Why do you write?
Partly to release the poetry that brims within my soul but mainly because I have a mortgage a wife and three children, all of whom are quite fond of food and heating – and it beats working for a living.
What kind of relationship do you have with your protagonists?
Fairly unhealthy I would say in that I spend far too long with them. But I have to obsess about them otherwise they don’t seem real, and if they don’t seem real to me to the point where I care what happens to them, then why should any reader.
Are the names of the characters in your novels important?
Very. Names are really important in general, it’s the hook upon which everything else hangs. Sometimes, if I give a character the wrong name then I can’t write them properly because they just don’t feel right. Equally, when my son was born, we called him Zachary, got a birth certificate and everything. Then, when he was about three months old, my wife and I both realized that he wasn’t a Zac at all, so we changed his name to Stanley. Apparently you’re allowed to change a child’s name once in their first year without having to bother with the whole deed poll thing. I guess it happens a lot.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
Forty years to Life.
When you began writing the trilogy did you have a clear ending in sight or has this changed during the writing process?
When I began writing Sanctus it was just a stand-alone book. I had no deal or agent or contacts in publishing, I was just trying to write the best book I could to see what I would produce. I knew the ending, in fact I had the ending first and worked backwards from it, but when I started writing, the idea kept growing and I had to ignore lots of stuff that I knew I couldn’t fit into one book. My first draft had a sort of epilogue that tied everything up in a neat but deeply unsatisfying way and when I eventually sold the book, my editor at HarperCollins said she didn’t like the end so I told her about all the ideas I hadn’t been able to fit in and how I thought the story could continue and so that slightly clunky epilogue turned into two whole books.
Following the success of Sanctus did you ever think to yourself how you’d follow it up and as an admirer of both Sanctus and The Key, how on earth did you come up with the idea for the city of Ruin?
I was committed to writing the trilogy by the time Sanctus came out and I’d already started work on The Key. But the whole ‘difficult second album’ thing definitely kicked in when Sanctus became a bestseller. Sanctus was written in a sort of blissful vacuum where no one was waiting to read it and the only expectations were my own. Conversely, The Key was written in the shadow of this big success with a contractual deadline and readers sending me daily messages on Facebook and Twitter telling me how much they loved the first and when was the next one coming out. It was a lot of pressure, but it was good pressure. I kept reminding myself that most aspiring writers and recent debut novelists would give their right arm to be in a similar situation.
The city of Ruin grew out of the needs of the story. Having nearly written three books now I realize that the way I work is to start with the end and work backwards. I’m an outliner and I work a story out back to front then write it pretty sequentially once I know where I’m going. With Sanctus I knew I had this big secret that was going to be revealed at the end of the book and the journey towards discovering that secret would be the engine of the story. Once I had that starting point I began to think about who this story could be about, who was the best person to tell it and what about them could mirror and illuminate different aspects of the narrative. I also started thinking about what else could help tell the story, and location is a huge part of that, it’s another character really and just as important. With the city of Ruin I knew I wanted somewhere that was very geographically specific and visual, with a modern city surrounding this steepling tower of rock. And there isn’t anywhere quite like that, believe me I looked, so I decided I could either take huge liberties with a real place or just make one up and build a city from scratch, history and all.
If you could send one person to the Citadel with no internet access, mobile phones or email who would it be and why?
Me – so I could finish the final book of the trilogy with no distractions.
Who would you send along six months later to keep that person company yet deprive the rest of us!!
I would send Gabriel, the hero of the trilogy. He’s the only person ever to enter the Citadel voluntarily and then escape from it. He could help bust me out with my manuscript.
What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?
That the first draft won’t be perfect. I’m still trying to learn that one.
What’s your favourite word?
Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life and why?
Willy Wonka. I would get his autograph and a load of his chocolate and become an instant hero in the eyes of my children.
What makes you keep picking up and reading books?
They’re like little doors of magic. Open one and you can go back in time, walk in someone else’s shoes, travel through space and peer over the shoulders of the greatest minds in human history.
How much research do you put into your books or is it a case of winging it?!
It’s actually a bit of both. I pre-research specific things that I know are going to feature heavily in each book – the workings of a monastery for Sanctus, the origins of writing for The Key, cosmology for The Tower – then I just start writing. Research is great and interesting and fun but it can so easily become a distraction from doing the actual work, so when I’m putting the story down I try not to interrupt the flow and if the story throws up something I don’t know about I just guess at it and WRITE IT IN CAPITALS so when I’m going back through the draft I can see the bits I made up. That’s when I go back and research it properly. And it’s amazing how often my made up stuff is actually pretty close to the truth. I think if you trust your common sense and make sure it has some logic you can’t really go wrong. Sometimes the research reveals a disappointing truth or something that feels implausible or something that would require far too much explanation. In those cases I just keep the made up version that serves the story better. It’s all about what serves the story best, I’m writing fiction after all – it’s all truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.
Sometimes I watch a movie or read a book and spot myself in random characters, have you ever read or seen yourself as a character in a book or a movie and panic?
Like most men I have fancied myself as James Bond, though in truth I’m more like Q.
How has being a published author changed your life?
When Stanley (Zachary) was born I was a TV producer working on a big live show for Sky. Because it was a live show and I was in charge of it I couldn’t take much time off and that really made me angry. I started thinking about this illusion of freedom we have in our lives where we don’t really have much choice at all. That’s when I thought I should stop thinking about writing this mythical book I’d always thought about and actually do it. I figured if I could write something decent and earn a little bit of money from it then I could then split my time between writing and more lucrative TV work. This would mean I could spend more time at home and watch my children grow up and be part of their lives rather than spend eighteen years just creeping into their bedrooms and kissing their sleeping heads.
The success of Sanctus has mostly changed my life in that I now work full time doing something far more creative than anything I was doing in TV, and I do it at home (mostly). The irony is that it’s been so successful and published in so many countries (translated into 27 languages) that I’m away more than I ever was before. The major difference is that most days I can still drop the kids off to school every morning and be there when they come home in the afternoon. I eat every meal with them and if I do get invited to a literary festival or a book launch somewhere in the world that clashes with sports day or something like that I can just say ‘no’.
Going back to your childhood, what was the greatest thing you learned while at school?
That making people laugh gets you a long, long way.
If you could quote a line or paragraph from your work what would it be and why?
“A man is a god in ruins” – it’s the first line of Sanctus and the seed from which the whole trilogy grew. It’s a good line isn’t it? I can say that without blushing because I stole it from Ralph Waldo Emerson. All writers are thieves but if you’re going to steal you might as well steal from the best.
Can you tell us a little about the third and final installment in the Sanctus Trilogy and when will it be published?
Sanctus was predominantly about Liv, the main female character, and her journey towards discovering the truth about her own identity through the revelation of an ancient and dangerous secret. The Key was mainly about Gabriel, the main male character, and how his own identity and destiny is tied in with this secret. The Tower is about how both their destinies now combine. Following the revelation at the end of Sanctus the world is experiencing a shift: extreme weather batters the planet and a biblical plague starts to spread. Everyone starts feeling an urge to return home. Some think it’s God’s punishment and that Judgement Day is near. Others think the end will take a more natural course. But everyone agrees that something is coming, they just don’t know what it is. Without tipping my hand too much I would say the revelation at the end of The Tower is bigger than the first two books put together.
The Tower will be published in the UK on April 11th 2013 – but you can pre-order now from Amazon.
What do you see as the main purpose of your writing? If there was no such thing as literature, how would your life differ?
The main purpose of my writing is to entertain. And if there was no such thing as literature then civilization would crumble in a generation. Stories and the written repository of human knowledge are the only way we can fully remember who we are.
What’s your favourite fruit?!!
If you could invite three people to a murder/mystery dinner party who would you invite and who would end up being the victim at the end of the night?!
Bill Hicks, Eddie Izzard, Richard Pryor – and I would end up as the victim because I would die laughing.