Interview with John Bayliss, author of Five & a Half Tons

Inkpots, Cubby Holes & Libraries: Interview Special with John Bayliss, author of seaside gris detective novel Five & a Half Tons

                Do you have a favourite working/writing place or cubby hole?

First of all, thanks for inviting me to be interviewed.

I don’t have a particular place for writing—in fact, I can write pretty much anywhere. Just a comfortable (though not too comfortable) chair is all I need. However, on warm summer evenings (on those rare occasions when we have a warm summer evening) I do like to sit out in the garden with a glass of wine and my laptop and write whilst the stars start to come out (or it starts to get too cold, whichever is the sooner).

Can you remember your first complete piece of writing and what inspired it ?

In my teens I started (but didn’t finish) several Tolkien-inspired fantasy epics, but the first one I actually finished (hammered out on a manual typewriter) was a novel about a young man shipwrecked on a curious island that doesn’t appear on any map, where he finds some of the locals friendly, but others not so friendly. Although he initially wants to get off the island and return home, in the end he decides to stay. The landscape and inhabitants of the island were very strongly inspired by childhood holidays in Cornwall.

                That does sound like something between Gulliver and Crusoe … and with a philosophical thread running through; shall we be seeing it in print in the future ? Would you re-visit that completed novel with a view to publication ? (or have you already done so ?!)

I am pretty sure that this novel will never see the light of day. It is very much a juvenile piece – though there is every possibility that I will return to the same themes. I’ve always been fascinated by islands (I’ve always fancied the idea of living on my own island, which might say something about my personality). The theme of the outsider living amongst a tight-knit community is something that I’ve touched upon in other work. For example, my detective Springer, in Five and a Half Tons, is not a native of Westerby and does look on the town with something of an outsider’s eye.

               Do you have a favourite method of working? i.e.: do you jot down in notebooks first, do you type straight to computer, or other ?

I type straight onto the computer. I rarely write outlines (if I do, then they are very insubstantial and always incomplete). I start a project by writing little bits of description and snippets of dialogue; generally from crucial turning points in a story which (at that stage) is only half formed in my mind. Sometimes these elements are no more than a few lines long, sometimes a couple of pages. Then comes the hard part of linking all these snippets together— it’s a bit like doing a very eccentric kind of literary jigsaw puzzle, one where I have to make up new pieces to fit the gaps. A lot of it gets rewritten in the course of joining everything up, and there are always some bits left over at the end that never do fit!

             (This reminds me of how I often work! The sewing together afterwards can be quite tricky!) Have you tried any of the writing software now available ? i.e. Novelist, MyNovel, Liquid Story Binder, ZenWriter etc ?

                No, I’ve never tried any of the writing software you mention. I use the ‘LibreOffice’ word processor and that’s it. (I find that LibreOffice suits me better than Word, and it’s free!) I do sometime have two files open at once: one contains the actual work in progress, and the other is a collection of notes and snippets of text that might belong in the section I’m working on.

            What is your favourite /least favourite part about writing?

My favourite part is when something unexpected happens – some new idea suddenly bursts in from nowhere that’s exactly right for the story. It can be quite spooky when you are convinced you know where a particular passage is going, and suddenly a character says something or does something completely unexpected that takes the story down a completely new track. The odd thing about it is, when you look at the story in retrospect, this surprise twist was the most natural course for the story to take anyway.

The worst part is when I’ve got an excellent idea that I’m desperate to get down on paper, but I just cannot get the words to come right to express it adequately. I rewrite and rewrite and move words around but it never seems to say exactly what I want it to say, and then I start to doubt if it will ever come right.

            That can be incredibly frustrating; I find the worst thing is waking up with the words in my head – and forgetting them before I’ve managed to rummage round for a notebook to jot them down on ! Or else something coming to my head while I am wandering around somewhere – and no pen and paper handy to scribble down. Is there a name for this , and a treatment, I wonder? 

The future of publishing :

Digital, print, audio – which do you think is going to be most prominent ?

Ah! Crystal ball time. I do believe that when television came along, people were saying that cinema had had its day. But it hasn’t. And when paperback books first appeared on the shelves, people said that hardback books would disappear. But they haven’t. I think in time e-books will become the main channel though which novels are distributed, but I am sure that paper-based books will continue to be made for quite some time yet – I hope so, anyway. Even though I enjoy the instant gratification of clicking on a button on a website and seconds later the book of my choice has appeared in my Kindle, I still enjoy browsing real books in a physical book store, and I think I am not the only person who would say that.

Actually, I think that there is a lot of potential in digital storytelling that is yet to be exploited. Sound (such as music and speech), animated illustrations, interaction… I think that the electronic novel of the future will develop into something that is so different from the conventional novel that it could probably be considered a wholly new art form.

I’m pretty sure that Gutenberg had little inkling where his curious invention was going to lead us, so who knows what the future holds for digital e-books.

It’s already happening (http://uxmag.com/articles/interactive-ebook-apps-the-reinvention-of-reading-and-interactivity) and there are now ebooks with sound effects: http://www.booktrack.com/ – would you beinterested in ‘reading’ such a book and if so,which book would you first like to see in such a version?***

What I am looking forward to seeing is authors generating completely new works that are suited specifically to these new devices, rather than adapting existing books. Alice in Wonderland with interactive illustrations does sound fun (especially if it helps to get kids reading), but I would like to see completely original works, where the interactive features form an integral part of the story telling structure; works that couldn’t be distributed in any other form. I’m not entirely sure how that would be done, but I am sure that at this moment there is a talented storyteller somewhere, staring at the iPad in his hand, thinking: ‘Hmm…’

What would you like to see happen in publishing, in particular with regard to sci-fi/fantasy/mystery fiction? (Again, feel  free to substitute genres as you see fit)

I am not a fan of the idea of ‘genre’ as a way of classifying books. I think that a good story should be considered a good story irrespective of the genre in which it finds itself. In fact, the most interesting ideas for stories often blur the distinction between the conventional genres. (Write about a detective solving a murder in a futuristic dystopia with space ships – is that a crime novel or Sci Fi? Or both? And does that really matter to the reader?) Also (in my opinion) there should be no difference between literary fiction and genre fiction – I can see no reason why genre novels (if the author has the skill) can’t be written to the same standards (in terms of quality of writing, depth of characterisation, and originality of themes) as any piece of literary fiction, and be considered on equal terms with any literary novel.

In a traditional bookshop, genre is a useful tool to help you find the book you want – you go to the crime shelves for a crime novel, Sci Fi shelves for a Sci Fi novel. But with an increasing number of books being bought on-line, there are no longer any ‘shelves’ to go to. On-line, books can be classified in a million and one different ways. All manner of sub-genres and cross-genres and hybrid genres can be invented with the minimum of effort from the distributors. On-line booksellers can use clever algorithms to make recommendations based on your personal likes and dislikes, and these recommendations inevitably cross the genre boundaries. Although there will always be books that can be instantly recognised as Sci Fi or Fantasy or Mystery fiction, I think that in the future these distinctions will become increasingly blurred.

What for you has been the most invaluable aspect of working with a traditional publisher?

Here I must take the opportunity to thank my editor, Robert Peett of Grey Cells Press. He has incredibly supportive, and has many times come up with suggestions that have had me striking my forehead with the palm of my hand, muttering ‘Why on earth didn’t I think of that!’ I believe whole heartedly that Five and a Half Tons would be a much poorer novel had it not been for Robert’s input.

Would you recommend traditional publishing over indie/self-publishing or vice-versa?

I think it very much depends on the author and the book. Some authors would be all at sea if they attempted self-publishing, whereas others take to it like a duck to water. From my own experience, I have found it enormously useful to have the ‘second opinion’ of an editor in preparing my book for publication. I think to self-publish you need to be extremely confident in your own skills and something of a jack-of-all-trades. Fine for people who have those skills, but for the rest of us mortals then traditional publishing is still the best way.

Libraries….what do you think is their future – and what do you think should happen?

Libraries – along with theatres and art galleries – form the bedrock of cultural life in this country. Actually, they are more than that, because they are primarily places of education, not entertainment. I sometimes tell people that when I was at school I learned more during the summer holidays as a consequence of being a member of the local library than I ever did during term time – an exaggeration, probably, but there is a germ of truth there. Self-education through reading is just as important as structured education in schools and colleges – in fact, more so, for those of us with a more independent outlook who do not want to be tied to a curriculum, but prefer a more exploratory way of learning.

It does worry me that cuts are being implemented that could severely affect the effectiveness of our libraries. If similar cuts were being proposed for schools then there would be a national outcry.

I quite agree – the freedom to read and pull a book from a shelf at whim cannot be equalled …. and libraries are also where our books (we hope) are to be found – so we want them to stay for that reason too!

I agree with that!

That was most interesting – thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us !

Thank you.

(The other half of the Interview can be found on AuthorsAnon Spotlight


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