Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thomas Emson Interview

I am very pleased to have Thomas Emson's interview to present for your reading pleasure. Thomas has written Maneater, his first English language book, published by Snowbooks.

Describe your writing day for us – are you a “I have to write 2000 words a day” kind of guy or do you write until you can’t focus anymore?

ANSWER: I try to write everyday, usually in the morning. I think it’s important to treat writing as a proper job, and the more you do that, the easier it becomes to get to your desk and write. When I’m working on a novel, I set myself a weekly word target – it’s between 8,000 and 10,000. That means I need to write an average of about 1,150 to reach my minimum word target. Weekly targets are easier than daily ones. If you set yourself a 2,000-words-a-day target, and you miss a day, you feel miserable. With weekly targets, if you miss a day – or even two – you can always catch up. And when you tot up your words at the end of the week and discover you’ve done more than 10,000 words, it gives you a buzz.

Are you a tidy writer or do you thrive in chaos?

ANSWER: I wouldn’t say I thrive in chaos, but my desk becomes chaotic when I’m working on something. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and my laptop is lodged between piles of papers and books. I’m a bit messy, really, and I should try to be a bit more organized. But I do know where everything is, and I’m sure if I tidied my desk I wouldn’t be able to find the things I need to find. After I finish the novel, I will clear my desk. I’ll store the notes in a box file. And then, I’ll start making another mess for another novel.

Have you ever attended any writing courses or conference?

ANSWER: I did a B.A. in Communications at the Normal College in Bangor, North Wales, and during the third year we did a creative writing module. Ifor Wyn Williams, a brilliant Welsh-language novelist and screenwriter, who sadly died in 1999, and Rhiannon Davies Jones, a much-respected novelist in the Welsh-language, taught me. They really helped me begin to understand what writing was about, and Ifor helped, particularly, with structure. I wrote horror, then. And I think Rhiannon Davies Jones – who wrote literary, historical fiction – was a bit shocked by what she read. But they were both very supportive. I’ve never attended any classes or conferences since, but I’ve read a lot of how-to books.

What prompted you to write Maneater? Was it a single idea, an image or a character that came to mind?

ANSWER: Laura Greenacre, the main character, was there at the very beginning. Her name never changed, the way she looked in my head, her personality, they’ve stayed the same from the time I started the novel – back in 1999 – up until publication. I certainly had specific images in my head before I started planning and writing: the scene where Laura scythes through the swimming pool at Templeton Hall; the scene where she battles the mercenaries (you can read an early, completely different, version of this scene at my author’s page on the Snowbooks website); and her attack on the offenders’ home official when she was younger. Initially, I think, I just thought I’d write a werewolf novel. With those images, with that character, I went about it rather meticulously, I suppose. I planned things quite carefully, writing scenes on cards, and building the whole thing like a bricklayer would build a house. I wrote a rough first draft, and then it was put aside. Until last year, when I went back to the draft, and cleaned up three chapters – which I sent to an U.S. writing competition, called the PNWA Literary Festival, and to Snowbooks. Emma Barnes at Snowbooks loved it and wanted to see the rest of the manuscript, and it also made the Top 10 in the Adult Genre Novel category at the PNWA event. I finally got a decent draft to Emma in June last year.

I was simply exhausted when I finished reading it, did you find that you felt the same once you’ve typed that last sentence?

ANSWER: It’s great to hear that my book can exhaust a reader. When I was working on the last draft, I was really flying. It was a real buzz, hurtling through this story. I think I’d calmed down a bit after writing the big battle scene at the end, and writing those last couple of more downbeat chapters relaxed me.

What motivated you in the dark days when the words wouldn’t come?

ANSWER: I’m quite clinical about writing. I treat it is as a job, and I don’t really have the dark days you mention. Words will always come. They might not be the best words every day, but words will come. I’m very much a disciple of Philip Pullman’s on this. He says writers should no more suffer writers’ block than plumbers suffer plumbers’ block. There’s a great quote where he says that an amateur thinks they’ve got to wait for inspiration to be a professional, but a professional knows that if they waited for inspiration they’d always be an amateur. That sums it up. It’s a job of work, a job of work we are privileged to do and a job of work we love – so let’s do it and count our blessings.

Your characters in Maneater are all very focussed to the point of selfishness in some instances – did you purposefully create a menagerie of characters that were so very raw and in some instances, almost unlikeable when taken out of context?

ANSWER: Very good question. Conflict is vital in fiction, and the way you create conflict is to make one character want one thing and another character want the opposite. All the characters in Maneater want things, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Although the novel was planned, I did let the characters lead me astray somewhat. I think this makes for better fiction – it doesn’t feel so contrived. As to being likeable, I don’t think likeability is important in a character; I don’t even think characters need to be sympathetic – I think ultimately characters have to be memorable. I didn’t want Laura to be “nice”; I didn’t want her to be sweet and kind. She does have a moral centre, I think. But what drives her is anger and revenge, and nothing’s going to change that. If she thinks it’ll help her cause, she will kill. Character motivation is vital. Kurt Vonnegut jr. said that on every page someone should want something – even if it’s a glass of water. I think this is brilliant advice. It just clarifies the point that characters need a driving force. If you’ve got a character that wants a glass of water and on the same page a character that wants to stop him having a glass of water, then you’ve got conflict, and you’ve got drama.

I love the fact that each of your chapters hold key images and that they were short and punchy. In most other books a lot of chapters are made up of different scenes and do become quite dull. Was the short chapters a deliberate choice on your part?

ANSWER: Thank you. I’m really pleased you liked that aspect. It was a deliberate choice. It helps keep the story moving, I think. And also, there’s nothing worse when you’re on a train or a bus, you’ve started reading a chapter, and then you arrive at your destination before you finish the chapter. With short chapters, you can easily scoot through before journey’s end.

How much research did you do into lycanthropy and the legends about werewolves?

ANSWER: None at all. I think most of what we know about werewolves comes from Hollywood: the full moon; the silver bullets. I wanted to avoid those symbols. I wanted to place my werewolves in a realistic situation, which is why I used Newcastle and London – and most of the research I did involved finding out about those cities, trying to be as accurate as possible. Laura and the other werewolves are traditional in many ways, and I like that, but I think Maneater’s a modern take on the myth: it’s traditional horror wrapped up in modern thriller. And, of course, the great thing about myths is that you can make things up. After all, it does say “Fiction” on the back of the book.

Did you struggle to write from any of the characters’ point of view?

ANSWER: No, I found it enjoyable and relatively easy. Again, it’s all about character motivation. I think if you know a bit about your characters before you start, about what they want, you can easily get into their heads because you know what drives them. Michael Templeton, for instance, is completely vile: he’s a cruel, nasty, coward. But he has a clear motivation, so it was pretty easy writing from his point-of-view. The trick was not to make him a pantomime villain, and I hope I haven’t done that.

What are your plans for the future? More writing in the same noir genre?

ANSWER: I’ve finished a vampire novel, and I’m working on the re-writes, now. I hope very much that Emma and her colleagues at Snowbooks might like it enough to publish it. It’s Part One of a trilogy. It’s set primarily in 21st Century London, but you’ll also get whisked off to Ancient Babylon, the Middle East in the 1920s, and Ceaucescu’s Romania. I’m also working on a Welsh-language non-fiction book on crimes in Wales. I was commissioned last year. I’ve had Welsh-language horror and thriller fiction published in the past, but the non-fiction’s a new venture. After I finish the vampire novel, I’ll start on another novel about a road trip from Hell, and then, if the vampires receive a good reception, Part Two will get underway.

What was the very first thing you did when you found out that you are being published?

I forwarded Emma’s email to my girlfriend, Marnie, with the note, “You have to read this.” She did, and then rang me to squeak down the phone at me.

Who are your literary heroes?

ANSWER: Early influences were Stephen King (I wouldn’t be writing had I not read “Salem’s Lot”), James Herbert’s “The Rats”, “The Fog”, and “The Dark”. Clive Barker’s “Books Of Blood”. Canadian author, Michael Slade, has always provided visceral amusement. I love John Fowles’s “The Collector”, and I’m a huge fan of Michael Connelly. Lately I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Patrick O’Brien, George MacDonald Fraser, and Ian Fleming. James Bond in “Casino Royale” is the perfect example of an unsympathetic but memorable character. And Elmore Leonard is someone whose writing I admire and enjoy.

Can you name five (or more) books or websites on writing that you have found invaluable in your work?

ANSWER: “On Writing”, Stephen King; “Telling Lies For Fun & Profit”, Lawrence Block; “The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. I and II”; “On Writing Horror”, ed. Mort Castle; “The Elements Of Style”, Strunk and White; wikipedia.

Any advice to struggling writers out there?

Treat it like a job. Sit down every day, or on designated days, at a specific time – and write. Half-and-hour, an hour, two hours; 200 words, 500 words, or 5,000 words – it doesn’t matter; whatever suits you. And learn your craft. Think of it like any other trade – plumbing, bricklaying, carpentry – keep working at it and try to get better.


Do visit Thomas at his beautiful site to find out more about Thomas and what he is up to or visit Snowbooks to buy Maneater.

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