If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big robust circles, to tiny stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce.
Thrillers With Attitude is on a mission to find out what makes these weirdly-shaped and strangely-flavoured writers tick.
My guest this week is author, John A. A. Logan.
Hi John, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. What were you like at school?
Quiet I think, maybe reading a lot or daydreaming! I missed about half of primary school, and had maybe only about one year of “normal” secondary school. From age 2-4, I lived in an isolated forest, with no running water or electricity, where 4 of us lived in a caravan the size of a small living room (later I set my 5th novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, there). I think the forest was my first real school.
When did you first define yourself as a writer?
September 1989. I was stuck indoors for a fortnight, with chicken-pox. There was nothing else to do but commit to something, didn’t know I’d still be doing it 26 years later!
Can you tell me something about the evolution of John A.A. Logan, the author?
For the first 4 years, 1989-1993, I wrote poems, prose poems, journals, and “lists”. Then I spent 5 years working on short stories. Then the next 17 years working on 6 novels and some more short stories. I’d say getting my first literary agent in 2000 made me more productive, injected a confidence boost into the writing of my 2nd novel. By then I was selling short stories to literary magazines and anthologies. John Fowles, A L Kennedy, Ali Smith and Toby Litt, as editors, selected my stories for paperback anthologies (published by London publishers Vintage and Picador) which were sold/distributed worldwide (and in those books my stories shared space with stories by Alan Warner, Louis De Bernieres, Muriel Spark, David Mitchell, Fay Weldon, Alasdair Gray, Kate Atkinson etc) Around that time, I was invited to read one of my stories at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
But, when I finished my 5th novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, in 2008, I sort of sat on it for 2 years, confidence gone, not showing it to anyone, because I felt a complete failure with novels, not having managed to get one published in 10 years of writing them. Then I eventually sent The Survival of Thomas Ford out in 2010 and got offered a contract right away by a London literary agent. His colleague at that agency was the film consultant who had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript. She read The Survival of Thomas Ford and told my agent it was the best book she had read in the last 4 years. I’d been writing for 21 years by this point and this all seemed to be getting promising now, like I might get somewhere and hadn’t just been wasting all my time. My agent told me just before The Survival of Thomas Ford was sent out on submissions that he had told his colleagues in the office that this book was “a certainty”. But by the end of 2010 everything seemed to have gone very quiet. My agent told me one important publishing house had several editors reading the book at the same time, and that everyone had said they “loved it” until the time came for the meeting with the sales and acquisitions dept, who said I “reminded them of a writer they had had high hopes for 2 years earlier but had then lost money on”. And that was that. Game over.
My agent, and the film consultant, kept struggling on throughout most of 2011 to find a publisher for The Survival of Thomas Ford. At one point, the film consultant was on the phone to my house for 12 hours total over 6 weeks (I added it up later!) as we tried rewriting certain areas of the book. By the end of 2011, though, it was clear that my agent had gone to just about every publisher in Britain with this novel that had been viewed as “a certainty” and nobody wanted to publish it!
So, in December 2011, I put The Survival of Thomas Ford up on Amazon Kindle as an ebook. By March 2012, it was in the top 20 Amazon charts for thrillers, and for literary fiction (higher up those charts than books by the publishers who had turned down The Survival of Thomas Ford the year before). By April, I was making £1000 in a good week from ebook downloads worldwide, and was invited to be on the author panel at London Book Fair that launched the Alliance of Independent Authors, to describe how this had all happened in 4 months. By then I was also blogging monthly for the Authors Electric website, and feeling that I was part of a community of enthusiastic online authors. Several newspapers did features about my ebooks over the next couple of years, and I received awards for two of them in the USA Best of the Independent Ebooks Awards.
In late 2014, I was approached very enthusiastically it seemed by a UK film producer with great track record/credentials, about The Survival of Thomas Ford, who said he “loved the book” and was “very keen to know if the film rights were available”, but this seemed to very quickly fizzle out into nothing, which was pretty depressing really. I’m beginning to think now that this is the norm for encounters with the film/publishing world (at least when I’m involved!), there’s a kind of subliminal hype/non-sense that goes with it all, so I’m trying to evolve a philosophy that doesn’t get too bugged about these things.
In April 2015 I published the first paperback edition of The Survival of Thomas Ford and was sponsored by XPO North to go to the Indie Author Fair at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, where I signed and sold the first copies, which was fun. This cheered me up a bit again. I realised it was quite nice having a paperback of Thomas Ford after it only being an ebook for years (courtesy of Dean Fetzer of GunBoss Books, without whom there would have never been paperbacks ready for that London trip!)
In June 2015, I did a reading and author Q and A with the wonderful LG Thomson and brilliant Flora Kennedy, at the Highland Literary Salon event which launched the XPO North Festival in Inverness, which was fun, too, if a bit tension-inducing as I think I’m scared of audiences. [It was a pleasure sharing the stage with you, John – LG.]
How would you describe your style of writing?
It’s probably only something that someone else can see, assuming I have any style at all. Some Amazon reviewers have certainly found no style in my books! Eye of the Beholder? But perhaps there’s a Highland Scottish flavour, maybe a spectre of the ancient Gaels somewhere in the DNA. My literary influences are mostly international, though, so perhaps that balances things out in terms of “voice” etc.
Are you inspired by any writers in particular?
Yes…Mikhail Bulgakov, Knut Hamsun, Stephen King, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Jeanette Winterson, John Kennedy Toole, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, Sara Maitland, Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith, Bernard Mac Laverty…Robert Pirsig…Janet Frame…Raymond Carver…Milan Kundera…
What are you working on right now?
I’m halfway through my 6th novel.
What is it about?
Ah, I can’t say. I’ve been working on it 5 years and have never told anyone a word of what it’s about. I try to only do that when it is finished.
How much research do you do?
As much as necessary, as I go along, I’ll look up what I need to know and try not to get facts wrong etc. Locations, foreign cultures, history…
Do you plan your books, or are you a seat-of-the-pants writer?
Seat-of-the-pants initially. But once the story is underway there’s a struggle and a tension then, to think ahead, like a chess game or a journey. Not that I want to know or decide in advance where the destination must be, but it is important to keep in mind that sense of a final destination, to continually feel for it, sometimes in the dark, as the months or years of work go by.
How long does it take you to write a book?
My first 2 novels took 5 years to complete, but that work was done in tandem, so…5 years to complete those 2 books. The next 3 novels were written right after each other and all 3 first drafts were completed in 30 months total, but after that there can be years more of editing.
At one point I had 34 different versions of my 2nd novel printed out and stacked up against a wall. Versions with totally different structures, different beginnings, middles, endings. I’ve never released that book yet. The 34th draft/version was completed in 2005, but I feel there’s still more work to do.
Currently, the 6th novel is puzzling me, taking 5 years to get its first draft only half-done…I’ve never worked so slowly…
What has been your best writing moment so far?
Perhaps writing the first page of my fifth novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, and not knowing what it was or where it was coming from.
Or, opening a new journal in September 1989, and writing “I am a writer”…with no basis for the statement at all, except something internal, and a sense of something else that might come later…
What are your ambitions, writing wise?
Survival! Maybe to sell film rights, because a couple of times I’ve been told a producer was strongly interested in film rights to The Survival of Thomas Ford…and I’m wondering if this interest means something may happen in that direction one day…(or maybe the universe is just toying with me!)
What is the John A.A. Logan writing method?
When I’m working on something, I work in the morning, try not to do more than about 500 words, try not to take so much from “the well” as Hemingway would say, that “the well” is then dry the next day…and try to work like that every day.
Is there any one book you would like to have written?
Perhaps Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, or Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita…or Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
But, no, it wouldn’t be possible to write any of those books without also taking on the suffering and tragedy in the authors’ lives that generated those books.
What are you reading right now?
Grendel, by John Gardner.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Trust yourself. Look internally for answers. Keep going. Keep the Faith.
If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
Winnie the Pooh maybe. I’d take him downtown for a cup of tea and a pot of honey. We could talk about depressive donkeys, and the Bee Problem. I’d take him to that cafe in Inverness’ Inglis Street, where the seagulls swoop down to steal cakes from tourists’ hands as they sit unsuspecting at the outdoor tables. I’d like to see how a rotund fictional bear would deal with a marauding airborne seagull attempting a theft of his bun.
A few quick questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov.
Distilled water…or…Tropicana orange juice…
Potatoes or… “Linda McCartney vegetarian sausages”…can’t decide!
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (circa 1970s).
Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, David Bowie, Meat Loaf, Woody Guthrie, Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Johnny Cash, Adam & the Ants…Pentangle, Melanie (Safka)…Rolling Stones…Beatles…Bob Dylan…R.E.M….The Sex Pistols…Elvis…Pink Floyd….
What does the A.A. stand for?
My real middle names (which must not be disclosed for security reasons)!
Thanks for coming on the Smorgasbord, John – and good luck with Novel #6.