It is my great pleasure to have New York Times bestselling author Alex Grecian with us today. A man with a truly varied career and celebrated author of long-running graphic novel Proof, Alex has just released mystery-thriller, The Yard. Today, Alex will be talking a bit about the power of history and the ways in which research can drive fiction. Alex–thank you once again for giving us your insights on the writing life (and on the intersection of history, mystery and fiction!)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After leaving a career in advertising, working on accounts that included Harley-Davidson and The Great American Smokeout, Alex returned to his first love: writing fiction. He created the long-running and critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof, which NPR named one of the best books of 2009. The series stars John “Proof” Prufock, a special-agent-sasquatch.
One of the Proof storylines is set in the 1800′s and inspired Alex’s debut novel The Yard. It is the first in a projected series about the famous London Murder Squad. The second reportedly will focus on the development of photography in criminal investigation. You can find out more about Alex at his website, or you can follow him on Twitter @alexgrecian.
I mentioned this book a few weeks ago on the Friday Fiction Feature. Bibliophile that I am, I just purchased the hard copy, too. It is sure to be a favorite with lovers of mystery and of Victorian England (yes, Sherlock fans, this means you).
Victorian London is a cesspool of crime and Scotland Yard has only twelve detectives – known as “The Murder Squad” – to investigate countless murders every month. Created after the Metropolitan police’s spectacular failure to capture Jack the Ripper, The Murder Squad suffers rampant public contempt. They have failed their citizens. But no one can anticipate the brutal murder of one of their own…one of twelve…
When Walter Day, the squad’s newest hire, is assigned the case of the murdered detective, he finds a strange ally in the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley. Together they track the killer, who clearly is not finished with The Murder Squad…but why?
For the history buff, please note: Alex Grecian offers a meticulously researched vision of the bustling city of London! Filled with fascinating period detail, and real historical figures, The Yard is a spectacular debut in a new series showcasing the depravity of the late Victorian city, the advent of criminology, and introduces a stunning new cast of characters sure to appeal to fans of Caleb Carr and Jed Rubenfeld. See the book trailer here!
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences?
I don’t know that I’d die if I didn’t write. I imagine I’d become so utterly bored and useless that I’d fade into the wallpaper and be forgotten. But I’ll never know because I’ve always written and I’ll never stop writing. It’s something you do because it’s something you do, not a conscious choice. You’re wired for it or you aren’t. It’s a way of looking at the world.
When I was a little boy, my father used to collect old radio shows on giant reels of tape. He’d load them on an old reel-to-reel player and I’d listen to mystery/dramas like The Shadow and The Unexpected, Lights Out and Sherlock Holmes. Then I’d try to write my own stories for those shows that had gone off the air decades before I was even born. I knew they were old, but I had no idea radio plays weren’t a popular form of entertainment anymore. I wrote lots of stories about dinosaurs in subways (despite never having seen a subway) and vampires fighting Sherlock Holmes.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give this work the time and energy it so deserves?
I have always always always had an eye open toward eventually becoming a published novelist. I read The World According to Garp in high school and decided that Garp’s life was the one I wanted (except for the mutilations, adulteries, and sudden deaths). I wrote two novels that were absolutely terrible and put them away where nobody would ever see them. Then I wrote two more novels that I’m actually pretty proud of and hope to see published someday. I wrote dozens of short stories. Then I got the opportunity to write graphic novels and did that for a bit (I wrote seven of them, actually). When my agent told me that I ought to write this Scotland Yard idea I had as a prose novel, it was all the encouragement I needed.
Fiction shouldn’t be embarrassing or lesser-than. Sure, it’s meant to entertain, but it’s also a tool for navigating and understanding society. If a piece of fiction is good, it can inspire, uplift, teach, or even just provide a means of escape for a few hours. There’s real value to that, I think.
3. As an author and medical humanist, I am always interested in the intersections of history and fiction. Given your recent novel (set in the 1800s), can you say a bit about the relationship between research, history and the creative process?
I think you have to walk a fine line. A dry history text isn’t going to keep people turning pages. But you have to impart the right flavor to the work and that means you have to steep yourself in the history. You have to have a feel for the time and place that you’re writing about. I like to do as much reading as I can stand before I start writing. I need to have the broad overview. Then, as I write, I discover the details that I need to know. By then I know where I can find the information I need because of all the reading I did at the beginning. It’s the details that convince people. They want to feel like you know what you’re writing about. If you can convince your readers of that, they’ll go along with you and let themselves enjoy the story you’re telling. So, if you mention a pair of suspenders in your story, go in and make sure you know how suspenders are made, what they’re for, exactly, how they should be worn, who sold them, why your character wears suspenders instead of a belt… You don’t have to tell the reader all of that and you don’t have to know it all before you start writing, but you should be willing to figure it out along the way.
4. I know you began your career in a very different field of expertise—advertising. How has that shaped your approach to writing? To marketing your work?
I think I was relatively successful at the advertising game, but when I left it, I left it wholeheartedly. It was a job, nothing more. So now I don’t think I’m as good as I should be about hyping and marketing my work. That process feels false to me. I want people to enjoy what I write and tell each other about it. That said, I recognize how the book industry works and I recognize that I need to stand behind my work and make people aware of it. As proud as I am of the book, I want people to know that I’m sincere about it. I’m not pushing it, I’m genuinely happy that it’s out there. So I avoid hype, but I make sure to be available to talk about the things I’ve written. I hope that’s enough.
5. Proof was named one of the best books of 2009 by NPR—and is a graphic novel about a secret agent sasquatch. Can you tell us a bit about the process of crossing genres? Can you tell us about your experience as a cross-genre writer and what it takes to be successful?
I think having done Proof was important. It helped me develop my craft, it helped me better understand deadlines (although a few years working in advertising had already done a good job of hammering home the importance of deadlines), and it gave me a platform of readers who might be willing to follow me over and read my prose. That said, it’s a completely different industry and a completely different art form.
Of course, any time anybody says “secret agent sasquatch,” I feel like I have to explain that the book was basically Tarzan, turned on it’s head. It’s an ape-creature, captured as a child and raised by humans as one of them. Eventually, he becomes more sophisticated than the people around him, but he doesn’t really fit in with them and he wouldn’t fit in with other sasquatches either. It was his quest to find other creatures like him that drove the series, the quest for identity. And that’s, I think, the common theme in everything I write.
As far as being successful goes, I think that’s always a matter of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter what the medium or genre. Everything matters. My name is on Proof and it’s on the Yard and so I have to be able to feel like I can hand anything I’ve written to someone and be proud and happy that they’re reading it.
6. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
I’ve always had a 2,000-word-a-day goal. For The Yard and its sequel, I settled for 1,000 words because there was more of a start-stop rhythm over the course of a working day. There was so much research to do that I had trouble hitting my original goal. Still, that daily word-count helps keep me focused. That way, no matter what distractions might crop up, I know I’ll still get a certain amount of work done. That’s comforting.
I tend to write in the morning, before the phone rings, before I have to pay bills or run errands. Before the real world intrudes and breaks the spell.
Revisions are a tough slog for me because I’m always ready to put a piece of writing away and move on to the next thing. But I try to look carefully at what my editor is saying and, whether I agree that a thing needs to be changed on page 235 or not, I recognize that he saw a problem on page 235. So maybe I need to go back to page 148 and change something so that the problem on page 235 disappears. You have to step back and look at the book as a whole, as a timeline. There are no precious things on that timeline. No matter how much I love something on page 148, I might have to cut it out in order to make the rest of the book work better.
I had never experienced writer’s block in my life until recently. And that’s entirely because the real world has intruded in a variety of interesting ways. I’ll let you know how I end up dealing with it. But I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a matter of sitting myself down and doing the work because I need to do the work. (Lawyers and doctors don’t get to skip work for days on end because they don’t feel like going in. Why should we?)
7. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?
I have many writer friends and everybody’s mileage varies on this subject. (On most subjects, actually, but especially this one.) Some of them like to show a story around at every addition or revision, every step of the way. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. I prefer to keep my cards close to my vest until I have something I like. I don’t want people reading chunks of a book, and I don’t like to inflict multiple versions of the same thing on anybody. For me, knowing fellow writers who are going through the same things I am is enough. There’s a sort of invisible camaraderie there that I find comforting. Once I finish a book or story, I have a handful of people whose opinions I trust and I send it to them and cross my fingers. I know that one or two of them will like everything unreservedly and my ego needs their feedback in order to brace itself against the two or three others whom I know will pick a manuscript apart. I want it picked apart, I want to find the problems and fix them before everybody else in the world sees them and I’m not deluded enough to imagine that I don’t make mistakes. But a little unconditional love makes it easier to confront my fallibility.
Once my early readers have had their way with a story and I’ve fixed everything they’ve pointed out that needs fixing, I send it to my agent and editor and brace myself all over again.
8. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or upon the need/value of agents?
There’s a quote I sling around quite a bit: “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Anonymous.
If you can give up writing and walk away, you probably should. But if you have talent and you don’t give up on yourself, eventually something will happen for you. I believe that.
That said, the publishing business is complicated. You can’t concentrate on writing and also develop the knowledge and contacts in the industry that you’ll need. At least, I can’t. I think it’s essential to partner with someone reputable, someonewho can take what you’ve done and get it in front of the right people. That’s not an easy thing to do and you need an expert to handle that part of the job for you. It’s important, though, not to settle for the first person who answers a query. Be patient and find an agent you click with, someone you feel comfortable working with, and someone who will deal with you promptly and honestly.
9. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
There are so many! Odd as it may seem, one of my biggest inspirations is the actor Jimmy Stewart. There are always disappointing days, days when things don’t go the way I’d like them to. I have to take a step back and remind myself not to give in to cynicism or depression or anger. I try to deal with everything in the most genuine and honest and heartfelt way I can muster and taking a couple of hours out to watch a good Jimmy Stewart movie is often the best way to sort of reset my attitude.
Also, there’s Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, John Irving, Grant Morrison, my wife and son, and many more.
10. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript by Cynthia Laufenberg, Stephen King’s On Writing, Terry Brooks’sSometimes the Magic Works, Anne Lamott’sBird by Bird, Michael Chabon’sMaps and Legends, Scriptshadow.com, Roget’s College Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (I have two copies; one next to my desk and one I carry around with me), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Lawrence Block has written five books about writing and they’re all good.
Read every author interview you can find. See if there’s anything you can take away from them. And every time you find an author who’s doing something you like, read everything she ever wrote. You don’t want to ape her style, but you might unconsciously absorb a little bit of what you like from her work.
And keep writing every day.