Friday, June 11, 2010

[Featured Author] Peter Tomlinson

Pigeon Holes Are For The Birds
by Alexander James

Peter Tomlinson put his literary life on the line when he turned his back on the genre stereotypes agents, publishers and retailers love to slot into their gold-lined pigeonholes – and he’s never looked back.

After bravely ploughing an independent furrow in a field of his own, the first two novels in his Petronicus Legacy series have already been released and the third in the trilogy is under contract and its first draft is complete.

But even with a solid reputation as the author of nearly 300 poems in eighty poetry and short story magazines in the UK and abroad, the path less trodden – avoiding all genre models – was no easy route for Peter.

Mainstream houses turned down flat his first four novels and two one-act plays because they didn’t fit neatly into their well-ordered catalogues.

Only when he submitted his fifth novel to an independent press with a more open mind did he pique interest … and not only interest in that book; the publishers were so impressed that they immediately offered a three-book deal for Peter to get to work on following his 80,000-word The Stones of Petronicus, with The Time of Kadrik and The Voyages of Delticos to make up a series.

And, said Peter at his home in rural Shropshire:
There are heavy hints that the series won’t end with a mere trilogy.

You see, each book is absolutely self-contained; the lead characters in each are different, but descendents of characters past, the time setting is different, but is the result of times past, the situations are different, but are extensions of situations past … there’s a common thread of development that bonds them. Making up history as I go along means that I could tie together as many Petronicus books as life allows me to write.
It’s as though Peter developed a genre of his own when he took his first character, Petronicus the scribe, and placed him in a time and country that, ‘real world’ as it is, can’t be identified … but which is, certainly, a million miles from the land of fantasy.

He said:
There were times when I felt I was getting nowhere as publisher after publisher told me they just weren’t interested in me if I couldn’t produce a book that would fit their lists so that they could easily identify a target readership for the marketing boys and retailers. But I was determined to go my own way.

So I lowered my sights from the major publishing houses and looked around for a reputable small independent. I found BeWrite Books and we just seemed to click. Far from being frightened off by the fact that the book fitted no established genre, they not only went for it, they immediately signed me up for two follow-ups.

Stones of Petronicus came out last year, Time of Kadrik was published in the spring, and I’ve just completed the first draft of Voyages of Delticos for a winter release. Together, they’ll make up the trilogy, The Petronicus Legacy.

The novels are not typecast in the mode of conventional adventure/historical fiction; the location, characters and civilisations described are entirely fictitious. I take readers into places they have never been before and to meet characters they will meet again only in their dreams … or maybe their nightmares, as one reviewer put it.

The first book follows the theme of a perpetual search for truth and the nature of human existence. All the books explore the relationships between old and young as they complement each other through interaction of enquiring and often precocious youth and the steadier, more experienced wisdom of the elder.

There is no conflict between them except, at times, some understandable impatience. Together they face great dangers as horror and wickedness descends on their idyllic world, and here we see how the combination of youthful energy and mature wisdom triumphs.

But never could the work be labelled ‘fantasy’, in spite of a touch of the mystical and the introduction of some pretty fabulous creatures. My characters have no magical powers and they face purely human struggles in an earthly landscape. The result is education in its purest form.

And it couldn’t be written off as ‘adventure’ because so much of the adventure is of the mind. It’s not ‘historical’ because there’s no factual framework. And it couldn’t get by under that vague and confusing ‘literary’ banner because … well, because there’s always a beginning, a middle and an end to the stories.

The books couldn’t even be classified in terms of potential readership; they would appeal as much to young people as to mature adults, as much to a female as a male audience. And if there’s the slightest whiff of ‘coming-of-age’ (another genre these days), you’d be hard pressed to say whether the coming-of-age applies to a young character, an old character or even a whole civilisation.

In Petronicus, for example, we have the young apprentice to life learning at the side of the master craftsman as the two main characters journey through the joys and tragedies of their lives together.

Sure, I can understand why it is my books would confound publishers whose first question is ‘what genre?’ But I wasn’t about to compromise my work to squeeze it into a narrowly defined slot to suit commercial trends.
Although there is conflict and great danger in the lives of the principal characters, Peter avoids falling into the trap of relying on gratuitous violence to carry the story along. The writing creates vivid images in the minds of his readers and he often crafts his writing in terms of acts and scenes in a visual drama.

Perhaps unusually for an author, he is predominantly an ‘imager’ and this visualisation – actually being an eye witness to what he creates – is demonstrated in his writing.

He has often said that reading is better than watching film; the scenery is better.

In his second novel, The Time of Kadrik, which is set in the same fictional landscape, 10 generations later, Peter casts his players onto a much wider canvas. Here we are introduced to different characters in a different time. The principal player is Kadrik who we follow from boyhood into maturity as he is forced by catastrophic circumstance to question the beliefs on which the survival of his community depends.

With only his wife to support and encourage him, Kadrik lives through several lonely years until his fate is decided by an inescapable imperative and a resolve that comes to dominate his life. In order to save his community from complete collapse, the very young Kadrik must embark on a perilous journey both geographical and intellectual. He undertakes this journey in the company of three unlikely companions: a nameless outcast and two members of a mysterious humanoid species known as the Men Half Made.

Peter insists:
Even so, I avoid straying into the realms of fantasy.
The ‘quest’ is a very human endeavour toward human goals. The Men Half Made are not mythological mermaids; they’re merely an earthly breed apart. And, although I draw heavily on a lifetime of historical research, there can be no confusion between the books in this series and a historical novel because of the way I’ve used what I’ve learned to create an entirely new and fictitious historical base.
I’ve travelled widely to research the backdrop to my scenes. But, again, I’ve used what I’ve learned to create a new reality rather than a Neverland.
A reader might occasionally think he’s worked out where in the world the characters are playing out their roles – but he’ll soon find that he’s mistaken.”
BeWrite Books editor, Neil Marr, said:
One of the beauties of being an independent press, driven by factors that are by no means entirely commercial, is that we have the freedom to experiment with work that doesn’t necessarily fit some tried and tested, money-spinning formula.

Peter’s books break new ground – and that’s their problem in the mainstream where genre is all important. Big-business houses – their marketing departments and their retailers – are tied to established best-selling formulas to keep afloat. A small independent like BB is free of those restrictions.

In the end, it’s the reader who benefits.
Peter’s work is consistently at the top of our ‘most reviewed’ lists. Readers who read the first couldn’t wait for the next … and already, we’re getting emails from people desperate to know when the next will be available.
These books are fresh, you see. There’s nothing else like them out there.
Peter’s road to print was long, winding and frequently pot-holed.

Born in a working class district of Merseyside, UK six months before the outbreak of World War II, he retains some hazy memories of the blitz he lived through.
I vaguely remember my mother cradling me in a blanket and telling me that the ‘all clear’ would be heard soon and we would be safe again.
His father joined the Royal Navy and served throughout the war on destroyers and mine-layers, returning home in 1945 a virtual stranger to Peter.

Meanwhile, Peter was evacuated with his mother and elder brother to a remote hill farm in North Wales to escape the blitz, and that is where his vivid memory begins.
I well remember the sheepdog and the farm animals and I have a pictorial recollection of being left on the edge of the field whilst my mother helped the farmers with haymaking.
There is also a recurring infant memory of a distant mountain that seemed very remote and mysterious.
There was no electricity, gas or piped water in the family’s evacuation home so that much time was spent collecting wood for the fire. Whilst in the safety of North Wales they knew that their home town was being heavily bombed and that relatives were in constant danger. It was inevitable that the anxieties their mother felt were inadvertently transmitted to her children.

When the war ended, the family was re-housed back on Merseyside in one of the emergency prefabricated houses (prefabs) on a cleared bomb site opposite a pawn shop. Peter received the minimum education and often ran wild with other kids in the wasteland of bombed-out buildings and post-war dereliction.

He has only two clear memories of his junior schooling: fear of being wrong and the embarrassment of a recurring stutter, a disability suffered by many wartime children. Perhaps this early communication difficulty led him to retreat into his own imagination.

It was during his brief secondary schooling that his interest in storytelling began. Often, when the teacher was engaged in administrative tasks, Peter was called out to stand in front and tell the class a story. It was terrifying at first, but he gradually mastered his stutter and enjoyed the task. This happened so often that making up stories on the spur of the moment became second nature to him.

He left school aged 15 and worked briefly in a shipyard before finding a job as a telegraph boy at an American Cable Company’s station in Liverpool. They trained him as an operator and taught him the telegraph man’s economy and precision in the use of language. They also trained him to touch type, a skill useful to an author. In fact he can still type as fast as he can speak.

His main recreational interest at the time was mountaineering and rock climbing. He associated with a group of free-spirited, rebellious young people who regularly hitch-hiked to North Wales, slept in old barns and tents that fell down whenever the wind blew, and involved themselves in poetry, heavy drinking and deep discussions by candlelight.

Peter was a very early member of the Cavern Club in Liverpool. But these carefree years ended at the age of 18 with conscription into the British Army. Peter resented the curtailment of his freedom and the discipline, bull and homesickness played heavily on him. Years later he published a poem recalling those feelings:
Conscription 1958-60

Barracked and confined
in drab wooden huts
with the smoke of cheap cigarettes,
smells of adolescent sweat
and scant privacy.

Tethered to an unfamiliar routine,
a world of harsh discipline,
contrived discomfort
and coarse khaki roughening skin,
chasing any kind word or praise
amidst insults and humiliations
embarrassingly endured.

Cold, always cold
in those slow, homesick,
day-counting weeks
in alien Catterick.

An ache filled the space
where our freedom once was,
where fettered youth could no longer run.

Then ranked in tight marching order
and dispatched as props for a dying empire
with mum’s fears, dad’s knowing eye
and daft words like: ‘It does them good’.

© Peter Tomlinson – first published in Reach Magazine
As a wireless operator, Peter spent 18 months in Cyprus. It was here that his serious interest in poetry really began. It was often too dangerous for young soldiers to venture far from their army camp but he was able to wander freely in the nearby deserted ruins of an ancient Greek city and give his vivid imagination free rein. Often he put his thoughts on paper and years later he worked these into published poems.

Another three or four carefree years passed after demobilisation before he went to college and university and pursued an academic career.

After early retirement, he worked for a few years as a cultural guide overseas, leading tours on foot in Rome, Venice, Florence, Assisi, Verona, Istanbul etc. What he saw and what he learned was to find its way into the fictional land he created for Petronicus and his descendents.

Since achieving his ambition to take time to write, he has published hundreds of poems in scores of magazines. Success came to him when Bluechrome published his first commercially produced poetry collection Tunnels of the Mind, which received favourable reviews.

In an effort to present even more work to readers, his wife, Margaret, suggested self-publishing under their own imprint, Hengist Enterprises. This launched four collections of poetry, two collections of short stories and two collections of original epigrams.

Peter read his poetry at numerous poetry festivals. At the Oxford Poetry Festival he had a chance conversation with a friend, the well known British author and poet, Sam Smith, who suggested submitting work to his own publisher, Bewrite Books.

Neil Marr – who edits both Peter and Sam’s work for BeWrite Books – said:
It was a fortuitous meeting. Sam is another author whose writing refuses to be pigeon-holed. It courageously crosses genre lines or, like Peter’s, absolutely defies all genre definition.

The sheer scope of Peter’s books is breath-taking. He’s the only author I know who can produce an epic in a tight 80,000 words.
Many of Peter’s ideas for poems and novels come to him whilst he roams wild and lonely places; the Shropshire hills and forests, the mountains of North Wales, the Lake District and the Alps. He finds that the restful rhythm of solitary walking removes his thoughts from the futile imperatives of modern life and provides an easy conduit for ideas to flow into his receptive mind.

His wife Margaret acts as an at-home editor, paying meticulous attention to his manuscripts, ensuring clarity, correct use of grammar and making sure a good clean copy is sent to his publishers.

Margaret says:
After we’ve had breakfast and discussed our plans for the day, Peter settles down to the intensive daily writing session. He is very self-disciplined about this and not even the lure of a visit to the supermarket can drag him away. Slips of paper with cryptic words litter the house as ideas enter Peter’s head and he scribbles them down before forgetting them. This can happen at awkward times: I’ve even found messages on the loo roll!

He freely admits to living in a dream world and it can be disconcerting living with a daydreamer. Not only does he forget important things I’ve told him, but he forgets what he’s told me. Is this the onset of senility or the flame of genius burning bright?

Despite these drawbacks, I think that Peter’s writing has drawn us closer. I am full of admiration for his creativity and feel privileged to be involved in the process, especially when we discuss ideas and language, although the dots and commas department is where I really feel important.

Entering into the dream world is the best of all: during our recent travels to Iceland and Greenland we were both fired with delight at recognising scenes from Petronicus – the Land of the Towering Rocks, the Land of the Bubbling Mud, the Mountains that hold up the Sky. Peter had created them in his mind before we saw for ourselves that they actually existed in the real world.
This interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Possibly related books:

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Related articles
  • Peter Tomlinson [Interview], Conversations with Writers, November 19, 2007
  • Sam Smith [Interview], Conversations with Writers, November 5, 2007
  • Neil Marr [Interview_1], Conversations with Writers, November 5, 2009

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