As you know, I love doing author / writer interviews, especially when the genre is one I don’t generally write for (never say never, right?). It’s also a great way to get inside someone else’s head without Thomas Bladen’s surveillance skills. I was delighted, therefore, when Neil Roberts – a writer buddy and someone I know in the real world – agreed to do a blog interview. Sit back and enjoy…
1. What is it about short fiction that appeals to you?
Just kidding, but it’s still the brevity which appeals. Whenever I find a collection of short stories I always seek out the shortest ones to read first. They’re like a little instant hit of flavour. Literary amuse-bouches, if you like. But that’s as a reader, not an author. As an author it’s a whole different story. As an author I like the discipline.
Unlike when I’m working on a novel I don’t have the time in a short story to waste on needless world-building and interesting diversions. I have to stay focused on what I’m wanting to tell and stick to just that path, no matter how fascinating the opportunities to meander may be. It really does help you develop and tighten your writing style when you have to weigh up not just chapters of paragraphs but individual sentences and words, deciding whether they serve the story or are padding to be cut.
2. Who are your influences?
That’s a complicated question, because there are many ways to be influenced creatively. The author who made me want to write (and to whom my first ever story was an homage) was HP Lovecraft. I’d encountered his work through the RPG Call of Cthulhu and gone on to devour his writing in short order. Unlike his contemporaries and antecedents (Poe for example) Lovecraft’s work has aged remarkably well and I still find it influencing me today.
Looking at my book shelf Asimov has been an obvious influence too. I have a complete set of his early shorts and often find myself reading them again, and not just for nostalgia’s sake. He paints a character with such deft strokes, outlining them in only a few words and creating rounded images with a rapidity I’ve not seen since Dickens (who could sum up an entire person simply by naming them).
The agent, publisher and anthologist Herbert van Thal was also an undoubted influence, despite never writing a word of fiction in his life. Through the 24 volumes of the Pan Books of Horror Stories for which he was responsible I was introduced to a world of ideas utterly alien to me, exposed to possibilities and peculiarities I’d never imagined could exist. Over the years I’ve managed to pick up most of the volumes he edited at charity shops and car-boot sales so that I now have an only marginally incomplete set of the books. One particular story – Pieces of Mary – is undoubtedly the single most influential piece I’ve ever read. It appeared in volume 12 of the series and – so legend has it – was written, edited and sent to print in just one day but Robert Ashley. If you ever see volume 12 grab it – it also contains a 14 line poem called The Instant Divorce which is simply flawless in execution and the wonderful Sergeant Lacey demonstrates how a revenge tale can be written. Truth be told the entire volume is worth more than just a casual read, and that’s rare for an anthology.
3. Tell us a little about how you got your stories published.
Social media and networking have been as big a boon to me as to any other writer. Without the Internet (the most amazing by-product of CERN’s research and a paean to the benefits of unrestricted research) I’d never have been published, not just because I’d never have seen any of the submission calls to which I responded but also because I’d never have been able to respond to them on a budget. When I started sending out my work it was always printed out and posted off, never to be heard of again, and that ended up costing money which I simply didn’t have. With the development of email it’s become cheaper, faster and easier to rack up the rejections. And mark my words, rejections are what I’ve had and still receive in abundance.
On the plus side the Internet also meant I was published for the first time twice. Yes, I know that makes no sense, but stick with me. I had sent off two different stories to two separate publishers, neither of whom knew each other even existed yet alone that I had submitted to them. One was here in the UK, but the other was in the US (I’d never normally have known about them without t’Interweb) and the practical upshot was that I received acceptances from both publishers, each understanding that I was unpublished which, until they changed it, I was. Ironically the order in which the two stories were published was the reverse of that in which they were accepted.
A little about courtesy at this point. In the above the stories were different, but if you’re sending out the same submission to multiple publishers or agents then tell them. My most recently published work was with two companies and as soon as one accepted it I informed the other that the piece was no longer available even though I’d not heard from them in several months. There was no objection from that second company and it actually prompted them to consider another of my pieces which will be coming soon to a bookshelf near you.
In short, always be as professional as you possibly can – as a writer (as in all walks of life) your reputation is vital.
4. What are you working on at the moment?
Nothing much. I’ve just finished a 60k novel which was pure hell to get out so I’m trying to put it out of my head. After a period of reworking it’s currently with a reader or two so while its structurally complete there will be a final polish before I can finally call it done. Or as done as these things ever are.
However, while I’m not actually writing at the moment I am plotting and researching in preparation for a new project. Proper preparation definitely pays dividends in the long run, really it does. My first novel was under-planned and took eight years to finish. My second was planned, written and polished off in as many months. The third took a little longer in the plotting, but has still been finished in a matter of months, not years. Planning is even more important in writing short stories because of the limitations on word-count you’ll inevitably encounter. If an editor says he has a 5,000 word limit he means it. If your story expands above that in the editing process then that’s all very well and good, but until then treat any limitations imposed upon you with the same respect you would the word of God.
5. What are your greatest challenges when writing short fiction?
All writers have a legion of barriers to prevent them writing. Time is the big one, inspiration is another. And let’s not forget the distractions that we can happily lose ourselves in (Douglas Adams once climbed a mountain to avoid writing – now that’s what I call doing it like a boss).
I’m what I like to think of as a method-writer. Just as method-actors enclose themselves in their role so do I take on some of the drives and motivations of my characters while I write. Maybe it’s a hangover from a life of playing RPGs, but for those creative hours I really do get in the head of each of my protagonists and antagonists, which means they also take up temporary residence in mine.
At first sight it’s rather useful as by wrapping my head around their personalities it becomes obvious what they’d say or do, and that makes plotting and writing so much easier. But in other ways it’s damned tough. Put aside the fact that some of my characters are thoroughly unpleasant individuals, I put almost all of them through hell, really I do. I’ve inflicted fates upon some that I’d only wish upon the very worst of my enemies, and that has taken a toll on occasion. I know it sounds ludicrous, but I’ve honestly felt guilt for hurting fictional people.
There’s one particular character who I put through a series of unmitigated awfulness over the course of his character arc. I heap upon his narrow shoulders such trials and tribulations as would have broken Job’s faith. Really. Okay, so he’s not perfect, but he’s no monster. As a person he has a few minor flaws, a few irritating personal characteristics, but nothing to deserve the dreadful experiences he endures at my hands. I know it’s stupid and paradoxical, but I feel a palpable guilt for what I’ve done to him. He’s fictional, a creation of my peculiarly individual mind, so why do I feel that I need to write him a happy ending, even if it never sees the light of day?
Hi. My name is Neil and I torture my creations. [cue “Hi, Neil”]
Unfortunately, while it may make me a cruel and malicious god, it’s part and parcel of this particular writer’s gig. Oh, but if any other writers out there feel the same way, please let me know – it’s driving me crazy thinking I’m the only one!
6. Where can we find out more about your work?
I have a Twitter feed @WriterRoberts
If you feel the desire to find the books in which I’ve been published on Amazon then just search for “PN Roberts” in the book department. You’ll find the anthologies Out of Phase, Slaughterhouse: vol 2 and Raus Untoten! all of which feature my work. And more is coming soon, including digital copies of individual stories which have reverted to my control as well as a few that have never before been published.
7. Can you recommend any short stories you return to, and tell us why?
Besides those mentioned above in my response to question 2 I must praise the collection of connected shorts written by George RR Martin and published as Tuff Voyaging. While he is best known for his work on the world of Westeros I would recommend ever single word of Tuff Voyaging as infinitely superior. I’ve read it before and will again. It’s just that damned good.
Lovecraft’s spellbinding The Outsider is also worth more than a casual mention. Despite knowing the twist in the end of that particular tail I never fail to delight in reading it. It’s an exercise in the construction of tension and a tour de force creation of a sensitive and compelling protagonist for whom I still feel a genuine affection. I wish I’d written it.