An Interview With A.J. Kirby
Hello folks, today I am really honoured to have A.J. Kirby over for an an very entertaining,enlightening and at times extremely funny interview. This interview is so entertaining even the legendary Les Dennis get bring it down.
AJ Kirby is the award-winning author of four novels (Perfect World, 2011; Bully, 2009; The Magpie Trap, 2008; When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals, 2007), two novellas (Call of the Sea, 2010 and Bed Peace, 2011), one novelette (The Black Book, 2011) and over forty short stories. He is also a sportswriter for the Professional Footballers’ Association and a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books. He welcomes emails and messages from readers and fellow authors at his website: www.andykirbythewriter.20m.com
Hi Andrew, how are things with you?
Thanks for asking. I’m not three bad. Could be better, could be worse. I’m not long back from holiday, so missing the lie-ins and the freedom to loll about reading all day, or to go out on safari and look at some animals, but Manchester United are top of the league and I have a new book coming out, so I can’t really complain.
Can you please give the readers a little bit of background information on your good self?
Sure thing. I’m Andy (A.J. ) Kirby. I’m a less than average height teller of tall tales, full length fiction and short stories, originally from Manchester but now residing in Leeds (which makes it oh so easy being a Manchester United fan). I’ve got five novels, a short story collection and a couple of novellas under my belt (and here was you thinking it was an expanding waistline) and I’m also a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books. I love films, theatre, books and socialising (which in CV terms means I like a drink) and I was once lead singer in a fair-to-middling rock and roll band called (regrettably) Magnetic Fishpond. We were dreadful.
You are a book reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review, how did you get those gigs. And do you get to choose which books you review?
I’ve always compiled lists, charts and reviews of books and films I’ve read and seen. I’m quite anal like that. When I was at university and first moved to Leeds, I found out about a freelance job going round reviewing bars and clubs (and books too) and it seemed right up my street as it involved quite a few freebies, which, as a student, were more than welcome.
Over time, I built up something of a portfolio. Most review sites and publications are happy to hear from new reviewers, but most would prefer to see some kind of a track record. Both The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review required to see a number of my previous reviews prior to accepting me on board.
As to the actual books I review To a certain extent, I can pick and choose, especially for The Short Review, which encourages all its reviewers to try new writing (and genre too). The New York Journal of Books is a little stricter, limiting its reviewers to books on their Mastermind-style specialist subjects, however, as I’ve written crime, sci-fi and horror, for me, that isn’t really too stringent.
As a reviewer, I’ve been introduced to some absolutely fantastic new writers. Unfortunately, I’ve also had to read some dross!
As one book reviewer to another, do you ever get fed up with reviewing books?
I have to say yes. Reading a book for review is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday. I can’t simply enjoy the book for what it is, or allow myself to be carried along by the story. I have to jot down notes on character arcs, narrative threads, plot points. And then I have to write about it without making the review sound like an A-Level English essay. And sometimes, the books simply don’t enthuse me. I’ve been stuck in some real turgid tar-pits of books, all the while thinking whether I’d be able to get away with simply reviewing the first half of the book, or whatever.
And yet I still make an effort to be positive in the actual reviews, and to pick out the aspects I enjoyed rather than those I didn’t. I know what an effort it is to write a book, and I know how it feels to have your illusions of grandeur destroyed.
Reviewing isn’t for everyone, but I have to say that the books I haven’t enjoyed at least part of have been far outweighed by those I’ve loved. It helps that I read voraciously as it is.
What would you say are the three biggest turn offs in a novel, from the point of view as a both a reader and a reviewer?
As a reviewer, I don’t like a book which takes itself too seriously, or as though it’s been written so harrowingly because the writer can already picture the awards he or she might win. Also I’m not so fond of books which tell me things I already know. I want to be introduced to new people and new places. Not to the same stock characters – the grizzled detective, for example – I’ve read a million times before. And finally on my hit list, a book which looks as though it’s been dashed off to order so as to meet a current trend. Any book featuring sexy teenage vampires better be something very, very special for me to even look at it.
As a reader, I’d have to say the biggest turn-offs are bad sex scenes (especially when written by writers I’ve had personal contact with – embarrassing!), a lack of imagination – take me somewhere! – and poor dialogue. I love dialogue when written well – which I suppose is the drama lover in me coming out – but when it’s bad, it’s horrid.
Has anyone ever taken umbrage with one of your reviews?
Yes. I reviewed an anthology a couple of years back. Rather briefly as it happened, as I couldn’t find very much positive to say about it. I won’t give the name of the book, or of the publisher, but the editor contacted me shortly afterwards, absolutely livid about the fact I’d mentioned a few proof-reading errors. He then asked me to itemise exactly where these were. Which I did, stupidly. We then entered what seemed like a vicious circle of emails in which he’d pick apart my analysis of the original text and then I’d try and justify it. I should have simply Called his Bluff and told him to find them himself.
Mind you, bad reviews aren’t necessarily a bad thing (assuming they aren’t totally bad). Anything which will create a debate about your novel is ultimately positive. And you might find that a bad review engages your staunch supporters to come out in support of you.
And finally, there are some Weakest Links I wouldn’t even want to like my book. It’s a matter of personal taste, after all.
There is a feeling out there that reviews don’t equate to an increase in sales, what’s your thoughts on this?
I’m not sure they do equate to an increase in sales. The reviewing system on sites like Amazon (and Goodreads too, to a certain extent) is open to all kinds of abuse: trolling, sock-puppetry, mummy writing in about how good little Johnny’s book is. That type of thing. And we live in a web-literate world now, so most of us know the score. So to think a book might Strike it Lucky if you’ve managed to engineer a load of 5-star reviews on Amazon from all your friends and family won’t wash.
However, there’s a caveat. Think of films. I’d trust a Mark Kermode review over pretty much anything any of my friends tell me about a film. I’d also give a lot of credence to whatever The New York Journal of Books said about a book. We all have our trusted sites which we know will give us the best, most impartial advice. I think a good review from, to pluck an example from the ether, GNOH, is like being tipped a wink by a trusted confidante. Go on, son, give it a go. It won’t hurt you.
You also offer a number of writing services such as copywriting, and press releases, however the one area in which I am really interested in is in your letters of complaint. What prompted you to offer this service?
Yeah, that seems to have hit a bit of a buffer at the moment. Maybe it’s the recession or something. But anyway, I do try and supplement my income from creative writing with a bit of writing-to-order – and you can see the services I offer here: http://andykirbythewriter.20m.com/rich_text.html. It’s all with a view to eventually being able to write full-time, for myself.
But yes, you mention the letters of complaint, and that’s probably the writing service I’m best at, being a naturally cynical so-and-so. I’ve written a few letters of complaint for friends and family (generally in return for a couple of pints) and I’m currently playing Customer Service Tennis with a certain No Frills Low Cost airline after a bad experience at an airport I myself recently experienced. Though they’ve not yet had enough of my pestering, I think they’ll soon realise that I’m quite happy to keep sending letter after letter until they acknowledge my points. (I spent six months going back and forth with the manufacturers of a certain type of crisps a while back until they finally backed down and sent me a load of free tokens.)
Mind you though, some of my major letter-writing successes haven’t been for complaints at all. I’ve written a few letters thanking companies for excellent customer service – usually singling out conscientious individuals for particular praise – and some of these have been greeted with open arms (and free vouchers).
Are you ever concerned about becoming an angry old man a bit too soon?
All the time. Even listening to my last answer, I realise I sound a little deranged. Crisps, for Christ’s sake… I suffer from road rage, I eff and jeff far too much when I’m at the football (or even when I’m just watching at home) and whenever I see a van which has one of those ‘How am I Driving?’ signs on the back, I’ll call up and tell them they’ve been driving like a d*ck.
I hate those typical British complainers you meet on holiday. You know the ones. Food’s not as good as it is at home, there was some dirt in the bath, these foreigners can’t understand what I’m saying. But there’s a chance I’ll turn into one eventually. What began in jest, as a sort of jokey tic of mine, will eventually become a real part of my personality. Oh dear.
It’ll be worse when I retire (which is why I plan to write and write until I pop my Adidas Originals, mid-sentence). Then I won’t have any distractions. Mate of mine from school. His dad was quite a bit older than all the other dads and every time we went round to call for him and his dad answered we’d get that Titanic feeling in our guts because we knew we were in for half an hour of his bitching about potholes in the road, the service at the greengrocers, the way a lorry beeped too loud the other night when he was trying to nap in front of Heartbeat or Deal or No Deal… I can’t turn out like him. I won’t turn out like him. Then I really will have something to complain about.
And what’s this about losing a Les Dennis hosted gameshow. Don’t tell me you are the one who answered “my jumper” when asked to name something red on Family Fortunes?
Almost as bad, I’m afraid. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin. The show was an all-new game show on Channel Five called In The Grid. Weird concept, very colourful, should have been made in the ‘80s. Wasn’t, so it never survived past the first series.
Anyway, so after the auditions, I was invited down to Bristol, to the Endemol studios where they make Deal or No Deal. And I sat there for a week waiting to be called to go on. I spent this time drinking back at the hotel, and getting to know the other contestants. Also, I got to know all the fellers at the studio, as I was always out for a cheeky ciggie, and so got talking to some of the security staff.
One of the security staff was called Dion. I’ll never forget Dion’s name now. You see, on the day I was finally called to go on, Dion had stuck his head around the studio door and had seen ‘the grid’. He told me he knew where all the ‘bankrupt’ squares were and he told me exactly how to find them. And suddenly, I knew I was going to win a shit-load of money. And I knew I could quit my job and follow my dreams. Maybe write a book or something.
Head in the clouds, I barrelled my way into the studio, feeling like ten men. And when Les screeched the name ‘Andy’, I could almost feel the money in my sticky paws. But before I could memorise what Dion had told me about the ‘bankrupt’ squares and how to avoid them, before I could give myself a good talking to – concentrate now, you’re nearly there – I was rushed across the stage, where a posse of production staff were waiting like an octopus, with one of them applying a final coat of make-up, another stuffing a microphone up my shirt, another asking me quick questions, and another tying my shoelace. Yet more of them were firing advice on where to stand, what to say, and how to address Les Dennis. As if he was the Queen or something. And with that I was propelled towards the podium, the stage, and my moment of destiny. And suddenly, the last thing on my mind was what a security guard had said to me.
The old myth about your mind going blank when faced with a TV camera could not have been more apt for me at that time. And what was worse was the moment Les started trying to put me at ease. At the audition, I’d given the production staff all kinds of biographical details about myself, but I’d forgotten that now, and suddenly Les Dennis of all people was asking me about a lad’s holiday to Cornwall where I’d fallen asleep in the car after a heavy session, with my knee pressed on the horn, waking the entire camp site… I was speechless. But the Scouse charmer persisted; he’d seen stage fright every day of his working life. “Come on Andy” he quipped “You must have had a few that day if you can’t even remember it!” To mocking laughter from the student-filled audience. Just start the game Les. Please.
And finally he did. Now, I’m nothing if not a crowd pleaser, so my first move was for C3 square. “Why?” asks the incompetent Scouser. Because I have to pick one square you fucking idiot, I long to say, but instead, play to the student audience with my sci-fi geek credentials: “Cos C3PO is the gold robot in my favourite film, Star Wars, and tonight Les (I had an irritating habit of saying Les after virtually every word at this point)… tonight Les, I’m hoping for Gold.” I’d practiced that line before, and was a bit gutted that none of the Bristol Uni kids were down with my programme, so I continued undaunted and went for D2 next go, “because Les, R2D2 was in Star Wars as well Les Les.”
By this point in the show I was in quite a commanding position. My opponent was bankrupt, and I was up to about £3000, but it was then, when I ran out of stupid sci-fi references, that my luck dried up, and I began to hit the red ‘bankrupt’ squares, seriously dilapidating my funds.
And then I lost. And then I looked up at the grid and realised that it was set up exactly as Dion had said it would be… I’m sure that like in that episode of The Simpsons where they slow-mo the tape to show the exact moment that Lisa Simpson breaks Ralph Wiggum’s heart, there was a moment when my face must have fallen in on itself, lost all structure as the massive haymaker of reality suddenly woke me up to the fact that I was off the show.
I didn’t even congratulate my opponent as I walked past and off the stage. I sat, reeling, and watched as she took a Brobdingnagian Salt Cellar and poured it into my open wounds as she proceeded to win £90,000. And I understood I had literally thrown away a no-lose situation, I had been gifted the winning lottery numbers, but hadn’t bothered to buy a ticket. At that moment, I thought, “I will never be able to sleep again. This will haunt me. I will not be able to get over this.”
But then I thought that the only way I could was to follow my dreams anyway. Not let not winning become an excuse. And I suppose my writing career has been the happy ending. Sort of…
Are you a fan of the horror genre? And if so what is it about the genre that appeals to you?
Yes. I’m a fan. I’m a fan because there’s no boundaries man. Horror fans are ready and willing to suspend their disbelief. They want to be transported. Carried along on the back of a shaggy dog story. They want to be shocked and disgusted and amused and entertained. Some people believe horror is a genre for immature readers, and if so, fair enough. I don’t want to be mature anyway. Horror’s a kind of natural extension to the Roald Dahl stuff we’re all brought up on as kids.
Dahl was the friendly, but slightly sinister grandfather who ‘stole’ my nose and then wouldn’t give it back. He was the Welsh-Norwegian giant who told me the stories which tickled the darker side of my funny bone (and all children have a dark side of the funny bone) and hit that soft spot in my heart which made me care about the characters he created and the stories he told about them. His books were a wondrous concoction of revolting rhymes, marvellous medicines, word stews, and chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. He was the Big Friendly Giant, the distiller of my dreams.
Horror’s a step past Dahl. It enters uncharted territories. It plays on our fears, and it continues to tickle the darker side of our funny bones. I remember when I first started reading Stephen King and my English teacher told me I should read something ‘more literary’, certainly if I expected to be able to write about it for my exam essay. But once I’d read that first King book – and I don’t think I put it down once, reading it though my fingers crabbed around the edges of the book and my eyesight started to fail – I was addicted. And there was no turning back.
And that’s the other thing I like about horror. Horror readers are, like me, voracious readers and they’re very loyal too. We don’t follow what’s cool, or what wins mainstream prizes. We know what we like and we read it, gosh darn it.
And what is it about the genre that you dislike?
The general perception of it. That whiff of it being slightly… less taxing to read than literary novels. The idea that horror doesn’t tackle the real issues that the literary does. Which is a completely irrational idea, but one which has stuck.
But crime fiction was also shunned by mainstream awards and generally ignored by reviewers in sensible publications until recently. Now that’s started to change. Mainly due to the huge number of units shifted. Mainly because everyone fell in love with Stieg Larsson. Can horror have a similar renaissance? I’m not sure. I’m not sure there’s not a feeling that ‘we’re’ better off without ‘them’. That we’re not better being ‘in the know’. Build a ring-fence around ourselves and not allow anyone else in. We need to try to be more inclusive…
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
Phew. Tough one that. At risk of making this sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, I would like to mention a few names. There’s obviously the authors I grew up with (and still love), who’ve, at least in part, shaped my world view. Roald Dahl, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, J.G. Ballard, Kate Atkinson, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Connolly, Cormac McCarthy, George R.R. Martin. Writers I’ve been introduced to more recently: China Mieville, Neal Stephenson, Jack Ketchum, Richard Matheson, Ronald Malfi…
Then there’s the editors and publishers who’ve helped me along the way. Graveside Tales, from across the pond, who published my first ever short story, back in 2007. Legend Press, who granted me a writers’ bursary in 2008, which helped me a lot and also made me feel like a ‘real writer’. Wild Wolf Publishing, who took on Bully in 2009 and helped me shape that raw material into an end product which was just as visceral, but far more readable. Adam Lowe at Dog Horn Publishing, who helped me hone my craft still further in 2010, and who awarded me their Fiction Prize last year. In 2011/12, Terry Wright at TWB Press (who publish my ebook novellas and novelettes) has been a great help in getting me to understand the mechanics of story. And then there’s D.F. Lewis, who has so far published three of my stories, in, variously, the Nemonymous books and in The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies. This nomination is for two reasons. First because his anthologies have introduced me to so many writers I’ve gone on to love, and second, because his themes have got me writing some of the best fiction I’ve ever created.
If you could give any book to someone who doesn’t read horror, in an attempt to change their mind, what book would you choose, and why?
Aha. Good question. I might say start with a King. I know he’s not a great fan of some of the movie adaptations of his books, but there are some stories there which have received much wider acceptance and praise than from the horror community (and some people are surprised to discover King is the author of some of those books). Knock ‘em out with a powerful uppercut (The Shining), and then a jab to the ribs (Stand By Me), and then a quickfire combination of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Maybe avoid Lawnmower Man.
But I’d also like to mention Alison Littlewood, whose novel, A Cold Season, was this year chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club. I’ve just read the book on holiday and though it took a while to adjust to reading a book set in the depths of winter whilst I was lolling like some beached great white on an African beach in 37 degree temperatures, I thought there were aspects of this book which were simply brilliant. The opening section, which provides a metaphor for the book as a whole, and which I won’t spoil, was inspired. This Winter’s Tale deserves, and I’m pleased to say, is receiving, wider recognition.
How would you describe your writing style?
That’s another toughie. Probably the hardest of the lot. I’ll start with what other people have said. Others have described my writing style, variously, as “fierce and impassioned”, as “like trying to get to sleep after drinking too many vodka red bulls…”, and as “engaging and amusing.” With those descriptions in mind, I’ll add that I write with a kind of world-weary pessimism which, weirdly, has an underlying note of hope, too. I write as though I expect the worst but am hoping for the best.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I’m a bit of both. I like to have an idea of where the story’s going at all times or else I feel a bit rudderless. And I’m easily led astray too, so if I’m enjoying writing a character, I can let them carry me off in directions I definitely don’t want to go if I’m not careful. As a general rule then, what I do is roughly outline what I need to happen in each chapter in order to provide the bridge to the next. Beyond that, I’m a little less authoritarian and I allow my characters some leeway. Which can often provide me with interesting new ideas and directions for the flow of the plot.
How do you go about creating your characters? And do you have a favourite character of yours?
Often it starts with a snippet of overheard dialogue in the pub, or some outlandish facial tic I’ve seen on the bus, or with a wacky outfit. It can be a picture in the paper or on the internet. My characters are blends of ingredients I’ve witnessed and experienced, pinches of real people, punches of imaginary people, but magnified, taken to the nth degree, and with added spice. Arguably, it’s my favourite part of the writing process, creating characters. Sometimes it can be as fun as that game where you fold up a piece of paper and pass it round, with each person designing the head, the body, the legs, the feet, and then adding a rude speech bubble emerging out the mouth at the end.
Onto the favourite character part of the question. Seeing as though it’s the last (and probably best) thing I’ve written, I’ll have to say one of the characters from Paint this town Red. And, because the devil gets all the best lines, I’d have to say one of the baddies. I loved creating the loathsome Adrian Devonish, the grasping Manny Combs and, though he only plays a shadowy part in the book, Solomon.
Some of my readers might see it differently. For example, one of my friends, Rob Curtis, still sends me messages on Facebook asking why Danny, one of the protagonists of The Magpie Trap, had to (spoiler alert) die…
Would you say your characters dictate the plot, or does the plot dictate your characters?
I can’t write a story unless I get inside the heads of the characters. See the world through their eyes. Smell what they smell. Without that feeling, I’m blocked, no matter how good the plot outline I’ve scribbled down in my writers’ notebook is. Without characters, I’m nothing. Having said that, the most important aspect of any story is how a character develops, and for that, you need plot. You need the world, other characters, badass big cats, to impact on your characters in order that we can really see what they’re made of. In a way, character is action…
How much research do you do? And have you ever had any nasty letters saying pointing out mistakes in your research?
Right. I’m touching wood now (don’t be rude, you at the back there!) but so far in my career I’ve been lucky enough not to have received any nasty letters pointing out mistakes in my research. That could have been a real problem with The Magpie Trap, which was set in a Leeds which pretty much everyone could recognise. My later fictions have moved away from real ‘real world’ locations however. Bully and a couple of my novellas have been located in a place called Newton Mills, which, I suppose is a little like Stephen King’s Castle Rock. Imaginary, and yet suggestive of real small towns in the Manchester ‘burbs, just as King’s small town suggests Maine. Same with Paint this town Red, which is set on a tidal island called Limm (which calls to mind Lindisfarne).
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
I tend to do a lot of the editing as I go. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m quite anal, and it nags at me if a chapter or sentence isn’t right. I have to go back and back until I set it right in order to get over that brain-snag. That’s not to say I don’t edit at the end – I do, rigorously. But most of the major plot and character editing will be done as I go.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write, or when you finish the final draft?
I gave up smoking three years ago and I still love the smell, the taste, the way a ciggie goes with a beer, the way those death sticks feel in my hands, that first long exhalation after a great meal or something else. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.
I read an interview with Stephen King, who said that his writing ritual is to smoke one celebratory ciggie after he places that final full-stop on the page of his final drafts of his books. And, for a while, I think the promise of that one celebratory ciggie was one of the major reasons for me being a writer. Just as it might explain King’s prodigious output even now.
I didn’t smoke that one celebratory ciggie after either Perfect World or Paint this town Red, but I do promise myself a reward just to carry me through. Sometimes it can be something as prosaic as a weekend completely away from the laptop. Sometimes it can be something a little bigger, like a holiday.
How do you feel when you finally release your book into the big wide world?
Shit-scared and exhilarated in equal measure. Convinced the book’s not good enough, and yet at the same time harbouring sneaky suspicions that this book might be the one which gives me that Big Break. Rather daunted by the prospect of all the marketing and publicity stuff which will suddenly take up most of my days, dragging me out of my safe writing cocoon and yet, a little stir crazy on account of all that time I’ve had to spend poring over that one sentence on page 200 which doesn’t quite read right still.
How comfortable are you at the business of self promotion? And what’s this about you standing on a chair shouting “I’ve written a book” at a book signing?
I’m sure all writers at one stage of their career have had that one in-store book-signing which has proved an absolute disaster. You know the one. You’ve pushed the boat out: worn your Paint this town Red promotional tee-shirt, had your girlfriend do some rudimentary stage make-up on your face so you look like a cross between a clown and a prostitute. You’ve made sure the front of store’s got a poster up advertising your presence and you’ve a bucket of sweets on the front of your desk to attract the idle passerby. You’ve even called the local radio station and got the event listed in all the What’s On guide in the papers.
And yet nobody turns up. Perhaps it’s sunny outside, or you’ve forgotten it’s Grand National Saturday. And even when somebody does enter the store and you catch their eye, they look away, pretend they’ve not seen you. They commando roll into the Children’s section, even though they’ve no interest in the Gruffalo or whatever. Then they shimmy right back out again pretending they’re on the mobile. That important call to the accountant which really couldn’t wait until Monday.
And then, suddenly, you think everything’s going to turn out okay because there’s a post lunch-time rush. Suddenly everyone in town wants to get hold of a book they can read in the sun, or they remember they never win their bets on the Grand National, or they’re just passing and they fancy a butchers at the three-for-twos.
And secretly you’re rubbing your hands together behind the massive pile of books the store’s had shipped in for you. Flexing your fingers ready to scrawl off signature after signature. A kid, maybe, wanders up first, attracted by the sweets, and you’re hoping his or her parents will follow, will pick up the book – they’re in a book store after all – read the blurb, and think yes, I do fancy supporting a local author today.
But that doesn’t happen. There’s a steady stream of people in the store, but your desk is like a contamination zone. You feel abandoned, worthless, a bit of a chancer. Like maybe you’ve been posing as a writer all this time and everyone in the store can see right through you.
But people are still buying books. By the bucket-load. And they’re lingering in the coffee shop acting out as though they’re real literary types, as though they’ve said heigh-ho, it’s the literary life for me. And as they leave, they’re taking chances on writers they’ve never heard of too. From the three-for-two tables, or just because they quite like the cover. And you’re still sitting there with a story to tell and…
And sometimes it just gets to you. And on this one particularly sunny day (at Band Camp) I simply had enough of being ignored and, in a fit of pique, boredom, or madness, I did stand up on my chair and announce to the queue which snaked around the store (still carefully avoiding my desk though) that I was an author, that I’d written a book, and that they should take a chance on it. To their credit, most people took it as a joke and laughed. I waited a few minutes to see what would happen – nothing – and then stalked away, tail between my legs.
I’ve since had quite a bit of time to consider my actions. That night, I couldn’t sleep as the embarrassment percolated in my belly. And I don’t think anyone has the divine right to sell books to people they don’t know just because it’s taken them a long time to write them. Nobody should expect their books to be bought just because they are local, or because they’ve worked hard at them.
But if that’s the case, how can a fledgling author sell any books at all? I think – trial and error’s got me this far – that publicising yourself and your works is important, but also, don’t be selling all the time. Create a story about yourself, an ongoing narrative (through blogs and social networking etc) which will slowly build interest in you and your work from the ground up. And make sure that what you are offering is quality, that the people who do eventually buy your book will then keep coming back.
Seriously though, if you can’t get enthusiastic about your book, how the hell can you expect someone else to be? Be loud, be proud, and go out and get ‘em, kid… To use some hellish marketingspeak, there’s a lot of scope for creativity here and as writers we all “push the envelope” and “think outside the box”, so try different ways of pushing your book. Try standing up and shouting. You never know…
How is the book signing tour coming along, do you have any dates and venues you would like to share?
In the past, I’ve done the Waterstone’s and Borders merry-go-round of signing sessions. I’ve done so many, I’ve walked away with my head spinning, and feeling slightly sick. And then I’ve seen how much the stores have taken in discounts, and I’ve felt a little queasy all over again (especially when Borders went bust owing me over £250.) Anyway, for this new book, I’m trying a few new approaches to publicity and touring. I’m aiming more at the small independents. Libraries. Arts hubs. Festivals. My launch (provisionally at the start of May) will be hosted in conjunction with a local independent bookseller named Radish Books, and will be held at Chapel Allerton library in Leeds (before moving on to the Seven Arts Centre just down the road for the real celebrations). I’ll also be hosting an event at the Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester. The only solid date I can give you at the moment is my talk and reading from Paint this town Red which has been scheduled into the programme at the Kidwelly e Festival – http://www.kidwellyefestival.com/1.html – on 28/29 July 2012.
I will be doing a few select Waterstone’s appearances, and this time I’ll be doing them alongside a fellow Wild Wolf writer, Simon Swift (so we have someone to talk to if nobody turns up). Simon writes crime, so we can bring different audiences to an event, and as such, we might do a bit better.
You have done book signings before, have you ever had to deal with overzealous fans?
Oh, all the time. Generally I tell fans to form an orderly queue and… No. I’m lying. I try and arrange signings in places where I know at least two friends or family members (or writing accomplices) who’ll turn up and get a bit of a buzz going around the desk. So people I don’t know get curious. Things were different when I was the lead singer of a rock and roll band, of course (and when I was a little bit slimmer.)
Do you have any tips for other writers about getting their name out there?
Yes. Be shameless. But also be careful. It’s very easy to spend all your time social networking these days, for very little reward. Make sure you spare some time for the actual writing!
So who designs your covers? And how important do you think the cover is in this E-Book day and age?
A feller from Harrogate named Nick Button designs the covers. I met him – virtually, never in the flesh – through a dark fiction anthology he produced a few years back called Dark Hoard – http://www.darkhoard.com. The book’s described as a “graphic banquet” and when I got hold of my copy, I thought it was the best-looking book I’d ever had the pleasure to be a part of. Nick did all the design work, of course, as well as contributing a couple of stories of his own, and, when the opportunity came to release Bully through Wild Wolf Publishing, I couldn’t think of anyone more worthy of designing the cover. And he did a marvellous job, I think. When Paint this town Red was accepted for publication, I knew I’d be disappointed if the cover wasn’t in keeping with the quality of the Bully cover, so I went back to Nick again, and I’m even more pleased with this one.
Because make no mistake about it, covers are increasingly important in this e-book day and age. Surfing the Amazon charts can be a case of Supermarket Sweep. The old maxim is no longer true. People do judge books by their covers. They do it every day.
Talking of E-books, what is your take on them?
By no stretch of the imagination was I an early adopter. In fact, I started out as pretty much entirely anti e-books. But I soon realised this was quite a blinkered approach. Still, when I was given a Kindle as a surprise present for my birthday eighteen months ago, it took me a couple of months before I even bothered reading anything on it, and even then, it was for a review I was writing. And as soon as I did, I changed my mind about them completely. Soon as I got into the story, I forgot I was reading on a ‘device’, and at one point, I even found myself physically trying to turn the page. I’ve not looked back since, and, for holidays especially, when Thomas Cook’s checking every ounce in your case, they can be a Godsend.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em though, they’re here to stay. Kindle’s are flying off the (virtual) shelves. People I’d never have expected to buy one have already bought. And they’ll all buy at least one book before they get bored and move on to the next thing. So get marketing your book to those people who’ve just purchased their Kindle. And do it fast, while the iron’s hot…
Right, I can’t believe that we have chatted for this long and not even started talking specifically about your books. Your debut novel was The Magpie Trap; can you tell us what the novel is about, and what was the inspiration behind it?
The Magpie Trap is, as my first novel, very dear to me. It holds a special place in my heart because I poured quite a lot of my real-life frustrations (with post university/ shit job life) into it, and because my first reader of the initial draft was my dad, who, at the time was in hospital (he’s okay now, an Achilles tendon tear notwithstanding – more sporty than me my dad, and he’s retired…)
It’s the story of three disaffected twentysomethings who stumble upon a plan to undertake a heist at a money manufacturing plant. Once they get the money, they believe all their problems will be sorted and they’ll be able to follow their dreams, but, as it turns out, the money is only the beginning of their problems. Looking back, I suppose I channelled all of my frustration at getting so close to walking away with a great wheelbarrow load of money from the Les Dennis gameshow, and then having to step back into my shit life, into the writing. Which gives it a furious quality (which it shares with Bully.)
As a body of work how happy are you with it? Would you ever consider releasing a revised edition?
I’m fifty-fifty on that one. In a way, it would be better to leave it as is. There is some raw feeling on the page there which hasn’t been filtered by my worry about what people might think. And it’s also a pretty good reflection of life in Leeds at the time. Leeds as a city which had such wild dreams, flying Prometheus-like for the sun, but then, inevitably, falling. And in that respect, the novel’s very much a case (apart from the heist and murders obviously!) of writing what I knew as my Starter for Ten. All of the locations were on my doorstep in Leeds, which was great, because quite a few of them are bars and pubs, which necessitated a lot of research on my part. Painstaking it was…
But I do think there’s a very good story in there which perhaps gets hidden behind some of the philosophical stuff I wrote and then simply couldn’t bring myself to cut. Now, I’d kill my darlings. I’d cut some of the opening/ scene-setting stuff, as I think for a book which advertises itself as “high-octane”, it’s maybe not as slick, and to-the-point as it should be. The Magpie Trap could be a blockbuster of a story, but as it is, it’s just good.
Still, it did pretty well on release, and, for a lot of my Leeds friends it’s their favourite one of my books. Mainly because on every page they can say, I’ve been there!
Your second novel Bully is a supernatural tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Is this a zombie novel?
More of a ghost story really. It’s the haunting of a group of four schoolyard bullies a few years after the fact, and the various inventive ways our ghost discovers in order to wreak his revenge on them. It’s the story of the bullies becoming the bullied. Really finding out what it means to be shit-scared, beyond miserable, and driven to drastic measures. It’s a pretty brutal book. Very angry. But some readers like me when I’m angry…
People are bullied in all walks of life, and the opening in Afghanistan allows me to explore how the schoolyard stuff transforms/ spills over into later life, into places like the armed forces, for example.
Is any of the book autobiographical in any way?
I think all of my books borrow something from my life and experiences, as well as from characters I’ve met. One of the characters you’ll meet in my most recent book, Paint this town Red – and who dies a horrible death early on – borrows certain very obvious characteristics – a beard – from someone I know well, and his bloody fate… Well, I know this makes me sound like a lunatic, or some kind of psycho, but, well, it was a very cathartic writing experience.
Bully was autobiographical to a point. I experienced bullying at secondary school and channelled my feelings of worthlessness and helplessness at the time – I literally had no idea how I should deal with it – into the writing. But the bullying I experienced was nothing compared to the stuff featured in the novel, and went on for nowhere near as long. It stemmed, I think, from my status as an outsider. I was quite bookish at the time and it didn’t really fit in with some of ‘the lads’ at school. And I wreaked my own revenge by being a late bloomer and getting all the girls in the end anyway (although this might have had something to do with my being in a rock and roll band).
Which celebrity would you, if you could, like to get revenge on from beyond the grave, for their crimes against culture?
Ah. Well the list is endless really. Come round my house, pull up a pew and crack open a bevvie. Have a look at the telly with me. I swear within five minutes, I’ll have told you that at least one of the ‘celebs’ we’ve seen is the worst person in the world ever. Stay a couple cans longer and the insults get far, far worse. Simon Cowell and his ilk are obvious targets. That robot, Amanda Holden, especially. Here’s a few more off the top of my head: Michael McIntyre, Chris Moyles, Jar Jar Binks, the Eastenders characters they’ve suddenly brought in to Coronation Street, Mel Gibson, Richard Keys, James Blunt, whoever the fellers are in Maroon 5, Kirstie Allsop, Greg Wallace and John Torode, the feller who presents The Devil’s Dinner Party, Fearne Cotton, Davina McCall… And so many more. Most of them from ‘reality’, cooking or home improvements programmes.
Oh, and I’m a big football fan too, and I’d class football as culture, sort-of, so I’d also like to throw the hats of Luis Suarez, Carlos Tevez and John Terry into the ring.
But for my number one, I’d have to plump for David Cameron. He’d probably baulk at being dubbed a celeb, but that’s pretty much what the puffin-faced bastard is, isn’t it? A celeb politician, trading off his ‘less geeky than Miliband’ looks, selling personal appearances at the dinner table to the highest bidder. Demonising the working poor, crippling the public sector, slashing arts budgets whilst spunking spondooliks on crap. The amount of small, independent literary magazines I’ve seen go to the wall under this government is purely astounding. He’s ruining our culture to save a few bob, but the longer term cost of this hasn’t even occurred to this millionaire shyster.
And now we come to your new novel, Paint This Town Red, I’m really looking forward to reading this. I love creature feature / man V’s nature novels. What’s the significance of the title?
Great. Well Paint this town Red should be right up your street then. Man versus nature is a pretty good tag-line actually. Or else it’s ‘look what the cat dragged in’, or ‘Jaws on land’. Something like that.
As to the title. Well, one of the strands of the book features an alcoholic who’s at the point of falling off the wagon. Painting the town red has become slang for engaging in wild, often drunken, behaviour. According to the Melton Mowbray Tourist Office – who you’d think had enough on their plates boasting of their pork pies – the phrase was first used in 1837 when it is said the Marquis of Waterford and a high falutin’ group of his snooty chums – sounds like the Bullingdon Club – ran riot in Melton Mowbray, painting the town’s toll-bar and quite a few buildings blood red. I wanted to draw comparisons with the single-mindedness of animals with the obsessiveness of alcoholics, and also I wanted to suggest the wide-reaching ramifications of following bloody urges like a thirst to drink, and how this can ripple out to the very edges of the pond. The creature featured in this book is largely unknowable, untameable, much like someone who’s lived under the influence of alcohol for most of their lives can be.
When did your fascination with creatures alien to the UK begin?
I’m an animal lover, first and foremost. Always had been. When I was little, I either wanted to be – and usually this depended on what day you asked me what answer you’d get – a zoo keeper, a Manchester United goalkeeper, or a writer. Generally, I shun beachy kinds of holidays – for the most part – and save up to go on safari adventures instead. And I’ve been on the big cat trail a few times now. In Kenya and Senegal, and then in India on the search for tigers. This tends to make me sound more adventurous than I really am, but I don’t really care. Writing’s all about reinventing things!
Anyway, I’d been quite keen on writing a Creature Feature for a while. I touched on it in my novel When Elephants Walk Through the Gorbals – a dark crime-thriller which won quite a decent award but which for some reason hasn’t been picked up for publication – but I wanted to go deeper. Bring the creature to the fore with this one.
As to the alien to the UK aspect of this question, I’ll take you back to the guest blog I wrote for GNOH a few weeks back. Paint this town Red is inspired by what I imagine are very common small-town rumours which I experienced in my small town – I’ll leave it unnamed, to preserve the air of mystery – when I was growing up. When I was about fifteen or sixteen, there was talk of a large feline – perhaps a lynx – which was stalking the nearby hills, picking off livestock. There were plenty of sightings, most of which were discredited, but some couldn’t simply be explained away by Mrs. Goggins’ black moggie being on the prowl.
One night, bunch of mates and I engineered a large and rather over-complicated lie which meant that each of our parents believed we were staying at one of the others’ houses. Instead we decided to go camping up in the hills surrounding the town. We got our hands on a few cans of underage liquor, stolen from unsuspecting dads and the like, and we packed up our sleeping bags and our tents and we set out to find the Black Panther, as it was becoming commonly known.
One of my mates in particular had done quite a lot of research into the panther and, as darkness crept in and we failed to get our fire going, he told us all he knew about the panther. The thing which really got the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end was what he said about how the panther breathed. He claimed you could hear it, a rasping, throaty sound, before it came for you.
Anyway, we passed the evening telling stories and jokes and drinking up our pilfered booze, and in the end we turned in for the night. I woke up freezing cold in the wee small hours, already alert. And it was then that I heard the exact same breathing which my mate had described hours earlier, coming from outside the tent. I’d love to have said that I ran out, camera in hand, and got the snap which scooped the local paper. But I didn’t. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, and prayed that if it was really the panther, it would go for one of my mates first instead of me.
The next morning, nobody else claimed to have heard the panther, and indeed, one of my mates was being mocked for snoring, so the rasping, throaty sound could have been him. Or then again, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe we really did have a close encounter with the black panther. Maybe we came this close.
I wanted to recreate the peculiar atmosphere which surrounded our town when these rumours were floating about. That weird sense of being hunted and of wanting to hunt it at the same time. That weird sense of belief and disbelief at the same time. And I also wanted to explore what would happen to such rumours in the internet age, when anybody can post a picture of a large footprint on Facebook, or Twitter, and can suddenly make a myth real, by word of mouth.
But I also wanted to go further. Creatures in fiction are often loci for metaphors (I’ve already mentioned the one I’ve suggested in the text; the alcoholism strand). Or they’re given anthropomorphic traits. We try and understand them through our own eyes and experiences. I wanted to create a true alien creature whose motives are forever clouded. But also one onto whom the townspeople (and the author. Me!) project their own experiences and fears.
Are you a believer in these creatures? And how far into it do you believe? Nessie?
A lot of people claim that they can’t exist as we don’t have any good photographic or video evidence. What’s your take on this?
I’m not sure. I want to believe. Because I want there to be elements of the mysterious and the fantastic which colour our world. I want there to be more than petrol strikes and Saturday night TV ‘talent’ shows and Conservative governments. But then, I don’t think I’m not the only one thinks that. I’ve been up to Loch Ness a few times and, without fail, I’ll be staring at the water for a while and suddenly I’ll see something move and I’ll reach for the camera and then… It’s gone. And I’ll think, that’ll have been a log, or a wave, or a… A… dinosaur? Having been on safari in India on the search for tigers, just as an example, I know that animals in the wild won’t play ball. They won’t just sit there posing waiting for you to get your camera or mobile phone ready. They sniff out humans and hide. Natural response. They don’t want to be seen. I haven’t got much evidence of the fact I saw a tiger in the wild in India. But I did. I promise you I did.
But surely some of them must be the locals trying to drum up tourist for their village?
Bullseye. And surely some suspicion must be cast my way too. Isn’t it a coincidence that almost on the day my novel was released, there was a spate of new sightings of the fabled Calderdale Cat Beast? Meaning that when I called up some of the local papers in Yorkshire, editors were far more willing to run press releases about my book because they tied in with the news… Can you picture me creating fake footprints down by the river in Hebden Bridge? Or dressing up in fur and running across fields in pursuit of rabbits? Or savaging some of the local farm animals? All in the name of marketing, my friend, all in the name of marketing… Seriously though, the idea of locals making up these stories, crying wolf so to speak, forms one of the plot strands in Paint this town Red.
Which myths about these creatures are your favourite?
It would have to be the Daddy of them all, the Beast of Bodmin Moor. The whole story has a Hound of the Baskervilles feel to it. Only, featuring a big cat, of course. After countless ‘sightings’, and rumours, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food conducted an official investigation in 1995, and found that there was “no verifiable evidence” of an exotic feline on the loose and Feline Fine. But it’s the twist to the tale that I love the most. Not a week after the report was published, a little lad found a fairly whopping cat skull at the side of a stream. Not even hidden. Myths suddenly morphed into reality, red in tooth and claw. If this wasn’t verifiable evidence, then what was?
(The footnote to this story is more prosaic: the skull was analysed by the Natural History Museum and although it did prove that the skull did belong to a leopard, it also proved that the leopard couldn’t have died in the UK. Apparently it contained eggs laid by a species of cockroach which could not have been found on these shores and there were marks on the skull which suggested the skin had been scraped off it with a knife. But what if these were the plants, not the skull…)
Can you tell us about the creature in Paint This Town Red? Or will that spoil the reveal?
Well, I can give a few wee hints. It’s actually creatures. Plural. There’s one breakout star of course, an oversized black panther with a taste for human flesh and a new territory to protect. But this Creature Feature also introduces the reader to, in order of appearance, a great white shark, a plague of flies, and a vulture with elephantitis.
The novel has a large list of characters and it is told from many different viewpoints, how did you go about actually setting out the novel? And how hard was it for you to keep all of these plots tied together in a coherent narrative?
There’s a reason for that. I wanted to show the effects that the impending threat would have on various strata of the Limm society, from the wealthy mayor to the part-time waitress, and from the newspaperman to the school music teacher. I wanted to show how rumours, myths and suspicions, counter-rumour, denial and mistrust can spread within small communities. In principle, the story’s one huge allegory of humanity’s fear of the outsider. Keeping the various plots and strands tied to a coherent narrative was difficult, I won’t kid you on, but I always kept story at the forefront of my mind, no matter how many blind alleys my unruly characters wanted to lead me down. It’s about being disciplined, asserting your authority over the characters you create. Asking them, Who’s the Daddy Now?
Does the setting of the novel play an important role in the plot?
I’d like to think so. It’s set on a tidal island much like Lindisfarne, which means it’s umbilically linked to the mainland, but also cut off at the same time. I wanted to make it an insular place. Also, the fact of it being an island helps in trapping the characters. This idea of being trapped, I think, is why the novel’s already drawn a couple of comparisons with Under the Dome…
What sort of novel can the readers expect from Paint This Town Red?
Paint this town Red’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s the Magnum Opus of my fledgling career. I hesitate to say that it’s got a bit of everything, because that would imply I’ve thrown as much shit as possible at the wall, hoping some of it would stick, but in a way, it has got a lot to it. Early readers have commented on its humour, the sheer variety of its cast list, and the tension of the action sequences. But at heart, it’s an old-fashioned Creature Feature given a modern twist. Readers can expect surprises, shocks, thrills and spills along the way. Above all, readers can expect to be entertained.
As part of the marketing you have made Paint This Town Red T shirts, where can folk buy them if they are interested?
Mwahahahaha. That’s all a part of my sinister marketing plan to not only get people reading the book but to turn them into walking adverts for it. You can call me the Nike of horror writing. Or something. But yeah, I’ve had a batch of tee shorts made up by a certain online printing company (which plagues you with emails every day – you know who I mean) and they’re already proving a great conversation-Starter For Ten. If folk are interested – I’ll be amazed if they are, but there you go – I’ve set up an A.J. Kirby ‘Merchandise’ section on my website which contains the Paint this town Red tees as well as some other goodies. The page is here: http://andykirbythewriter.20m.com/catalog_1.html Course, seeing as though you’ve read this far in the interview, I’m prepared to push the boat out and dangle a special offer in front of your faces. Buy your copy of Paint this town Red through me, and I’ll send you an exclusive tee-shirt for half the listed price. Mail me on andrewkirby 92 (at) btinternet.com and just remind me of what I’ve said…
It has just been released as an E-book, with the paperback coming soon? How well has the book gone so far?
Yeah, the e-book was out of the traps fast. Much faster than I’d expected. Almost caught me on the hop it did. I’d spent so long going back and forth with the publishers making late, late editorial changes that, for a while, the book actually being released felt a bit pipe-dreamy. And then one cold morning three weeks ago, I was emailed out of the blue to discover it had just appeared – as if by magic – on Amazon. Since then, it’s done well, picking up the usual friends, family and acquaintances sales, but I want to push it further. Make it really run.
The paperback’s tortoising out a lot slower and I’m expecting the release date to be the second week of April, which at least gives me some time to schedule in some in-store events and a launch. It’s the paperback I’m really holding out my hopes for here though, because, as disorganised as I sound, I am going to be involved in a lot of events over the coming months – festivals, readings, conferences, talks – and I’ll be lugging along my box of books to all of them.
Are you working on a new novel at the moment? Or do you have a lay off period between books?
I’m on a Big Break at the moment, mainly because my marketing and PR plans for Paint this town Red are taking up so much of my time, and I barely have any hours left to write. But I am stewing over a few ideas. Largely, I think, these will be short stories. I do tend to write a few shorts in the down-time between novels as they allow me scope for more experimentation in form, and, to be brutally honest, for a bit of fun too. But one thing I am starting to jot down a few notes for is a potential sequel to my 2011 novel Perfect World. It’s the first of my novels which had an ‘open’ ending and a few reviewers at the time hinted that the story was series-worthy. At the moment though, they’re only seedlings of ideas. The grass and plants of my time is taken up with organising the launch and signings and stuff like that.
Thanks for popping over Andrew, It’s been a fascinating interview, do you have any final words for the readers?
I’d just like to say thanks for listening (or reading, or whatever). And thanks to you, too, Jim for coming up with some excellent, thought-provoking questions which helped me chunter on so much. I’d also like to ask whether anyone noticed that I tried to shoehorn a reference to a gameshow into pretty much every answer?
If you enjoyed this interview then please check out Andrews guest post
YOU CAN PURCHASE ANDREW’S BOOKS BY CLICKING THE LINKS BELOW