Monday, March 4, 2013

Author Interview with Nick Stephenson

(I tried cross-posting this at my book blog where it really belongs but apparently Blogger's wonderful new template with which they'd saddled us last year gets cranky and enables metadata encoded in Word files from which several of my posts originate. It doesn't happen so much with this template but my other blog uses a different template that apparently forces you to type directly on the editing page to avoid that formatting bullshit. So here it'll have to remain, unless you like having to highlight white text so you can read it against a white background. -JP)

     Ever since I’d begun my book blog back in November, I’ve been meaning to post interviews with independent authors and I can’t think of a better place to start than British thriller novelist Nick Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson has recently kicked off the Leopold Blake series with a short but very eventful novel entitled PANIC (Which I’ve already read. I’ll be reviewing it here in a day or two). In his own description, Blake “is Sherlock meets Die Hard – an explosive mix that fans of Lee Child, Dan Brown, and James Patterson will love.” Befitting the quality of this little gem of a thriller, it’s been featured at the top of Scribd’s Fiction-Thriller page, where it’s amassed close to 3000 reads in the short time since its posting. You can purchase it here for the economical price of $3.99 on Kindle. What follows is an interview I’d conducted with this exciting new independent author.

Robert Crawford: First off, I’m curious about one thing. You’re British. Fellow Brit Tim Rob Smith, author of CHILD 44, once told me he decided to make his series hero Leo Demidov an agent with the Russian forerunner of the KGB simply because of the heavy intrigue of the late Stalinist era and the obstacles it presented to his character. So why did you choose to make your protagonist an American FBI consultant instead of, say, an Inspector or consultant with Scotland Yard (which is what Holmes was), which has a richer and longer history? What or who inspired the conception of Leopold Blake?
Nick Stephenson: Yes, many people find my British-ness curious. We are a curious folk. What I really wanted to do was write the sort of book I enjoy reading. That is, fast paced, full of action and with a decent mystery at the heart of it. I like not knowing how a book is going to end before I’ve gotten half way through, and I like it when every chapter leaves me hanging. I think I’ve achieved that with the book.
As for the protagonist, Leopold Blake, he’s really a mash-up between multiple characters. Holmes was certainly the starting point, but I wanted to bring the character more up to date, and make him a little more ass-kicking. Holmes, although of formidable physical strength (I think at one point, Conan-Doyle refers to him bending an iron poker in half), rarely used his muscles in the field, favouring his mental capabilities instead. I figured – why not use both? What would that look like? What I ended up with was a Sherlock Holmes / John McClane character, who – despite his best efforts – regularly gets his ass handed to him, only to get up again and keep on fighting.
For me, it’s what makes a great character – having some kind of special skill that makes them unique, but not so superhuman that they don’t taste defeat now and again. As for my decision to make him American – well, that’s the marketer in me. I write for my audience, most of whom are American (by about 10 to 1), and because that’s what I like to read – if it’s good enough for fellow Brit Lee Child, I figure it’ll work for me.
RC: Have you ever lived in America and did it give you insight into the American way of life and American law enforcement as Irishman John Connolly’s residence in Maine and elsewhere did for him? Or did you have to do in-depth research?
NS: I’ve spent a good deal of time visiting family in the States for the last two decades, often for several weeks at a time, but I’ve never lived there full time. I think Americans can often under-estimate just how much the rest of the world knows about their culture, lifestyle and politics – just through the sheer amount of visual and social media that covers every aspect of their lives. I was brought up on a diet of Friends, ER, Cheers, CNN, Hollywood summer blockbusters and Presidential scandals. It’s hard to avoid picking up the influence, so research wasn’t really required for that aspect of the book – y’all ain’t so different from us, ya hear?
RC: I see Leopold more like a Batman with Robin on a lot of steroids (Jerome). Yet you’ve described the Leopold Blake series as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and John McClane of the Die Hard film franchise. What’s similar and what’s dissimilar between the heroes?
NS: Robin on steroids – I like that! I touched on this earlier, but I think it’s to do with vulnerability. With Holmes, we never really get to see him fail. With McClane, he spends so much time with someone else’s boot up his ass, that we never get to see him think. I wanted to bring brains and brawn together a little more, and have some fun with it.
We never really know much about Sherlock’s or John McClane’s upbringing, and we don’t really care. We just want to see them kick butt. With Leopold, as the series develops, his background becomes more and more important – in book one (Panic) he’s very much this cocky, young crime-fighting, billionaire badass – but by book two (Departed) he’s already had his world turned upside down, and by book three (Requiem) – well, I won’t spoil it.
The next books will see Leopold’s “Bruce Wayne” advantages stripped away, so we get to see what he’s really made of. No more technology, no more connections, no more friends – he’ll have to survive on his own. It won’t be pretty, but it’ll make for one hell of a read.
RC: Since you’re British, do you have to consciously make an effort to write in American English as so many British actors fake American accents and did you choose to do out of marketing considerations?
NS: Yes – again, it’s a marketing decision as well as a personal one. For me, it wasn’t that hard though – swap out “pavement” for “sidewalk” and drop the letter “u”, and you’re 90% of the way there. For the remaining 10% I had 2 American editors go through it with a fine-tooth comb and strip out the British-ness. By golly.
RC: We know the Barrett exists. But what about the other technology in PANIC? Do the mini explosives that can be surgically implanted subcutaneously and the white phosphorous hockey pucks actually exist?
NS: The more exotic pieces you mention probably do exist somewhere, but nobody’s going to be admitting to it. I wanted to create relatively realistic tech, and, while that level of damage might not really happen as it does on the page, it’s certainly feasible. It all operates within the laws of physics and chemistry - I ran a lot of it past an ex armed forces writer, and implemented a few of his suggestions to make it a little more authentic.
RC: The bad guy Stark and others (understandably) take a dim view of American politics. How much of that is manufactured for the characters and how much genuinely comes from the author?  
NS: I’m very much on the side of the underdog in any given scenario – and I think we’ve all lived through our own personal injustices, so fixing the main crisis of the book within the political playing field seemed like a natural fit.
All the major characters in the book have suffered their own personal injustices – Leopold lost his family, Mary has her boss riding her case and threatening to fire her, Albert got kicked out of school, Jerome keeps getting shot at – and even Stark isn’t so cut and dry a “bad guy”. He’s doing what he thinks is the right thing – if I were in his place, I would probably think much the same. Although I probably wouldn’t take such extreme measures.
In terms of my own politics, I really just hate to see the little guy getting screwed. Which, unfortunately, is the name of the game when it comes to government policy most of the time. You just have to side with the guy you disagree with the least, and let due process and constitutional law do its job. Which, for the most part, it does – both here in the UK and abroad – but I always remember the saying: “A good compromise leaves everyone mad” (Calvin and Hobbes) and try not to let it get me down.
RC: Do you see publishing at this moment as an exciting time for independent authors who are now empowered to call their own shots or as indie authors trading litanies of failure and rejection for another? Speaking as an author, what would be the best of both worlds (independent vs traditional publishing)?
NS: It’s a very exciting period for independent authors – for the first time in history, it’s financially feasible to self-publish, with very little risk, and potentially have your work seen by millions of people. Of course, like any field, only the top authors are ever going to make any money at this. Well, actually, if Amazon numbers and rankings are anything to go by, it’s more like the top 0.5%, so it’s by no means a guaranteed road to success.
The main issue is that now it’s so easy to publish, everyone who can use a word processor and can remember their cat’s name is having a go – mostly riding the coat tails of EL James, with various arrays of naked cowboy vampire BDSM stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just there’s a lot of slush on the pile.
Where that top 0.5% can really shine through is where they’ve taken obvious steps to invest in their work – as a business. That means a pro cover, pro formatting, expert editing and a damn good story underneath. Wash away the writers that don’t invest in their work to that level, and suddenly the top 0.5% becomes the top 5%. Consider most of the bestselling authors have multiple titles out, that top 5% of titles becomes the top 30% of authors. And that’s a much more realistic (and achievable) figure.
Indie authors need to wake up and realise that readers expect quality – whether you’re doling out free copies or charging $10, any book that’s out there for sale should be indistinguishable in terms of quality from the bestsellers. Indie vs Trad pub becomes much less of a distinction then – as readers really don’t care who published the book. When’s the last time you checked the inside cover of a book to see who pubbed it? When’s the last time you thought to yourself “I wonder when the next Hachette is out?” Readers don’t care – only other writers do. I can quite confidently put my work up on the digital bookshelves next to a Patterson, or a Brown, or any other thriller author – and it will hold its own. And I’m immensely proud of that. With a few dozen more titles out, who knows – maybe I’ll even start seeing those kinds of sales! Ebook sales are forever – so that’s plenty of time to build an audience.
As for litanies of failure and rejection - I always cringe when authors say they can’t afford a professional cover, or to pay someone to go over their work and check for errors and poor style. And then wonder why they don’t sell anything. I’m not saying you have to pay through the nose for these things, you can barter, call in favours or do what I did – and network your ass off. It’s all very do-able, if you want to put in the work and have the patience to realise you won’t see success immediately.
In terms of the best of both worlds (indie vs traditional) we’re starting to see this now- self-pubbed authors such as Blake Crouch, Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, etc have signed print deals, but kept ebook rights. After all, the only thing a publisher can do that you can’t do for yourself is get your physical book into stores. And that’s a huge market that the indie just can’t access. So a print-only deal, with fair royalties, and the ability to authors to retain electronic rights seems to be the way to go. And we’re getting there, slowly but surely.  
RC: What’s next for Blake after he heals up from his countless injuries? I’m not expecting you to give away the plot to the sequel but just asking for a taste. When is the new Blake thriller coming out?
NS: The next Leopold Blake thriller, “Departed”, is due out this Spring – and sees Leopold, Mary, and Jerome travel to London to assist Scotland Yard and MI5 with a series of brutal murders. Much like “Panic”, the book gets off to a flying start, and the pace keeps up all the way through. It’s a similar approach, with the same focus on a central mystery, which will keep readers guessing and tons of action on the side. In this book we learn a little more about the central characters and where they came from, as well as building upon the final act twist of the last book – so, plenty for people to get their teeth into.
For anyone interested in getting hold of the first few chapters of “Departed”, just visit my website at and join the mailing list – an ebook and pdf version will be emailed straight to your address. [EDIT – this goes live at the weekend 9th March]


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