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Saturday, May 5, 2018

INTERVIEW WITH THE FASCINATING NICK SWEET

NICK SWEET




Kenna: Introducing Nick Sweet, world traveler and Author.

Hello, Nick! Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer. 

 I’m a Brit, originally from Bristol, but have moved around a fair bit. I’ve been based in Spain for the past eight years or so. I like it over here and have no plans to leave. If I write a string of huge bestsellers, I’ll still keep a place here to come to, although I’ll probably spend months at a time living in Manhattan, writing by day, and hanging out in the jazz clubs every night. I went there and checked out the Village Vanguard and Birdland last summer and was in my element. So, yeah, Spain’s great. It’s home and I like it here. It doesn’t have Birdland or the Village Vanguard, but it has lots of other things instead. I like the culture here and the people are generally friendly. I speak fluent Spanish and read in Spanish, which of course is essential if you want to live here without going completely bonkers.

I became a writer because I love reading books and have a need to write or at least to be creative in some way. I think writing is basically an act of rebellion in which nobody gets hurt; on the contrary, if the book’s any good then readers will derive pleasure from it, as well as a complicated/fun form of learning, even, too, perhaps. If anyone gets hurt, then it’s the writer.

Why do I need to write? That’s one for the psychiatrist’s couch. I just need to be and feel creative. It goes deep with me, this feeling. Why and where does it come from? Again, it’s hard to say. I suspect that people who write have a part of their personality and sensibility that’s over-developed, while other parts may not be so well developed. Writing and being creative in general is a way of reacting to the world. At times it can even become a way of trying to cope with experience and understand it. But I’m not in the habit of over-intellectualizing these things. At the end of the day, I like to tell stories and so I do. I also like the idea of working at a thing – the art or craft of writing in this case – and working and working, so that you’re always improving over time. I like the idea of making characters and scenarios come to life on the page. I like, too, the idea of learning new things about my craft, and about experimenting with different styles. That said, it’s really tough work, because there’s a sense in which there really is no point in writing unless you’re going to try to do it as well as you possibly can. It’s different from playing football, say, in your spare time, where you can just enjoy the game and the camaraderie and benefit from the exercise, even if you’re no good at it. With writing, if I really felt I didn’t have any talent then I’d pack it in. The frustrating thing is when you believe you have talent, but other people – agents, most notably – fail to see it. Or else they’re looking for something else, something you’re not offering. Rejection is hard to take and I’ve had more than my fair share. If your books aren’t selling it’s devillishly hard to attract an agent. If you can’t attract an agent then you’re not going to get the big editors at the big publishers to read your work. And if you don’t get a big publisher then you won’t sell a lot of books. And if you don’t sell a lot of books, you almost certainly won’t attract an agent. It’s a vicious circle. Sometimes you feel like some homeless tramp trying to pull a gorgeous film star. Why would she even give you the time of day, when she’s got millionaires queueing up to whisk her off for dinner at the Ritz? It’s not quite true that agents usually tell me I’m without talent. On the contrary, in recent months I’ve had agents tell me ‘you write well and produce some lively characters’ and ‘you’re an accomplished writer’ who is ‘in control of your story’. Another said she liked my style. Another loved the way I worked descriptions into the narrative voice, but felt there was a little too much dialogue. Another agent wrote saying she was ‘sitting on the fence’ regarding whether or not to sign me on for a couple of months, but then she decided not to… So agents appear to see I can at least write a bit, but somehow I haven’t managed to get one to sign me on yet. People who aren’t in the writing game probably think it’s all rather simple. If you’ve got talent then agents will spot it and sign you, just as happens with footballers, say. But somehow it doesn’t seem to work like that. Each agent appears to have some particular idea in mind, some book they are looking for, and you’re not going to get lucky nowadays unless you give them just what they’re looking for. And it takes take for people to read your work, of course, and I can imagine that if I were an agent and had thousands of people all sending me their work then I’d probably unplug the phone and head for the hills. I mean, I can only read stuff I really like, stuff that inspires me, so a part of me can put myself in their shoes and see their problem. That said, I still think I’m far too talented a writer to be neglected. I deserve to have a good agent and a top publisher. My work deserves that much, or I think it does, and so I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’ve kept on writing all this time.

How to break out of this vicious circle’s the question I often ask myself. And while I ask it, I make sure I’m always writing, writing, writing…because it’s important not to let rejection stop you writing – at least for more than a few days at a time – because if you do that then you really will be sunk.



Kenna: What genre do you generally write and what have you had published to-date? What do you think of eBooks? 

I’ve written crime thrillers like The Long Siesta, Flowers At Midnight, Bad In Bardino, Switch and Only The Lonely. I’ve also written works of historical and/or literary fiction, such as One Flesh, Young Hearts, and Gemini Games. Then there’s my one-off western novel, Ways of the West. All of my books have been published by small-ish independent publishers.


Kenna: Have you self-published? If so, what led to you going your own way? 

I haven’t self-published and, frankly, I’d wouldn’t even know how to go about it. I have enough to do what with working as a teacher in a state school in Spain and writing my books. And I have to try to squeeze in living my life in between, of course, so I can do without the awful hassle of having to design front covers and all that stuff. The mere thought of it brings me out in a rash!



Kenna: Do you have a favourite of your stories or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s? 

Humphry Bogart, except that he’s dead, so I’ll have to think some more. To be honest, it’s not something I’ve ever given much thought to. De Niro or Pacino would have been perfect, only they’re both too old for the roles now. I’ll have to give it some thought… It would have to be some guy who’s kind of stylish in a hard-bitten sort of way. Ben Gazzara might have fitted the bill, too. That type…
  

Kenna: Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer? 

I got into Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Joyce in my late teens and loved them. Ditto the poetry of T.S. Eliot and, of course, Shakespeare. I read Dickens around the same time, and then discovered Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. All of these authors opened up new worlds to me. I didn’t really get into crime until some years later, when I discovered Simenon and began reading a lot of his books. Then I discovered Elmore Leonard. He wrote about people I recognized because I’d spoken to them, rubbed shoulders with them in bars or wherever. Ordinary people who find themselves in a tough spot and end up doing the wrong thing… I’ve met plenty of people like that. And then there are the innocent folk who happen, purely by chance, to find themselves mixed up in events or scenarios that are not of their own choosing. Pronto was the first Elmore Leonard book I read and I loved it. It seemed about two hundred years ahead of anything else that I’d been reading around that time. Leonard had, it seemed to me, found a new way of writing about people that don’t normally end up in books…a whole new way of both looking at the world and writing about it. My book Flowers At Midnight is probably the book of mine that’s most inspired by Elmore Leonard. Some reviewers picked up on this, most notably Professor Richard B. Schwartz, who teaches English at the University of Missouri. He wrote a very insightful review on Amazon – he clearly understood where I was coming from with the book, and what I’d set out to do. Other reviewers picked up on it, too, though.

Then in The Long Siesta I fell slightly more under the influence of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which struck me as being one of the two great early literary masterpieces in the crime genre, the other being The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ve since discovered Patricia Highsmith’s books and really enjoy them, too. But those are some of the important writers of the classical or formative period of the crime novel, and if you want to write for the modern market then you need to read a large share of the writers who are featuring in the bestselling charts nowadays, too, so that you have a clear idea of what the novel is getting up to in the genre today.


So over the past 15 years or so, I’ve read six or eight books by Michael Connolly and Ian Rankin, James Ellroy, John Harvey and Dennis Lehane. I’ve also read Patricia Cornwall, James Patterson, Gill Flynn, Sarah Waters, Martina Cole, Mark Billingham, Lee Child etc. All those writers are dauntingly good in any number of ways. But let’s take one of them, Michael Connolly. Connolly turns out flawlessly plotted crime procedurals, one after another, practically year after year. He’s the John Grisham of the police procedural, except that he writes a lot more books. I’ve read a number of his books. About eight, I’d say, at the last count. They are long books that are high on well-researched detail. Connolly clearly knows a lot about how the police operate. The man is a publisher’s/agent’s dream. It’s obvious he’s going to get millions of readers. So why should somebody like me even bother? I mean if I’m honest with myself, then I have to admit that I can’t compete with a writer like Connolly in terms of what he does. I can’t plot as well as he does and I don’t have a team of researchers at my disposal, or the best editorial team rushing to polish my prose, or the best marketing team ready to pump millions into promoting and distributing my books. So why do I keep hammering away at the keys? Well, it’s my belief that I also have something to offer, something that a writer like Connolly, staggeringly good that he is, doesn’t offer. Connolly is like the QE2. His is a perfectly engineered ship and you go aboard and eveything’s in working order. My vessel, on the other hand, is a broken down old vessel, but if you come aboard then you’ll find some characters that you won’t find in Connolly’s books, or anyone else’s for that matter. You’ll find yourself in a different world, and one that’s interesting. Sometimes you might wonder if the captain knows where he’s taking you, or whether he’s drunk at the helm or simply crazy. Sometimes you might even wonder whether the engine’s going to pack up. But somehow the vessel will continue to surprise you by moving through the water, and you will end up visiting some strange and interesting places you never knew existed and meeting some characters that will surprise you just as much. You’ll come away feeling like you’ve experienced something different, something a little whacky and individual; something flawed in parts, perhaps, but well worth the time you gave to it even so. And you’ll find, by the end of the experience, that the captain either got incredibly lucky or else he had some idea where he was going after all. That is, you’ll feel that the different strands of the plot all ended up hanging together, just about – even if you can’t quite work out how… After you’ve read my book, you’ll still want to read Connolly’s next one, of course, but you might just want to read my next one as well, because you’ll have come to believe that I offer a slightly different slant on things, something a little different that’s worth experiencing…

To get back to The Long Siesta…as well as Chandler, I was also influenced by Robert Wilson’s The Blind Man of Seville to a degree, not so much in terms of style, but because I’d read it shortly before starting work on The Long Siesta, and I really enjoyed it, so it sort of gave me the impetus to write a book about Seville myself. I was living in Calle Teodosio at the time, and Wilson’s Falcon was being kept busy just a couple of streets up closer to the river. When I wrote to Robert to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his novel, it turned out he’d lived somewhere on Calle Teodosio, too, for a while, some years before me.

Anyway, the point I was trying to get to is that while Flowers At Midnight is influenced by Elmore Leonard, The Long Siesta is more influenced by Chandler. Professor Richard B. Schwartz picked up on this regarding The Long Siesta, in his review of that book on Amazon, too. Barry Forshaw wrote a very positive review of The Long Siesta in Crime Time Magazine, and the same review, only slightly less enthusiastic, appeared in Barry’s critical who’s-who of British crime writers, Brit Noir. A lot of highly respected authors offered quotes for the back cover, too. People like Nicholas Blincoe, Caro Ramsay, Howard Linskey, and a fair few others. Then, with Bad In Bardino, I went a step further and made the style even more consciously Chandleresque, or at least that was my intention. With Bad, I set out to rework Chandler for the modern day. Of course I’m not saying I succeeded necessarily, but there are things I like in all three of those books. I mean they could all be plotted better, and there are definitely things that can be improved in them, but even so I think the books have some energy and verve in them; the characters come to life on the page, and so do the places that I write about. I also feel pleased with the way I was able to write in different styles and feel comfortable doing so. I mean, there was nothing artificial or fake about it with any of those books.

Gemini Games, which is really a literary novel set in the 1990s, has a streetwise, picaresque style style, much like Flowers At Midnight, that owes something to Elmore Leonard. (By the way, D.M Thomas, D.J. Taylor and Andrew O’Hagan all offered quotes for the back cover of Gemini Games, which was very generous of them.) But then when I wrote my historical novels, Young Hearts and One Flesh, I adopted an entirely different style, more in keeping with the times in which those two books were set. I felt quite natural with that style, too, but it’s a whole world away from the styles I’ve adopted for my crime novels. In fact, people who read the historical books and then check out my crime books will probably find it hard to believe these novels could all have been written by the same writer. Not that I adopted different styles just for the hell of it. Quite to the contrary. If you write about the First World War, as I did in Young Hearts, then you need to find a style that’s appropriate to the period. The style of Flowers At Midnight would be all wrong for such a book, that much was obvious to me. I mean, it wasn’t something I even needed to think about.

I have another book I’ve finished recently that’s been written in a fresh style which, I feel, owes nothing to either Chandler or Elmore Leonard - or anyone else, for that matter. I wanted to write something different and to a find a new style that didn’t owe anything to any other writers. I think I felt that if Chandler or Elmore Leonard were to write novels now and send them in they probably wouldn’t get published.  That is, they’d wouldn’t unless they were prepared to drop their old styles and search for something new, whatever it is the market is looking for right now. The times have changed and the market has changed with them. As a writer, it’s hard to work out what agents/publishers/readers are looking for. You’re really just shooting in the dark and hoping you get lucky, in a sense.  The thing is, to write something you like yourself and just hope that other people end up liking it. But I certainly felt, after writing books influenced by Leonard and Chandler, and failing even to attract an agent or a big publisher, that it was time to find a new style…a style more appropriate for the current time. And so that’s what I set out to do.



My latest book is being read by someone – a professional, that’s to say - at the moment, so I’ve no idea what it’s ultimate fate will be. Ultimately, I want to get my books on shelves in bookshops. The publishers I’ve been with to date have all done an excellent job in all sorts of ways and I’m very happy with them, don’t get me wrong, but none of them have succeeded in getting my books into bookshops all over the world. And until that happens, I won’t be satisfied. I feel that my work needs and deserves to be read by millions of people, everywhere, and the challenge is to try to reach that huge, worldwide market.

So there’s a sense in which I’m kind of pleased with all of the books I’ve written, because I worked hard on writing and then editing all of them to ensure they were the way I wanted them. I’m also pleased with the way they all contain a touch or two of individual flair and style and creative verve here and there, at least I think they do. What I’m not satisfied with, however, is the fact that my books have failed to find their way onto bookshelves in the chain stories in London or Liverpool, or New York or Chicago, or Rome or Barcelona or Buenos Aires, or wherever… So I’ve needed to go back to the drawing board and rethink where I’m going as I writer. I really believe it’s perfectly possible to write a pretty good book nowadays, or even a few pretty good books, and not get noticed. That’s because it’s not really about whether any given book is any good or not nowadays, so much as whether it reaches the public and feeds a particular need or meets a particular niche in the market. For this reason, there is really no point in writing unless you are going to try to reach the public – at least that’s the way I feel about it. I mean, I can’t imagine a James Joyce, say, or a Celine writing today and getting any acclaim or success. I think their books would just be lost in the mass of publications that are out there. So if they were around today, they’d have to climb out of their ivory towers and try and write somethiing that the public en masse wants to read. The old days of striving for literary excellence are over and it doesn’t look as though they’ll be coming back…which of course rather means that the study of literature in the universities is living on borrowed time.

As I say, I can’t talk much about my latest book, beyond saying that it’s a crime thriller that runs to around 140,000 words in draft form, because it’s still early days and it’s not yet found a publisher. If I don’t find a bigger publisher for this book, I might even just hold on to it until I make a breakthrough. I’ve got nine books out there at the moment, I think. That’s probably enough books to have with small-ish publishers for any writer of ambition. In truth, I really don’t have any idea where my next step as a writer is going to take me – but all I hope is that it will take me to the top!



Kenna: Do you manage to write every day, and do you plot your stories or just get an idea and run with it? 

I try to write regularly, but it’s important not to force things but to let the writing dictate its own rhythm – it’s a bit like sex, in that sense, and the whole business of love itself. Which means there are days I can’t see the woods for the trees and find it almost impossible to write anything, and then there are days when I just want everyone to leave me alone so I can write…and write…and write… That happens when the story is so clear and alive in my mind that it practically writes itself.

Each book is a fresh enterprise, and in my case I’ve not just written different stories but I’ve also come up with fresh styles to tell my stories in.


Kenna: Do you do a lot of editing or research? 

I do a lot of editing, particularly because I tend to start off a bit shakily. I generally have to write a hundred pages or so on any given draft, before I start to feel like it’s real. When I go back to a manuscript afterwards, it stands out a mile – the point at which the story and characters became totally alive for me. After I reach that point, the writing always becomes crisper and more alive and precise, and just much better in every way, and for this reason it doesn’t generally require anywhere near so much editing. The openings, however, are often full of flaws that don’t fit in with what comes afterwards, as well as false starts, where I’m clearly feeling my way and trying out different options, so it all that has to be worked out. It’s a case of having to go back to the start and going through it all again with a toothcomb. Which of course is often the very last thing you feel like doing, after you’ve just finished the draft of a book and are exhausted and probably feel like you’ve had enough of it and just want to do something else to take your mind off it. But if you want to write well then you need to learn to edit your own work, at least to a proficient degree. Then if you’re lucky and you get to work with good editors, they can pick up where you’ve left off and hopefully make your work even better.

The hard part, for me, is deciding what to leave in and what to edit out. Hemingway famously said cut, cut, cut, and if you’re still in doubt cut again. But books nowadays are often quite long, and the kind of clipped, elliptical style of writers like Elmore Leonard and Hemingway before him, which is to say writers who use words sparely, is completely out of fashion. Of the books I’ve published to date, only Young Hearts runs to 80,000 words. The others run to something less than this, which, as I say, runs counter to the modern trend and fashion. So I’ve decided to stop writing short books and write longer ones…longer books and in a new style. If my next book turns out to be rubbish, then at least it will be a new and different kind of rubbish, one that won’t owe anything to Elmore Leonard or Mr Leonard’s mentor, Mr Hemingway. It’s time to try and put those to wonderful gents to bed. I’m sure they’ll get on just fine without yours truly. After all, they’ve managed to get this far without my help. (I’ve got my tongue firmly in my cheek as I say this, of course.)

Now for a little writerly madness. Get hold of this idea and wrap it around a nearby flagpole. I hereby confess I sometimes get the idea that there might be a book I’m meant to write but that I’ve failed to find it yet…that the ideas and the style are just out there waiting for me – perhaps they’re right under my nose – but I haven’t been able to find them. It’s a weird feeling…rather a good sensation, but it’s tantalizing, too. People tend to talk about this or that writer having his or her particular style, when it seems that I’ve written in a number of styles. What’s more, it strikes me there could be a style out there that I’ve yet to find, a style that’s just right for me. Who knows…?


How does a writer know that the stuff he’s writing about is the stuff he’s meant to be writing about, or that the style he’s writing in is the style he’s really meant to be writing in? These questions may strike some people as being slightly crazy, but they are, I can assure you, questions that occur to me on a regular basis. Why should a writer just have one style? What’s to say he/she shouldn’t have a whole bag of styles fighting it out with each other, all striving to be the one for him/her?

The great enemy of the novel, or creativity in general – and not just that, but of love itself and honesty in human relations – is political correctness. If the writer fails to fight the dragon of PC his or her work will merely add to the cesspool that PC is slowly adding to. For this and a number of other reasons, good books are acts of rebellion…

And of course taste plays a big part in the whole business. I once met a woman who was going to read my work, and I knew, just from looking at her footwear, that she wouldn’t like the work I had to show her…and I was right. Of course, I could hardly tell her, ‘Look, I know we’re both wasting our time here, because of those awful boots you’ve got on…’ But I could tell it at a single glance…

  

Kenna: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you? 
: 
Rejection is tough to take, of course. And if you’re getting rejections while working on a new book, it can sometimes hit you sideways so that it can take the wind out of your sails. It’s not so much about being sensitive to any given individual’s thoughts on my work – I don’t really give two hoots about that – but rather the sense that you’re faced with a wall that’s looking as insurmountable today as it ever did…

Kenna: What are you working on at the moment / next?  

I’m working on a new book at the moment. It doesn’t yet have a title and, for the reasons explained above, I’m going at it very tentatively, as I always do at the start. It will be different from anything else I’ve written; that’s the only thing I can tell you about it at this stage. I always feel particularly talentless when starting out and frequently feel like throwing in the towel. We’ll see…




Kenna: Where can we find out about you and your writing? 



Thank you again for taking part in this blog interview. I’m very grateful for taking time out from your writing to answer these questions and wish you all the best with your future projects. 

Kenna 
http://www.KennaMcKinnonAuthor.com 



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2 comments:

  1. I'll certainly agree with the "I want to tell stories." Lots of luck with your WIP.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your reply, Mari. I think we all want to tell stories, all in our own way!

      Delete

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