Shades of Fire Gazing – Interview with Graeme Houston (1 September 2007)

Introduction

I was surfing the Author’s Den site and came across Graeme’s biography. I was immediately drawn to the fact that Graeme now lives in Malaysia. I quickly contacted him and asked if he’d like to be interviewed. He agreed and without  further ado, here’s Graeme Houston.


Aneeta: Graeme, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Graeme: Thank you for giving me the opportunity Aneeta. It’s a pleasure to be here amidst all the very talented storytellers you have interviewed.

Aneeta: Please tell me a little about your early life-where were you born, where did you grow up, what do you do for a living and where do you live now?

Graeme: I was born in Irvine, in Ayrshire, and grew up in a small village near Kilmarnock (which the rest of the world knows as the home of Johnny Walker whisky). My childhood was spent adventuring through the countryside with my friends, climbing trees, and relaxing down by the river. My first memories are very hazy, we went to Belgium once, and Spain many times, so my first memories are hardly of Scotland at all.

Only once I started School do I remember everything in detail; the School was freezing in winter, the teacher was cruel, and there were many more places I would have rather been. But thanks to my dad I always had lots of books – books about everything – stories and science, geography and history, perhaps that’s why I was always bored with school. For me there was always a whole universe out there beyond the dull brown glossy walls.

Once I hit twelve, I began seriously attacking my father’s library of books, and discovered a love of the written word. I studied I.T. and Psychology in Edinburgh, which is a beautiful place and I may return there someday to live for a few years. I don’t see myself settling down in Scotland permanently, since it’s too cold and wet for me now, but that’s another story that I’ll come to shortly.

I originally thought of going into Artificial Intelligence research. I love technology and I love psychology, but fate intervened, probably for the better. While studying I had a few jobs, I’ve worked in a paint shop, a supermarket, a bakery, I’ve even been a builder for a day (that day was spent avoiding death on a construction site, but that’s yet another story). After studying I went into freelance web design, which led me from designing, to writing web content and then straight into the magazine industry. Meanwhile, a lovely lassie (as we say in Scotland) whose name means fire, and who I had been friends with for six years, came and visited me. We fell in love, and she brought me to Kuala Lumpur. As much as she loves Scotland it’s too cold for her so we decided to settle here. I can’t say I blame her. We got married 2 years ago. So I found myself here in this beautiful country, and my wife encouraged me to focus on writing, which is where my passion lies.

Aneeta: You state that you’re married to a woman whose name means fire; the thing is, you do not give us her name. So, I have to ask, how did you meet and what is your wife’s name?

Graeme: My wife’s name is Theebah, which I am told means bright or fire. It suits her though, she has a very fiery personality and is very strong willed. Back in ’98 I was at a conference in Cambridge, and that’s where I met her. She was studying international relations at Cambridge University. So we became best friends and wrote to each other regularly by snail mail. We didn’t see each other much, but we kept in touch through the wonders of technology, by email, phone and even the early multi-player online games where we did battle with orcs together. We both love books, and I think that sparked our friendship in the first place. Of course she loves Scotland and kilts and brave heart and snow, so that helps. Meanwhile I have a similar adoration of Asian culture.

Aneeta: I understand that you’re the editor for Contemporary Arts Magazine. Can you please tell me a little about this magazine?

Graeme: Contemporary is the world’s most widely distributed arts magazine. It has an estimated readership of over 75,000, a growing distribution network that puts it out to much of the world and they have contributors in over 70 countries. They cover almost ever facet of arts such as visual arts, news, books, trivia, architecture, design, fashion, film, music, new media, photography, dance, sport and much more. So it’s the sort of magazine that encompasses so many of my own passions, but most especially a magazine with such a global outlook is a rare find indeed. The art world is very volatile, from month to month there is always a lot happening.

Writers are usually interested in how other writers got their start with publications, so perhaps it’s best to start there. A while back I interviewed Kuala Lumpur artist Sivarajah Natarajan for another publication. That was one of my favourite interviews, Sivarajah’s a really nice guy, his paintings are amazing, and I had fun. I pitched to Contemporary an idea for an article that was about Sivarajah and instead they offered me the Kuala Lumpur Editor’s post.

Malaysian art is amazing, there’s such diversity; a mixture of cultures, the clash of the old and the new, the spiritual meets the technological, the profound and the profane. There are a lot of forces at work, shaping the Malaysian arts scene, so it’s hard work keeping track of everything, but I love it, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Aneeta: I see that you’ve got a website http://www.stargazer-publishing.com. Would you care to explain what the purpose of this website is?

Graeme: I personally believe that the book industry is in a bit of a pickle at the moment. Many of the large Publishing Houses devote more and more money to selling fewer and fewer titles. They are looking for best sellers, because that’s where the profit margin is. So nowadays being on the best sellers list, is as much an indicator of how much money the publisher has been willing to throw at that title, as it is an indicator of the book’s popularity. Book stores auction off their high visibility shelf space, ensuring that only the top publishers can afford to have their titles there, which continues the cycle of creating a few high profit titles.

So there are a lot of great books out there, but the big publishers are taking fewer risks. It’s not just the book industry either, looking at the games industry; the biggest game publisher in the world is Electronic Arts. Every year they publish 20 – 30 new titles, and only one of these is a brand new game, the rest are all sequels. To compare that with the book industry, publishers will take on books by celebrities and well known authors; newcomers find it very hard to get their foot in the door.

Fortunately electronic publishing and print on demand offers another way of doing business. All the expense of printing out a batch of at least 2,000 copies and organizing a distribution network to brick and mortar stores are removed. In the course of writing and submitting work to publishers, I see a lot of publishers, and to be honest it’s the smaller publishers that I find most exciting.

So Stargazer Publishing is my own response to that. Right now it’s just something we do part time. We’ve got a small team consisting of two editors and two designers. Right now we are researching the market and not launching into any heavy commitment such as books, etc. While digital publishing opens up new opportunities, there are other dangers as well, new publishers spring up all the time, and most are dead within a couple of years. So we’re keen to find the right business model. We’ve published a literary Journal called Capture Weekly, which we’ve now renamed Balderdash and will be published annually. We’ve also published three illustrated short story e-books and we’re planning a science fiction and a fantasy e-zine in the near future. A few small projects such as these will keep Stargazer Publishing ticking over, meanwhile e-books are growing in popularity, and e-book readers with digital paper displays are brining e-books back into the real world. So the future looks bright.

I also have my own personal site over at http://www.graeme-s-houston.com which is my blog and some information about my books.

Aneeta: Who are your favourite writers and why?

Graeme: The first would have to be Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th century explorer. Burton was like the James Bond of the 1800s. He worked undercover for the British government and travelled all over the world. He spoke 20 languages, and enough dialects to take that number up to 29.

I have a great love for learning languages myself, unfortunately my attempts to learn Tamil have been doomed to failure, my wife just hasn’t the patience to teach me. Alas some day perhaps I will be able to afford a tutor, but I digress…

Burton spoke each language so perfectly that he could fool a native into believing that he was one of them. He also mastered the culture, to the tiniest detail, and all aspects of religion wherever he was. Someone once said of him, “No man can be all things at once, but no man tried harder than Sir Richard Francis Burton.” From Fencing to Geology, he studied and mastered almost ever area of human endeavour, mapped the last few unexplored regions of the world, and made a lot of enemies. His writing is very idiosyncratic, but he had so much knowledge locked away inside of him, and his footnotes became an outlet of for it. His footnotes are plenty, vast, and often dwarf the main text itself.

I also like Rabindranath Tagore and William Butler Yeats.

When I first started reading, the first books my father gave me were science fiction, from authors such as Philip Jose Farmer, Larry Niven, and Robert Silverberg. So it’s a genre which has always remained close to my heart. My favourite writers of the moment are Alastair Reynolds and Ian McDonald. Both are at the cutting edge of science fiction.

Alastair Reynolds writes hard, science based space operas. I read two of his short stories that had been collected in the best of the year anthology, and after that I’ve been a fan of his work. His work deals with the effects on technology on humanity, and has transhumanist themes.

Ian McDonald picked me up as a reader from the same best of the year anthology, with his short story set in future India. My wife already had his Novel “River of Gods” which is science fiction set in India, in the year 2047. So I picked it up and began to read it, and I was blown away. I love India, and to see it so perfectly imagined in a work of science fiction had me very impressed. It’s nice to see science fiction that’s not set in North America or Europe.

I think science fiction is something of a misnomer though, which tends to scare off readers who imagine space ships and star wars. Speculative fiction is more apt, because it’s a genre which explores possibilities, consequences, and ethics. It is becoming tremendously important in the modern world; where technology plunges us into the future just as fast as writers can think it up.

I’m also a big fan of Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling.

I also read a lot of non-fiction.

Aneeta: I’ve read that you’ve recently signed a publishing contract for one your works. Would you care to share information about this?


Graeme:Yes. I’ve signed a contract with Stonehedge Publishing of Alabama, for my 40,000 word novella ‘The Shade of the Soul’- ISBN:978-1-60276-023-3. It’s now available in electronic formats from all the top online retailers such as Powells and Mobipocket.

It’s a work of fantasy. I think when you mention fantasy most people associate it with elves and dragons, and Lord of the Rings. Personally I can’t bring myself to include elves and dwarves, they are too rigid, and too often used.

The Shade of the Soul, is set in the jungle amidst two different tribes. There are the original tribes whose ancestors have lived there for millennia, and who have a civilisation akin to the Aztecs of earth. Then there are the people of the coast, who arrived there later. The two groups live in harmony. The conflict arises because of the noki; creatures which are black, and can float through walls like wraiths, but which have terrible claws that can cut through anything like the sharpest blade. So the noki have been hounding these people for centuries, and nobody really knows where they came from in the first place. The only thing that keeps them at bay is jade; jade weapons can kill them and jade posts keep them out. But unfortunately security comes at a terrible price. So it follows the story of Rigel, a hunter of noki; Talyin, who is to be a priestess; and Asli, who is Talyin’s cousin. It’s a tale of sorcery, treachery, and our deepest fears.

It was fun to write. I enjoy creating new monsters to give the reader something new. Everyone knows how to slay a dragon, it’s been done in fiction many times before. Since I invented the noki, no one has ever encountered them before, so I believe that the lack of familiarity adds to the fear, bringing out our fear of the unknown.

Perhaps it also demonstrates more than anything the profound influence Malaysia has had on my work. I’ve been to the US, Spain, Belgium, Singapore, Thailand, and my imagination is always drawn back to the Asian, to the millennia of cultures and civilisations that have come and gone, the thousands of years of traditions and teachings. Here I’ve witnessed hauntings and possessions, been in temples for prayers; spirituality and magic are still very much alive here.

After I finished ‘The Shade of the Soul’ I immediately started work on another novella, called ‘Six-hundred and sixty six’ this time set several millennia in the future, when technology and civilisation has collapsed and global warming has triggered ‘snow ball earth’. It’s based on earth science. There is a theory that if the temperature rises too much, then the ice sheets will melt and all the rain will increase the flow of fresh waters from Europe and Russia out into the north sea. Too much fresh water would disrupt the gulf stream which brings heat up from the equator to the north. Losing the gulf stream would mean that the north would freeze very quickly. If that were to happen in reality then you would be looking at icebergs floating in the Thames in London within a couple of decades. So I took that a few more millennia forward, and the ice sheets have engulfed everything north of Portugal, and everything south of South Africa. The novella is set on the thin strip of land that’s left. I’m just waiting to hear back from a publisher regarding that one.

I also have a novel which I’m polishing up at the moment.

Aneeta: Graeme, as you may know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give those who would like to venture into the art of storytelling?

Graeme: I think Robert A. Heinlein summed it up perfectly with his Rules of Writing. They sound simple, but for each rule, a large number of aspiring storytellers will be lost. So these are his rules and my thoughts on them. There are exceptions, but every writer will learn those in the due course of their own personal journey.

Rule 1: You Must Write

Don’t laugh, I’m deadly serious. If I had a dollar for everyone who’s told me that they want to be a writer then I would be sailing around the world in a gold plated yacht. Many aspiring writers never get past the stage of talking about it, researching it, and/or waiting for the inspiration to come. Inspiration is deadly, nothing will kill your ambitions to write faster than waiting for inspiration. Better than inspiration, pick a word count, 500 or 1000, and stick to it. Make sure it’s a target you can easily manage, that way when you write more you feel good about it. Don’t pick a very difficult target to keep, struggling to meet it will just lead to feelings of unease and unhappiness. This is worth repeating: once you have your target, stick to it. Even if you don’t feel like writing, just write any old garbage. You can fix it later if it’s that bad. More often than not, you’ll find it’s better than you would have thought. Even if it really is terrible, think of it as flushing it out your system to get to the good stuff. Nor does it have to be word counts, you could set yourself three paragraphs, or one page, whatever you like.

Rule 2: Finish What You Start

Yes, this too sounds obvious, but it’s another point where many aspiring writers are shot down in flames. I am personally of the opinion that the first novel I ever wrote is perhaps the most terrible piece of writing in the entire universe, and it is locked away inside an encrypted archive where no one can ever find it. However, finishing it in its entirety gave me priceless experience. Those new to the art of writing can sometimes fall foul of this rule; writing endless variants of Chapter One, (You know who you are!) thinking it’s terrible, scrunching it up and throwing it in the bin, deleting it and starting again from scratch. The thing is, you’ll never know whether it really was all that terrible until you’ve finished the whole thing. First drafts are meant to be terrible, especially first drafts of first novels; they are your commitment to the ideals of the story. Getting the story out, is like the under painting – the delicate sketch – something that shows the prototype of the story, and the prototypes of the characters. Once the story is out, it has found its path through the hills and valleys of all the possibilities, and has become something more than just the author’s words on paper. It has taken on a life of its own. From this vantage point you can see what it has become,  you go back with a clear vision of the whole and fix it. Short stories are not exempt from this rule either, after all what writer doesn’t have a dozen or more documents with a few lines waiting poised over the chasm of whiteness awaiting the next letter that will never come?

Rule 3: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order

This is the one that apparently got Heinlein into hot water with creative writing tutors. To be honest, he doesn’t mean “don’t rewrite”, because rewriting and refining your writing is important, especially if you want other people to read it and enjoy it, and even more so if you want someone to publish it. What he really means is; don’t tinker with it endlessly. After all, there comes a stage when a work is done, and rewriting it isn’t going to improve it in any meaningful way.

Rule 4: You must put your story on the market

Yes, all those manuscripts sitting gathering dust in drawers, or locked away on floppy disks. This is the step that takes guts, because you are going to get a lot of rejections before you make a sale. Looking at my statistics for fiction (I keep a spreadsheet) this month, I’ve sent out 22 submissions, 9 are still awaiting reply, and I’ve had two acceptances, which means I’ve had 11 confirmed rejections. I’ll get many more rejections before the year is out. A good way of looking at it is to set your target based on rejections. I have a target, to reach at least 200 rejections before the year is out. Why? Basically it’s just maths. Editors generally reject the work if it doesn’t appeal to them, or if they don’t see a place for it in their coming publications, or if it doesn’t suit what they are looking for, or if they’ve had their coffee that morning, no doubt the waxing and waning of the moon plays its part. It’s nothing personal. If you clock up 100 rejections then you’re guaranteed to get some hits, sell some work. Different editors like different things. If editors complain about grammar or typos, yes go over it again, but get it back out asap. The more rejections you aim for, the more your work is out there in the markets, then the more success you will enjoy. And setting rejections as your target also turns the negative into the positive, taming the beast. Looking at my stats in another way, of the two stories I’ve sold since May, the first was sold to the first market I submitted it to, and the second was sold to the fourth. So stories sell, and there’s always someone out their who would love it – you just have to find them.

Rule 5: You must keep it on the market until it has sold

When it comes back, if the editor gave you advice that you think will make the work better, then follow the advice, do a slight rewrite, but get the work back out there quickly – do it the same day. Make it a habit, something you always do.

So these are the rules – personally I think Heinlein nailed it – and of all the aspiring writers who start from rule one and work their way along, most will drop out and give up. One of these rules will be their downfall. To still be here, despite everything, is an achievement and something which is fulfilling and wondrous, and opens up many horizons.

Aneeta: Graeme, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Graeme: Actually, there’s perhaps one more thing worth mentioning to new storytellers. It’s to learn about copyright, and about contracts. I see a lot of new writers get stung by unscrupulous publishing houses who try to get more and more for their money, at the detriment to the writer by buying more rights for less. One example would be motion picture rights – what does a publisher need with movie rights? If an author signs away their movie rights to the publisher, then the publisher would collect the royalties if ever it was turned into a movie, meanwhile they wouldn’t need to pay a penny to the writer. Okay that’s an extreme example, but you also have audio rights, digital rights, and first serial rights among others. First serial rights (except when sold to internet based publications) can also be broken up geographically – so that you can sell North American first serial rights to a publication that’s based there at the same time as you sell your Malaysian first serial rights to a Malaysian publication. So rights are complicated, but you must learn to protect your rights, they are like tokens that you can sell. A good source of information on rights can be found here: http://www.barbaradoyen.com/know_your_rights.html

Aneeta: Graeme, thank you.

Graeme: Thank you Aneeta, it’s been a pleasure. Happy Merdeka!


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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