|Photo by Raj Passy|
Q. How did you get into writing? Did you intend to become an author?
A. I wasn’t the sort of child who could always be found scribbling away or with my nose in a book. So, I didn’t grow up with a burning desire to be an author. My first love was theatre. When I was growing up, my parents were part of an amateur dramatics group. I got involved, directing my first play at seventeen. After school, I went on to train as a stage manager before going to university. After university, I set up a theatre company with some friends. We toured small-scale plays and created drama scripts for children’s holiday clubs. It was then that I started writing. Over the years, I’ve mainly written plays (I’ve written and toured about 25, I think). I’ve even written a couple of musicals, but in 2008, I decided the time had come, and I started to work on the first book of the Firebird Chronicles.
Q. Tell us more about your book, The Nemesis Charm.
A. The Nemesis Charm is the second book in The Firebird Chronicles series. The first book, Rise of the Shadow Stealers, came out in 2013. It continues the story of Apprentice Adventurers, Fletcher and Scoop. They train at a school called Blotting's Academy, where all Story Characters go to be trained. The departments at Blotting's Academy orbit around different types of story – so, for example, Apprentice Heroes train in the Department for Overcoming Monsters and Apprentice Spell-Shakers in the Department of Seasons. Fletcher and Scoop are part of the Department of Quests. As you might have picked up, The Nemesis Charm (and the whole of The Firebird Chronicles series) is about stories. Stories are the magic in Fletcher and Scoop's world. This second book in the series is about the battle to control the doorway through which the sickness is spilling. Whoever controls that doorway will control the story itself and will hold the destiny of that world in their hands.
Q. Do you make a living via writing?
A. Not fully. I’m self-employed and work on various projects, including theatre directing, writing, delivering workshops for schools, design and communications work. I have an ongoing contract with a lifelong learning organisation, delivering education around themes of philosophy, theology and culture. I’m lucky enough that my role there is flexible and I’m often able to undertake work that complements my job as an author. For instance, as part of that, I chair the Leeds Big Bookend Festival, run community writing projects such as Stories from the Forests of Leeds and The Leeds Story Cycle, and I also design and contribute to a quarterly magazine. During the rest of the week, my time is divided between being Artistic Director of Suitcase and Spectacles Children’s Theatre; working as a freelance theatre director, giving talks and leading workshops in schools. So life is pretty busy!
Q. What’s the worst job you’ve had?
A. For a while I delivered Betterware catalogues. The area I was assigned was hilly. That wasn’t fun.
Q. Do you write every single day?
A, No, in contrast to conventional wisdom. I think everyone needs to find a rhythm of writing that works for them. I tend to write in chunks, scheduling a day or a number of days to focus. On those days, I try to forget everything else. For me, writing is seasonal. There are times when I’m focused on marketing, workshops, school visits or theatre productions, and other times when I clear my diary (as much as is possible) and let writing take centre stage.
Q. Do you have any writing rituals?
A. Yes, often when I finish a writing session, I’ll start to plan the section. I’ll make notes and jot down ideas, spending time imagining that scene. Then I stop. When I begin next time, I read through what I’ve written in the last session. That warms me up and gets me into the right mind-set. It's enough to get over the initial resistance to, or fear of, writing and it doesn't feel like such a big task starting a new section.I like to go for walks when I have a break because it keeps me connected to reality. When you’re writing, you can get lost in your thoughts, caught up in your own world – you have to do that. When you go out, you see people and connect with the spaces and places you’re walking through. That refreshes me.
Q. What authors do you like to read? What book(s) have had a strong influence on your writing?
A. Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman – those authors that ask big questions about life, but deal with them in playful ways. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is a book that had a strong influence on me when I was growing up. I remember reading it under a streetlight, on a bench by the sea. It was a summer’s night and the stars were out. I remember looking up and being swept away by the beauty and wonder of the world, and the fact that, at that moment, I was at the forefront, the very edge of history. That booked sparked my interest in philosophy and fiction, and in the idea that life was something to be investigated, a mystery to be explored. I studied Philosophy at university, so that had a very concrete influence on my life.
Q. How did you feel when you got your first publishing break?
A. Bemused. I didn’t quite know whether to really believe it. I had no idea if my work was any good. I still struggle to know, even with all the positive feedback. A friend suggested the publishing company I am now with, Our Street Books, and I approached them with the manuscript for Rise of the Shadow Stealers. They were the first publisher I’d approached and they offered me a contract - it was such a surprise. My second reaction was joy. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get, knowing there are people out there who believe in your work enough to invest in it.
Q. What advice would you give to people who are struggling to get their work published?
A. There isn’t just one way to make it happen. Try different things. My background is in performance, and I think there’s something to be said for working in teams. When you work with someone else, it grounds you. It also gives you an incentive to push things forward outside your own motivation. It has its downsides too, but it’s worth trying. See if there’s a local literary festival you can get involved with. I’m involved with Leeds Big Bookend Festival – we run all sort of competitions for writers and offer the opportunity to get involved with community writing projects, which can often result in work being published. Don’t worry about failure, we all fail. I’ve had plenty of cancelled shows, low audience turn outs and failed scripts! But those things help you improve. They’re part of any success that comes later, so don’t be put off by them.
Q. Any last thoughts for the reader?
A. It’s connected to the question above, but, if you’re a writer, work out what you really want to say through your writing. Give yourself time to do that. I have books in me I know I’m not yet ready to write. Don’t be put off by all the articles and interviews out there saying, ‘This is the way to do it.’ (including this one). There isn’t one way, so be gentle with yourself.