An exclusive interview with Alexander King, author of It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter

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Cover graphics by Andy Curry. Click on the image to buy the book.

Recently I was privileged enough to get an early glimpse at this debut novel from author-musician Alexander King. If that wasn’t exciting enough, (it was) he agreed to tell me a bit more about it, to share with you all on here (below).

I had a great time with this book. It’s a fast-paced, gripping social-media-social-commentary thriller. I liked it as a detective story, and a road movie, and as everything else it was, because it’s so much more. King paints affectingly the exhilaration of unexpected moments of human connection, and other poignant reminders of the sad state of modern-day interaction.

It’s full of cheeky, fun, clever uses of language and tasty characters. I can see it working really well on the big screen should we be lucky enough to see an adaptation. The world-building was immediate, natural and effective. It had terrifying parallels with our own reality. The ending was very satisfying, which is a big thing to say of any story, though I was hungry for an extension of time in this world when I finished reading.

Fun, thought-provoking, insightful and poignant. And fun. Looking forward to a second read, and to sharing it with my friends and family.

Anyway, enough of what I think, let’s hear from the man himself.

1.1 What’s the book about?

It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter is a sci-fi/detective story set in the near future, in a world where one social network knows everything about everyone. It follows Henry Thorner, a consultant who specialises in missing persons cases, trying to track down a young hacker called Tanner Griffen. The ubiquity of Ora, the world’s largest social network, makes his job harder as he’s “off-grid” and he’s trying to find someone who is an expert in manipulating the online world. There are twists and turns, murders and double-crosses and an explosive denouement.

1.2       What does the story mean to you?

On the one hand, it’s a way for me to pay homage to all my favourite literary and cinematic tropes, but on the other I’m exploring a subject very close to me, which is our digital life and how it’s changing, and whether these changes are a good thing or a bad thing. I had a friend who died young, and his social profiles lived on without him and it got me thinking about how much of our ‘soul’ is contained in databases owned by huge corporations.

1.3       Describe the route to this debut novel being published…

I took part in NaNoWriMo last year (2013) and wrote the first draft of 50,000 words in the month of November. I wrote 1600 words every day without fail which was tough but a huge achievement personally. The book went through a long editing process, I think I did nine or ten drafts, with the help of an editor friend of mine. Once I considered it complete I had a cursory attempt at sending it to a few literary agents and had a few rejections before deciding to self-publish digitally. I figured I could bang my head against the wall of the literary establishment for a year while my story withered on the vine, or publish and be damned and have real humans actually read it. It was a no-brainer.

1.4       How do you feel about the cover graphics?

I love the book cover. Andy Curry has done a great job both on the concept and the execution. I like it because like the book title, it doesn’t really make sense until you’ve read the book.

1.5       Any chance of an adaptation?

I hope so! I’d love the story to be made into a film. When I wrote it, I basically played a film in my head and wrote down what I “saw”, so I think it would suit that media. There’s enough action in it and colourful characters to make it something I think people would watch. I’m also realistic enough to accept changes to the characters or stories if the book was turned into a screenplay by someone else.

1.6       What’s your Thing? Do you lean toward a certain style/theme/time?

I love stories with an interesting concept or premise. Something that makes a reader think and maybe see life in a different way. Quite lofty ideas but why spent months of your life on something if you don’t want to change a little corner of the world, or people’s perceptions? This book is an action/adventure novel and exploration of the human race as data in equal measure.

1.7       Why do you write?

It’s just another creative outlet really. I also write music for theatre and film, draw and paint and play guitar in a rock band. I often start with an idea then determine what media best suits it. I’ve got an idea for a play, for example, that I think is pretty strong, but that idea wouldn’t work as a novel. I’ve never written a play before, but it would be exciting to try.

1.8       Who/what are your influences/inspirations?

I love Philip K Dick, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Bret Easton Ellis, Ray Bradbury and all the big Sci-Fi writers.

1.9       Favourite writers?

See above!

1.10  What are you reading?

I’m currently reading I, Robot by Asimov and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I listen to audiobooks in my car when driving to and from work every day, and have a paper book on the go at home.

1.11  Describe your writing routine/ritual

I read a lot about the first hours of the day being the most productive and this has proven to be true. I get up an hour before my family (very early when you have a 3 year old!) when the house is quiet and nobody is asking me to do other things. An hour is usually enough.

1.12  Do you have an agent? Why?

No. It’s a bit early in my writing career and I feel I have to prove myself before I can seriously approach people like agents and publishers. I’m really hoping that the interest in It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter will create a bit of a buzz around what I do.

1.13  What were your biggest learning experiences or surprises throughout the publishing process?

How easy it was. I paid a company to format the ebook to the acceptable technical standards, then used SmashWords to push it out to most of the online bookstores. Amazon and Google Play had to be done manually, but even they were just a case of filling out a few online forms and bingo – you’re published.

1.14  Would you have done anything differently if you could do it again?

Knowing what I do now? Everything! I pretty much learned how to write in the process of writing this book, which sounds a bit melodramatic but it’s true. I thought I knew a bit about grammar and punctuation but when you actually sit down and analyse your work word-for-word it’s a real eye-opener. The plus side is that I feel more at ease about the idea of tackling another book.

1.15  Something personal about you that people may be surprised to know?

I teach Wing Chun Kung Fu, which I’ve trained for 16 years.

1.16  Would you identify yourself as a writer, or something else?

I would like to! I think having written a full-length book that I’m very proud of should qualify me. It’s not all I do, but I’d like to add it to my list of skills if that’s not too presumptuous.

1.17  What are you working on next?

I think I’m going to do NaNoWriMo again this year. I’ve got a half-baked idea for a novel with a lot of depth, probably a lot less action-based than It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter and more psychological. Plus I’m writing music all the time for some York based film and theatre companies and trying to be a good father and husband at the same time!

1.18  What’s your ultimate goal, writing or otherwise?

To be happy. I think that should be everyone’s goal. Everything you do should go some way towards making you a happy person. If you’re doing something that makes you miserable, stop doing it.

AK

You’re welcome.

You can buy the book here, which you should, like, now, because it’s currently an absolute steal at £1.83.

Check out Alexander’s own website here in time for when you’ve finished reading the book and developed a totally healthy celebrity obsession.

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Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

My first experience of this story was the 2007 film, which I watched a number of years ago when there was still enough of a World Cinema section in HMV to browse and buy interesting new gems from the world outside Hollywood.

I recently read the graphic novel for the first time, it having been given to me as a really thoughtful gift quite a while back and subsequently sat on my shelf for a criminal length of time.

The film, despite adding some nice depth and (somehow, using a majoritatively black and white palette) colour to the illustrations of the book, originally left me feeling a bit flat, and since reading the book I think I can see why: the book is just so rich and expansive, and while it’s a worthy story to develop into multiple mediums, a traditional feature-length animated film just can’t communicate in the same way that the book can. The snaking headscarves are one element that really do work on-screen; adding a sense of urgency and real threat to their confrontational appearances. It’s worth a watch, maybe even before you read the book, because the book was, for me, a more enjoyable experience.

Anyway, enough about the film.

The book is a treasure. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s been a while since I read anything so full of perfect snapshots of humanity. Having never visited Iran, it felt quite special not only to learn a tremendous amount more about its history than I ever did from the news or from school, but also to feel connected to the author, an Iranian woman with whom I had no idea I’d have much in common with, but who seemingly went through a lot of the same personal and social feelings and ideological questions that I did growing up. And, while emotionally universal, it’s a unique and landmark book. It’s not every day you read an illustrated autobiography detailing that a young girl has tried to pee standing up to understand someone’s point. ‘Marji’ maintains this objective curiosity (portrayed wonderfully by a kind of blank, alert look penned by the author herself) throughout the years the book covers, making her the perfect empathic window of a protagonist to vessel her experiences to the reader. She also illuminates little mental games she used to play to keep herself occupied, for example guessing the shape of a woman under her scarf, which is just joyful.

Ostensibly the story is about growing up in Iran during a time of war, change and unrest, and the events of the period are inextricable from her personal experience, but actually on finishing the book I was left with an overwhelming focus on the feeling of being human. Of connecting to someone halfway across the globe, born two decades before me. For that, I have Satrapi’s integrity and continuing self-belief as a spokesperson to thank.

Marji compressed into cartoon form, in her early years at least, is kind of like Bart and Lisa Simpson combined. She’s mischievous and fun-loving, passionate and philosophical. Throughout the comic-strip chapters we get to know her through dialogue with her friends at school and her family at home – mainly the latter, where her emotional and philosophical forming seems to have undergone the main course of its development. It is clear that Satrapi’s family was a strong community of which she was an important, comfortable, accepted part. She also delivers us informative asides detailing specific terms, making the story further accessible.

She moves on into an independent young-adulthood abroad and continues to travel and take in new experiences, until heartbreak drives her to homelessness, and subsequent illness, before she returns to Iran to reconnect with her family.

Of course, the subject matter could and does no doubt provide enough of a unique selling point for most publishers, but quite aside from the backdrop of the Iranian revolution and the Europe of the 1980s, I really enjoyed Marji’s company.

Find more book-related thoughts on my Goodreads.

Growing Down

As I grow older, I grow different. Six years ago, I entered into a relationship that would rather change me for the worse. Two years later, I surfaced with more than a few new issues. However, I got one really great thing out of it – a love of graphic novels.

Comics and graphic novels are genres that I had always considered lesser to classical literature and modern fiction, and had never bothered to test drive myself. I saw the artwork as tacky, the titles as cheesey and the concepts as less than vital. I looked down on them. How wrong I was.

With encouragement from said relationship, I began with The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and moved onto Watchmen by Alan Moore. I was hooked and baffled. Okay so there were moments of cheese, but they were totally allowed to be there because of the incredibly complex, fundamental themes. The genuine exploration of timeless issues through fantastical filters. The highest rewards of escapism and intellectual and philosophical development. The open-mindedness, the acceptance, the willing and readiness to delve into a topic through the eyes of, for instance, some kind of space worm, without having to explain itself. Because why fucking not?

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Since then, friends have recommended hundreds of titles and series to me, and I can’t think of anything better than sitting down in my garden on a sunny weekend and reading a graphic novel. And it’s such a great thing to share and talk about. The more I think about it, the more I want to share all these cool stories with the people I know who don’t read comics yet.

I’m obviously very new to the area, and this stuff has been widely appreciated for many years, so I in no way know my stuff, but this is what I’ve found so far, and I’m really, really grateful for those who do know it being infectiously enthusiastic about it.

So, here is my recommendation. Take it, if you will. Read some comics – they’re amazing. Here are some of my favourites so far:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

“… two lovers from long-warring extraterrestrial races, Alana and Marko, fleeing authorities from both sides of a galactic war as they struggle to care for their newborn daughter, Hazel, who occasionally narrates the series.”

Refreshingly modern, blunt and beautiful, imaginative, colourful, thrilling, wholesome and magical, hilarious. One of the best, it’s still ongoing and there’s time to catch up.

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Fables
by Bill Willingham

“When a savage creature known only as the Adversary conquered the fabled lands of legends and fairy tales, all of the infamous inhabitants of folklore were forced into exile. Disguised among the normal citizens of modern-day New York, these magical characters have created their own peaceful and secret society within an exclusive luxury apartment building called Fabletown. But when Snow White’s party-girl sister, Rose Red, is apparently murdered, it is up to Fabletown’s sheriff, a reformed and pardoned Big Bad Wolf, to determine if the killer is Bluebeard, Rose’s ex-lover and notorious wife killer, or Jack, her current live-in boyfriend and former beanstalk-climber.”

Need I say more? This series is huge and it’s funny, dark, and familiar. An addictive train of ‘what if’s.

Fables

 

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

My absolute favourite.

“… an occultist attempting to capture Death to bargain for eternal life traps Death’s younger brother Dream instead. After his 70-year imprisonment and eventual escape, Morpheus goes on a quest for his lost objects of power. On his arduous journey Morpheus encounters Lucifer, John Constantine and an all-powerful madman.”

Gorgeous artwork ranging in style. Wonderful, dreamy, surreal narratives spanning the whole of time, colourful and chilling characters, epic backstories, and really clever design. I’m just in awe of Neil Gaiman and the artists working on this series. The original 75 issues were produced between 1989 and 1996, but Gaiman has recently started releasing a long-promised prologue series, ‘Overture’, which is just as exciting, beautiful and satisfying as the rest.

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Watchmen by Alan Moore

A groundbreaking classic tale of war, politics, conspiracy, life and mortality. A must-read.

“It all begins with the paranoid delusions of a half-insane hero called Rorschach. But is Rorschach really insane or has he in fact uncovered a plot to murder super-heroes and, even worse, millions of innocent civilians? On the run from the law, Rorschach reunites with his former teammates in a desperate attempt to save the world and their lives, but what they uncover will shock them to their very core and change the face of the planet!”

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Death Note by Ohba Tsugumi

“An overachieving 12th grader, Yagami Light is an aspiring young man who seems destined for success. Unfortunately, his daily habits bore his incredible intelligence–So when a strange black notebook falls from the heavens during his class, it isn’t long before he takes it for himself. In his room, he finds, to his horror/fascination, that the Death Note is real, and owned by Ryuk, a Shinigami (Death God).
Any person’s name written in the Death Note will die in 40 seconds…. without fail.
With this supposed gift of God, Light swears upon his grave that he will ‘cleanse’ the world of the evil and needless people that inhabit it, thus creating a utopia for all. With the world’s greatest detective, L, hot on his tail, will Light’s ideals prove too fantastic to realize, or will he succeed bringing justice?”

I finished reading this recently, having started it a couple of years ago and not quite been on the ball about hunting down the rest, but being very excited about receiving a Black Edition volume (thicker, combining two original volumes each, and suedey-feeling) as a gift, and later discovering that you can pretty much read the whole saga for free online, or even on phone apps. Like here: http://mangafox.me/manga/death_note/ (Scroll down for a list of respective chapters with links.)

It’s bloody thrilling. And what a concept. Tasty as hell. It does suffer a dip in excitement in the late-middle, but stick with it, the ending is so ultimately satisfying. I’m really looking forward to watching the anime series and even the 2006 film version, which stars the awesome Ken’ichi Matsuyama from Norwegian Wood – another film adaptation that I thoroughly enjoyed.

 

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But don’t take my word for it. Local libraries stock a ton of these, and here is a list of some of the biggest titles in the genre:

http://www.empireonline.com/features/30-comic-books-you-should-have-read

Also, if you own an iPad, there’s a fantastic app called Comixology, which is a dream to read on. It even offers a ‘guided read’ function for anyone like me who suffers a brain-fart when offered a full page of images and doesn’t know where to look first.

Happy discovering!

Theatre Review: ‘Ernest and the Pale Moon’ by Les Enfants Terribles & Pins and Needles Productions

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Last night I went to see Ernest and the Pale Moon by Les Enfants Terribles & Pins and Needles Productions, at the Carriageworks in Leeds. Being a massive fan of both Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock, and having heard a lot of praise for LET, I was excited.

It’s definitely worth catching. It had all the makings of stage craft at its best: a capella and exposed, hand-made soundscapes, resourceful use of set, props, bodies and voices, and a multi-skilled (multi-instrumental) ensemble cast. The aesthetic and sound design were particularly clever and effective. The cast play cello, harpsichord and xylophones, and create other sound effects in between and during stints of heightened character acting.

Ernest (Anthony Spargo) was outstanding; a captivating, disciplined performer with impeccable ensemble manner – checking in via eye contact with his fellow cast before embarking on synchronised sequences, helping bodies in the dark rise from the dead to continue with their next task, and attacking a plethora of folio tools as a backdrop for another’s monologue with the same commitment applied to his own speeches.

Sadly Spargo rather shone above the rest, who, though hardworking, didn’t quite get the chance to impress us in the same way. Perhaps a flaw in the script rather than flatness on their parts – they were clearly talented. The surreal, at-times-Berkoff-esque style chosen to tell their tale takes 100% commitment and gusto to pull off, and sadly this was only emanating from Ernest. Again, perhaps the only character with room for this to really soar, but the others were slightly flat and awkward in proximity to it.

The revisiting of scenes from different perspectives was exciting and satisfying – one chance we got to watch Spargo perform choreographed sequences repeatedly, with precision. The story was carefully unravelled, building bit by bit, preparing us perfectly for the unveiling of new scenes, including a truly chilling climax that did allow performer Rachel Dawson a moment in which she made your stomach heave with Ernest’s sickening, panicked guilt.

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It seemed, given the effective use of repetition in the rest of the show, that they’d had to make compromises for one performer who wasn’t quite up to scratch, which was a real shame. Maybe they joined rehearsals late? Maybe they just weren’t as convincing in carrying out what was actually meant to happen? I was inclined to see a comparative lack of professionalism, given a couple of mis-matches with the fellow cast, and even some real character-breaking flicking of hair out of eyes, during an isolated clockwork-people sequence.

These were tiny things really, but they show up like sore thumbs on stage, especially next to the other talent. I never felt quite safe in their hands, like one should when watching a show – this was a different feeling to the chills and thrills we obviously should have been experiencing – the problem was that I couldn’t quite forget where I was and just enjoy the experience. Perhaps a problem with timing, too many slightly awkward pauses despite a habit of “quick, shout, pronounce!”-style narration, which forms a big part of my love-hate relationship with traditional theatre.

That being said, it was reassuring as a theatre-maker to know that even the most renowned companies don’t always quite hit the high notes, and there was more than enough there to make me want to follow Les Enfants Terribles and come back to see what inventive, imaginative visual feast they come up with next.

Also, the audience was pretty shockingly sparse, and that can really kill a performance that would otherwise be electrifying. An underestimated percentage of the success of a live performance lies in the buzz of a full room, and I do feel that we weren’t really doing our fair share.

For more information and a show trailer, visit the company’s website:
http://lesenfantsterribles.co.uk/shows/ernest-and-the-pale-moon/

Back in the Habit

‘Back in the Habit’, a new mini-series – watch this space for the next post.

It’s been a while since I was in the habit of producing new writing each week for open mic nights. I’ve been trying to jump-start that (the writing, and soon also the open mics) back into action recently with a good friend, meeting weekly to play tourist in the local cafés and try our hands at various creative writing tasks, to develop our skills and maintain a level of regularity and productivity. (This sounds a bit scientific – in fact, it’s a little bit more of what I love coming back into my life on a regular basis, keeping my happy and sane.) We’re mainly writing flash fiction at the moment, which is reigniting my excitement for new ideas, and I hope it will also lead to me being able to tackle bigger pieces of writing in the future. (I am truly terrible at planning and editing, living more like the latent-learning monkey, awaiting divine inspiration.)

I’ve learned a few things about my writing habits, which is always useful; for creative writing, I usually prefer to be sitting with quiet company who is doing the same thing. I am a bit competitive, and also in the habit of working in the presence of someone else, since a university housemate introduced the (at the time, seemingly insane) idea of working individually but in the same room. Now, it’s a comfort. I like to get out of the house to concentrate and not be able to crawl back into bed, but when I do write at home, I must be sat at my desk in its little alcove in the dining room. The house must be quiet and I prefer to write in the morning, usually starting around 8am. (Often-times I have provided early morning scares for my housemates, who wander into the kitchen, to which my writing hole is sort of attached but not immediately obvious.) My glasses, which I should be wearing at my computer, need to be doing their own thing somewhere else. We have a relaxed relationship.

I’ll be posting some of the bits and pieces that I get done in these sessions here to reconnect with this blog, while I’m redefining what its purpose is for me. Please do let me know your thoughts – it’s very gratifying to have people read your creative stuff and tell you what it brought to them. Of course, hearing what does or doesn’t work is really helpful, but if any of it leads you down trains of thought of your own, I’d love to hear them too. :) Throwing your creativity out into the world is weird, and getting any kind of response is pretty much amazing.

A few of the writing tasks we’ve been trying are as follows:

  • Free writing based on random keywords
  • 330 word stories based on photos we have taken
  • Writing from the perspective of, or about, a member of a specific organisation, e.g. The International Flat Earth Society
  • Revisiting old diary entries and rewriting them from a new perspective, as if it were fiction, instating new characters, and a new voice and tone. I intend to try this out with a few old texts, and perhaps rewrite them a few times, producing various different creative documents of one moment.

And a few I look forward to trying:

  • All the challenges on Chuck Wendig’s blog
  • Rolling dice to assemble a title, and going from there  – actually another one of Chuck’s, that I found on goodreads.com
  • Writing fake historical plaques like one we saw in Edinburgh this August – apparently this is a whole movement!

For the first one I’ll be posting, I owe thanks to this awesome birthday present from a friend. Which, incidentally, I would recommend to the friends of any writer when it comes to present-buying occasions. Good choice, amigo!

What writing exercises does everyone else use? Do you work best in a specific environment? How often do you write?