A Conversation with Stephen Palmer

GJ: Can you describe your journey to publishing your first novel?

SP: I began writing in 1986. I’d always loved creative writing at school, and was gutted to learn that it wasn’t on the ‘O’ level syllabus.

My early work was utter rubbish, but I had no idea of that. (A few years ago I burned it all.) After a couple of years I calmed down a bit and wrote a few better works, some of which I sent around the London publishers. One day, some of my sample chapters were returned to me but with a Post-it note accidentally left inside. That note lambasted my work. I was mortified, but the note inspired me to change my attitude entirely. I began to get better, raising my game, learning from authors and from being a member of the BSFA, until, in 1992, I wrote a passable second draft of one of my earlier novels. This draft had something different about it, and I became encouraged again, so I sent it around the main publishers of the time.

As it happened, those three chapters and synopsis were read by somebody at Orbit Books, who, over the coming year, remembered them. When Orbit decided it wanted new blood, that man contacted me, although by then I’d prepared a better third draft, which in due course became my debut Memory Seed. I was of course gobsmacked to be contacted! It later turned out that I’d been picked off the slush pile at odds of about 10,000/1 against – a fantastically lucky break, and the incident which began my life as an author. Luck has been kind to me.

GJ: For those not familiar with your novels, can you liken your work to other novelists?

SP: My early influences were authors like Gene Wolfe, William Gibson and Jack Vance. Gwyneth Jones likewise made a strong impact on me, but also various writers of non-fiction that I was reading at the time – people like Erich Fromm, Dorothy Rowe, Nicholas Humphrey and James Lovelock. All these influences merged with my feeling for green/environmental themes and themes of social justice to create my debut Memory Seed, and its sequel Glass.

As time passed my outlook changed. A couple of idiosyncratic fantasy novels did little to endear me to my fans, although some of them were reassured by the “supremely odd yet deeply rewarding experience” of Urbis Morpheos in 2010.

More time passed during which life repeatedly got in the way of writing. Then in 2014 I was rescued by Keith Brooke at Infinity Plus Books. Keith has many virtues, one of which being his tolerance of me following my muse. I feel I’ve got various strands to my work now, for instance the AI-themed SF novels such as Beautiful Intelligence and my new one The Autist; also a strand of historical, sometimes magic-realist, sometimes alternate world, sometimes steampunk novels such as my Factory Girl trilogy. I don’t think these latter works are like any other author, although as I read virtually no fiction I wouldn’t know. In my recent futuristic work especially I’m aiming to challenge the many misunderstandings and misrepresentations of AI in SF – I’ve read about and studied the evolution of human consciousness for thirty years, and I want to present a different view of possible futures for AI. As for my historical work, one reader was kind enough to compare me with Philip Pullman, which was I’m sure inaccurate flattery – though no doubt I’ve been influenced by the His Dark Materials trilogy.

I put everything I have into my novels, so that, while the reader won’t have any idea what to expect, they can at least be assured of a unique experience written with conviction.

GJ: I understand you have a day job. How do you fit in writing around the other demands of your life?

SP: I’m employed at a school as a member of the support staff, which gives me the school holidays to work in. I write intensively and quickly, usually over winter and over Easter, my aim being to get the best possible first draft of a novel by ‘living’ it over the space of about two to three weeks. Typically I’ll do 4,500 to 5,000 words a day. I find this allows me to best capture the magic of discovering characters and a scenario for the first time, passing that experience on to my readers in the most immediate way. (I wouldn’t recommend this to new authors – it is a risky method!) Of course, it doesn’t always work, and it is quite a fatiguing way to write, but having discovered it by accident for my The Girl With Two Souls novel I’m not sure I could do it any differently now.

This means though that I have plenty of time for all the other demands of life…

GJ: So do you think we’re in danger of a technological singularity in your lifetime?

SP: If by that you mean of the Ray Kurzweil type: absolutely not. I despair of that man and all his acolytes. He’s the perfect example of a man – and it almost always is men – who has fallen for the addictive, entrancing capacity of technology and is ignoring all the negative, inhumane, world-destroying aspects. His notion of the ‘Singularity’ is complete joke. It’s a supreme irony that he’s chosen to predict aspects of modern life that in recent years have begun to change at a rate too fast for human beings to psychologically cope with. We’re getting to a stage where we can’t predict what might happen in two years, let alone two decades.

My attempts to depict SF futures all have speculative elements of course, but at least it’s clear that my work is fiction, which allows me to explore human possibilities and reactions as much as anything else. Kurzweil presents his thoughts with the kind of deadly seriousness I’d expect from Alan Partridge. All his ideas of exponential computing capacity are based on his adulation of computing capacity. As I depicted in Beautiful Intelligence, that’s not how things work. What also makes me chuckle is his use of the word intelligence in lieu of anything more nuanced.

It is of course a cliché to point out that technology is a two-edged sword. What’s worrying about this moment in history however is that unregulated, capitalist, male-dominated, international technology corporations are being allowed free rein to do whatever they please regardless of the consequences; and they’re offering technologies with increasingly dangerous negative sides. Too few people even now are talking about the danger of social media and online life to young people. Yes, we have laudable and well-meaning attempts to link mental health with social media, and minor change is starting to happen there, but fighting the corporations is an almost impossible task at the moment. They can do what they like, consequence-free, and human beings suffer as a result right across the world.

GJ: Have you ever tried your hand at non-fantastical fiction?

SP: Yes, but it didn’t turn out well!

On a more serious note, I would argue that Tommy Catkins is a non-fantastical novel. Although the novel is full of the trappings of fantasy (eg Onderwater, with all its peculiarities) it’s not a fantasy at all. The novel is related entirely from the point of view of Tommy himself, and the reader has to determine what is real and what’s not.

I’d argue the same for the next novel I’m going to write, Halfie, which has a theme related to that of Tommy Catkins. I probably could write a non-fantastical book, but I think the characters would have to be absolutely right for it to work, as they are in Halfie.

GJ: Do you find you miss writing when you’re not in your bursts of work during the school holidays, or does it take you so much time to recover and recharge?

SP: I miss it, but I know I’m going to return to it, so that’s okay. Besides, waiting allows me to get excited about the next project, and it’s important for me to feel that enthusiasm before I begin work. But I’m an introvert at the far end of the Highly Sensitive Person spectrum, so, like all introverts, I need plenty of time to recover from activities that for most people are normal – like socialising, or the 9-5.

GJ: What are the best and worst aspects of being a published author for you?

SP: Best aspect? Being allowed to follow my muse, have novels published, then see if fans and readers like them. I’m pretty ruthless about reader reaction. Part of the journey from writer to author is to accept that a string of 5* reviews is meaningless; you need a few lesser reviews for balance, for reality. I’m not truly content until somebody has posted a 1* review or said something bad, and I highlight these reviews on my blog in a section called the Naughty Step. If I’m not challenging readers I’m not doing my work properly. Of course, you could say I’ve gone too far at times, e.g. with Urbis Morpheos, which I think, for all its imaginative flourishes, could have been different and better.

Worst aspect? I’m not sure I can think of anything. When I was younger and learning my craft I’d get upset with the occasional poor review, but that was just the inexperience of youth. Being an author is a pretty nice gig – I love it. I do think I was lucky to be published well before the internet ruined the literary landscape, but that, as with so many things in my writing life, was a matter of chance.

I suppose my main wish is to be appreciated for artistic reasons. As David Bowie said, the best place for an artist to be is just outside their comfort zone.

GJ: Writer’s block is a popular affliction touted in the media and by some authors. I’ve never been afflicted myself, but I guess there’s plenty of time yet. Have you ever had times when the muse hasn’t struck and you’ve experienced the frustration of no inspiration?

SP: Never. If I’m doing an event and speaking about inspiration or creativity, I usually relate the following anecdote: I don’t suffer from writer’s block, I get the opposite – writer’s volcano. It’s true, though. In my study I have a metal filing cabinet filled with notebooks full of ideas, novel outlines and so on. Most of them won’t get written.

Recently, frustrated at the relentless focus on writing technique that I see on various genre forums, I posted a three part series on my blog about inspiration and imagination, something rarely discussed by new or aspiring writers. Imagination is in my opinion much more important than technique. Technique can be learned, improved, honed. With imagination you either have it (and are inspired by it) or you don’t – and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be writing. But if you do have it, there are ways of working more closely with native imagination, for instance by listening to your subconscious.

Creativity isn’t a thing in itself, I think, it’s our response to biologically determined sensitivity of the brain/mind. Generally speaking, the more sensitive you are the more creative you are, or can be. I think it depends a little on brain hemisphere function too. While I don’t subscribe to the old notion that the left brain is analytical and verbal and the right brain emotional and holistic, I do think there is enough evidence to show that, on average, the two hemispheres function in different ways, that could be characterised as reductionist and holistic. That functional difference however doesn’t always show itself.

GJ: Do you have any other outlets where you express yourself artistically?

SP: I’ve been lucky to have provided a few cover designs for my novels, a luxury a lot of authors don’t enjoy. I come from an artistic family, but I’m not arty in the fine art sense. However, I do enjoy graphic design, and for many years in my previous day job I informally taught Photoshop. A few years ago I used Photoshop to create designs for my reissued ebooks, and more recently for novels like Factory Girl and Tommy Catkins. Beautiful Intelligence, No Grave For A Fox and The Autist however all feature the outstanding 3D computer modelling of my friend and android wrangler supreme Steve Jones.

GJ: Can you tell me one thing your fans might be surprised to hear about you?

SP: When I was a few months old, my parents’ doctor predicted I would be 6’2” tall. I am 6’2”.

GJ: Do you consider yourself to have a core of fans and do you interact with them regularly? If so how?

SP: I have a small number of consistent fans, and they’re uniformly wonderful, but one of the problems with following your muse – being your own brand as it were – is that not all fans will follow you. Over the last 23 years I’ve lost more fans than I’ve gained. But that of course isn’t necessarily how it will always be. One of the marks of an author as opposed to a writer is persistence. You have most of a life to become an author, unless you leave it late: if writing is your vocation, use that entire time regardless of success or lack of it.

As Kate Bush observed, people who want to be seen more as artists than anything else, and who do follow their muse, must hope that their fans will follow. They can’t force the issue – the integrity of their work is everything, speaking for itself. Therefore all she or any artist can do is hope, not expect, their fans to follow them.

My fan interaction these days is mostly online. If you are going to do social media, do one type well rather than everything poorly. Facebook and my blog at WordPress are my favourites. I tried Twitter, but hated it. I get invited to genre events too, which is always fun. My last one was the steampunk festival in Lincoln – enormous fun!

A lot has been said in recent years about the demise of literary quality because of the rise of online life, with its connection and self-promotion possibilities; many people have observed how much rubbish is self-published these days. I do think though that, given good luck and persistence, there’s still much to be said for quality. My fans may not like some of the directions I’ve gone in, but at least they’re guaranteed a read unlike anything available elsewhere, a read into which I’ve put all I can.

GJ: Do you get involved with the promotion and marketing of your work (This interview aside)? Do you revel in being able to tell people about your work, or as an introvert, do you try and leave it as much as you can to others?

SP: All authors in the internet age have a duty to promote themselves, even if they’re with a major publishing house. The days of leaving it to others to do that work are long gone. So, yes, I do as much as I can. But, as you will have discovered, that’s not easy these days. The internet does have advantages for creative people, but it has one massive down-side, which is that with everybody shouting at the tops of their voices about their published or self-published novels, no-one can hear what anybody is actually saying. Good promotion and bad promotion for good and bad novels all gets treated the same – and by the dubious rules of online life (which I’ve blogged a lot about recently). As I mentioned above, I was lucky to be professionally published before the internet kicked in, which has allowed me to present and exploit my profile as an established novelist with a back catalogue. But even then, it’s difficult. The sheer number of people who are offering books to the public is having a negative effect on the life of most creative people, especially if those people want to be creative for a living. There’s a kind of terrible equalisation going on, creating one gigantic level playing field upon which the public sees little of significance – it’s all one big mess of shouting. The only solution I’ve come up with is to interact with a coterie of fans in a personal way, for example on forums, of which SFF Chronicles is my favourite.

By the way, introverts don’t have a problem with promotion because of their introversion. Difficulty with marketing yourself is usually a problem of low confidence, lack of self-worth, low self-esteem and so on. It can also be because of shyness, but being shy and being introverted are two entirely different things.

GJ: What advice would you give to new or aspiring writers and authors?

SP: First of all, I’d tell them to ask the most difficult question of all: why do you really want to become an author? Is it because you like the idea of the recognition? The fame? The adulation? The constant attention? Thousands of likes and ‘friends’ on Facebook? The money? A string of 5* reviews? Or is it because you idolise an author and want to do work in imitation of theirs? If with all honestly you answer yes to any of these questions, then you shouldn’t be a writer.

Then I’d say: do you have something inside you that absolutely has to come out via the medium of writing? This might be a cause, a personal or family reason, or it might be because you have a vivid imagination and this sort of thing happens by itself. In which case, you have the necessary first qualification for having a go in the bizarre world of publishing.

Then I’d ask another difficult question. You almost certainly won’t get anywhere in the traditional literary world. You could, of course, go the self-publishing route and see where that leads, but the chances are it won’t lead anywhere in the long term – not least if you forget basic things like having a plot, empathising with all your characters, grasping grammar and spelling, and ignoring the poetry of prose which, after years and years of terrifically hard work, you might get good at (unless, like a tiny minority, you have native talent). Do you have the persistence to plug away, year after year, perhaps for a decade, getting nowhere, taking all the knocks, dusting yourself off time after time, yet carrying on with new work even though all the old work is ignored? If so, you have the potential to move from writer to author.

It’s a pessimistic assessment, I know, but it has the virtue of being realistic. The literary world (like the real world) runs according to its own rules, which are pretty random. There is no such thing as destiny, and if you believe you’re fated to be an author, you’re wrong. Twice in my writing life I’ve been tempted to give up. Once was in 2006, when I found myself without a publisher. For a while I thought it was the end of my life as an author, until, some time later, I realised that I simply had to gird my loins and begin again from scratch, approaching publishers as if I was a novice. Three days later I had a novel accepted by PS Publishing. The other time was in 2013, when I faced exactly the same problem. I was tempted to jack it all in, but the year after Keith Brooke published Hairy London and I was off, writing what I’ve been told is my best work to date.

So, in a nutshell: author is a vocation for life. Persistence, genuine imagination and a massive amount of hard work are required. It’s not a career for the faint-hearted.

GJ: Thank you Stephen, it was great to talk to you today. Stephen’s latest book, The Autist, is out to buy now. You can keep in touch with Stephen via his Facebook page or his blog.

I regularly interview authors and those in the publishing industry, along with providing an insight into my own experiences of publishing my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless.

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