A few weeks back, my good blogging friend Geoff Le Pard asked if anyone would be interested in hosting a blog tour to promote his new book, My Father and Other Liars. As Geoff is one of life’s good guys, I couldn’t really refuse.
One thing I’m always interested in is how other writers go about their craft, so I thought that rather than doing a standard interview with Geoff about the new book, we could have a discussion instead. Here’s part 1 of our discussion, where we talk about inspiration, characterisation, point of view and how much stories change in the edit. Enjoy!
DSH: To kick things off, your last novel was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in the New Forest in the steamy summer of 1976. What made you want to write your next book about big business, politics and religion?
GLP: The answer is really in two parts.
First why did I want to do something totally different to the first book?
When I started creative writing my first attempt was a buddy story with a twist, the second a thriller, looking at people trafficking. Neither has (yet) seen the light of day beyond my saved documents and a few misguided friends. Those friends asked why I hadn’t done a follow up to the buddy story. For a while I pondered a sequel; I had a few neat ideas but I had others too. So I made a conscious decision not to follow like with like, not to do a sequel, nor even to write in the same genre.
It felt like I had laid out the course my writing would follow. I had no intention of publishing anything so I could be choosy – for which read self indulgent. That was 2006/7. Roll the clock onto 2010 and a lot of people were saying publish something. If you don’t want the hassle of trying the traditional route, go indie. I started my blog in April 2014 with that in mind, choosing my favourite book as my lead off. But again I knew I didn’t want to follow like with like. I looked at the books I’d written, chose the one the most different from my fort published one and worked on that. I guess I’m a stubborn contrarian. It is also true that, once Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, my first book, was out there it was no longer my favourite. I didn’t expect that. My Father and Other Liars took that mantle as soon as I started editing it again. I also started a sequel to Dead Flies and I didn’t expect that either. I can’t really explain in any logical way how these decisions occur. Mostly it feels like I come to them randomly and then reverse engineer my reasoning why I’ve chosen X over Y. I’m very good at finding a rational sounding ex post facto justification for what I do; part of my legal training I suppose.
Second, sometime back in 2009, my daughter decided she wanted to explore her spiritual side and attend a local church with a close friend. The church is a small branch of the Anglican version of Christianity and we began having what amounted to bible discussions over Sunday dinner. I asked her to find out how this church differentiated itself from say Baptists, or traditional Church of England but perhaps due to her years or their inability to articulate it I never really found out.
I find it intriguing how groups seek to make distinctions that to most of us looking in from the outside aren’t real. About the same time I read about a tele-evangelist, Oral Roberts, who was fabulously successful – so much so that his fund raising supported a university for his church. He too had his own version of how to celebrate the Christian faith. He was eventually done for siphoning off the cash for his own use. Could I, I wondered, create my own Sect? Could I include it in a story that was bubbling under about to people who meet accidentally never expecting to meet again but then do with thriller-esque consequences? Thus the Church of Science and Development was born, together with its university – the Christian University of Beaumont, based in the fictional Beaumont Oklahoma. Given the creed I fabricated interprets the Bible as supporting the natural selection of Darwin – it sees the Bible as a work in progress not the end game – I wanted to centre on the science, the genetics, and that brought in the use of human embryos which are highly controversial especially in the bible belt in the US. The Federal investigation into its possible malpractices followed naturally.
You too have had to create a fictitious world, complex science, a new political order and security structure, changed technology. Mine started with a religious question and went from there, pulling in the other strands. What started you on your road to Second Chance?
DSH: Funnily enough, there were two drivers for me as well. The first was on reading a book by Peter F Hamilton (whose novels I love) and one of the main characters died, only to be resurrected through cloning and stored memories. While all the other characters accepted this as OK, I remember shouting out loud “but it’s not the same person!” This then got me thinking about how you could use cloning to extend life, which led to Re-Life being born.
The other point was around how politics globally (or at least in western democracies) are focusing ever more on short-term issues and putting off making difficult decisions to deal with long-term issues like climate change. The thing is, I’m a great believer in humanity’s ability to overcome these issues but I’m not sure our political systems are set up to find the solutions, so if they aren’t, what alternatives are there?
One of the things I tried not to do is turn my novels into a lecture on my political beliefs. I’m hoping readers won’t be able to tell my personal thoughts on the issues raised through my books. How do you feel about this? Do you think authors should promote their politics or religion through their stories and is this something you do yourself, consciously or otherwise?
GLP: To answer about Second Chance, one might surmise an antagonism to today’s relative indifference to the climate change issue simply from the conclusion from which the book starts – i.e. there will be a climate driven catastrophe which climate change denier would argue isn’t about to happen, but beyond that there is nothing to suggest a pro or a con to the political order that takes over. What is interesting in this connection is that, at the end of Second Chance there was a sense that what we had here was a corrupt system with the main players out to feather their own nests – classic little guy beaten down by system – whereas towards the end of Absent Souls the sense is the main players are convinced the system needs to be upheld and steps, while individually dreadful, are necessary to maintain that. Much mores subtle and worrying! That’s one reason why I want book three. LIKE NOW!
Should authors let their views come through? No. I don’t like the novel as polemic. In My Father I was anxious not to have the story come across as dissing those who have a faith. I wanted, I hope, to allow everyone their choice with any judgement; it just so happens the Church here is peopled with people who don’t necessarily uphold Christian principles. And even then I hope by the end that there’s sufficient ambiguity in the protagonists motivations to make it clear the main drivers of the actions are personal not faith based. So I’d say I consciously try to avoid my own theist/atheist views are hidden but maybe I’m being naive.
In Second Chance you have, if memory serves, four narrators, or POV. In My Father, Maurice is the main narrator and it is written in the first person. To keep the story moving at pace I include other POVs so the reader is privy to events about which Maurice has no idea. The main female protagonist has only one short chapter devoted to her POV. I wondered if this would cause any concern or disconnect with the readership but I’ve received no adverse comment on it. Yet! How did you decide on your POVs and the structure you used? And which character came to you first?
DSH: The idea of having a number of different point of views came at the same time as the idea for the story. It just felt natural. While I tell the story through four main POV’s in both my books, there are only two storylines in each. I think if you try to include many more storylines it ends up causing unnecessary confusion for the reader (unlike the necessary confusion I like to use to keep the reader guessing).
I guess I was influenced by reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin. He’s an absolute master at weaving different storylines and POV’s into a narrative whole. One thing I learnt from his books was to keep the big characters, the real movers and shakers, out of the narrative. By all means show what they do but never reveal what they are thinking. It allows the author to maintain a level of mystery and uncertainty.
The first character that came into being was Randall, although that wasn’t his name at the time. I liked the idea of this average Joe being caught up in something beyond his control. Second Chance was originally planned as his story but as I came to the end of the first draft I realised it was really about Stephanie’s journey more than his, and changed the book’s emphasis in the second draft.
Has this ever happened to you? How much has the story of My Father changed since your early draft?
GLP: Interestingly the two changes that come back to me are the title which from writing the first chapter was God Bothering and then changed in the last three months or so and the female protagonist who was Marci-Ann for ages until someone pointed out that having my two main characters as Maurice and Mari-Ann was a bit confusing. So she became Lori Ann.
I didn’t change the story so much as add layers. In the first draft I wanted Maurice’s father to appear half way through; now he’s on page one. I tried to write it all from Maurice’s view point but it was too slow for the type of story. And the Federal Agency and its employees were a small bit part that has now grown to a substantial part of the story.
One thing I really learnt redrafting this was where you have multiple characters you need to keep bringing them back to the reader’s attention. Because I know the story I remember A or B but if you only read the book once then it is easy to forget who A or B are and it can seem like a cheap device to bring back someone mentioned on page ten in the last ten pages an reveal them the killer or whatever. That took a bit of doing without giving away the twists.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed the two of us blathering on. If you did, part 2 of this interview will be available tomorrow.
Geoff Le Pard started writing to entertain in 2006. He hasn’t left his keyboard since. When he’s not churning out novels he writes some maudlin self-indulgent poetry and blogs at geofflepard.com. He walks the dog for mutual inspiration and most of his best ideas come out of these strolls.