Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Author Interview: AJ Kirby, author of Paint this town Red

Today I am interviewing horror and science fiction author, AJ Kirby. An award winning author who has published five novels, two novellas and over 40 short stories, Kirby is merely weeks away from the release of his newest thriller, Paint this town Red.

Kirby was kind enough to take a break from his busy schedule to give some insight on his new book, share his inspiration for writing, and also discuss his other novels scheduled for release this year.

When he's not penning his novels, Kirby is a sportswriter for the Professional Footballer's Association and a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review.

 The Reading List (RL): When did you first realize you wanted to become an author?
AJ Kirby (AK): When I realized I wasn’t good-looking enough (or good at acting enough) to be an actor, or fit enough (or skilful enough) to be a Premier League footballer for my favourite team, Manchester United, and when I realized that working for someone else was pretty much a physical and mental impossibility for me…

No, seriously, I realized I wanted to become an author at a pretty young age. Stories and storytelling have always been very important to me and I’ve always been happiest when writing, or simply making things up. I wrote my first graphic novel when I was about six and had it reviewed by a friend of the family who was a librarian. He called me a ‘young writing tyro’, and I still remember the glow of pride I got when I read that review. After that I wrote small plays for my friends and a few short stories. When I was eleven, I won a writing competition which entitled me to a years’ worth of free swimming at the local pool. (It’s still one of my best, or most useful) competition wins.

I had a long off-period during my teenage years and early twenties, when I thought I wanted to be a rock star, but I kept writing all the while. I’m still a little unsure about calling myself an author, but I suppose with four novels and two short story collections under my belt, then I’m allowed to (at last).

RL: Do you ever experience writer’s block? If you do, how do you work through it? Do you have a particular routine that helps you write?
AK: I think everyone does at one point or another. But I think if you analyze why you might be stuck it’s generally because there’s some kind of problem in whatever you’re working on – be it a short story, a poem or a novel – which you can’t get past because something ain’t quite right, be it something a character has done or said, or the way the plot has suddenly skewed off. I find that if the problem persists, it’s often better to simply start writing a little further on in the story. Don’t let your story fester because that way you’ll lose momentum, and momentum’s the most important thing when writing, I find.

It comes from your passion, your ideas; it’s the right side of your brain working. The left side of your brain, the more analytical side, is important when it comes to story structure and character arcs, but if you let it take over, it will quite happily pull apart everything you’ve done, leaving you with nothing. Stephen King characterizes a writer as someone “who finishes” what they are working on. I agree. The polishing can come later. Keep working at your idea. Keep writing. You’ll often find you can tie up the loose ends later.

RL: Who were some of your favorite authors growing up?
AK: Initially Roald Dahl, for the rudeness and shock value and also the sheer ingenuity of his writing. Dahl’s love of language and his playfulness with words is infectious and, like a lot of kids of my generation, I grew up thinking Roald Dahl was my long lost grandfather. The type of old rogue who’d show up every once in a while with a new rib-tickler of a story which would make me laugh, squirm and want to hear more and more… And then he’d walk off with my nose. Recently, in my guise as a reviewer, I’ve been asked to review the re-issue of a collection of Dahl’s adult short stories, and though some of his adult fiction is absolutely exemplary, the collection I reviewed was very dated. For honesty’s sake, I was forced to give the collection a resounding thumbs-down, but it really hurt me to do so. It felt like I was telling my granddad that his garden looked a mess, or something.

I also liked Tolkien. My mum read me The Lord of the Rings when I was about six, until I was about seven (it’s a big book!) and it had to be one of my most formative experiences as both a reader and writer. Enjoying the story as an ‘audience’ with my sister as it was ‘performed’ by my mum helped me appreciate the rhythms and tones of stories and books, and it made me love some of the characters as though they were members of the family. (Tom Bombadil was one of my favourite characters and it was a real disappointment that he wasn’t in Peter Jackson’s film a couple of years back.) I’ve since made it my mission to read the book every three or four years, so I suppose I’ve read it quite a few times now, but I still love it.

I discovered Stephen King in my early teenage years and quickly devoured as much of his writing as I could get my hands on without my mum finding out (I often hid the books inside other covers). King’s been an ever present in my reading and writing life ever since, and his book On Writing is simply the best ‘how to’ book on creating a story that you’ll ever come across.

Other writers who’ve made an impression on me over the years (and this is a very varied list): Cormac McCarthy, China Mieville, Michael Connolly, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, John Burdett, Ramsey Campbell, Ian McEwan, Val McDermid, Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larson, Ian Rankin. And I’m sorry if I’ve left any out…

RL: What do you do when you’re not writing?
AK: Ah, well I’m also a reviewer, so I’m usually wading my way through a pile of books which I’ll then need to subject to the AJ Kirby treatment. Actually ‘wading my way’ makes it sound as though I don’t enjoy it. Really, I absolutely love reading and it often takes quite a lot for me not to like a book. I read all genres, from Romance to Horror, and every time, no matter the quality of the book as a whole, I’ll find nuggets to amuse or entertain, and generally I’ll find a piece of writing which either makes me jealous or inspires me.

Other than reading, I like to get out of the house. Both reading and writing can be quite introverted occupations. I’m a season ticket holder for Manchester United football club and go and watch all the home games and some away games (though my travelling hundreds of miles to football matches days are rapidly dwindling now). I also love going to the cinema and theatre, and eating out. All of which I have also been a reviewer for in my time.

I also love quizzes, live comedy, travel, swimming, sunbathing, and wine-tasting.

RL: Your newest novel, Paint this town Red, is a crime novel with a supernatural twist. Can you explain the premise of the novel? What inspired the story?
AK: Paint this town Red is my take on The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Jaws. I wanted to write a fast-paced dark thriller which was packed with action and suspense. It’s perhaps my most out-there supernatural novel to date, which might be something of a risk, but I took a lot of care and attention in making the characters and settings as real as possible, and I think the existence of my big cat which haunts the small town in which the story is set, is plausible.
The premise of the novel is best explained by the blurb:
“Limm is a small town on a picturesque tidal island. For much of every day it is cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Its people are insular. Self-sufficiency runs in their blood. Myth and superstition have become their currency.
But what will happen to this close-knit community when the deepest, darkest of these myths starts to come to life, red in tooth and claw?
What happens when the island comes under siege from external forces, hell-bent on tearing the place apart?
The moon waxes. The tide of Darkness swells. Soon it will reach high-tide, and all the pretty Dark things which have heretofore remained hidden will come out to play.
Will come to Paint the Town Red…
Only the unlikeliest bunch of reluctant heroes stand in its way. Will they discover their bravery in time?”
The novel is inspired by what I imagine are very common small-town rumours which I experienced in my small town when I was growing up. When I was about fifteen or sixteen, there was talk of a large feline – perhaps a lynx – which was stalking the nearby hills, picking off livestock. There were plenty of sightings, most of which were discredited, but some couldn’t simply be explained away by Mrs. Goggins’ black moggie being on the prowl.

One night, me and a bunch of mates engineered a large lie which meant that each of our parents believed we were staying at one of the others’ houses. Instead we decided to go camping up in the hills surrounding the town. We got our hands on a few cans of underage liquor, stolen from unsuspecting dads and the like, and we packed up our sleeping bags and our tents and we set out to find the black panther, as it was becoming commonly known. One of my mates in particular had done quite a lot of research into the panther and, as darkness crept in and we failed to get our fire going, he told us all he knew about the panther. The thing which really got the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end was what he said about how the panther breathed. He claimed you could hear it, a rasping, throaty sound, before it came for you.

Anyway, we passed the evening telling stories and jokes and drinking up our pilfered booze, and in the end we turned in for the night. I woke up freezing cold in the wee small hours, already alert. And it was then that I heard the exact same breathing which my mate had described hours earlier, coming from outside the tent. I’d love to have said that I ran out, camera in hand, and got the snap which scooped the local paper. But I didn’t. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, and prayed that if it was really the panther, it would go for one of my mates first instead of me.

The next morning, nobody else claimed to have heard the panther, and indeed, one of my mates was being mocked for snoring, so the rasping, throaty sound could have been him. Or then again, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe we really did have a close encounter with the black panther. Maybe we came this close.

I wanted to recreate the peculiar atmosphere which surrounded our town when these rumours were floating about. That weird sense of being hunted and of wanting to hunt it at the same time. That weird sense of belief and disbelief at the same time. And I also wanted to explore what would happen to such rumours in the internet age, when anybody can post a picture of a large footprint on Facebook, or Twitter, and can suddenly make a myth real, by word of mouth.

RL: Paint this town Red will debut in spring 2012. Are you working on other novels or short stories this year?
AK: I’m currently working on an e-book novella for the American publishers TWB Press called The Haunting of Annie Nicol. The pressure’s on me to get this completed as TWB Press have already started advertising it on their website, with a dedicated page here:

It’s currently in its third, or fourth draft and is getting better every time, but there’s still some room for improvement and so I’m working on the editing and refining process right now.

I’m also plotting – i.e. jotting down ideas, cutting out pictures from magazines I can use from my characters, and searching for locations for – my next novel, which is going to be a horror set on the Yorkshire moors in the UK. And I’m also thinking about writing a sequel to Perfect World, which was my 2011 novel release. It’s a futuristic, techno-thriller, and I’m looking to get even more futuristic in this next book. I’ve already devised a complete new information technology system…

As to short fiction, I tend to write shorts when the mood strikes me. There’s not much planning ahead involved. Although there are a couple of anthologies planned by editors/ publishers I like which I might enter for this year and in these, the theme is generally dictated. Part of me enjoys writing within strict parameters, or to a theme or topic, so I’m sure there’ll be at least two short story releases from me at some point over the next twelve months.

RL: In addition to Paint this town Red, you have written a number of novels, novellas and short stories that mix mystery with the supernatural. Like The Magpie TrapBully, and Perfect World just to name a few. What attracted you to the supernatural genre?
AK: Primarily, it’s what I most enjoy reading. I like to read stories which push the boundaries of my imagination and which boggle the brain. I don’t want to over-intellectualise my writing style, but what I like to do is to bring together mundane, everyday existence with something extraordinary, and see what repercussions this clash brings about.

I also like to keep the reader guessing. The worst thing in the world would be if my readers read my books and guessed how things were going to turn out. I think twists and turns in the narrative are important and, as long as they’ve been prepared for properly, can thoroughly enhance the reading experience. The books I most treasure are the ones which confound my expectations so much that as soon as I finish reading them, I flip straight back to the front and read again, thinking oh, so that’s what this is all about.

RL: Have you ever written something so terrifying that you have managed to scare yourself?
AK: Erm… There have been a few occasions when I’ve had to look over my shoulder as I’ve been writing. Or when, in the middle of the night when a new, scary idea comes to me, I’ve got to click on my bedside light just to make sure the reason I’ve thought of that idea is not because whatever I was thinking about is in the room
with me.

Last year I wrote a novelette called The Black Book, whose subject matter was a little close to the bone. It was about a book reviewer who became so lonely and introverted that what he read began to haunt him. Funnily enough, I only noticed that the book could have been about me as I came to the end of the story, just as the reviewer was about to meet his doom. That definitely made me look over my shoulder. Then there was the trepanning scene in Perfect World, which made me want to bury my head in a pillow, and in Paint this town Red, a ritual drowning scene which chilled my blood and almost stopped me writing.

But I find it’s often the deeper, human issues which are the most terrifying. The what ifs. I’ve written about the experience of soldiers in the war in Afghanistan (and about the post traumatic stress some suffer afterwards) in Bully (2009). Whilst undertaking my research I heard some real horror stories which haunted me for quite a while afterwards.  And in Perfect World, the protagonist is so wholly taken over by technology that he loses himself under all the gadgets and devices. Which is something I can see happening.

RL: The Art of Ventriloquism, a collection of your novels and short stories will be released later this year. How did you and your publisher decide what titles to include? What can readers expect to see in the collection?
AK: The Art of Ventriloquism has been a long time in the making. It’s the work of many years’ crime-writing, though for a while, I never saw there was a collection in it. It was only when I began to notice common themes in the stories that it occurred to me that these stories tied-together on some level. They’re all morality tales in one way or another. They’re the seven deadly sins made flesh, brought into the twenty-first century. They’re about trying to maintain a grip on your moral compass, trying to keep a hold of your sense of right and wrong, when all about you, you’re receiving mixed messages from the media. You can be whoever you want to be on the internet, or on reality TV, and you can trample anyone else’s views and opinions just like that.

In a way, we’re living in the world of HG Wells' The Invisible Man. We can hide behind masks and play the devil to our heart’s content, give free reign to the darker side of our characters. And yet at the same time, everything we do is recorded and databased and broadcast over social networks. We’re living in an entirely different morality, and, through writing about crime, it enabled me to explore this. I’m not saying the stories have answers, but they certainly raise a lot of questions.

There are a variety of different crimes and criminals in the collection. There’s a story about an opera singer/serial killer, a yarn about what happens when a relationship turns sour and that other person just won’t leave your life, a bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy in which a couple of heavily indebted farmers capture a fat-cat banker. Crimes range from the petty – people pilfering from the beach after the contents of a shipwreck start to wash ashore – to the bizarre – bigamists – to the terrifying – the Lecter-a-like protagonist of the titular story, ‘The Art of Ventriloquism’. I’m sure everyone says this about their short story collection, but I truly think there is something for everyone here.

RL: You have won awards for your writing. What is a good piece of advice that you can share with aspiring authors?
AK: Well, I won that years’ free swimming pass when I was eleven, of course, and then there were a few lean years. More recently, I’ve started entering writing competitions again. I think awards and competitions are important at every stage of a writers’ development. In the beginning, they are affirmations of your belief that you’re a writer, and seeing your name on a short-list is a real boost. Then, when you feel you’re a little more established, they are a great way of enhancing your profile; competition wins are stamps of approval for the quality of your work. Finally – and this is the stage I’ve most definitely not reached yet – they are a great way of paying the bills. Certain competitions carry hefty prizes which can dwarf your royalty payments. At the moment, a lot of my wins have been for prizes whose prestige has rather outweighed the monetary value of the prize.  

What I would say when you’re considering entering a competition is to carefully evaluate whether you believe it is a competition worth entering. A good way of doing this is to search online for past winners to see what they’ve done since winning. But also have a look at the cost of entry against the overall prize fund. Is it really worth entering? I’ve seen some competitions which cost upwards of $10 to enter and yet the prize for winning is only $30 or so. These are odds which even the keenest gamblers wouldn’t take on.

Personally, the best writing prize I’ve won was in 2008, when I won something called the Luke Bitmead Memorial Bursary competition, run by Legend Press. This came at a time when I was feeling very down about my writing as a whole, and the novel which I’d entered for it had been turned down by so many agents and publishers that I’d completely lost faith in it. I’d grown to hate it, in fact. So when I won – and there was a decent prize too – it was as though I’d been given a reprieve, and the book had too.

I’ve also been recognized by various literature festivals in the UK (Huddersfield Literature Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival, Mere Literary Festival), I placed in the H.E Bates Short Story Competition, and also in writing competitions run by Cinnamon Press and People in Action. And last year, I was the winner of the Big Issue in the North’s genre fiction award, as well as being shortlisted for the Paperbooks ‘Tale of Two Halves’ competition and achieving runner-up in the Dog Horn Publishing Fiction Prize.

As to a piece of advice for aspiring authors and competition entrants, I’d say definitely keep to the theme of the competition. Don’t just tweak an existing story so that it sort of reflects what the judges want to see. Produce what the judges really want to see. If you don’t think you can, don’t bother. Call your ‘win’ the saving of the entrance fee or the postage. And keep going, don’t let that first competition you entered in which you didn’t even hear anything back from, let alone receive any feedback, put you off. Keep going. In fact, that’s a maxim which counts in pretty much every aspect of writing.

Look for Paint this town Red, Spring 2012!

Find out more about Paint this town Red and other novels by AJ Kirby by checking out the links below!



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