dan micklethwaite interview bookblast diary

Interview | Dan Micklethwaite, author

Meet Dan Micklethwaite in person at the BookBlast® 10×10 Tour discussion at Waterstones, Newcastle, 6.30 p.m. Wednesday 12 SEPT. Theme: The Northern Influence on Culture. With Kevin Duffy BLUEMOOSE BOOKS chair, authors Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Colette Snowden (The Secret to not Drowning). Book Tickets

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and brought up in Brighouse, West Yorkshire. 

What sorts of books were in your family home?
Quite a range. Alongside childhood staples like Enid Blyton and CS Lewis, we had books like The Saga of Erik the Viking, by Terry Jones, Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and The Deptford Mice Trilogy, by Robin Jarvis. Also, several illustrated compendiums of myths, legends and folk tales, originating from Greece, Scandinavia, Northumberland and beyond.

     The shelves were always stuffed with non-fiction, too, which ranged from an illustrated Atlas of Ancient Worlds that I was particularly fascinated by, to other history books (both basic primers and more advanced works); a few concept design books, which helped spur my early fascination with graphic art; books on artists like William Blake and MC Escher; and also a few weirder works, like (what I think was) Reader’s Digest: Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, which was passed down to us by my grandad, and which I used to sneak off on occasion to read the scariest, weirdest chapters from; there was a bit about a ghostly nun in Borley Rectory, which genuinely just gave me chills to recall, even though I wouldn’t consider myself a believer in paranormal phenomena. Also, a lot of books about cricket and football. And several grown-up fantasy series, like Shannara, Dragonriders of Pern, Earth’s Children, and Duncton Wood.

Who were early formative influences as a writer?
My parents, especially my dad, who was always dedicated to “doing the voices” when he read to us (myself and my three siblings), and really awoke in me the value of stories, and the absolute magic of being able to tell them like you meant them, as though even the wildest of things could be true, and important, if only you put them between the covers of a book.

Some very encouraging teachers.
     Also, JRR Tolkien – I don’t know exactly how many times I read The Hobbit back in the day, but I know I absolutely loved it on every occasion, and I think deep down, it planted ideas in my head about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Usually, these ideas were “Beorn” or “Bard the Bowman”, but when I realized that transmogrifying into a bear wasn’t terribly practical, and shooting dragons out of the sky wasn’t exactly a growth industry, I settled on writing my own stories instead.

Do you write every day, and do you write many drafts?
I have to confess, shamefully, that I haven’t always written every day, or even every week, but my occasional ‘breaks’ have usually coincided with problematic times in my personal life. When I finally twigged that putting off story ideas until some unspecified later date was only exacerbating my stresses, however, I set out to become much more disciplined on that front – to the point where I begin to feel very restless, even guilty, if I don’t do at least a bit of editing every day.

     I have always been pretty big on writing multiple drafts, though, and whilst the exact number varies from project to project, it’s very rare that I don’t, at least, do a rough draft, type it up, print out and edit, retype from scratch, and repeat this process a couple of times. I think I must have retyped Donna at least five or six times in full, and then there were several chapters that were rewritten more frequently still. There are some short stories that have taken three or four (or more) years to get published, and have been redone so often that they’re virtually unrecognizable compared to how they started out.

As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
Everything. And everything. Depending on how much coffee I’ve had.

     In particular, though, I think I’m most proud of a children’s book I wrote and illustrated when I was 8 or 9, for the year 2 class at my school. Also, a splendidly derivative spy thriller that I wrote when I was fourteen to sixteen, running to 276 A4 pages, because it let me know that I could not only start but actually finish a novel.
     And Donna, of course. It’s my first published book, so I’ll always be proud of that.

Books that changed your life?
In addition to those mentioned above, I tend to think pretty much every book I’ve loved has changed my life to some degree, but I’ve left quite a few out, for some semblance of brevity.

     In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje; Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy; The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb; Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville; Beloved, by Toni Morrison; The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene; The Witches, by Roald Dahl; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; A Scanner Darkly, by Phillip K Dick; The Princess Bride, by William Goldman; Nation, by Terry Pratchett; Watchmen, by Alan Moore; A Cook’s Tour, by Anthony Bourdain; At Close Range, by Annie Proulx; The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood; The Book Thief, by Marcus Zuzak; The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, by Charles Bukowksi; Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Temple, by Matthew Reilly; The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth; Fiesta, or the Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway; Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë; The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy; The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, by Steven Sherrill; Cannery Row by John Steinbeck; How We Look at Animals, by John Berger; Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; The Arrival, by Shaun Tan; Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes; Leviathan, by Philip Hoare; This is Not a Novel, by David Markson; Collected Stories, by Gabriel García Márquez; Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon; Moby Dick, by Herman Melville; and any collection of Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson.

Your views on book publishing?
There are obviously some big problems within the industry, but I find it generally more productive and motivational to focus on the positives, not least the growing strength and depth of independent publishing, which has spent years taking risks not only on new authors, but authors from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of different stories to tell. I’m proud to be with Bluemoose Books for a lot of reasons, but especially their commitment to this open-minded, inclusive approach, and it’s brilliant to see them finally getting some of the recognition they deserve. That other publishers such as Comma Press, Galley Beggars, Salt, Influx Press, and Unsung are also receiving increasing coverage, and having books nominated for and winning major prizes, is absolutely fantastic as well. It gives me hope going forward that readers are more open to trying new things, not least because they’re more able to find them, and I think the boost that social media gives to word-of-mouth has been instrumental in this. Publishers (and writers) no longer have to worry quite so much that readers won’t discover their output if they can’t afford to put a poster in St Pancras Station, or get it featured on a long-running television book club. And initiatives like the Bookblast® 10×10 Tour can only help further with that.

How important were, and are, editors? Have you had much encouragement from your editor(s)?
Essential. If the author is an architect, then editors are the consultants who know the tensile strength of materials and the load-bearing capabilities of every doorway and wall – and kindly remind you of these facts, as often as needed, in order to make sure the place doesn’t fall down on your eventual guests. And, indeed, work with you to make sure that as many people as possible actively appreciate their stay.

     I have had masses of invaluable encouragement, support and advice from my editors at Bluemoose (Janet, Lin, and Leonora), and also from those editors of literary magazines and anthologies who have been generous enough to publish my work. Seriously, their importance cannot be overstated.  Writing might often be a very solitary endeavor, but making a good book rarely is.

Which is more important, style or voice?
To a certain extent, it depends on the type of story you’re writing as to which element comes through most fully, but I think the most important thing is to achieve a balance between the two. If a given work is reliant on a more heightened, idiosyncratic style, then I think it helps to support this with a committed and believable voice, to prevent it from feeling purely like an experimental exercise. Likewise, if a piece centres on a very strong and memorable voice, I think the style needs to be managed carefully in order to make sure this is shown off to the fullest, even if that simply means turning the background noise down a bit. It’s about reacting to the demands of each story, and seeing what works and what doesn’t, what makes you feel something, what might likewise make readers feel something, and adjusting the final mix accordingly.

Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they in reality?
Up until a few years ago, I used to be a bit snobby about writing courses, suggesting whenever the issue came up that “real writers” didn’t need to be taught how to do it; rather, they just worked it out for themselves, using their innate natural genius.

     Which is, of course, nonsense. It was an opinion born of no experience, and which could not at the time even be backed up by the success of my own autodidactic methodology, because I’d had none.
     I’ve still never been on a creative writing course myself, but I now know a lot more people who have, and pretty much all of them have found them incredibly helpful. Beyond which, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several very passionate creative writing teachers, and can’t see how they could fail to inspire, if presented with students eager to learn.

What are your favorite literary journals?
Structo, Uncanny Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Bare Fiction, Popshot, and of course all the ones who have published my stories these past few years.

How well are your books received in Europe?
Honestly, whilst I have sold copies of my novel in mainland Europe, I don’t know quite how it has been received. However, I do like to imagine readers from Paris or Oslo or Barcelona pausing to check exactly where Huddersfield is. 

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? What about social media?
I think the main way technology has altered my writing life is by making it increasingly easy to back up my work in a multitude of locations, and to make it more portable, so that I can do things like submitting stories on the go, via my phone. However, I’m also finding social media, especially Twitter, more and more useful for making connections with other writers, and readers, and for finding new stories that other people have written, and new venues to which I can send more of my own.

     That said, there are times when social media and indeed any internet connectivity at all can be too much of a distraction, which is why I now do quite a lot of drafts on my typewriter, an old Olympia Traveller. This also gives me a break from staring at screens.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why? At the minute, I would probably go somewhere in the Antarctic Ocean, in the early years of the 20th Century, so I could do some crafty first-hand research for my next book. 

Your favourite prose authors?
In terms of established, world-famous types: Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Terry Pratchett, Graham Greene, Kevin Barry, Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, and China Mieville.

     I also try and read a lot of new writers, especially those with independent publishers, and alongside the others in the Bluemoose stable, some recent standouts are CG Menon, Carys Davies, Malcolm Devlin, Vanessa Fogg, Maria Haskins, Aliya Whiteley, and Liam Hogan. 

Your favourite noir series?
The L.A. Quartet, by James Ellroy.

Favourite feature films?
Once Upon a Time in the West, In the Mood for Love, Kes, The Station Agent, Toy Story 1-3, Out of Sight, Bicycle Thieves, Brazil, and Before Sunset.

Five favourite bands?
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, The Killers, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Arctic Monkeys, and The Gaslight Anthem. 

Your chief characteristic?
A strong tendency towards unnecessary rambling. (Hence, again, the need for editors.)

Your bedside reading?
Currently, Voices in the Ocean, by Susan Casey. And by bedside, I mean mid-afternoon, when I’m often trying to resist the strong urge to nap.

Your motto?
Do the work.

 

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Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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