Thursday, 17 September 2009

Interview: Andy Duggan

Next up in our series of interviews is Andy Duggan. Andy will be reading from and signing his debut novel Scars Beneath the Skin at Word Soup #5 on the 22nd September.

Tell me a bit about how you got started with writing. Did you try short stories or poetry first before settling on the novel form?

I was caught up in an IRA bomb explosion in Manchester in 1996 and I began writing as some sort of a reaction. Not that I can explain it precisely, all I know for certain is that I had no interest at all in writing before that event. I can't remember any poetry, but there were lots of short stories and fragments of stories. Anything that came into my head, really - it did feel like an opening of the floodgates.

I also wrote a script for a Channel 4 competition. Around 1998ish, I think. There was a movie pitch website I sent a lot of ideas to as well, complete stories reduced to a synopsis of 3 sentences. I went on writing purely for the sake of writing, with no real direction, until I began to try and join up this jigsaw of fragments into a bigger story. I suspect I'd got to a point where I needed to feel a proper sense of purpose, but I had no confidence at all in my ability to write a novel.

Two things I was sure of. Firstly, the bare bones: a man who finds love at the point of suicide. Secondly, the opening line: There is only so much loneliness a human being can bear.
Scars Beneath The Skin took you ten years to write - what changes did the novel go through during that time? How did you keep yourself motivated during the long haul?
Many, many changes! There were 3 completely different versions of the story. Version 1 petered out and was never completed. The basics of the main character, Karl Dresner, were there, the sense of an alienated outsider was there, but the main female character was so ill-defined she was more like a ghost. Version 2 was an espionage thriller, but it was a real dog's dinner; more like 3 novels squeezed into one. Both Karl Dresner and Lucia Cavallieri were better defined, but they were lost in a plot that went out of control. Version 3 was a simplification of Version 2 and the final title appeared at this stage. Ditching the thriller baggage allowed me to concentrate on Karl Dresner's battle to overcome the effects of trauma.

Motivation did flag at times. There were periods where I didn't want to write at all, but the story kept nagging at me. I always felt I had a great story idea, but there was a dire confidence problem; I didn't believe I'd ever be good enough to do the story justice.I joined a writing group in 2004 and that was a huge help in picking me up from another low motivation point. Joining the WriteWords online community was another big help, mainly for making the process of approaching agents and publishers seem more do-able. I used The Literary Consultancy critique service once the final version was largely complete. Their report gave me enough confidence to submit the work.

Tell me a bit about your usual writing routine. Are you an early bird or a night owl? Computer or note-book?

If Carlsberg made writing days, they'd be like this. Get up at 6AM, write for a couple of hours, have breakfast and go for a walk. Read the day's work, probably in the evening, then let the unconscious turn over the ideas while asleep. I did have a pattern like that when I really got into my stride with 'Scars Beneath The Skin' and I'd like to get back to a similar pattern.
Computer, definitely computer. I sometimes make handwritten notes and I'm now trying to use handwritten index cards as well. I have got A4 notebooks I've been using for writing groups, but if there's something I particularly like in there I will try to make sure I get it onto the computer. It's the thought of losing handwritten work that makes me prefer the computer: I make sure I keep regular backups.

I'd love to make it sound as though I'm ruthlessly efficient and disciplined in my approach, but I'm not very good at lying.

Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us anything about your current projects?

Graham Greene is the writer who makes me want to write, and I'm aiming at a thriller with some of the depth and complexity (and seediness) Greene put into his work. There's a tentative working title of 'Supply & Demand,' I'm pretty certain the location will be Amsterdam and I'm pretty certain about who the main characters are: a drug dealer and a victim of human trafficking.

There's a gritty, visceral Danish crime movie called 'Pusher' which has given me a lot of inspiration. Films like 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Long Good Friday' as well; and 'Get Carter,' but I want to aim at something more than a gangster story. I want to add a layer of political/military conspiracy. Possibly a plot to smuggle nuclear weapons technology, but I'll have to be careful the story doesn't collapse in on its own complexity like my last attempt at a thriller.
I'm aiming for a larger cast of characters in this one; that was a piece of advice from The Literary Consultancy.

Confidence again is the issue now. Is the story good enough, or will I realise 60,000 words in that I'm on a hiding to nothing? I'll be a lot happier once the story's firmed up enough for me to be able to get up at 6 every morning to work on it.

Aside from that, I do short pieces for review at a monthly writing group and I keep meaning to do some more work on one of those and submit it to Radio 4 for the Short Story slot.

How are you finding the promotional readings and signings you are doing are affecting your work? Is it helpful to meet your readers?

I haven't done enough events so far to greatly affect my work, but I've had some useful feedback via email and Amazon reviews to give me some food for thought. One thing I've learned. Make sure there are some passages suitable for reading out aloud. There's a lot of dialogue on 'Scars Beneath The Skin' and it's very difficult to use dialogue-heavy sections for readings. Daunting, really, the promotional thing, overall. To say I don't exactly relish being the centre of attention is an understatement that belongs in the Guinness Book Of Records (is there a world record for understatement?). Having said that, I'll be sitting in the Cheshire Oaks Borders on September 19th hoping that some people notice me. I'm hoping, over time, to find reading groups who want to try my book out. Then I could go and talk to them, if they want me to. That sort of set-up, sitting round a table with a smallish group hearing what they have to say, appeals to me far more than standing in front of an audience while desperately hoping they don't slip into a catatonic state.(You can listen to an audio click of Andy doing an interview with BBC Manchester here)

How far is this book autobiographical?

Only in the sense that I've got personal experience as an innocent bystander in two events from the story; a terrorist bombing and a riot. I didn't get so much as a scratch form the bomb explosion, though, and I'm not aware of suffering any psychological after-effects. I suspect, unconsciously, I made Karl a foreigner as a way of avoiding slipping into an autobiographical dead-end.

I have used some UK locations I know well, but some of those were moved to Germany. Karl's Munich office, for example, is based on where I used to work in Manchester. There's a scene on a tram based on snatches of an overheard Manchester Metro conversation. Some of the stroppy shop assistants are based on real people; one of my pet hates, that sort of 'service with a snarl' attitude. Parts of the Berlin riot are very close to reality and I couldn't resist allowing myself a Hitchock-style fleeting appearance (it's in an Irish bar scene).

As well as a writer, you're a blogger. What do you think are the benefits of a writer having a blog? What are the pitfalls?

An occasional blogger, really. There's no way I'd blog at all if it wasn't for having a novel to promote. Which leads on to the main pitfall in my eyes; I'm a very private person and it's too easy to give too much away on the Internet. Ideally, I'd prefer to remain completely anonymous while the book sells by the truckload, but that isn't the way it all works. Blogs are one big potential quagmire of self-indulgence as well.

So, I try to keep blog posts directly related to book promotion. I have posted one piece of flash fiction and I keep meaning to post some very brief book/film/TV reviews. Too often, blogging sinks down to the bottom of my 'things to do list.' Since it's free, though, it'd be daft to ignore it as a marketing tool. I've noticed some writers using Twitter to post quotable sections of their work. That'll be worth a try at some point.

Do you have any hints or tips for our readers who may be working on novels?

Top tip - join one or more creative writing classes or groups. Writing a novel is a very lonely activity and so it's important to get some social interaction with like-minded people. It also creates some peer pressure. I wish I'd joined a class/group much earlier.

A novel can take over your life. I had no idea when I began just how much time and energy writing would soak up. It's a difficult balancing act. You have to put your heart and soul into it, but don't let real life pass you by.

When you've spent 10 years slogging away with no sign of success, it's a great feeling to hear that a publisher wants to produce your work. It feels like winning an Olympic gold.

Don't imagine there's much money in it. There are statistics out there to show that only a tiny percentage of published writers can make a full-time living out of it.

Join an on-line writing community and you'll find a mountain of useful information. I've been a member of the WriteWords community for a number of years and that's how I first heard of Flambard Press.

Be prepared for lots of rejections. I've got a pile of 40 or 50 'Thanks but no thanks' letters. Every time you get a rejection letter, don't mope about. Do something positive and send your work out to another agent or publisher.

Don't let the lack of a literary background put you off. I failed my English Lit O-level, my career has been in engineering/computing and I feel at a definite disadvantage due to a lack of literary knowledge. I guess those feelings aren't going to disappear in a hurry. Who knows though - maybe that lack of a literary background helps me to write with a different voice.

The usual path is to find a literary agent first and then the agent seeks a publisher for the work. In my case, though, I've been taken on directly by a small independent publisher and I'm still agent-less (or should that be unagented?).

Make sure you have finished a novel and it's the best you can possibly do before you send the work off to literary agents and publishers. Even then, bear in mind that they are snowed under with work from aspiring novelists.

Consider a critique service. I used the The Literary Consultancy when I felt I'd done enough work on 'Scars Beneath The Skin' and the report gave me enough confidence to start sending it out. I bit the bullet, sent the whole manuscript and so had to pay a fair old whack. However, you could always send the first the first few chapters instead.

Be patient. I began submitting the work in mid-2006 and it was 2 years (and about 50 rejections) later before Flambard Press showed an interest.

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