Figi the rescue dog
Four published stories
Two short films produced
First job selling carpet cleaning door-to-door
An extensive business background
Strategic Marketing Director for Potters Leisure Limited
An impressive commitment to writing despite a busy schedule
Thoughtful with a professional attitude
Your father was a Brigadier in the army and you were in boarding school from age 7–18. You also moved house every two years, mainly between Germany and Wiltshire. Did the sum total of this experience impact on you creatively? If so, how?
As an army brat I moved house every two years and I was given one packing crate to fill with my possessions. I found that half of my crate was always filled with books. I read voraciously during my teens which I suppose was a form of escape. They say that boarding schools produce adults with strong self-reliance and retarded emotions. I used books to vicariously experience the emotions of others and at times the worlds within books seemed more real than life.
Of course there were many privileges of my upbringing including exposure to a wide range of creativity. My father’s passion was theatre and my step-mother is an artist. I went to my first opera (Hansel and Gretel in Berlin) at the age of eight and went on school and family trips to the theatre on a regular basis.
You’ve had a few short films produced, Tramp (2007) and Tree of Tears (2009) and done a good bit of business writing. What prompted you to make the leap into fiction writing?
I’ve always been writing something, but it is only in the last few years that I have concentrated on fiction. Writing has always been my hobby as I have no skills in any other artistic area and have no inclination for gardening or cars. Now that my children are older I have time to be disciplined and this has meant that my writing is more controlled and the finished stories more akin to what had been in my head. There are quite a few stories and half-finished novels littering the backs of drawers or on floppy disks that are no longer readable.
It sounds like life is busy for you. What does your writing schedule look like and how do you fit it into your paid work schedule?
My work comes first. It has to, it pays the mortgage. However, writing has become far more important recently and I guess the turning point came as I was approaching fifty and I realised that I could end my life with a series of what-ifs, or get my arse into gear in order to be able to say that I gave it a try.
A few years ago I enrolled on a creative writing course with the tutor Ashley Stokes (Touching the Starfish and The Syllabus of Errors) and learnt things that should have been second nature decades ago. The most important thing I discovered though was discipline. I now try and write for at least ten hours a week - one hour every weekday, with the balance at weekends. I am an owl and so this tends to be late at night after everyone else has gone to bed and the house is quiet. If I miss a day I try and do two hours the next. I now find that I get antsy if I haven’t written. It’s rather like exercise; the more you do, the more you want to do.
When it’s time to sit down and write are there any rituals that work well for you?
I always review what I have written the day before and then try to keep up the momentum. I edit as I go along and so when I review I am looking to get inside the character’s heads to see whether the motivation is right and that the plot that I had originally outlined still holds true.
I often use music to calibrate my thought processes. So, if I’m writing a reflective, thoughtful piece I will use anything from Sigur Ros to Philip Glass. If I need energy, nothing beats The Clash.
What influences you most?
I have always been attracted to novels that take me somewhere I have never been before, whether that’s Russia with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, South America with Marquez and Llosa, the future with Orwell and Huxley, or other planets and realities with Herbert, Antony and Mitchell. The everyday holds little fascination, but literature has the capacity to make even the mundane seem extraordinary.
My writing tends to have a political bias as I believe we are living through game-changing times. Politics has yet to catch up with the realities of digital capitalism and society has yet to adapt to open information. As individuals we have never been more informed, yet seemingly less able to influence the agenda.
How do you start your day?
Coffee and more coffee. My mug at work says ‘do I look like a morning person?’ and that pretty much sums me up.
You’re currently completing a novel titled The Providence Clause. What led you to choose its crime thriller theme?
It started as a challenge and developed into a study of plot and page-turning momentum. It is certainly very different to anything I have written before, but it does plug into my business experience and knowledge. Friends who have read it so far have all been very encouraging. It is currently with my editor and I will see after that how big a task the next draft will be.
I am also continuing to write short stories and believe I am close to completing a selection that can hang together as a collection.
What is the toughest criticism you’ve received in relation to your work. How did this influence the way you work now?
The toughest criticism is always from those one respects the most. I have a couple of stories that I thought were the best that I’d ever written which have come back from the editing process with reasonably cutting remarks attached. I haven’t managed to place these stories yet and so I have to accept the merit of the criticism – even if it is through gritted teeth. On reflection I can see what’s wrong with them. Nevertheless, it does knock one’s confidence, if only for a short time.
I have learnt to be patient and to put completed work away for a few weeks so that I can come upon it fresh. This was true of Followers. The first draft of that story had alternating viewpoints, but the story became immeasurably stronger once I had discarded all of the victim's perspective and concentrated solely on the follower.
Thinking of fiction you’ve read over the years, what character comes to mind as the most compelling and well-developed?
I first read the Gormenghast trilogy at boarding school. Mervyn Peake had been a pupil at the same school and some of the physical locations in the school were the basis for the descriptions of Gormenghast castle.
The most compelling character is Steerpike, the kitchen servant who rises to the very top of the hierarchy with psychopathic cunning and chilling guile:
“His eyes were dark and hot with mature hatred. They were half closed but their eloquence smouldered…”
He overthrows a repressive society and Peake had the opportunity to soften his character’s ruthlessness, but instead forced him to become the black shadow of Titus Groan.
I loved the malevolence of the character and the gothic horror of the setting. All of the characters had names that fitted their personality, from Swelter the Head Chef, to Sepulchrave, Flay, Prunesquallor and Sourdust. But it was Steerpike who always shone. The third part of the trilogy lacked the majesty of the first two and that is largely due to Steerpike’s absence.
Words you love.
Empathy, solecism, cathartic, anarchic, shoddy, babble, translucent, dew and lithe.
Words you overuse.
Absolutely, silence, laughed, nevertheless, dew, lithe and bugger.
Ever lose your writing Mojo? If so, where does it eventually turn up?
Often and normally at the completion of a story. I pick up my file of ideas and don’t believe I can make any of them work. I retreat into research for a long-standing novel that may never see the light of day, until one idea (more often than not a new one) appears, almost fully formed.
You’ve had an extensive background in sales and marketing. Do you think this experience has helped when it comes to marketing yourself and your work and if so, how?
The short answer is no, or at least not yet. I am very good at marketing products and services, but my writing – that’s like trying to sell one’s soul. However, I do recognise the need to promote my work as best I can and I believe that it is the responsibility of a writer to support and supplement the efforts of their publisher.
I have yet to get a novel published and I would want to do this conventionally as the support and endorsement of a publisher will elevate my standing as a writer. Whether I will always hold this view is up for debate as I do see the merits of self-publishing and there has never been a better or easier time to do it. The skill however, is getting visibility, as the opening up of the publishing arena means that one is now competing against a torrent of alternatives and the reader has too much choice. Certainly there are a lot of writers who are posting up novels to the world that are clearly first drafts that have not benefited from sensible editing or even basic proofreading.
I am not particularly good at social media, but have found Twitter to be a useful tool to communicate with other writers and the broader writing community.
Completely off the point of writing, your dog Figi was rescued from a terrible situation. How did you find him?
The mother of one of my daughter’s friends is linked to a charity that rescues dogs from Romania. Hannah was introduced to the dog when he first arrived in the UK and fell in love immediately. I was reluctant to get a new dog, as our previous one, also a rescue, had died a year earlier and I didn’t think we were ready. But, she persevered and we agreed to look after him for a few days. Of course, that was that, and we took him in.
He had been brutally treated; his tail had been chopped off and he was petrified of cages, men, and bizarrely blue anoraks. It took quite some time for him to accept me and he still remains very much my wife and younger daughter’s dog. But, when they’re not there, I have now become an acceptable substitute.
Paranoia, surveillance and obsession. Your story ‘Followers’ published in ‘Gem Street: Beyond the Axis’ is among other things, a strong commentary on our surveillance society. What was at the core of you writing it? Do you think that technology has removed the privacy from our lives? If so, can you elaborate on that?
Initially I had planned the story as a study of one man’s obsession with following others. The reader is never quite certain why he is following Annie, or who employed him to do so. It is the thrill he gets from illicit surveillance. This then developed into a broader commentary on society.
We are in an age where everything is recorded. Children now live their lives on the internet and indiscretions and mistakes are permanently recorded. We also have the greatest number of surveillance cameras per head of population of any developed country and seemingly every day there are new proposals to extend legal snooping in the name of protection.
What is more worrying is that we are complicit. We are happy to allow corporations to retain gigabytes of information on us, just so long as we get our social media fix and free time-wasting games. This information is analysed and used to target products and services to us, but will be (and already probably is) accessed by governments and used as a means of influence and control.
It's a few years from now. What are you doing?
I am writing more and working less. I have never seen one replacing the other – instead as I start to generate a readership for my writing and my novels are published, I will reduce my hours at work. My children will be at University and starting their own careers and lives away from home, and my ambition for their happiness will transcend mine.
You can follow Marc on Twitter @marcgjones or check out his occasional blog posts at www.marcowenjones.com