Author to Author Interview: with EJ Swift
Paul Tobin: First… since some readers of my blog might not be familiar with your work, give a brief, “this is who I am, and this is what I write.” And I do apologize for this question, because I hate it myself, but it’s as unavoidable as the meteor strike that will eventually destroy us all.
EJ SWIFT: It is a particularly evil question, isn’t it? I’m an English writer of science fiction and the fantastical. That’s probably the best definition of what I write at the moment, although to be honest I never think about definitions when I’m working on something new. My debut novel OSIRIS was out from Night Shade Books in the US this summer, and will be released in the UK in February 2013, from Ebury’s new imprint Del Rey UK. It’s the first in a trilogy, The Osiris Project. OSIRIS is the name of a futuristic ocean city of pyramid skyscrapers, in which activist Vikram meets social miscreant Adelaide. Consequences ensue…
I guess I should say something about what I do when I’m not writing. This is probably best summarized as cats/gardening/dance/yoga/cocktails.
PT: Since you brought it up, talk a bit about genre definitions. When you’re writing, are you aimed for nothing but the story, or a story within a genre? Also… current favorite cocktails? I’m horribly simple when it comes to cocktails; drop me a Mojito or a White Russian and I’m a satisfied man. I’ve starting to feel an urge to explore the cocktail boundaries, though. Where do you roam?
EJ: I aim for the story, wherever it leads me. Genre definitions are so subjective anyway… From a publisher’s point of view I see the point – you have to categorize the book somehow, or how can you market it? But as a writer, I think you have to create what feels true and imperative to you, regardless of where it might end up or how it’s defined.
Now as for cocktails (the important stuff!) if I see basil or ginger on a cocktail list I will probably try it. I had something really interesting with sake and ginger once. But you can’t go wrong with a mojito. A Colombian in Paris taught me to make mojitos and it’s one of the most useful life skills I have ever acquired (thank you Juanita. You feature in my Paris book. No, really. You do).
PT: Okay… now that you’ve said who you are and what you write, give us the romanticized version: who would you like to be, and what would you like to write?
EJ: In an ideal world where you could make a living wage as an artist, I would love to spend half of my time writing and the other half performing (of course in this ideal world, I would also have banished stage fright). I did a lot of dance growing up and I’ve missed it as an adult, but then I discovered circus arts. This term I’ve just started my second course of flying trapeze at the amazing Circus Space in London. It’s highly addictive.
About the writing… I think you’re always figuring out what kind of writer you want to be, but at the moment I have two quite distinct styles. There’s the more serious dystopian stuff which I’ve always been drawn to as a reader – and at the other end of the scale there’s the absurd stuff that is mostly for the benefit of my family. For example, I have a character called Super Falcon (an actual falcon, very egotistical) who I’d love to do something with one day, be it for children or adults. But what I would like eventually is to find a way to write that merges those styles, because the very best of literature, like theatre, follows humour with tragedy and tragedy with humour and finds one in the other. I would like to be able to find that emotional range in my work.
PT: I think it’s fantastic that you brought up the cooperative efforts of tragedy and humour. I’ve a strong background in comic book writing, and all too often comics (I’m speaking specifically of the superhero genre) only had room for grim and gritty. DC, for instance, has a rule that Batman is not supposed to smile. I find that sad, because it not only diminishes a character, but also a world, and the pacing of a story.
Intensely jealous of you for the trapeze work at Circus Space, incidentally. Are you finding “circus” characters and worlds moving into your prose, building from your interest in the real world?
EJ: Batman can’t smile ever? That’s very sad! There’s kind of a link there, actually, because Circus Space are consultants for Batman Live… but anyway, circus… oh yes. It crept into Osiris a tiny bit – I wanted the city to have a predominantly live entertainment scene rather than a recorded one. It also crept into my Paris book (shelved for now). And I want to write something with a real circus focus one day. I love Angela Carter’s NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS. If you ever get the chance to jump on a trapeze, do it. Getting up there is terrifying but once you’re flying it’s a really euphoric experience because you breathe in a particular way.
PT: Are you an author who works from copious notes, or are you gunslinging the thoughts as they come to you, then revising later?
EJ: I tend to write what comes into my head and revise later. Apart from the planned chapters, I end up with lots of little scenes, or sometimes just a couple of lines, scribbled in different notebooks or post it notes all over the place. I might know where they fit in or I might have to find somewhere for them to fit. When I start a novel, it’s such a hideous painful experience to get anything on the page that I have to tell myself it doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish, if the writing’s awful – just get something down. “When stuck, do badly” in other words. And sometimes I find that the chapters I agonize over and the chapters that give me the worst headaches turn out better than the ones I wrote whilst ‘in the flow’ – do you find that?
PT: Absolutely. It’s strange, but sometimes I’ll be thrilled with a day’s writing, and then when I proof it the next day, it’s rubbish. Or the opposite is true; I struggle like a madman to make my day’s writing total, feeling like I’m doing no more than emptying a garbage can onto the keyboard, and then the next day’s proofing reveals a bit of majesty.
I like, “When stuck, do badly,” incidentally. In college I was friends with a stagehand / set builder for the theater department, and he taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. “DONE is beautiful.”
EJ: I like that too. When you’re done you have something to work with.
PT: Myself, I have a whole list of writers I consider as influences, but I don’t actually write like any of them. Is it that way for you, or do you find yourself with a certain level of emulation?
EJ: I read Philip Pullman’s NORTHERN LIGHTS as a teenager and that had a huge influence on me – I love the story, and the invention, but what I like about Pullman (and perhaps it’s emphasized because he’s writing YA) is the simplicity of the language. I remember reading it and really noticing the words. Similarly with THE ROAD, where the language is incredibly stripped back for a Cormac McCarthy novel, but the absolute precision of the words he chooses is phenomenal – just in the last paragraph (one of my favourite paragraphs ever) you get ‘torsional’ ‘wimpled’ ‘vermiculate’ – I would like this man’s vocabulary for Christmas, please. But I tend not to read McCarthy while I’m working on a novel because suddenly I look at a paragraph I’ve written and find it contains no punctuation and lots of long words and lots and lots of ands…
A few other favourite writers are Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Marukami and David Mitchell. I love their use of language and I’m sure they’ve all influenced me in one way or another.
PT: That question is one I’ve been asking all of the writers during this author-to-author interview series. It’s been fascinating watching the answers come in. Some writers love to read their favorites during the writing process. Authors avoid them at all costs.
EJ: Maybe it depends upon how easily influenced you are (or want to be). I know I pick up writing tics if I’m reading someone with a very strong style.
PT: Where do you write?
EJ: I work on a laptop, so anywhere in the house where it’s silent.
PT: Never outside the house? You don’t venture into cafes? Studios? Tree forts?
EJ: Well if there was a tree fort on hand…! I do always have a notebook on me whenever I’m out. Muji notebooks are the best because they do different sizes for, um, different handbags…
PT: Where do you wish you could write?
EJ: By the sea.
PT: Oh geez. Me too. Oceans / seas are such inspirations for creations / adventures. An open studio overlooking the sea would be splendid.
EJ: You know some writer out there has one of those, right? I’m crying with envy just thinking about it.
PT: Authors are always interviewed about the right things to do… give me your thoughts on the WRONG things to do.
EJ: I wouldn’t like to tell anyone what to do or not do as a writer, because I think everyone has their own methodology (or lack thereof). But some rules I try to observe myself are:
Don’t try and write like anyone else. You can only write like you.
Don’t ignore criticism, but don’t try to act on every single opinion either, because many of them will be contradictory. Basically, don’t try and please everybody, because you will end up pleasing nobody. Make a judgment call… you’ll know when something is said about your work that’s worth taking on board, because you know your own weaknesses as a writer.
Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. Don’t play safe for the sake of being commercial. Don’t try and fit yourself into a box.
And do not allow yourself to be swallowed up by the Internet, for its lures are many and perilous. Especially Twitter. My plan for autumn was to ban myself from Twitter. But then I got to meet a bunch of Night Shade authors at WorldCon who are all deeply fabulous and on Twitter, so now my resolve is weakening.
Oh, and take any advice like this with a pinch of salt. Because everything you’re ever told about writing is contradictory.
Do you ever write these sorts of things and think, I need to listen to myself more?
PT: Yeah. I have a lot more wisdom than I pay attention to. It’s entirely true that a mind needs a break from the writing for a bit, and so it’s perfectly okay to check twitter, play a bit of Glitch (my new time-waster) and the like. But I’m forever thinking, “Just five or ten minutes!” Then… an hour later, I’m guiltily returning to the writing.
Twitter, at least, I can rightfully rationalize by saying that as a writer it’s important for me to cultivate a public persona, keeping my name in people’s minds, etc. The other stuff…? Sadly, I’m still working on those rationalizations.
EJ: Juggling the time you spend actually writing with the publicity stuff is tough. I struggle a lot with that.
PT: A quiet nightclub. Five bottles of wine. A couple bottles of absinthe. Some pasta and pizza. You’re there with any three people from history that you’d like. Who are those three people? What do you talk about? Defend your answers to this with your rapier-like wit and intelligence.
EJ: Ha! What a choice… okay, first up would be Cleopatra. What a woman. Ruler, seductress, inspiration for one of the greatest Shakespeare plays… I have a great love of that play despite having studied it at school (which let’s face it is usually the kiss of death). I would like to ask Cleopatra how it felt to rule an empire. I’d be fascinated by her mentality – she must have been pretty ruthless to do that job.
Next up would be Oscar Wilde, because he was a genius and you’d need someone fiercely funny and intelligent to offset scary Cleopatra.
Can I have someone alive? Can I have David Attenborough, and can he take me to Antarctica? I realize this might be stretching the budget, but it would totally be worth it…
PT: Great choices! Oscar Wilde would be in my top three as well. Then maybe… hmmm… Audrey Hepburn and Richard Feynman? Such a hard decision. It was cruel of me to make you answer this question. Oh well… you got a trip to Antarctica out of it.
EJ: Huzzah! That’s one lifetime ambition fulfilled.
PT: When you’re writing, how do you deal with distractions? Are you an author who likes to write with music, or do you have a stun gun at the ready for those who make too much noise?
EJ: I’m not good with distractions. I mean I am (the internet, the cat pictures and the shoes on the internet!) but I hate being interrupted if I’ve actually got stuck into something. I love music but I can’t work with it. Really I need to start using Mac Freedom more, because ever since broadband my concentration has deteriorated. I wrote more consistently when I was 16 and that’s just depressing.
PT: That leads me to wondering of how you write, meaning… do you set goals for the day, or do you just see how a day goes? On my side, I have a required daily word total for novels: I have to write at least a 1000 words, and no more than 1500. It gives me consistency, and ends some procrastination… having that hard set of numbers in front of me.
EJ: I’ve expressed my admiration previously of your writing discipline and I shall do so again here. I want that discipline! With me it depends how much of the day I have to write. On a work day, I consider a good 500 words or some notes or editing a productive evening. On a weekend day, I aim for 2000 words. On a trapeze day, I come home and collapse.
PT: Ahh, that explains it. I have no trapeze days to stumble my own momentum. Though on days where I bike I must admit it’s harder to do all the extraneous jobs of being a writer. Now then, let’s talk theft. If you could steal one character from fiction and move them over into your own works, who would it be? What would you do with the character?
EJ: This is an impossible choice… If it was my Paris novel, I’d love to steal Cal from Jeffrey Eugenides’ MIDDLESEX. Or Iris from Atwood’s THE BLIND ASSASSIN, she’s so deliciously cranky but by the end she just breaks your heart.
However in the interests of choosing a character more suitable to what I’m writing at the moment, I would have Smilla from MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW by Peter Hoeg. She is eminently suitable for dystopia being accustomed to a) cold b) death c) the edge of society. And it’s one of those rare books that combines beautiful language, brilliant characterization and a thriller plot. I might not put her in Osiris. I might put her (mysterious voice) outside of Osiris.
PT: You know… I kind of had the feeling that you weren’t the type to say, “Batman!”
EJ: Now really, I should have said Catwoman.
PT: How did Osiris come about?
EJ: The setting was a follow on from a novella I wrote called THE LAST BALLOON FLIGHT, which was a kind of fairy tale set in a drowned world. OSIRIS grew out of that idea… I just wrote the story I wanted, and as it developed I realized it had to be set in a world altered by climate change, which put it in the realm of science fiction. It’s interesting to see where your work ends up on the bookshop shelves. Like I said earlier, when I wrote the novel I wasn’t thinking about how it would be labeled, and I wouldn’t have been able to predict the dystopia trend, but those conversations are on my mind now in writing the second one – it adds a layer of awareness which you just don’t have in writing that first published novel. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.
How do you deal with that – and have you found that you get different kinds of reactions to your novels compared to your work in comics?
PT: I think it’s that “awareness of the 2nd novel” that’s a killer for a lot of authors. When I was working on Agatha, the book I have planned as my second novel, I was also in the process of doing the proofs, etc, for Prepare To Die!, and for a couple weeks I could “feel” readers and editors leaning over my shoulder, gauging every word and plot point that landed on the page. I had to remember to be arrogant. Is that a horrible thing? I think a writer has to be arrogant… to believe without reservation that readers will CARE for these characters and words. It helped me to take a few days off and write “The Drowning At Lake Henpin,” a Lovecraft-inspired story that’s part of the Book of Cthulhu II. A short, completed work that I could create and then move away from. It worked as a bumper, separating my thoughts and paranoias.
And, yeah… lots of different reactions from my various projects. My project load is so wide (everything from novels to Angry Birds, from Batman to Bandette) that it’s rather inevitable.
EJ: I think you have to believe in your work absolutely. That doesn’t mean there aren’t days when you think you’re a terrible writer, but if you don’t believe it’s fundamentally worthwhile, why should anyone else?
PT: When I’m writing, characters and events often take over, moving me away from my plans, willfully dashing my outlines. Does it work similar for you, or are you able to herd everything in the straight line you’ve envisioned?
EJ: I tend to write out of sequence anyway, so it depends how much of a straight line there is to start with… I usually know the end so I at least know where I’m heading. I get ideas for certain scenes or visual ideas or an emotional/atmospheric sense and then I have to work out how to put it all together.
Having said all that, I’m trying to plan a bit more now I’m on deadline and with a trilogy, there’s a certain amount of planning that has to happen.
PT: I’ve found, over the past few years, that I have an IMMENSE talent for planning projects. And pretty much ZERO ability at following those plans. Words don’t usually flow where I’ve expected, but I like where they end up, so it’s not a worry. Are your writings adhering to your plans, or are they freebirds?
EJ: If I’m feeling inspired I’ll go wherever it takes me – I don’t feel the need to stick to a plan. I love it when a scene comes into your head that was totally unplanned. That’s when you know the novel is starting to bed in mentally.
PT: It’s the apocalypse. Zombies are everywhere. Herds of sasquatch rule the roads. People are spontaneously combusting. You find yourself in front of a speaker that will transmit into space. You have just enough time to read one book that will shout out to the stars and be forever remembered, and one personal message you can say to the alien civilization who discovers our remains. What is that book you read, and what is that message you give?
EJ: Gah! Well… it’s got to be Shakespeare. And although I love ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, it’s got to be HAMLET really. If anything’s going to survive the zombiepocalpyse, how can it not be the greatest exploration of human nature ever written? And my message: take better care of our planet than we have.
PT: Ahh… you’ve gone the noble route. Good for you! You’d make a good Captain of the Apocalypse, should it come to that.
EJ: I’d probably find the nearest duvet and hide under it, to be honest. But I could make you a good mojito before the end of the world!
PT: If there was an Olympics for writers, what do you think the events might be?
EJ: Longest series. Highest count of neologisms on one page. Most unpronounceable character names. Most prolific references to cats (Murakami would win).
PT: I wonder how much television coverage this would all get? Probably five minutes on public broadcasting. Might be better in your neck of the woods, of course. And the “Most Prolific References To Cats” would get immense internet coverage, of course. EXTENSIVE.
EJ: Let’s face it, whatever genius we might aspire to produce as writers, a cat falling into a bath will always garner more internet love. (I leave you with this, a personal favourite, and thank you kindly for having me on your blog!)
Gingerbread Girl, my latest graphic novel, can be found… here.
My online ongoing Bandette comic can be found… HERE.
My horror series, Colder, is available soon (November 7th) at comic shops.
A huge wealth of my other work in the field of comics can be found… HERE.