Welcome to the blog, Andy. It’s a pleasure to have you here. So. ‘Scars Beneath The Skin’ – can you tell us a little about it, and who’s it for?
Thanks for the invitation, Nik, and the chance to say something about my first novel. The title refers to the invisible injuries suffered by the main character, Karl Dresner, after he’s caught in the blast of a terrorist bomb. Surgeons fix the physical damage (Karl’s lucky, some people around him are killed), but afterwards he’s a living shadow. Alienated from all those closest to him, he sinks into a sleazy world of heavy drinking and meaningless sex. It’s only when a woman, Lucia, bursts into his life that a road to some kind of salvation opens up. Theirs is an awkward, angry beginning. She can see a future for him: Karl has lost belief in any such concept. It’s about the innocent bystander, the sort you might see staggering towards the camera covered in blood on the television news: what happens to a victim like that once the headlines have faded?
As for target readership, a number of people have commented that ‘Scars Beneath The Skin’ has the feel of film noir about it, so fans of that style may well find a lot to enjoy. One big difference, though; film noir is generally cynical about the human condition, whereas my story is ultimately one of hope and endurance. I’m a big fan of the American artist Edward Hopper, particularly his studies of urban alienation: I’d like to think that other Hopper fans would take to my story. The book was born out of an abortive thriller, it does have a terse feel that could appeal to fans of that genre.
Why did you write it? Where did the idea come from?
The idea was very much rooted in real-life events. 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. In my case, I wasn’t injured and didn’t suffer any psychological after-effects, but the ‘what if?’ factor drove me into starting the novel. I guess I was writing an alternative reality for myself; only a matter of a few minutes and a few yards separated me from the fate of the fictional Karl Dresner. Karl is, I guess, an alter-ego of sorts. Who knows? Maybe writing this novel channelled off any psychological fall-out from the bomb explosion and helped me to avoid any Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.
Another real-life event gave the novel its ending, and also gave the main character his nationality. I was visiting Berlin in 2002 and witnessed the rioting triggered by President Bush’s State Visit in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. I decided to set the ending in Berlin, and, following on from that, the story fell into place by making that once-divided city the birthplace of Karl Dresner. I decided it would give an extra edge for him to have grown up in Communist-era east Berlin, I wanted the feel of politics and history and conflict hanging over Karl.
How and when did you start writing?
I began with fragments of stories, sometime between 1996 and 1998. Nothing coherent, anything that came into my head really – it did feel like an opening of the floodgates.
I wrote a script for a Channel 4 competition. Around 1998ish. There was a movie pitch website I sent a lot of ideas to, 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 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.
What’s been the biggest surprise about being a published author?
I guess it’s the randomness of what can happen. The people at the Lancashire Writing Hub (including novelist Jenn Ashworth) have been very supportive, inviting me to read at a number of their Word Soup live lit events. As part of the advertising for the most recent of these, an excerpt of ‘Scars Beneath The Skin’ was projected onto the side of the Harris Library in the centre of Preston. When I was at school there in the early 70s I never imagined seeing my name in lights in that way.
An article in the local paper led to a charity called Survivors For Peace contacting me, and I’ve been getting more and more involved with their work. It was set up in the wake of the 1993 Warrington bomb by the parents of one of the children killed that day. Through it I’ve met a number of people suffering the trauma symptoms I tried to realistically document in the novel.
One definite surprise was the library take-up. I didn’t think any libraries would order a book by an unknown first-time author, but it’s on the shelves of 80 or so branches throughout the UK.
Which writers or books would you recommend to people who like ‘Scars Beneath The Skin’?
Two books have been mentioned to me by readers. One is ‘The Outsider,’ by Albert Camus. This is a haunting book that I’ve returned to over and over again, and it’s possible that the total disconnection of the lead character, the murderer Meursault, had some influence on me. Meursault, though, is a monster, a man not deserving of redemption. For my story, I definitely wanted a redeemable character who’s driven to the very outer limits of loneliness and isolation.
The other is ‘Engleby,’ by Sebastian Faulks. I’ve not read this one yet, so I can’t say too much about it. Reading the plot summary, there is again a strong element of disconnection.
The book I’d recommend myself is an espionage novel by John Le Carré, ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.’ I only read this when I was quite far into ‘Scars…,’ but the taut writing style very much resonated with what I was aiming for myself. There’s a documentary-style realism about this novel. As soon as I finished this book I went straight back to page 1 and began reading again. (As an aside, the film, starring Richard Burton, matches the novel’s stark and pitiless atmosphere.) ‘Alec Leamas descends into a chilly hell,’ is what it said on the back cover, and that’s the place I wanted to take Karl Dresner.
Which writers do you most admire?
There are two writers I’d single out who manage to make me feel a part of the story: Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. With most books I feel like a member of an audience, kept at a distance. Greene and Chandler, though, make me feel I’m there in the thick of it. I’m always looking for contemporary writers who create the same magic.
In Greene’s case, there’s something about the smooth flow of his words and the effortless way he creates a seedy atmosphere of fear and mistrust. I can pick out my copy of ‘Our Man in Havana’ or ‘The Comedians,’ open at any page, and instantly feel I’ve stepped into pre-Castro Havana or Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haiti. There’s a quote from him about wanting to write about ‘the dangerous edge of things’ – that’s a good place to aim for.
With Chandler, particularly his Philip Marlowe stories, it’s the humour mixed in with the rich atmosphere of 1930s Los Angeles low life and high rollers. Sometimes the hard-boiled slang gets in the way for me, but there are online dictionaries to help understand the language. As with Greene, I admire Chandler for his way of making me feel as though I’m part of that world.
Any tips you’d give to an aspiring writer?
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.
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 online 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 my publisher, 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 the next agent or publisher on your target list.
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 without an agent. Don’t ignore those small publishers!
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 few chapters instead.
Be patient. I began submitting the work in mid-2006, and it was 2 years later before Flambard Press showed an interest. I did also get some initial interest from Snowbooks, but that didn’t lead to an offer.
What does the word ‘story’ mean to you?
For me, a story has to have action, but reading an action-only story is like eating cardboard. I read the latest by a multi-million selling thriller writer recently. By the end, the main character was unchanged by any of his experiences, as deep as a puddle, and there was nothing even remotely memorable. There has to be depth to go with the action. Characters, even minor ones, need to have a three-dimensional feel to them.
There’s a Graham Greene quote, from the preface to ‘The Third Man,’ that sums up what I’d like to aim for in a story: ‘We wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh even.’
What’s next for you?