Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Interrogating John A.A. Logan

Interrogating John A A Logan, a man with a big back-list just waiting to get out.

How do you strike the balance between writing something you want to write and writing something that people want to read, in terms of the compromises you make, if any?

I try to only work on stories that genuinely excite and surprise me, as I move along through them discovering what comes next. As long as I have that element of delight and discovery in the story, I feel there’s a fairly good chance of carrying readers along as well. When I edit, if something feels wrong, or is inconsistent, I remove it, all in the effort to improve the story. Trying to get deeper into the heart of the story as a book goes on, and removing any impediment to that. I spent several years writing material that I would call “private writing” or “practise writing”, which no-one is EVER intended to read, before I moved into a phase in the seventh year of writing where most of what I produced was publishable in the form of short stories which I sold. So I always had a clear distinction between writing that was only for myself, and writing that was for other people. Bit like the difference between a diary and fiction. Fiction seems to be a more high-octane kind of writing, it takes off as though jet-propelled. I’m in the 23rd year of this writing process now, and I still separate the “private/practise/diary” writing from the fiction. I know I’ve hit the fiction/story/novel area of writing, which is for public consumption, when a piece of work seems to take off, accelerate and assume a life and driving energy of its own. There’s a unique excitement that comes with that work as well, which tells you this is something other people might want to read too. That doesn’t mean it won’t need a lot of editing and controlling, though!

What excites, attracts or appeals to you about the genre(s) you write in.

So far I’ve written fantasy, thriller, supernatural, science fiction, psychological, noir, war, social realism, literary fiction, allegory, speculative, spiritual, magic realism, espionage…lots of love/romance/relationship elements in the mix sometimes too (some of that was published in paperback anthologies, some in ebooks, and some of it is in my “backlist”, not quite out there as epub yet, but on the way!). I think this got started when I loved short story writers and novelists from all those genres, and also film-makers like Stanley Kubrick whose voice and style remained recognisable whatever the genre or subject matter he was working in. So each of those genres excites me, but also the freedom to move among them is important too. It’s always the process of the story that excites me I think, following it through to its own proper conclusion whatever the subject matter. I enjoyed very much doing a thriller like The Survival of Thomas Ford, but equally I enjoyed adding layers of psychological complexity to the characters as the story evolved, and then letting nature, or even the magical/mystical spirit of nature, encroach more and more on the story and on the characters as the book reached its conclusion. Comedy too, finding the vein of humour in even the darkest moments, and vice versa. In my new book, Storm Damage, there are ten stories of varied genre: science fiction, a suspected witch in an English village just after World War One, a bombing raid over World War Two Dresden that turns into a ghost story set in modern India…another story about a pig meeting a wolf on a hillside and having his life changed…so it may be that what excites me is splicing together the DNA of these different genres like a mad scientist! Perhaps somebody should stop me before it’s too late!

Do you have a box, drawer, folder etc where you keep thoughts and ideas for future stories? Such as names you have come across, bits of dialogue, ideas, characters - even if you have no idea when you might use them?

No, so far I keep it all in my head. I know that is a bit odd! Many of my favourite writers did keep notes and plans on index cards etc…or work on novels in sections. I was at a talk about 14 years ago by the novelist, Bernard Mac Laverty, who wrote Cal and Lamb. He said he had tried to keep a notebook for story ideas but then he would be in the flow of writing a story and that he felt it was wrong to “lasso” those notes into the story, it just felt wrong to him. I know for many writers it works well, but for me it also isn’t the right thing. I just keep moving forward with a given story, and trust that it’s all there in the subconscious somewhere, dialogue, characters, ideas, ready to come out when I need them. I know Robert Louis Stevenson worked the same way (in fact, before sleeping at night I’ve read that he would knock his pillow three times and invoke “the brownies” to come to him in his sleep and give him the idea for his next story…then he’d wake in the morning, a new idea mysteriously come to him, and there would be the new book, ready to get on with). Graham Greene also wrote about using the subconscious this way. He’d read the work he’d done that morning, last thing at night (if he was sleeping in his own bed, he said!) and let his subconscious work on the material while he slept, then as soon as he woke in the morning he would write the next 500 words (exactly 500) of his story. And he would do that every day until the book was finished. Even Hemingway would go to write in the morning, dipping into what he called “the well”, being careful not to empty it, always leaving something there for the next day’s work. So, it seems for some writers it’s external folders and notes etc, for some others it’s the subconscious used as an internal “folder” to draw on, and I’m in the second group. I also don’t write in sections, or “parts”, as I know some people do. I pretty much start at the first word, and write straight through to the last. Graham Greene had some phrase for that process I think, something like “the last words of a novel are written in the subconscious mind before the first words are ever put to paper”. But I know that way of writing doesn’t work for everyone. One of my favourite writers, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’s author, Robert Pirsig, would keep his ideas building up on index cards for several years before beginning a new book!

How do you manage plot bunnies (ideas that invade your mind that aren’t usually helpful to the story you’re writing but breed like...er...bunnies)?

Ha ha! Plot bunnies, yes, dangerous wee creatures indeed! I do have a technique for them, having had a couple of books sabotaged by them over the years. I stop after the first 50 pages/10,000 words of a new manuscript, and I go looking for them. Usually they aren’t hard to spot (the long ears and fluffy tail hehheh). I take them out then. Every 10,000 words moving through the book I check for them again, just to make sure they don’t succeed in turning one of my books into Watership Down 2. With The Survival of Thomas Ford, it was very lucky I did a 10,000 word anti-bunny check, because there was a sub-plot about corrupt Free Mason Police Officers transferred from London Met to the Scottish Highlands, which I was really enjoying doing, but under scrutiny I spotted that I would never have been able to control/do justice to that unnecessary sub-plot in the full run of a long book, not safely and surely anyway, so instinct told me to cut that one from the book.

How much of you is in your characters? Which of your characters is the you that you’d most like to be? Or be with ?

That’s really difficult. It reminds me of the story Kirk Douglas told. He wrote his autobiography about his own life and his son, Michael, didn’t seem to think much of it. Later, Kirk wrote a novel, and his son said about one of the characters in it, “That’s you! The autobiography isn’t you! That’s you!” So the mind is always playing these tricks, hiding from us who we “really” are etc…other people can recognise us better. Then again, if I’m writing from the subconscious, perhaps some of me is in every character, as well as some of every person I’ve ever met. There are some stories though where it is definitely “me” in a story. I tend to not let on which ones those are though! I wouldn’t mind being The Airman from Storm Damage…he gets to fly around in the sky at high speed, his moustache buffeted by the wind, and at the end of the story he gets a pretty good shot at “going home” with his old friends, though “home” isn’t very clearly defined. The characters I’d most like to be with, at least for the night, are the talking wolves at the top of the hill in The Orange Pig, from my book, Storm Damage!

Do you become so wrapped up in your writing that your spouse wonders if they're married to you or one of your characters?

I’m unmarried, but there are certainly one or two people who’ve let me know I spend far too much time on the computer, or engrossed in the latest book/characters  etc!

What type of book do you like reading? Is it the same genre as you write?

My earliest favourite books were by John Steinbeck (I loved The Pearl, Of Mice and men), Stephen King, Peter Straub (The Stand, The Talisman, Ghost Story), Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle), Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My all-time favourite books are: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces; Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard; Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment. A Green Tree in Gedde by Alan Sharp. Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi. Most of Milan Kundera’s novels. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig; Hunger by Knut Hamsun. I found The Master and Margarita on a bookshop shelf by accident, noticed the cover, read the back (Satan comes to 1930s Moscow with a talking black cat and a naked witch, turns the city upside down) and had to have that book! Knut Hamsun’s Hunger I might never have heard of except a friend found it at the local library and told me he thought I’d really like it. So my reading is a hodge-podge of lots of writers I’ve come across by accident or rumour over the years…and they’re all very different kinds of writers from various genres…films have also been a huge influence on me, from Kubrick mentioned earlier, to Celine and Julie Go Boating (French 1970s film with magic and humour); The Green Ray (French again! Young woman seeking love); Bergman’s films; Equus; The Pawnbroker; Far From the Madding Crowd; Midnight Cowboy; Deliverance; One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Local Hero; The Offence; The Man Who Would be King…………and now there are the indie books I read like Cally Phllips’ The Threads of Time…..Reb MacRath’s Nobility……Roz Morris’ work, Linda Gillard’s……right now I’m reading the great Stu Ayris’ Bighugs, Love and Beer, looking forward to finding out what a “nadger” is! …….In general, I love thrillers, comedies, supernatural, fantasy, psychological…….so all those genres seem to pop out when I write…and sometimes hybrid versions combining elements from all the influences!

What lengths do you go to to convince us readers that your book has the X factor?

Hmm…one of the characters in my new book Storm Damage, talks about the Z Factor! I’ve only been epublishing for 9 months now. And I only have two ebooks out. I’m conscious that I need to tell readers my books exist, and what they are about, but that I mustn’t go on about it too much, particularly as I’m just starting with the ePublishing. I think maybe it’s important to let a reader decide for themselves if they feel that, for them, a book has the X factor. And maybe the writer should stay out of it, and not imply in any way that they believe their own book has the X factor! I did come into this though, nine months ago, with quite a lot of belief in my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford. But that didn’t come from me thinking the book was hot stuff. No, after 21 years work, I’d had a London literary agent sign a contract with me for the book, telling me it was one of the best he had ever read. Then he gave it to the film consultant who had discovered Slumdog Millionaire and she told my agent that The Survival of Thomas Ford was the best book she had read in the last 4 years. That film consultant phoned me for a total of 11 hours in 2011, discussing all the things she wanted to do with The Survival of Thomas Ford. Then several publishers were found in London who said they loved the book, but when it came right down to it they did not buy the book. My agent and the film consultant blamed this on the recession etc. It was clear to me though that they still believed totally in the book. So, with my agent’s blessing I took the book to epublishing and then to kuforum.co.uk in January, and the Goodreads UK Amazon Kindle Forum. I think I came in pretty strong, making a lot of noise about how good the book was, but this confidence really came from how good the literary agent and film consultant had been telling me for over a year the book was. Anyway, thanks to kuforum and the Goodreads UK kindle forum, The Survival of Thomas Ford succeeded in the epublishing sphere (winning a Special Award recently in the Best of the Independent eBooks Awards) so I am very happy about how it has all gone and have high hopes also for my new book, Storm Damage. Storm Damage is a 200-page book containing ten stories, and I have a confidence boost for that book too, as one of the stories from it was previously published by Picador in New Writing 13, a paperback anthology edited by Ali Smith and Toby Litt that was distributed/sold in most countries of the world, from Japan to South America to India, to USA and UK. My story shared space in the book with stories by Muriel Spark, David Mitchell, Fay Weldon etc. So I suppose what I do to convince readers, is tell them stuff like that when I can! But then they have to make their own mind up, and that’s the most fun, finding out what readers really think. The Survival of Thomas Ford has 43 reviews on Amazon UK now, 36 of them are five-stars. So, thank-you readers!

How do you feel when a reader points out the spelling mistake(s) you have made?

I thank them and then go and fix the mistake!

What do you like most about visiting KUF/forums?

I think it’s brilliant that there is such a place for authors and readers to go and interact! I remember in February there was a thread on KUF that went on for 3 or 4 days, intensely debating the relative merits of genres, it just grew and grew, and I still remember it now which says something! I was really excited turning up there the other day with my new book, Storm Damage. (Then Joo helped me out by setting me up with clickable covers in my signature, which look brilliant, thanks Joo!) All through this year, whenever I had some news, if I went to kuforum with it I was encouraged or congratulated by readers and by other writers. If I had a problem or wasn’t sure about something, I’ve found advice there too, from people who really know. One thing I’ve never been clear about, was kuforum.co.uk set up by just one guy, Lou? I’ve never talked to Lou on there, but if that is the case, that is quite an achievement, considering Goodreads UK Amazon Kindle Forum and kuforum.co.uk are THE main UK places we e-readers and e-authors can meet. So, congratulations and thank-you to Lou! (And Susanne, and Chitma, and Kaska, and to all the others there’s not room to list here!)

What is on your near horizon?

Ah…well, now that I’ve published Storm Damage, I have to get a special synopsis of The Survival of Thomas Ford done which my literary agent wants to take to film producers. Then I have to finish my sixth novel, which again will go to my literary agent who will send it out to the London publishers. At the same time, I have four more novels ready to go independently through the epublishing route, but in each case I’ll want to tinker with them a little bit more before publishing (perfectionist streak, not very healthy!) And on the very near horizon there’s an Alliance of Independent Authors meeting in Inverness, Scotland, on 28th September which I will be attending, that’s another helpful organisation for us “indies”!

Where can we find you for more information?

Thanks Joo, I enjoyed my interrogation there!


  1. Terrific interview and a welcome glimpse into the mind of John A A Logan, The World's First Electric Literary Cowboy.

  2. Joo and John - Excellent questions and answers. I was especially interested in the one about 'plot bunnies.' Maybe Mr. Logan will pursue the sub-plot he mentioned above and write a police thriller? The Survival of Thomas Ford was superb and just when I thought his writing could not be better, Storm Damage arrived on my kindle. Reviewers have said 'brilliant' and 'stunning.' Now that I have found your blog, Joo, I will be following your 'interrogations.' Thank you.

    1. Thank you. I love doing these interrogations.
      John's is about the 45th I've done and even though the questions are the same the answers are oh so different :)

  3. P.S. Forgot to tell you that I adore hedgehogs - I have a photo of one on my mobile.