This is the third and final part of a series of posts featuring Blow Your Kiss Hello, by Andrew James. In the first part, I posted my thoughts about this exceptional novel. Last week, I handed my blog over to Andy and some of his fans. The questions they asked were about his decisions to self-publish and how he went about bringing his novel to shelves and screens. This week, his interrogators are asking questions about the story - and risotto.
Mandy: Where did the idea for BYKH come from? i.e. what was the spark of inspiration that set you off along that particular story and how did you come to mix historical fiction with crime with romance with quantum physics with rock and roll?
Andy: I wrote the opening pages, or rather I wrote something that evolved into the opening pages, about six or seven years ago. At the time, it was purely an abstract exercise – I liked the idea of someone comforting someone else whilst knowing that they were really the one in trouble. But the spark was meeting someone who has become a close friend; we discovered that we knew many specific things about each other’s childhoods, each other’s lives, without these specific things ever having discussed before. That opened my eyes to where a story could go. Once I got there, it was a case of how far to take it. How could two people know things about each other without ever being told?
Just “knowing some stuff” wouldn’t have made for much of a plot, so in order to magnify the proposition, I had the central characters be in love and the things they knew stretch over a long time, hence the historical part. The quantum physics was about making these feelings “real,” giving them an explanation. What if parallel universes really do coexist alongside our own and what if understanding them could hold the key to why some people really do just go missing? The crime was just a plot device to create tension and jeopardy.
And as to the rock and roll: I’m a musician and much of my writing tends to be inspired by individual pieces of music. Plus my writing style is deliberately a mixture of terse sentences and rhythmic, drifting passages. It seemed only right to make Joe a rock musician within that context.
Jeff: Time travel, the vehicle of the premise of your book, seems timely (no pun, really!) with several films out at the moment, Looper, X-men. How can you capitalise on that in your marketing.
Andy: Has it ever really gone away? HG Wells, Doctor Who, The Time Traveler’s Wife… It’s not really a theme of BYKH as such, which deals more with alternative universes and the unknowns of quantum physics – and that is something that I think is really now and zeitgeisty, what with Professor Brian Cox and the like popularising complicated science. Although I was told by one very respected publisher to “drop the quantum stuff” – so maybe it’s not such a good idea!
Eli: Do you plan everything before casting off, or let fly and see where you land?
Andy: A bit of both. I can’t begin until I know where a story’s going, so I tend to map out the basic elements: who my characters are, what’s happening to them, how they resolve their issues, and the overall “point” of the story. This normally takes the form of a few pages of notes, tables, mind-maps, etc. Once that’s done, the incidentals can often just fly. Sometimes they fly in unplanned and almost write themselves. The scene in BYKH where Joe’s at his wits end and the letters from his tattoo reveal themselves as pertinent anagrams – I didn’t know that was going to happen until it did. The letters were always the same, I’d just never considered them as anagrams of anything, they were just words.
Mark: How much of a technical challenge was it to weave together so many characters and plot strands, the earthly and the ethereal?
Andy: Enormous! It was the part that almost sent me mad! I strongly believed that all the elements were necessary to the story I was telling, but making them sit as a cohesive whole was a huge learning curve. Originally the novel was written in sections that dealt with individual strands, but it just became too disparate. Debi can take a lot of credit here, as she helped me structure it and then set me a challenge that revolved around the seventeenth century narrative; either make it slip in naturally, or ditch it. In my heart I couldn’t ditch it – it was too important to the central story and contained lots of clues that keen readers will hopefully pick up to help them get more out of the book – so I had to find a way. I’m glad I still smoked when I was writing it – so many ideas to smooth things out happened during “fag breaks”! It’s probably why Joe smokes so much in the novel …
Eli: Influences? Who do you like to read?
Andy:I love authors who use language and style as an integral part of the story; they don’t just tell a tale, they illustrate it with words. For example, James Ellroy and David Peace, they make sure from the opening page that we’re in their world. Peace especially is an incredibly brave novelist, he almost taunts the reader to keep up sometimes.
Bret Easton Ellis, I think, is a genius. I see parallels with the great American writers in Ellis’ writing and yet each one of his books adopts a style that subtly alters depending upon the central character, from Clay’s laconic, don’t-give-a-damn personality in Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms, to Victor’s increasingly unhinged mind in Glamorama. And of course, the pedantic viciousness of Patrick Bateman. I also love that his books contain a sort of repertory company of characters, with minor characters in one becoming lead roles in others.
What else? Not influences, or at least directly, but I love books that challenge me. Cormac McCarthy’s writing is breathtaking and difficult at times, like a Dickens of the Wild West. I love Will Self’s Umbrella for its sheer audacious complexity. Dylan Thomas is probably my favourite writer, no one uses language better. And I’ve recently discovered Scarlett Thomas. Her brain is simply huge!
John: The question I would love to ask is a bit vague. It's about the genesis of your prose style - how it grew and matured. It is so distinctive, and so integrated and 'of a piece', that it feels as if it might have an interesting story behind it.
Andy: John, I suppose it’s partly deliberate and partly instinctive. It has certainly grown and matured but I’m not sure I can give you a definitive answer as to how. As I said earlier to Eli’s question about influences, I love a style that’s integral to the story, so I try to do that, and I think it’s impossible to escape one’s influences. I’ve also written music and poetry in the past, and I think these art forms influence my prose. I think it’s appropriate that prose has a rhythm in the same way that poetry does. I sometimes set myself exercises, like writing five hundred words without any full stops, a) to see if it works and b) because I think that style of writing begins to dictate content and I find that fascinating. The repetition of certain words in a passage is also something very deliberate in my writing, for effect. Repeat something twice, it’s a mistake, but three, four times, and the words take on a power that they just don’t have when used singly, like a drum beat or a repeated chord being played at an increasing tempo and volume. Does that answer the question? I’m not sure that it does!
Eli: Your prose has a musical/melody-like quality to it. Do you give a lot of thought to the structure of your writing (balancing words and sentences so that things flow better)?
Andy: Yes, lots. I find it impossible to be one of those writers who produce five thousand words a day, or whatever. I’m happy with a hundred! That’s because every word is important, and I edit continuously as I write, changing sentence structures and, as you say, balancing. To me, that’s part of the process of writing, otherwise it has a tendency to be just word ejaculation, which is pretty meaningless for the most part.
Jeff: The Point Of View seems unique within the context of the story’s subject matter. Did it start in the POV or did you adapt it?
Andy: It was always essentially a first person narrative. What’s happening to Joe is traumatising for him and I wanted the reader to be right there with him, not viewing events from the comfort of a third person POV.
Lindsay: Were any of your characters inspired by a real live person?
Andy: Yes. Two definitely were - I’m not saying which ones, though!
Jeff: Joe, a musician, how much of him is you? (Joe de Flo, love that!)
Andy: Quite a bit, I think. Joe’s got the job I wanted in my teens, definitely! Because Joe’s on the page for almost all of the 300 pages, it would be unusual if he didn’t have a bit of the writer in him.
Mandy: Thea is absent for most of the book, yet she has a real presence all the way through and her character is just as vivid as those who never leave the story. How did you go about developing/characterising a person who was hardly there?
Andy: If we love someone, they may pop into our heads at random times without warning because they’re continually in our subconscious. And we can turn that thought into action by picking up the phone, or whatever, and being in touch with them. Joe can’t do that, so he needs to carry Thea around with him, otherwise he might lose her forever. In many ways she’s there all the time, living through Joe. I’m really pleased that notion seems to have worked for you.
As to characterisation, I know Thea as much as I know Joe. And so she’s always been a fully-formed, fleshed-out character in my head. I know what she looks like, I know what she’d choose from a menu, I know what perfume she wears, what she’d say in certain situations. So these things can come through because of how Joe talks about her, and often “to” her.
Eli: If you were a shoe, what brand would you be?
Andy: Random! Jeffery-West. Definitely.
Mandy: Have you ever had the feeling that you've lived before in another place or another time?
Andy: This is the part where I come over all David Icke, isn’t it? I don’t know that it’s as simple as having lived in another place and time, but I certainly believe in something along those lines. I think that children are far better placed to know these things than adults; we lose the connection to other elements we had as children as we get older. Certainly there were things I just knew as a child that I ignored as I grew up and yet they’ve come to pass in adulthood. There’s a part in BYKH where Kyle discusses physicality with Joe and he’s fascinated by the fact that the human body contains electrons and that electrons can’t die – I know scientists will have all manner of explanations for this and why it means nothing within the context of spirituality, but I also think there’s a whole load of stuff we’ve yet to discover. In that sense, I’m with Kyle.
Jeff: As I am only 1/3 through it, no spoilers please, but are you planning a sequel or spin off?
Lindsay: What next for Andrew James, Author?
Andy: Hopefully some reading events promoting BYKH – several bookshops have expressed an interest in doing something. In terms of writing, I’m trying to finish a semi-sequel. It’s looking like a short novella rather than a full-blown novel and it’ll lay to rest one issue from BYKH. It’s going to be called Almost Over Now.
After that, I’ve got a few ideas I’m playing with; I’m actually thinking about writing a children’s book, sort of in the David Almond (who I love) mold, and I’m beginning to get a rough plot in mind.
Eli: What’s your favourite risotto?
Andy: I’m guessing this is a reference to my Twitter profile! (@4ndrewjames). For a starter, Italian mushroom. For a main course, spicy butternut squash risotto – great with a nice piece of beef on the side!
Jeff: The brutal last interview question: what would you do differently, looking back at the whole thing?
Andy: I don’t know that I’d do anything particularly differently. In terms of the story and the writing, I probably wrote 250,000 words to get to the final 80,000 and I think that’s just a natural part of the process, especially for a first novel. Perhaps I’d have self-published earlier if I’d known how things were going to work out. But hindsight’s a wonderful thing!
Big thanks to Andy and co for livening up my blog. I happen to know that each of his interrogators are also talented writers in their own right. I wish them all the success they deserve. Let's look forward to more posts in the future, this time with one of you on the receiving end.