Sunday, August 3, 2008

[Interview] Geoff Nelder

Geoff Nelder has worked as a teacher, a freelance writer and a magazine editor.

His books include the novels, Escaping Reality (Brambling Books, 2005) and Hot Air, which is due to be published by a Dutch Arts academy in a few months' time.

An extract from his latest novel, Exit, Pursued by a Bee (Double Dragon Publishing, 2008) is available at New Writing International.

In this interview, Geoff Nelder talks about his concerns as a writer.

When did you start writing?

As a student, decades ago, I wrote articles for the college magazine, comedy sketches for end-of-term shows, and I edited a university rag magazine. From the latter I still discover my awful gags in rag mags on sale today!

How and why I decided [to write] are inseparable. I didn’t wait to be old to be fascinated by the meaning of life and its demise. Right or wrong, I’d decided there was no supreme supernatural being and hence no afterlife. This meant it was what we left behind that signified our lives after its end. Art is immortal. Writing is a form of art and since I’d discovered early that readers liked my work, then my stories would carry on being my spirit after I’d stopped living. The when for that non-religious epiphany was my teen years. Since then I learnt that the Earth is doomed to be swallowed by our sun in five billion years, give or take a week, and so my writing isn’t immortal after all.

To achieve my supposed immortality, I submitted short stories and non-fiction articles to student magazines and they published them. More non-fiction books followed after graduation, but my first fiction book had to wait because teaching took so much time.

How would you describe your writing?

The key word for my writing is humour, followed by science fiction, fantasy, thriller and horror depending on my mood.

Most of my short stories and the three novels are aimed at adult science fiction and fantasy readers. Although I enjoyed children’s novels as a child, my main reading and aspirations have always been for adult SF. I can blame my mother because she signed me up for the children’s science fiction book club when I was four! In the 50s most science fiction such as Arthur C. Clark, [John] Wyndham and [Isaac] Asimov had no rude words so I was allowed to read them, and I wanted to write rollicking amazing stories like them. I still do, but now with a sprinkling of rudeness.

Who would you say influenced you most?

Even though he doesn’t write science fiction, Tibor Fischer inspired me most to love words, play with them in our writing, and to be subtle with humour.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I’ve not been captured by aliens but as said above my childhood was scifi driven. I cycle a lot and so I write cycling articles for cycling mags. My father has rib-tickling humour so I can accuse his influence on me to account for my hilarity in writing.

Do you write everyday?

I rise at 6.30 a.m. every day. Weekdays I push my wife out of the door to go and earn real money while I settle to respond to emails and knock out 1,000 fresh words on my novel in progress. I aim for 2,000 fresh words daily but rarely achieve it –- because I also have editing of other folk’s novel to do, write short stories and critique others’ novels and shorts in the two critique groups I belong to.

I am tempted to rent an office because working from home is distracting. There are always workmen to let in and make tea for, neighbours need parcels signed for because they know I am home, and if I look up from the computer I see the disorder and a twinge of conscience urges me to unchaos it. Nevertheless, it is a more productive space than a log cabin. I tried that but I could see Cadir Idris mountain out of the window and spent every dry day wandering over it.

How did you choose a publisher for your latest novel?

My latest book is Exit, Pursued by a Bee, a science fiction. It took a year to research and write. It is not technical in that non-scientists are enjoying it, but I had to revise my quantum mechanics to ensure the science wasn’t going to be laughed at by those knowing better. My first draft travelled through the British Science Fiction Association critique group so that several science writers and fiction editors had already lacerated it before I tried publishers.

A friend had had success with small press Double Dragon Publishing and after reading Exit urged me to submit it with her endorsement. Perhaps I should have tried a mainstream publisher first, but I admire the pluck of small press and I liked the authors already there. Piers Anthonyspeaks highly of DDP so in I went.

I have been working as an editor for another small press, Adventure Books of Seattle, and knew Exit could be published there but it would feel rather like vanity press to have my book published and promoted by a company I was embedded within so closely. Nevertheless, that might be an option for Left Luggage if no mainstream picks it up.

What advantage or disadvantage has this presented?

The main disadvantage of using DDP is the lack of resources for promotion. It isn’t vanity press and we receive royalties, but the author is expected to do virtually all the selling and submitting to competitions and award bodies.

Also, DDP bring the book out as an ebook for the first year. Yes, it is at Lulu, too, but too costly to be able to print in bulk and sell to bookshops at a profit. If sufficient ebooks are sold then DDP will bring it out as a trade paperback and then bulk copies can go to stores.

The advantage of being published by DDP is the esprit de corps of the writers and editors. We have a closed forum and exchange ideas for promotion and skills such as making video trailers and audio books of our novels.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

I find promotion the most difficult.

I have always found selling something out of character for me. With a small press, the author has to inhabit forums, which can be fun but [is] time-consuming and even then only a handful will buy your books. I find it is humiliating being turned away by the buyers of the big chain bookstores. Some, like Borders, do take my books but they only sell at a price which undercuts my wholesale price. This is only sustainable as a promotion for the short term.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

The research, writing and editing is enormously pleasurable even though hard. It is artistically and intellectually satisfying to create new ideas and draw gasps from readers.

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

I invent a novel method of communication using time, that I’ve not seen anywhere else. Aliens (spheres that may be artefacts) don’t invade Earth, they leave it after being here before humans happened. When the aliens leave they depart at a very slow speed. In other stories of mine and other writers, communication is usually by radio, aliens come to Earth, and their spaceships zoom away at vast speeds.

I tried to use less humour by not using quips and cutting hilarious situations. Nevertheless, readers say they find themselves laughing out loud in places. Doh.

In what way is it similar?

The protagonist is a feisty woman -- as she is in my Hot Air thriller (to be published later 2008 or 2009 by a Dutch Arts academy).

What will your next book be about?

Xaghra’s Revengeis a magic realism fantasy based on the mass abduction of the population of Gozo in 1551. Those poor souls cry out for revenge, and I’m giving them their chance.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern is that writing, even commercial non-fiction, doesn’t pay enough to stop my wife being unconvinced that standing at the window, staring, is work. I deal with it by selling my editing services. Apparently I have skills as a content editor/critiquer especially for beginners’ novels. I can see where 2D characters can become 3D, turn around dead-end plots, convert Tell to Show and for that I am paid.

The other main concern is that I am not famous. I neglected to be born into a publishing or published family, forgot to marry a millionaires, and have yet to carry out a plot to kidnap someone else who is famous.

The solution is to keep plugging away, continue to improve my writing and submit, submit, submit.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

For the last six months my biggest challenge has been to persuade a wise mainstream publisher to accept my science fiction trilogy, Left Luggage, which has an original premise. I have a U.S. agent for it and he is correctly submitting my oeuvre to only three publishers at a time.

I might need that immortality before an acquisition editor sees the commercial and artistic merit in Left Luggage. There are a couple of small press I could go with, and I might do anyway, but although they are terrific –- the writers’ friends -- it would be the promotion costs that would be lacking, resulting in low volume sales. To deal with this I write short stories to get my name in magazines and ezines; I belong to the British Science Fiction Association critique group to gain experience and their skills. I write short novels for small press and grab the attention of famous authors to endorse them.

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

I am most proud of not so much a writing publication but of pulling together a large group of writers into a support group.

We had been duped by a sham literary agent in 2006. Most had been convinced they were within weeks of securing a five-figure advance from a major publisher. A couple of us discovered that our publisher’s reports were identical and that the publisher had not received our books.

The debacle devastated many of the writers. Many became ill, or gave up writing altogether. One, who has since died, even moved continents on the news that his advance was about to be paid to him. I researched and brought most of the former clients of Hill & Hill Literary Agency into a forum where we used our multifarious talents to support each other, report on other agents and publishers and read each others' work. Many of us have achieved publication since. The forum, two years on, is still strong and there is a strong comradeship and warmth in there.

This article was first published by OhmyNews International.

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