Paul Samael is a very interesting and thoughtful writer – and interviewee. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him, including the following responses to my questions:
1) How long have you been writing fiction?
Well, quite a long time really, but with a lot of false starts along the way. In my late teens/early twenties, I started writing what I thought at the time was rather avant-garde poetry, but was probably just pretentious nonsense. Eventually even I decided that it was too obscure and that if I had something to say, maybe fiction was the better way to go. So I embarked on a rather weird, slightly stream of consciousness narrative, which probably wasn’t much more readable than my bad poetry. Then lots of other stuff intervened (work, having children, writing various non-fiction books etc) but I still had this half-finished novel lying around which I kept going back to – and eventually, several major rewrites later, decided to self-publish it. I am now in my early forties – so it’s been a rather long, circuitous and much interrupted journey.
2) How have you gone about putting your writing out into the world, and what has that experience been like for you?
Initially – like many aspiring writers – I harboured hopes of getting taken on by a “proper” publisher. But the advice I received on that front was not very encouraging – probably rightly so, because I think it is genuinely extremely difficult to rise to the top of the slush pile. So then I started looking into self-publishing – and thought to myself, well what have I got to lose? The other big step for me was the decision to make my writing available for free, which I suspect gets you considerably more readers – but I accept that not all authors have that luxury (in my case, I hadn’t been expecting to earn big bucks from it anyway and am lucky enough to have a day job that I like, so it was an easier decision to make).
So far I’ve only gone down the ebook route, mainly on Smashwords and Feedbooks, both of which I would strongly recommend. Aside from that, I’ve done the usual thing of setting up a website with a blog etc. And like you, I’ve started reviewing free fiction by other self-published authors because I think it’s important to demonstrate that there is some quality material out there – the problem is finding it. I’ve also done some book trailers, which were fun to make, but I’m not sure how far they’ve really helped.
I had expected it to take a while to get any feedback on my own stuff – and sure enough, I did have to be quite patient. But it’s great to be able to get direct feedback from readers and I really like the fact that I am in control of the whole publication process. So overall, I don’t have any regrets about not having tried the professional publishing route – and I feel fortunate to be around at a time where authors have a way of reaching readers without going down that road.
3) What are your writing habits (if any)? Are you someone who writes on a schedule or more sporadically?
As you’ve probably gathered from my answer to question 1, I’m more in the sporadic camp. I doubt that I’ll ever manage to be very prolific, although I’m hoping that I will manage to increase my output a bit (based on my performance to date, that shouldn’t be too difficult).
In the past, I think that my own preconceptions about length stopped me being more productive – for example, when writing my novel, I told myself that it had to be 60-70,000 words, otherwise no publisher would be remotely interested – so every time I jettisoned something because it didn’t fit or wasn’t good enough (which seemed to happen quite often), that meant I’d effectively moved further away from my ultimate 60-70,000 word goal. But once you’ve decided to dispense with commercial publishers and go down the ebook route, length seems to matter less – which I’ve found quite liberating. It certainly helped me finish the novel (final length: just over 50,000 words, which might bother a publisher, but doesn’t seem to matter so much when it’s a free ebook).
4) What is the hardest part of writing for you?
I generally find character and dialogue the hardest to get right. Also, the longer something gets, the more difficult I find it to put myself in the place of the reader and gauge whether I’m getting the overall pacing right. I suppose both those things go some way to explaining my current preference for writing short to medium length pieces.
5) On your website you mention that one of the ‘biggest mistakes’ you’ve made was “writing the whole novel without really considering who it was aimed at and how I was going to get it in front of readers.’ You go on to say you were unsure of the answers to either of those questions. Could you elaborate on your thoughts on this? It’s such an interesting question to me.
What I was getting at in that post is that writing a novel is a pretty major undertaking – so unless you just write purely for yourself, you’d want to be at least reasonably confident that when you’ve finished the damn thing, there will be at least some people out there who will read it. Several people who read first drafts of mine asked who I thought it was aimed at, because to them it seemed to be neither one thing nor the other in terms of genre/audience. For example, they pointed out that it contained some sci-fi ideas, which might be offputting to literary types who sometimes look down their noses at that kind of thing – whereas the sci-fi element probably wasn’t substantial enough to satisfy real sci-fi enthusiasts. I think they have a point – there isn’t an obvious genre or market I can aim at, because when I wrote it, I just wasn’t thinking about that at all.
But was it a mistake for me to write with so little regard for who might read it? Well, if we all tried to write in a way that would fit neatly into pre-existing genres etc, the world would be a much duller place. On the other hand, I would probably have an easier time finding readers if I could do what I wanted to do within the conventions of detective or crime fiction, for example. And for me, there’s not that much point in writing something if almost no one reads it. So, speaking as someone who for many years produced stuff that was probably unreadable, I think it’s important for writers not to divorce themselves too much from the pragmatic question of who’s actually going to read it when it’s finished – otherwise it’s just a waste of all the hard work that went into writing it.
Fortunately for people like me who haven’t really thought through who they were aiming at, sites like Smashwords and Feedbooks offer a way of getting your work in front of readers – although I wish they had better categorisation and descriptive tools, so that you could give yourself a better chance of matching up your work up with the kind of people that you think might like it.
6) I thought ‘The Hardest Word’ was quite dramatic and perfectly suited for live performance – have you thought about (or gone about) adapting it for stage or teleplay?
I’m pleased you found it dramatic because on the face of it, the financial crisis doesn’t provide obvious material for drama. I hadn’t thought about adapting it for either stage or screen, although I agree that it could be done. On stage, I can see that it might work quite well as a short, rather intense piece, especially in a small theatre. The only difficulty I foresee would be how to render the inner thoughts of Kevin, the investment banker character – these are important in the sense that they explain various aspects of his behaviour, such as his sudden change in attitude towards his kidnappers.
As for a teleplay, I’ve never done anything like that before but my impression is that TV/film producers tend to want to work with a bigger canvas – so maybe the whole piece would have to be opened out rather more, perhaps by adding a detective-drama-style sub-plot focussed around the hunt for the kidnapped banker. You could also throw in an undercover cop who has infiltrated the kidnap group and is not unsympathetic to their aims, so finds himself having divided loyalties. But I think I may be in danger of getting a bit carried away here. Already on my virtual casting couch I can see Kevin Spacey as the investment banker… [at this point the interview had to be interrupted so that the interviewee could calm down and get a grip on himself]
7) Please tell me something about the title of your novel, ‘In the Future This Will Not Be Necessary’, such as where the title came from and what it means to you.
I came up with the title quite late on in the process, once I had started to worry about how on earth I was going to persuade anyone to notice it, let alone read it – so part of the idea was to try to make it stand out from the crowd by having a slightly unusual title. I can’t really explain where it came from – I just started messing around with longer form titles and it popped into my head, as these things sometimes do. I then Googled it to find out if it had been used before – the answer appears to be no (or at least not in the first few pages of search results). But there are lots of results for “In the future there will be robots,” which is – apparently – the title of a strange piece of performance art forming part of the backdrop to one of the Grand Theft Auto games (a sort of “play within a video game”). I’m not much of gamer myself, so that was the first I’d heard of it – but I suppose that subconsciously you pick up all sorts of things, so maybe I’m kidding myself when I say it “just popped into my head”.
As for what it means to me, a lot of novels have been written about characters looking back on the past and trying to make sense of it – and mine has a pretty big element of that too. But it’s also a novel about our relationship with the future – how we expect it to turn out, how that makes us behave in the present and how we feel when it doesn’t turn out quite as we anticipated. So I wanted the title to pick up on that, particularly the tendency of techno-enthusiasts to assume that advances in technology will increasingly remove all the tedious and irksome aspects of life, when in fact it’s not always such a linear progression. The other “meaning” of the title (for me, at any rate) relates to the narrator, who’s writing a kind of confession. He hopes that by the time he’s finished, it won’t be necessary for him to keep on with that kind of self-examination in future – but it doesn’t turn out to be quite as straightforward and clearcut as he envisages.
8) What is your next fiction project and where are you in its process?
I’m intending to do some shorter pieces – probably around the same length as “The Hardest Word”, possibly a bit longer, but certainly not full novel length (at best novellas). The one I’m working on at the moment is semi-autobiographical – its starting point is an incident with a child in a playground a couple of years ago, which in real life didn’t amount to much, but in the story gets seized upon by the UK’s rather ferocious tabloid press. I also have a couple of other ideas that I’m still thinking about – one is more of an espionage story, about a US agent who offers to help the Chinese, the other is about a lawyer who’s asked to write a constitution for a seasted (a kind of artificial offshore island). But these last two are just ideas at the moment and are some way off seeing the light of day!