JGM: So what happened after university for you? How did Hideous Creatures come to be?
SEL: I don’t really remember if I left university wanting to write novels. I was a bit crushed because that childhood excitement about writing had been dampened by reality. I started dabbling again and wrote some short stories – I’d been looking for a way back into writing as an adult that didn’t feel stupid. I knew I didn’t want to write fantasy or Sci-Fi, but also that I didn’t have enough life experience to write something that was contemporary and set in the real world. So that left me with nowhere to go. Then I found magical realism and that absolutely opened up possibilities for me again.
I wrote a collection of magical realist fairytales, and imagined in my bubble of denial that this was the right way to get published as a first-time writer. In fact when I first sent them out to agents I was so dumb I didn’t even put enough postage on the envelopes and half of them got sent back to me. But one of the envelopes that did make it got to the agency where Bryony Woods was working at the time, and though I got rejected there, a year or two later she decided to start her own agency.
She remembered me and sent me an email! I’d written Hideous Creatures at that point, and up until then I’d had no idea if I was even in the right ballpark of good enough. I was just about to start looking for agents when Bryony got in touch.
JGM: You got an agent off magical realist short stories? That’s…unusual.
SEL: I hadn’t realised then that what I was writing was weird and hard to categorise, and also kind of messed up… all that stuff I would later be told by a lot of people. Finding a publisher took quite a long time.
Had you submitted stuff prior to getting your book deal?
"I told myself: go get published in, say, six different places."
JGM: I came out of university and thought, heck yeah, I’m unemployed, I’m going to try and write a novel! That post-English degree slump. So I did, and it… wasn’t that great. It didn’t get anywhere, so I told myself, go do short stories, get published in, say, six different places. Then you’ll have developed enough to try writing a novel again.
SEL That is SO strategic.
JGM: I know, I’m impressed with 22-year-old Julian. That’s how I ended up doing the short stories. I looked at what competitions there were and adapted my style for different writing prompts.
I had a story published in an anthology called 24 Stories, edited by Kathy Burke, about Grenfell Tower. There were some big names in it, like Irvine Welsh, and the money went to the Grenfell community which is where I work. I knew a lot of people affected by it, including some of the kids in my school.
So when that came out, it felt like, I’ve made my mark, I’m good to go now. I’d hit my target of 6 short stories.
JGM: There was a point when I was pretty worn down by full-time teaching, and getting no writing done – I said to myself, if nothing happens in two years I’ll go back to full time - and the Deviant Minds prize came just within that window.
SEL: That’s such a challenge. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve got somewhere before that time ran out, but there’s no knowing how long you do this for before you start thinking, it’s not going to happen. I’m ten years into working part-time in order to try and make this happen. And even though I’m published it doesn’t feel like I’ve arrived, or like this is necessarily the best idea in the world.
I don’t want to say this to you as someone who’s just been published, but I don’t think there’s a finish line, Julian!
JGM: Do you find that affects your writing? The idea that it’s always going to be a struggle?
SEL: It affects the will I have to sit down at my desk when I could go have coffee with a friend or potter round the house or watch Netflix instead of writing. There are days allocated for writing on which I do all of those things, but I’m sufficiently driven by my ideas that I couldn’t not do it. I feel uncomfortable when I don’t write.
JGM: The greatest feeling in the world is having written, but I seem to forget that daily.
Can I ask you about process? Do you give yourself word-count deadlines?
SEL: It’s purely about my motivation and energy levels that day. I think of myself as being quite slow – I’m a low word-count person because I obsess over every word in every sentence. Constructing a sentence can take hours for me, so it’s (hopefully) quality rather than quantity.
"It's not just the distraction, but the comparison. You end up being exposed to the loudest voices all the time."
JGM: I need to have a word-count to work towards. Otherwise I would just torture myself with the feeling that I hadn’t done enough.
If I don’t have momentum on a project I get distracted, so I need the word count to push me forward. And there’s so much distraction out there.
SEL: If it wasn’t for Twitter I think I would be rich and famous by now. Twitter has ruined my attention span.
I’m kind of joking but I really need to do something about. When you’re someone with a butterfly mind who’s trying to write a novel, and every three seconds there’s something new to distract you….
JGM: Writing is THE most difficult thing. But to scroll through twitter is the easiest, brain-numbing thing. So which are you going to go for?!
For The Bridal Party it’s definitely helped to be part of the online community and I’ve definitely made sales that way, but on the other hand, it is the worst thing to do to writers! Not just the distraction but the comparison. You end up being exposed to the loudest voices all the time. I find writer envy really difficult – look how many books there are in the world! Do I even have a place in publishing?
SEL: I think it’s just about being really single minded about what you’re doing. You have to believe you’re the only person in the world doing it, because otherwise you’d just give up, wouldn’t you?
JGM: What I’m trying to do is remind myself what my barrier for success was a year ago, two years ago. It shifts so quickly. Look back, tell your younger self what’s happening – he’d smack you for complaining.
SEL: So give me a potted summary of the story you're working on next.
JGM: A couple move into a wealthy, middle-class block of flats in North London, only to find themselves part of a suspicious community. During a New Year's Eve party, they suddenly have to defend themselves against accusations of murder from their increasingly hostile neighbours. It should have a Rosemary's Baby and Agatha Christie vibe, and examine some of the extreme class tensions that are so rife in this country.
Do you mind telling me about your next book?
SEL: I’ve not really talked about this with anyone except my agent yet so it’s still really awkward. Also, though the book now feels weirdly timely, I feel like I wrote it forever ago! The wheels of the publishing world turn slowly.
It’s set in a fictional classical civilization, and it’s about what happens when there is a prophecy that the city’s going to be destroyed. It sets a lot of things in motion for a collection of characters who have various reasons for wanting the status quo to be upended or wanting things to stay as they are. It’s a look at what happens when it feels like the world is about to end. And whether we want to believe people who are bringing us bad news, the way it causes people to assess what’s important to them.
JGM: When you say it’s timely, because the world feels apocalyptic at the moment?
SEL: Definitely - it’s been interesting to have written that book at this time. All being well, it’ll be out next year.
JGM: And we’ll still be in this world of nightmares.
Read The Bridal Party or 24 Storeys