aren’t religious -- and I wanted to do this without being dogmatic or facile.

What is the significance of the book’s title?

It shows the collusion between technology and spirituality in the stories. It also hints at two key interpretations of many of the stories; that the best we can get of heaven is just photocopies of it, i.e. something insubstantial and something that is less than what it was, something reduced by trying to talk about it, and reduced by the way we experience it; and secondly, more optimistically, that to be able to photocopy heaven is fantastic because we can at least see a version of it -- and if that’s the best we get, so be it, but at least we get that.

How long did it take you to write it?

About two years, on and off.

It was published in the U.K. by Elastic Press in November 2006.

Which aspects of the work that you put into Photocopies of Heaven did you find most difficult?

There are cartoons in the book -- well, sort of a graphic story told with imagery like in plane safety cards or in self-assembly furniture instructions. Finding the right people to do them was hard. Then I found rm*, Gaylie Runciman and Debs Norton, two very talented artists based in Glasgow -- and I couldn’t have been happier.

They tend to specialise in installation art and digital media, but they’re also animators. They won an award just recently: The Scottish Style Awards ‘Taste Maker of the Year’.

What was it about the work rm* did that you found particularly pleasing?

They just immediately got what I was talking about -- and that was such a delight. They never forced the imagery -- the story they worked on ("The Amazing Adventures of No One in Particular") needs the imagery to almost strike you as bland -- and it’s the collision between the words and pictures that gives it its heart. They also really liked the story too and found the same things funny in the same kinds of ways as I did, so that made things trip along very nicely for all of us.

What did you enjoy most during the process that led to Photocopies of Heaven?

I liked working on all of it -- I really set out to have fun with storytelling and to experiment with techniques and ideas. For example, the Amazing Adventures I just mentioned. There’s one story written entirely in text message form, because there were lots of characters and I wanted them all to speak with their own voices and for the sense of an authorial voice controlling them all to be masked.

There’s a story that tracks a relationship through the things that the couple buy. There’s another tracking the state of mind of a guy as he grows up and hits his 30s through the gadgets he has. There are various stories where I’ve played about a little with linearity and jumping back and forth in time.

I already mentioned having characters return and feature in more than one story in the collection, and that was one of the most exciting experiments to me. I thought not many people would notice -- but they have and I’m really delighted about it.

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

Most of what I’ve written to date is for clients -- people who hire me to tell stories -- mostly in computer games, but sometimes other mediums. This book is different because it’s the first thing I’ve published that’s by me, where the copyright and all the words and ideas aren’t owned by a company that paid me. It’s really me expressing myself, which is something I only get to do professionally in a more limited way, as a general rule.

In what way is it similar?

It’s not. A lot of computer game stories I write are set in a crime, or an adventure, an action, or a sports world. Here I wanted to set stories in a contemporary world recognisable as the one where people, like me, are used to having crime, action, adventure stories etc all around us, where we’re used to wondering how come our world isn’t as full of story and drama as the TV and movies we watch are.

How many of these stories have you done so far?

Including games that don’t really need stories, but just need some editing, I’ve currently worked on 13 games.

Do you have examples of some of the stories you’ve been hired to tell and some of the media through which you have told them?

Probably the best known stories have been for a series of games called Driver. These stories have been written as screenplays and are delivered as CGI animation -- often using motion capture. I often direct the voices for these stories too and sometimes the publishers bring in famous names like Mickey Rourke and Iggy Pop and I get to work with them.

How long have you been doing this?

About 9 years.

How did you start?

A friend took a job at a company that made games and they needed a writer and I got asked if they could book my time for a couple of weeks. I’ve been working in games ever since.

What are some of the challenges that come with this line of work? And, how do you deal with them?

It’s not like when you write your own material. Firstly you have to sign away all your copyright -- and there’s no way round that, apart from to have a best selling novel or something in the first place, in which case the games companies would come to you to license the title.

You can also have vast swathes of people looking over your shoulder and chipping in -- producers, designers, animators, programmers, artists -- there are a lot of people to try and keep happy. Most people think they can write, and most people have seen movies they think you should be ‘absorbing’ into your work. You can deal with this by being selective, or more often lucky with whom you work, or, more often than that, just by rolling your sleeves up and taking the time to keep people on-board. This can involve visits to clients and lots of clear headed thinking and a basic ability with handling people.

Recently you presented a lecture at De Montfort University? Had you done something like this before? How did you find the experience?

I did a guest lecture for Kate Pullinger’s online MA writing course. The lecture was an asynchronous forum, so I didn’t make my way to Leicester, it was all done online. I spent my time answering the students’ questions about writing in games, the nature of interactive narrative and techniques for designing interactive stories.

That was the first time I did an asynchronous forum, but I’ve spoken about this kind of thing and related topics before all over the place -- Reading , Newcastle , Tokyo , Kyoto , Shanghai , Chongxing, Chengdu , Hanover last week, and I’ll be talking in Malmo in May. I travel quite a bit with my work and for my company, The Mustard Corporation because of our clients and because of the games conferences all over the world -- it’s GDC in San Francisco in early March -- and also because I do quite a bit of voice recording of actors for games and that usually entails being in L.A. -- and that’s another thing --you find ways of making good use of time when you spend so much of it travelling.

I really enjoyed the experience -- I think it went down O.K., people thanked me, and said they found it interesting. I can’t remember if I mentioned it, but I’m also working towards a Ph.D. in creative writing at Newcastle University and I like the idea of maybe doing the occasional guest lecture again to students sometime in the future.

How do you find the time for all the projects you are working on?

Well, there’s no real magic to it -- I just work hard. It’s not like it’s a chore because I like it -- and if I didn’t do it it just wouldn’t get done and I’d be left feeling I wished I’d done it. Plus I actually like working on a few things at once -- it keeps them all interesting and bits of my subconscious just take care of things on projects in the back of my mind, then when I go to work on them my brain has already done some of it for me -- my PC is still just single processor -- I wonder if I got a dual core one it would do this kind of thing for me…

I’m good at making minutes count too -- and they add up.

What will your next book be about?

It'll be about the same kind of world, themes, concerns, with characters not too distant from those in Photocopies of Heaven, but it will be a novel.

Do you have a working title for the novel?

Yes I do, though I don’t want to jinx it by mentioning it just yet.

When do you think you will be submitting it for publication?

Maybe another 18 months. I think I’d like to finish it before I show it to a publisher.

How long do you think it will take you to write the novel?

From start to finish it’ll be about two and a half years. It’s slow going when I’m working on so many other things at once.

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

To have been self employed for over 10 years, and counting -- and not to have had my credit card re-possessed. It might sound not much, but trust me, it's a lot harder than it sounds.

How did you get there?

I work hard, I schmooze, and I never stop learning and being interested in stories and storytelling.

This article was first featured on OhmyNews International.

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