Monthly Archives: September 2014


10.00 am…

Well, I’m being interviewed by Tony Smith from StarShipSofa – or as my daughter says, Spaceship Settee – later this morning and I’m dreading it. My fear of public speaking extends to phone interviews. So this piece is in two parts. This bit, pre-interview – and a follow up piece post-interview.

I live my life by Laurens Van Der Post’s dictum, “Reality is never as bad as you expect it to be” – which he came up with, amazingly enough, while imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two.

Or rather I try to live my life by it. By and large I succeed, but public speaking is another matter. No matter what I tell myself: “The only thing I have to fear is fear itself,” and, “It’ll be fine once it’s under way,” I can’t dispel the bowel-quaking nerves that beset me before the event. That’s why I never appear on panels at conventions, and try as best I can to avoid speaking engagements.

I suppose my upbringing is responsible for this. I come from a northern working-class background and I left school at fourteen: two facts that don’t augur well for confidence before an audience. I was brought up in the Yorkshire tradition of ‘shut up until you’re spoken to’, and ‘don’t get above yourself’. The idea of getting up on a podium and pronouncing was anathema. ‘Who the hell does he think he is…” etc.

And leaving school at fourteen has left me with a life-long inferiority complex when it comes to matters of the mind. I know it’s daft, and I know too that it has no bearing on most people’s apprehension of me. But a lack of education can be a debilitating thing. Despite the fact that I’ve written over fifty books, and some of them have been well reviewed, I fear the day when I’ll be ‘found out.’

Non-writers, I think, expect writers to fall into stereotypes – university educated, intellectual… when in fact all we are, at base, is story-tellers. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Dammit, that’s the phone. Here goes…
11.25 am…

Well, what can I say? Laurens was right. All I had to fear, etcetera…

Tony Smith at StarShipSofa was the perfect host and put me at ease immediately, asking some great questions. At one point, ten minutes into the interview, I found myself actually enjoying the experience. ‘Reality is never as bad as you expect it to be.’

But, come the next interview, or public speaking engagement, will I dispel fear with a nonchalant shrug? Of course not. I’ll be as apprehensive as ever.

Well-meaning friends have suggested I do more public speaking, to get over the fear. And while I agree that experience might ease the apprehension, the fear would still be there. After all, veteran actors still suffer stage-fright before a performance.

A few years ago, against my better judgement, I took part in a few engagements over the course of a month or so. I spoke to the Brum SF group, then gave a talk to students at Keith Brooke’s SF writing course at Essex University, and then – terrifyingly – addressed prisoners at a gaol in Chelmsford – which I wrote about in an earlier piece on this site called Lalophobia. (Which title, I’ve just discovered, is wrong. Lalophobia is the fear of speaking in general. Fear of public speaking is known as glossophobia.)

And, despite the fact that I did these events one after the other, by the time it came to go to gaol, I was still petrified. Life for a few days leading up to the visit was unpleasant.

So, all things being even, and everything considered, I’ll remain averse to climbing on my soapbox.

Anyway, my thanks to Tony Smith for the experience. My story “The Frozen Woman” will be aired on StarShipSofa as a podcast on Wednesday, along with the interview. I’ll write a piece about the story on this site on Wednesday or Thursday.


Leave a comment

Filed under News

Invisible Verb

I’ve noticed an odd construction that some writers use – and I’ve even used it myself from time to time, accidentally or when writing a pastiche of Victorian or period prose.

Now, in the normal run of things, the order of a sentence is: Subject, verb, object… etc.

You would write: ‘Jane ran down the hill’, and not: “Ran Jane down the hill’.

However, when it comes to writing dialogue, it’s surprising how often some writers, for whatever reasons, ignore this rule. Open a novel, scan a page of dialogue, and I bet that within a few seconds you’ll come across a line written something like this:

“Get away!” said Jane.

‘Said’ Jane?

I collaborate with various writers from time to time, and one good friend uses this verb-subject construction a lot. (I change it around when he’s not looking…)

As has been noticed by commentators, ‘said’ is an invisible verb – the eye glides over it when reading dialogue, though the brain takes it in, almost subliminally. That’s why we get away with using the inversion, without it seeming an anachronism.

The exception to this is if we use the inversion while writing first person dialogue. It becomes glaring, like this:

“Get away!” said I.

Instantly, this construction is jarring, and brings to mind Victorian construction, when such a line was frequently used.

So, as a rule – unless writing in a period style when I want to draw attention to the inversion – I try not to use the verb-subject construction when writing dialogue. Of course, there are times when I break the rule inadvertently and, much later if rereading my work (which I try not to do) wince when I find an example.


1 Comment

Filed under News


It’s that time of year again.

The time of year that the majority of writers anticipate with a mixture of dread tempered by ever-present hope. We should know better, of course, and reconcile ourselves to despair. However, come the close of every September, insane optimism overcomes bitter experience and I expect, and pray for (or would do if I prayed), a larger royalty cheque than I will receive.

The royalty statements from my children’s books have started dribbling in. As they are initially paid to three separate people, I use the word ‘dribble’ advisedly. My first agent handled my first few kid’s books, then I handled the next few when I was without an agent. John Jarrold, my current agent, takes care of the rest.

This year, the statements make salutary reading. My children’s books that are still in print (a handful have been allowed to fall by the wayside), have earned a little less than last time. Most disappointingly, one of the titles, over the course of the six months from January to June, sold just three copies, compared with 81 copies for the previous six month period. So it goes.

On the plus side, my best-selling children’s title, Twocking, sold 438 copies, which was a healthy increase on last time.

All these books came out from the specialist, Edinburgh-based firm of Barrington Stoke, who publish books for reluctant readers. I love doing them, though they haven’t bought anything new from me for a couple of years.

Still, there was a time, over a decade ago, when none of my books had earned out their advances, and every royalty statement exhibited a depressingly high figure in the Remaining Advance column.

Early next year – as Solaris audit their finances to a different time-scale – the royalty statements for my adult SF titles will reach me, and as ever I will be anticipating them with dread and hope.

So it goes.

Leave a comment

Filed under News


This short interview was conducted a few years ago, at the time of the publication of Helix.

We’re at the bar at a convention buying you a drink – what’s it to be?

Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter every time! And if they don’t have Landlord, then a pint of stout or porter.

Why should we buy your book (Helix) over all the other books out there?

Tell you what – buy my book along with anything by Robert Charles Wilson and Richard Paul Russo. But, specifically why you should by mine… It’s faced paced, very readable, and tells an entertaining story featuring characters I hope you’ll care about.

Which of the characters in Helix do you most like and why?

I like Joe Hendry, his stoicism, his unflappability. He’s gone through a lot, before the book opens, and endures much hardship during it, and he’s strong enough to win though. I also love Sissy for the same reasons. Watcher Pharan is also a cool guy, for a locust Buddhist.

What would you like people to get from your novels?

I hope the get from them as much enjoyment and wonder as I had in writing them. I’d like readers to be swept along in the reading and then, later, perhaps to admire the craft.

Was there a specific message you were trying to convey in Helix?

I wanted to tell a compelling story, first and foremost, but always a message comes through even if I didn’t intend it. I think it’s obvious in Helix – look after planet Earth, because we might not be fortunate enough to find a Helix! Also: beware religion, and any ideology that could turn fundamental.

How did you get your start?

I started selling short stories to Interzone way back on 1997, and I was picked up by an agent, Antony Harwood, and then an editor working for Pan, who did my first few books.

How much preparation goes into each story as far as research?

Absolutely none. As far as I’m concerned, research kills my fiction. When I’ve finished the important work, which is writing about human beings, then I’ll check a few facts.

Do you ever draw inspiration from current events?

Only current events as in the state of my emotions at the time of writing.

Do you have any unusual writing habits?

Not really. When I was in my twenties, I wrote in biro while lying on my bed. Now I use a PC, though my desk is an old 1950s radiogram. I have been known to keep odd writing hours. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, I got up at 5.30 for a month and wrote every day for three hours.

Do you have any writing superstitions?

No. I have rules. Sit down and write, even if I don’t particularly feel like doing so. I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious. Start writing, and the words will flow eventually.

What or who inspires you to write?

Something inside me won’t allow me not to write. I get irritable if I’m not working on something. Books I love inspire me. Some of Silverberg’s novels, Coney’s, Orwell, Greene, the life of the novelist Rupert Croft-Cooke.

Who would you most aspire to write like and why?

Style-wise, and for depth and economy, Graham Greene, and Orwell the same. In terms of stick-at-itness, Rupert Croft-Cooke, my literary hero, an unsung writer of over a hundred-and-twenty novels, thrillers, non-fiction books, poetry, plays…

What made you choose SF over any other form?

I read Wells and Silverberg at an early age. I was addicted.

Five minutes with an author of your choice – who would it be and what would you ask?

Can I cheat? Can I go back in time to 1935 and ask Rupert Croft-Cooke if he’d like to have a pint with me?

If you weren’t a writer what would you be doing?

Working for the YHA as a duty manager.

When was the last time you didn’t finish a book and why?

Last week, in disgust, because the author who should have known better, and should have cared, instead hacked it out without the slightest integrity, and it showed.

What books have had an effect on you—for better or worse?

The 27 book autobiographical sequence The Sensual World by Croft-Cooke, for showing me that you only succeed at writing if you stick at it.

Do you think there’s anything truly original left to say in the genre?

I think there is – I’m not sure that I’ll say it, but someone will. And there’s always something original to be said about the human condition, as everyone’s viewpoint is valid and original anyway.

What are your most favourite or unusual non-writing jobs you’ve had?

My favourite job was working as a duty manager at the Haworth Youth Hostel. I enjoy cooking, and meeting people, and that job combined both.

What do you do when you’re not working?

Look after my daughter; read – though these days as I review books I consider this work, alas; cook.

What are some of your hobbies?

I collect books, specifically Chesterton and Croft-Cooke. I love cooking curries.

What are some of your favourite song lyrics?

“Fifty million little monkeys can’t be wrong…” from the 1930s song The Peanut Vendor.

What are you listening to now?

A CD by the brilliant New Zealander Bic Runga, and an Al Bowly CD, who was a dance band crooner from the thirties.

Do you have any pets?

A black cat called Pippin and a tabby called Rosie, and a dog, Uther, a red and white setter.

Do you prefer happy or depressing endings, and why?

I’m an upbeat character, so I constitutionally prefer happy endings – but not saccharine, cop-out endings. And downbeat ending are great if they work in the context of the preceding story.


Leave a comment

Filed under News

Death and a Quick Pen

I write fast.

When I start a novel, I write two thousand words at a sitting, twice a day. There was a time when I wrote every day until I finished whatever I was working on. Now, older and married, I write five days a week and keep the weekends free. That still means that writing four thousand words a day I chalk up twenty thousand words a week. I complete the first draft of a novel in four or five weeks.

Admittedly, I feel pretty jaded by then – but the hard work is done. All that remains to do is the fiddly work of the rewrite.

And the reason I write so fast is that, when I was sixteen, I thought I was dying.

I’d left school at fourteen when my parents and I emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. At that time, in the mid-seventies, pupils could leave school in Victoria at fifteen. As I was not in the slightest academic – let’s face it, I wasn’t very bright – I opted not to tread the groves of academe, but work in my parents’ corner shop instead.

I was fifteen when I discovered Agatha Christie, and knew instantly that I wanted to be a writer.

But how did a working class lad with ne’er two brain cells to rub together, with no formal education to speak of – and whose first attempts at writing a story dispensed with commas and full stops – hope to write books that people might want to read?

Well, I didn’t ask myself that at the time. With a degree of ignorance and blind faith which in retrospect is frightening, I began scribbling short crime stories set in the English countryside that, sequestered in the outback, I missed so much.

I began my first novel a year after discovering the works of Agatha Christie, and a week later developed wracking chest pains and cramps. I was convinced, with the unshakeable certitude of the hypochondriac that I would remain for the rest of my life, that I was not long for this world. In fact, I gave myself six months.

Now I’d read somewhere that most novelists took a year to write their books… and a quick calculation brought me to the realisation that my magnum opus – a murder mystery set aboard the Titanic – would still be unfinished at the time of my early passing.

Galvanised, I alternated between periods of morose teenage melancholia and bursts of frenetic writing activity in a manic effort to finish the novel.

I did, all sixty thousand words of it – and I even outlived my self-prophesied six months. In fact, I had time to rewrite the novel, which I did too.

Then it came to me – when the chest pains abated – that I’d written a novel pretty damned quickly. And that ability to write at speed has never left me.

And the novel of fiendish multiple murder and cunning detection set aboard the doomed passenger liner?

It was terrible, and languishes still in my files – probably the worst whodunit in the history of literary creation, but a manuscript which I think of with fondness and gratitude.

Now the bouts of hypochondria visit me rarely, but I still write like a man possessed. When an idea grips me I make copious notes, daydream for hours on end, and live with the characters and their travails until the pressure builds and I can no longer hold it in. At which point I sit at my desk – a big, old 1950s Baird radiogram – and start writing.

I’d like to go back in time and tell the sixteen year old that I was – homesick for England and suffering the certainty of an early death – that nearly forty year later not only would I still be in the land of the living, but that I’d be a published novelist and a reviewer for the Guardian newspaper. I’d tell him that he had nothing to fear but fear itself, and thank him for teaching me that it’s fine to write fast, despite what the literary elitists might say.

And I like to think that he’d be proud – after he’d overcome his initial disbelief, of course.


Leave a comment

Filed under News

Piracy etc…

If it isn’t hard enough these days attempting to scrape a living as a freelance writer – and a freelance writer of fiction, which is even harder – you have various obstacles in your path. One of many are the websites which offer your work for free, or sometimes at a minimal charge. These sites have scanned your books and stories and offer them for download.

I saw one site which vaunted that it was providing the reading public with a ‘service that all book-lovers will love!’. Which claim is, of course, rubbish. These sites are run by opportunistic pirates. They are stealing authors’ works – novels and stories it has taken us weeks and months and sometimes years to create. Far from offering a service, they are depriving writers of income. As a book lover, the reading public should avoid these sites.

The other obstacle to a freelance writer earning a crust is publishers who steal your work.

I’ve been fortunate, on the whole, in only having had a few short stories and one book stolen in this way.

Galaktika, a Hungarian SF magazine, was infamous for ripping off foreign authors (and Hungarian authors, too, presumably). Twenty years ago it came to my notice that my short story “The Time-Lapsed Man” had appeared in translation in Galaktika 163, April 1994. I’d not been contacted by the editor, one Kuczka Peter, for permission to translate the tale, and of course I wasn’t paid for it. I managed to track down a copy of the magazine and found that I was in good company: the contents list included the likes of Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, Bayley, Clarke and Watson. I wrote to the editor, asking for recompense, and heard nothing.

So it goes.

In 2000, the indefatigable Molly Brown emailed me to ask if I knew that the Japanese magazine ‘S-F’ run by Hayakawa Publishing had published two of my stories: a collaboration with Stephen Baxter “The Spacetime Pit”, and “The Time-Lapsed Man”, in issues number 471 (September 1995) and 499 (January 1998) respectively. Molly had had a tale printed without payment – and sure enough the powers that be at Hayakawa had neglected to pay me (and, as it happens, a host of other foreign authors).

Molly had a lawyer friend who kindly drafted a form letter, demanding payment and interest from the company. I sent the letter to the address supplied, expecting to hear nothing back. Imagine my surprise when I not only received a letter expressing consternation and apologies at ‘this unfortunate oversight’, but full payment for the published stories, plus a numbers of years’ interest.

All’s well that ends well.

It wasn’t such a happy ending with the only book stolen from me. Back in 1998 I signed a contract with the French publisher Henri Dhellemmes, who ran DLM Editions in Montpellier, for a short story collection entitled Odyssées aveugles. It duly came out in a neat paperback edition – but the payment for the book (only four hundred pounds – but money I’d rather be in my bank account than Henri’s) never appeared. I emailed the fellow, of course, but he deigned not to reply.

I’ve since had a couple of holidays in or around Montpelier, and I really should pop in and see him.

Failing that, Henri, if you ever read this – have the decency to cough up.


Leave a comment

Filed under News

Forgotten Authors

My fascination with forgotten authors began back in the early eighties when I discovered a writer who was to become a major influence on my work.

I came across Rupert Croft-Cooke’s The Drums of Morning – the third volume of his twenty-seven book autobiographical sequence entitled The Sensual World – in a junk shop in the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Over the course of the next few years I began collecting Croft-Cooke’s books, and found the story of his life, its many vicissitudes and few triumphs, an inspiration.

Rupert Croft-Cooke is a sadly neglected writer who between around 1930 and his death in 1979 wrote more than a hundred and twenty books: thirty-odd mainstream novels, the same number of crime novels under the name of Leo Bruce, and books on such diverse subjects as darts, gypsies, the circus, wine, cooking, and biographies of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Kipling, as well as short stories and poetry. But The Sensual World is his lasting legacy to English letters, a brilliant evocation of his life and times, concentrating on the latter. The odd thing is that although he wrote so many volumes of autobiography, he never once mentioned the fact that he was homosexual – partly due to the times in which he was writing, and partly because, as he was at pains to point out, the books were less about himself than the places he travelled to and the people he met.

Skip a few years and I’m in W.H. Smiths in Bradford, when I find on their discount table a hardback copy of the Elmfield Press edition of The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers by Michael G. Coney. I’d never heard of the author, but I liked the blurb. I bought the book and started reading it on the bus back to Haworth, and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those rare and epiphinal moments when you know you’ve come across a writer whose voice, whose worldview, meshes with your own: I knew from that very first reading that I had to collect Coney’s work. Over the years I did so, reading everything he’d written – fewer than twenty novels and around forty short stories. His best work, novels like Hello Summer, Goodbye, Brontomek!, The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers, and the short stories “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel”, “The True Worth of Ruth Villiers”, “The Cinderella Machine”, combined good writing, interesting characterisation, excellent story-telling and an evocative sense of place, often his beloved West Country transported to the stars. His work spoke to me, and still does, even after countless re-readings. Back in the mid-nineties I began writing to Coney, and around 2000 I suggested that we collaborate on a short story. “The Trees of Terpsichore III”, published in Spectrum SF 8 in 2002, was the result.

I came across the novels of Peter De Polnay in the mid-1980’s, in a second-hand bookshop in York. For much of his long writing career he was published by the same company who brought out many of Rupert Croft-Cook’s novels, W.H. Allen – a third-rate stable where ailing mid-list writers were put out to grass. De Polnay is certainly a mid-list writer, a stalwart of the lending libraries of the 50s and 60s, who produced around seventy novels and half a dozen or so volumes of memoirs in a career lasting almost fifty years.

He led an interesting life, chronicled in Death and Tomorrow – about his time in France during the German occupation, and his role in the resistance there – and in The Moon and the Marabou Stork, detailing his time as a planter in Kenya. After the war he settled down and devoted himself to producing, at the rate of sometimes two a year, detailed accounts of mainly middle-to-upper-class protagonists and their tortured psychological lives. His characterisation is second to none, though his attention to style and structure is less assured; you receive the impression when reading De Polnay that he was more interested in the content of his books than in their form: his stories, while fascinating glimpses into the minds of his protagonists, are often rushed and sometimes superficial. However, I find rewards in his best books, among which are Not the Defeated, A Permanent Farewell, and Blood and Water. His autobiographies are well worth seeking out, too.

I’ve been asked, more than once, why I have this fascination with the halt and lame of the literary world, those forgotten scribes little lauded in their own lifetimes and hardly read now. Some people have suggested that I see my own career reflected in these neglected wordsmiths, and while I don’t deny that there might be a smidgen of truth in this, I’ll also claim that my interest in the above writers (as well as others like Robin Maugham, J.T. McIntosh, Norman Levine, Arthur Sellings, Miles Tripp, James Wellard… the list goes on) has more to do with a reaction to the populist and consumerist world in which we live, where the latest best-seller is the must-read title, where celebrity books – ghost-written, for the most part – flood the market. It’s nice to get away from all this, to discover writers who laboured away for years with little reward, and to bring to life their lost visions, even if it is only upon the stage of my own imagination.


Filed under News