JC: Andy, you've signed a multi-book deal with a major publisher. You've made it, haven't you? Has your life changed in any way?
AL: Ha ha, I don't think "made it" is quite the right term, but it's a nice thought! It's a wonderful opportunity, though, and one that many writers go their whole life without being offered, so it is exciting. It is a door that's opened onto the publishing world and, initially, it is a great learning experience, about how publishing works and about how my own writing can improve. The biggest change to my life is how busy it has made it - trying to juggle family life, a full-time job and the writing obligations (not just writing the next book but trying to keep promoting the current one) is hard but when you have dreamt of doing this sort of thing then there is huge enjoyment in it, too. How about you, Jack? How are you finding life with a big publisher and the time-management that's involved? And what's the most unexpected good thing that's happened since you signed with Voyager?
JC: Hang on a minute, is that one question or three? I’ve only got five in total for you! It’s great to be able to claim affiliation with a well-known publisher and piggy back on the famous books they produce, though, as you might have sensed from my opening question, it has led my mates to presume I’ve made about a million pounds and am currently in tense negotiations with Spielberg. The most unexpected good thing is probably just the reception of family and friends who have picked up the book with the intention of finding something to take the mick about and have actually come away having genuinely liked it. I’d never shown it to anyone before so I didn’t know what to expect. As for time management, my word count has fallen dramatically, mainly because I spend most of my time agonising over the precise wording of tweets I’m about to send to my 100-odd followers. You, Andy, in contrast, are a man with ten times that number. What tips have you got for people (basically, me) on self-promotion, and do you think your background in reporting/PR has been a help in that department?
AL: I know what you mean, Jack. If I sold a book for every time I've heard "You'll have made your fortune, then" or "That'll be you giving up your job", I'd be at the top of all the bestseller charts! As far as Twitter is concerned, I actually joined it initially to try to push an epic poem that I self-published a few years ago, hence my strange Twitter-name, @Markethaven. I built up the following I have by following a whole lot of people in the hope that they would follow me back. About half of them did, so in a fit of pique I promptly unfollowed those who didn't and kept those who had been good enough to follow me. It did build up a reasonable following but was no value at all in selling books, in that I think it only sold to about four people – and two of those were my mum. My teenage sons try to get me onto various things like Instagram and Periscope, but I find that to do widespread social media properly I would need to spend an amount of time on it that I don't have. I try, but I'm maybe just not that good at it. As you say, my background is in newspapers and PR, and the advice I can give on that front is: local newspapers love a local story and are always on the look-out for a well-written good-news article they can use 'as is' or adapt; look at their style and try to write your press release the way they write their own articles; if you can, include a picture as it will give the 'paper more options (eg many work to at least rough templates for page-design and the space they have available on a page may be for words and a pic); don't make your press release too long – about 350-400 words max; accompany your press release with a friendly email, introducing yourself, telling them how to contact you if they want more info and remembering that they have no obligation to cover your story (in other words, don't make the mistake of being too bullish, more along the lines of "I hope this is of interest for your next edition"); and, if they do cover you, follow it up (not too frequently – you don't want to put them off!) with updates or further developments. As well as the local Press, think also of magazines for Former Pupils, in-house newsletters at places you have worked, etc.
Now, just one question in return this time! I can't help notice that your background, Jack, is incredibly varied and interesting. Moving away from the promotion side and towards the writing aspect, how useful was the wide range of your experiences in creating such a real novel as The Rule, one that is so evocative of the period but personal at the same time?
JC: What a charmer. There’s the PR skills coming in again. The short answer is: I have no idea. I’d like to think I could have written The Rule the same way no matter what my background. I read a lot of books as a kid, and I think I learnt from them how to write the kind of stuff I wanted. Nevertheless, I think it is useful for an author to experience as much in life as possible. I don’t know if my background is that varied and interesting, but I do try to do a lot of things and meet a lot of characters from different walks of life (although rarely do I come across a murderous Viking). Do enough of that and the stories start to write themselves in your head before you even take out the pen. Speaking of taking out the pen (tenuous link: achieved), you mentioned earlier an epic poem you’d written previously. How many other novels, complete or incomplete, do you have lying under the bed from before Hero Born? Or did you simply nail it first time?
AL: No previous novels, although I did have four short children's books published (about 25 years ago, yikes!) by a small publishing firm set up, ironically, by two former employees of Harper Collins. Tragically for the children of this world, the four tales of Sidney Squirrel and his friends are now out of print, although I notice that David Walliams only made his foray into children's books after this competition was out of the way. As far as Hero Born is concerned, it was my first novel and, four weeks ago, the only attempt I had made at writing one. That's not to say I nailed it at all – after every rejection, I rewrote something/added something/changed a character before I sent it out again and over the period of nearly 10 years before the obviously perceptive Natasha Bardon at Voyager spotted it, that amounts to a fair amount of changes! In fact, it could in itself possibly be classed as an incomplete novel because the whole story was originally going to be in one book – it was only once I started writing it that I realised that my lack of novel-writing experience had deceived me and that I would need three books to cover it. Although I was desperate to get on with the next part of the story that was in my head, I made a pact with myself not to start it until someone took on this first book, in case I got too carried away with writing the second book and lost interest in pushing the first one. Consequently, I am only writing the sequel now! What about you? Have you written fiction previously and when did you start on The Rule?
JC: Once, when I was 16. It was called Rise of the Norseman and it was glorious. In fact, the first agent I ever contacted (when I was nineteen) agreed that it was pretty decent (unless I just fell for the stock rejection email, again) but after um-ing and ah-ing for a couple of days he decided it wasn’t quite at the required level and suggested I have a go at another one. I wrote The Rule the same year, during uni. Persistence is the name of the game. Speaking of names (tenuous link level: expert), you spend 10 years writing Hero Born, and then you pick up A Game of Thrones and realise George Martin has blatantly stolen the name of your lead character. How did you come up with Brann’s name, and did you consider changing it in response?
AL: I know - I couldn't believe it when I started reading A Game of Thrones and saw that! However, when I was young I loved reading mythology of all types, but one of my favourites was the tales about Celtic hero Finn MacCool. I always said I would pay homage if I ever wrote a book and didn't want to call my own hero after the main character, Finn himself, so I settled on naming him after Finn's favourite, faithful and magnificent dog, Bran – albeit I added an extra 'n' because I felt it made it that wee bit different, more like a name and less reminiscent of a cereal! When I saw that GRRM had used a similar name for one of his characters (even though his is really officially called Brandon, I hasten to add), I did consider changing it, but I had lived with the name Brann in my head for my hero since I was about 12 and then had invested so much in writing about him in this book that that was who he was to me. It was a bit like if my brother, Gordon, changed his name to Colin – when I pictured him, he would still be Gordon to me. Which is a long way of saying that it didn't take me long to decide to be loyal to 'my' Brann. I suppose that, in the fantasy world, there are so many characters in so many books that similar names will crop up. After all, in GoT there is also a Bron while Joe Abercrombie has Brand in Half the World; there's Jon (Snow) and David Gemmell's Jon (Shannow); Samwise (Lord of the Rings) and Samwell (GoT); Raymond E Feist's Borric ConDoin and GRRM's Beric Dondarrion. There are probably many more that people with greater knowledge of fantasy than I have could come up with, but of the ones I know they may have similar names but they all very strongly have their own characters. I have to hope that my Brann's character is good enough for him to come to have his own identity for readers as much as he does for me. I know the names in The Rule are Norse-based, but in general did you find pressure to be accurate to Norse culture? I suppose I'm asking: did you research it or use your imagination?
JC: I’m no historian (I don’t even have a GCSE in the subject) but, as I mention in my HarperVoyager blog post this week, I think a certain authenticity is very important in a story. If you’re writing pure fantasy in a purely fantastical world then, fair enough, go mental. But if you’re using a specific historical period, and you know that some readers are likely to pick up the book purely because they are interested in that period, then it doesn’t feel fair to take liberties with what you include. So I was careful, when writing about day-to-day life, to be reasonably loyal to the Viking age. (This is where the historical boffs start queuing up to point out all the places I screwed this up, but at least no one Snapchats Gunnarr to warn him of the impending threat.) Having said that, I think it’s important sometimes to resist the tyranny of the historical busybody, as the fact is there are some areas where no one knows the truth for certain. Some people write books about history, essentially packaging up historical facts into a story format. I was always clear from the start that The Rule is a story set in history, not a story about history. In that sense, historical elements are no more than part of the background, and – dare I say it? – Wikipedia was enough to do the job.
Final one from me, Andy: you’re a big football hooligan, er, fan. Which player, past or present, do you think has what it takes to be a character in one of your books?
AL: Ohhhh, that's a great question! From my own club, Motherwell, I immediately think over the decades I have followed them to the lightning-fast, rapier-like, tenacious and clinical Willie Pettigrew and the irrepressively enthusiastic physicality of Luc Nijholt, or two players, Graeme Forbes and Colin O'Neill, fans' favourites from separate decades but sharing the same nickname: Psycho (enough said!). Widening my scope to world football, there is the "you can knock me down as many times as you like but I'll still take the ball round you and your mates and stick it in the net" attitude of Messi and the brutally effective style and all-round physical athleticism of Ronaldo, but the more I think about it and the more I picture the world of my books, there really is one contender who stands out from all the others. Skill, strength, panache, charisma, showmanship, savagely effective and, on occasion, capable of being effectively savage, and with a sense of humour: it can only be Cantona.
As that was such a good question, I'll try to come back in a similar(-ish) vein: when Peter Jackson makes the film of The Rule, who would you see as playing Gunnarr, Kelda, Olaf and Hákon?
JC: Well, me and Pete have only held preliminary discussions so far, but as things stand I’m actually planning to take on all four roles myself, shot in a single take with a strong focus on interpretive dance. However, in the spirit of this interview (and in case I do my hip between now and then) let’s have a think… You know what, I don’t actually know many actors. Gunnarr needs to be a straightforward type, no American accent, perhaps a genuine Scandinavian actor from the small screen. Except I don’t know any genuine Scandinavian actors from the small screen, so I’ll have to say Tom Hardy or a young Sean Bean. Olaf can be Brian Cox (the actor, not the physicist) or a resurrected Philip Seymour Hoffman. James McAvoy would probably make a decent job of Hákon. As for Kelda, someone endearing and unaffected. Carey Mulligan could probably pull it off.
Now, if that hasn't whetted your appetite to the extent that you can't resist rushing off and buying our books, I don't know what will.