Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Interview With Author of the Month Nick Sweet

(This month, I’m interviewing my Facebook Author of the Month, eclectic British novelist Nick Sweet. Nick’s one of those guys who’s led a fascinating and variegated life all over the world and I trust this will be a highly interesting give and take.)

1)    Nick, I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve written crime novels, love stories (as opposed to run of the mill romances) and even a western novella. However, in contrast to my previous authors of the month, all your books are standalones. Why not series?

     I do have ideas for a 6 book series drafted out, but will only proceed with it if I get an offer of a deal with a major (or at least top independent) publisher. I want to sell books and so I’ll need a publisher who can guarantee to get books on shelves in shops if I’m to proceed with the series.

2)    You’d mentioned on your Amazon author page being a doorman and bouncer for a Soho night club to supplement your earnings as an English instructor in North London. You say this inspired your fiction without actually becoming part of it. What’s an example of some of the stranger things to happen to you as a West End bouncer that never made it in one of your books? 
     A club I call the Revuebar features in my crime novel FLOWERS AT MIDNIGHT. I was a doorman by the way, not a bouncer. There’s a difference. I’m no tough guy. Although I did have to escort people from the building on occasion, admittedly. I also had to stop people who were drunk, inappropriately dressed or on the blacklist from coming in. The great British comedian, Peter Cook, was on the blacklist. I was under strict orders not to let him in if he showed up at the door. To be honest, it was great fun working there. Sometimes a call would come down from the theatre: ‘Get Nick up ‘ere. We’ve got a wanker in.’ The girls would spot a guy touching himself while they danced and they’d send word out from backstage. So I’d have to go up to the theatre. The theatre manager would shine his torch on the lap of the guilty party. ‘Watch his raincoat move.’ So I’d have to go and escort the guy from the premises. But my main job was to keep the group of touts that had colonised the corner away from the door, so they didn’t try to divert our customers. Nowadays Soho seems to be almost exclusively gay, but it was very different in those days. There was a real mix of different types. I became interested in the way the place functioned, particularly at night. And some of the things I saw went into the book or at least inspired it.

3)    We have something in common in that we discovered our love for reading in our late teens. Who were your earliest favorites? 
     I first got into poetry: Shakespeare’s Lear and Eliot’s The Waste Land and Prufrock. I was looking for answers at that age, for some kind of key to everything, and I looked for it in books as well as elsewhere. I was quite intellectually driven. I sought out complexity in literary terms. At the same time, I was also looking for certain kinds of magic, which I guess is kind of complex, too. Later I discovered Joyce, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, then Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Chekhov etc. Then I discovered first Simenon and I read a fair number of his crime books. Then I discovered Elmore Leonard and read most of his books - everything he wrote up to about 2000, anyway, by which time he was past his best. There’s a direct line, I think, from Hemingway to Leonard. Leonard himself talks of Hemingway’s influence and his struggle first to emulate or imitate Hem and then to rebel against and escape from the influence of the man’s prose. (Of course he eventually escaped it by finding a rich vein of humor in his work.) Then I read widely in the crime genre. I read all of Chandler and Hammett and Cain, as well as most of the big names that have been working in the crime/thriller genre these past 10 or 20 years. It’s important to read current bestsellers to find out what people are reading at the moment. I’m a big reader. A huge reader. It’s good to be able to talk to writers I read and admire on Facebook from time to time.

4)    Our mutual friend, Maxim Jakubowski, edited a Jack the Ripper anthology entitled, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF JACK THE RIPPER STORIES. (That same year, I’d self-published a novel about Jack the Ripper, TATTERDEMALION). Your contribution was entitled, “They All Love Jack.” What’s that about? 
     The short and honest answer is you’d have to read the story. I do remember reading some non fiction books on the subject and then I sat down and wrote the story in a single sitting, in about two and a half or three hours one Sunday afternoon. I read the story through the next day, touched it up here and there, made one or two small changes to the odd sentence here and there and sent it off. So far as the story goes, all I can truly remember is that I reckoned I’d discovered a new Jack the Ripper at the time. The true identity of the man, that’s to say, Of course my Jack the Ripper is just one of many. So there’s a sense in which it’s hardly original. That said, I remember thinking at the time that my Jack was a more likely candidate for the murders than the others I’d read about previously. But I’m sure you probably felt the same way with your book - about your Jack, I mean. I don’t think I could have written the story if I hadn’t thought that. There’s probably a book there somewhere, too. Although I don’t know if I’ll ever get round to writing it.

5)    As I’d mentioned, you’d written and published a novella entitled WAYS OF THE WEST. What prompted you to write in a genre virtually unknown in Britain and tackle the challenge of writing in American English? 
     I really don’t know. I just had an idea for a story and wrote it fairly quickly. I just went at it, without thinking about it too much. Six weeks and it was written and edited, ready to send.

6)    Plotter or pantser? 
     A bit of both or perhaps neither. I need a rough idea about a book before I’ll begin. Often the idea is very, very rough indeed. Then I need an idea of roughly where a scene is going before I sit down to write. If my mind is blank then I wait for ideas to come. Whenever I’m writing well, it just happens naturally. You can’t force it. In that sense it’s a bit like sex, I find. As a Brit, I find myself unsure about whether or not I should be making comments like that last one. But the truth is, the urge to find love and to make love and the urge to create are very closely connected; it all comes from the same well. But I think everyone knows this. That said, I’m a very communicative person and feel the need to talk to people a lot, so maybe that comes into it as well. Working as a teacher suits me, too, I often think, because I like to talk to others. Right now I’m teaching the post-16 age range, adults mostly. In between my explaining the grammar and getting them to do the exercises, students often like to tell you things about their day or whatever. Sometimes conversations develop...

7)    Aside from the locales, what is it about Spain that has informed and inspired your crime fiction?
     I married into a Spanish family, speak the language fluently and won a place as a teacher in a Spanish state school by getting high enough marks in the competitive government exams. So I’m living here very much as part of the Spanish society, in contrast to many Brits who live here for part of the year without really going beyond the surface. They just seem to think of Spain as this sunny place with beaches and restaurants that serve awful food. So they eat the junk food the places on the seafront serve up for the tourists. Whereas I love Spanish food, eat it all the time, at home and in restaurants, and would run a mile before I ate any junk food. I rarely speak English nowadays, apart from when I’m teaching or calling home, or when my youngest comes to stay at the weekend. That said, my kids are all fluent Spanish speakers. And my girlfriend is fluent in three languages, none of them English, so we speak in Spanish. So in many ways, writing in English provides me with a release, because it’s often the only time during any given day when I get the opportunity to use my own first language at length.

8)    What sets P.I. Art Blakey apart from Inspector Velázquez and how do they both differ from the protagonists of other crime books you’ve read? 
     Velazquez is a policeman of the rank of Inspector Jefe. He’s Spanish and has lived all his life in Seville. He’s a typical Sevillano in many ways. He’s also a heroin addict struggling to kick his habit, and he’s married to a female bullfighter. Blakey on the other hand is a Brit who’s come to Spain to work as a private investigator, in the fictional town of Bardino, down on the coast. He’s a tough guy but he’s smooth, too. He’s Eton educated and a bachelor, still, but he’s on the market for love if the right woman comes along. He’s something of what used to be called a ladies’ man. His father wanted him to go into banking and make himself stinking rich in the family tradition, so he’s very much a rebel. He’s his own man. And he isn’t motivated by money - not primarily, at any rate. Which of course is a very Chandleresque notion, and something that you scarcely come across in the world today. With the Blakey book, BAD IN BARDINO, I basically made a conscious effort to take Chandler’s style and sort of inhabit it and bring it up to the present day. It’s a big ask, I know. I hope my saying that doesn’t sound too arrogant. I certainly approached the task with a good deal of humility. One fails, of course; but at least one can say one has tried (he said doing a valiant impersonation of one G. Greene).

9)    Since they both operate in Spain, your adopted country, is there any chance either will make a return or be in a crossover novel? 
     I think I answered this in question 1. The money would have to be on offer, and a guarantee of getting books on shelves for me to write a series for either.

10)    What made you, presumably a straight male, write a love story about a gay male in a Welsh mining town? What were the challenges involved in writing it?

     ONE FLESH is one of three literary novels I’ve written, although it’s also a love story and is being marketed as a romance. It’s a love story that avoids the obvious cliches, I hope, and tries to deal with complex issues in complex ways, and that’s why it’s a literary novel and not a Mills and Boon effort. Ditto my First World War novel, YOUNG HEARTS. With ONE FLESH, I was writing about two brothers and their relationships. One of them is straight, the other gay. So it’s not a book that is aimed at gay readers in particular, any more than a book that has a Catholic in it, say, might be considered to be aimed at Catholic readers. But in order to answer your question fully, I need to go back a little. 
     Well, that’s not quite true, because the fact is there’s any number of possible answers I could give to your question. There is of course a sense in which all interviews, or anything any given author says about any given book he’s written is just another layer of fiction. I’m very conscious of that right now, because there’s a sense that any given book is a closed world. In that sense, the book speaks for itself and anything its author says about it only serves to add more layers of obfuscation... I mean the process of writing fiction essentially remains a mystery, as much to the writer as to anyone. And so it should be. Besides, by the time a writer gets interviewed about a book or books he’s written, he’s generally moved onto the next project. So the book he’s talking about invariably feels like it was written a very long time ago, in a different age almost. So it’s up to readers to go to the book and take what they can from it. 
     But that said, and in the context of those remarks, let me continue to develop my argument...or at least try to discover what it is myself... I was thinking about Roth recently, after I read the pieces on him after he passed away. So I’ll develop this idea. Here goes. During my twenties, the literary scene was dominated by the likes of Bellow, Roth and Updike. All three were intelligent, well-read men living on Easy Street (to quote Roth), thanks to the success of their books. They wrote about educated professor types (or middle class types, in Updike’s case) that were out to bed - and invariably did bed - attractive middle class women. 
     I enjoyed reading their books, often very much indeed. All three were fantastically talented writers. I found that I could relate to their characters because they were rather similar to me in lots of ways. I was broke at the time and far from living on Easy Street, but I read a lot, thought a lot and also thought about women a lot. But as a writer, you don’t want to copy what people have done in a previous generation. Chances are, if you do that you’ll only end up turning out a second or third rate version of what’s already been done anyway. How to proceed, then? How to overcome this problem? What could I do that the writers I’d been reading hadn’t done (perhaps because they’d never set out to do it)? What was out there in the woods? 
     These were the kinds of questions that were knocking about inside my head back in those days. I wrote ONE FLESH in my mid mid-forties, the year after I wrote YOUNG HEARTS. I came up with a new style for these books - or perhaps two new styles - because that was obviously what the books called for. By that time in my life, I’d come to feel not only that I couldn’t possibly compete with the likes of Bellow-Updike-Roth, but that I didn’t really want to, either. That is, I wanted to do something totally different. Basically I think a writer should try to keep his own sexuality out of his/her work. If the writer’s a straight male writing about a straight male trying to bed a beautiful woman, then it’s all too easy for the writer to allow some of his own intimate desires to creep into his prose, and that, I’d come to think around the time I was writing those books - YOUNG HEARTS and ONE FLESH - was the thing to be avoided. I was only thinking the other day, after reading of Roth’s death, that he’d have been a far more interesting writer had he opened up his range more and written about gay men, say, at least once or twice, and lesbians and if he’d had more black characters and working class types in his books. 
     Writing from the perspective of a gay man would have tested Roth’s powers and stretched him as an artist, it seems to me. Anyway, that’s roughly where I was at in artistic terms, so to speak, when I wrote those books. I wanted to escape from the limits of my own personal yearnings and desires. I wanted to escape from the limits of my own personality. Recently I read Highsmith’s lesbian novel, Carol. I loved it. I found it deeply moving and romantic in the right kind of way. She wrote about men, too, and men’s desires, of course... I also loved the film with Cate Blanchett. A fantastic performance. So it’s like art is universal. In the sense, I mean, that a straight man can find himself being moved by a book about lesbians...

11)    What would you like to see more or less of in latter day crime fiction? 
     That’s not for me to say. But I do think the crime writer faces two or more challenges nowadays. First he/she needs to write something that people will want to read. In the process he/she wants to sell a lot of books and get rich. And then, apart from that, I guess the challenge, on an artistic level, is to take the genre and create a work that pushes all the buttons crime readers need to be pushed while simultaneously creating a book that’s a work of literature.

12)    You seem to have made a good account of yourself in the indie fiction market. But do you still hold out hope for a major book deal or are you happy where you are? 
     No, I want my books in bookshops. I want them to sell better than pies, muffins and hot cakes combined. That said, I’ve come up with a completely new style - new for me, and maybe even just new generally - and I’m having great fun working with it and seeing where the whole thing takes me on my WIP. That’s a luxury I might not have enjoyed were I now engaged in writing a six-book series for a major publisher. On the other hand, this way I don’t get to enjoy the wealthy author’s lifestyle. And I want the wealthy author’s lifestyle. I’d like to be able to fly over to New York for dinner, then maybe head to Chicago or Cancun or Calcutta for breakfast or brunch the following day. I don’t really give much of a toss when it comes to most material possessions. I don’t hunger for a Lambo or a Roller, say. But I would love to have the freedom to go where I want when I want... who wouldn’t?

13)    Describe your daily writing routine. 
     I have to fit my writing in around my teaching, but I write most days. I don’t write every day because I think it’s important not to. That’s one of the things I’ve learned with experience. Not to try to force or rush things, but let the ideas unfold at their own pace. Of course everyone has their own way of doing things. It’s a question of working out what’s best for you.

14)    Aside from the obvious (greater creative control), what do you see as being the biggest advantages of being an independent author? 
     There’s only one that I can see: you are free to experiment and find your own voice and style. Or voices and styles, in my case, because I’ve consciously written in a number of different styles, and as I said above am having all kinds of fun with a new style right now, working on my wip.

15)    What’s next for Nick Sweet? Standalone or the start of a series?
     Standalones until I get a hit.

(Nick Sweet's books can be found here at his Amazon author page.)

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