Share & Connect
British publishers Angry Robot recently announced that they will be publishing two new books by one of urban fantasy’s stars, Mike Shevdon. His debut novel, Sixty-One Nails, was published in 2009 to great acclaim and he subsequently published a sequel entitled The Road to Bedlam in 2010. Shevdon was kind enough to answer the Post’s questions in a wide-ranging interview.
Toonari Post: When did you first realize that you wanted to be an author?
Mike Shevdon: I didn’t even consider becoming an author until well into my forties. I’d been a keen reader since childhood, and I’ve always liked telling stories, but it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer until comparatively recently. I’d been reading a friend’s drafts for some years and began to see by osmosis how stories were constructed. Even then it was some time before I wrote anything worthwhile. I was quite naive about it, but if I’d known how difficult it really was I probably would never have started.
TP: Could you describe your journey from aspiring writer to published author?
MS: One of the advantages I had was that I knew the story I wanted to write. It started a chapter at a time and at that stage I only shared it with one good friend. He encouraged me to write more and gradually it accumulated. The first time you write those magic words, The End, is a real buzz, but of course you’ve only just started. What I had was a first draft and a pretty rough one at that. I worked on it and polished it until it was as good as I could make it.
Only then did I dare to share it with my friend whose drafts I had been beta-reading. She asked me if I wanted her views as a friend, or as an author. I chose the latter, and though it was hard to hear that all my hard work did not yet make the grade it was the right things to do. I went back to the draft and moved it up another level.
After that, test readers, workshops, beta readers – even when you think you’re finished you’re really not. You have to take a big step back, gain some perspective and try again. I look back and still think there are things I could have done better, but then I learn more every time I do this.
TP: What are some of your literary influences?
MS: The first fantasy I came across was The Hobbit while at school, then I read the Narnia books one after another. John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein – and then Ursula Le Guin,and Alan Garner. Later I got into John Le Carre’s spy novels, which I devoured. I read all Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories and am a big fan of Robert Crais’ thrillers.
Alan Moore is a great inspiration, I loved Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and the contrast between American Gods and Anansi Boys. My current favourites are Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books and Joe Abercrombie’s, First Law trilogy – Joe restarted my love of fantasy – he took all the tropes and twisted them delightfully.
TP: For many aspiring authors, the idea of searching for an agent is quite nerve-racking. How did you find your agent, and what advice do you have regarding the dreaded query letter?
MS: I found my agent after extensive research, what agents like and who they represent. I wrote a specific query for her and one other agent who also matched my criteria. I got a request for a partial from one, and a polite and encouraging rejection from the other. It seems to me that too many try the shotgun approach and shoot their query out to as many people as possible in the hope that it will stick somewhere. Don’t hope – do your research and discover what your chosen agent wants to see, then give it to them.
For the query, understand what your story is about. Tell that story in 200 words. The query should make the agent want to ready your sample pages. Your sample pages should make the agent want to request a partial. The partial should make them want to read it all. If it’s not working, ask yourself why? Is the problem your query or your story? Have you targeted the right agent?
TP: What’s your writing routine? For example, do you write in a specific location or listen to a certain type of music?
MS: I used to write on the train while commuting to and from work, so I got used to distractions and can write pretty much anywhere. I immerse myself in the story and found it best to set an alarm after I missed my station and ended up 15 miles down the track past my stop. I try to avoid dependency on any one thing, though. It only makes it harder when that one thing isn’t available.
TP: You’ve written quite a bit on your blog about the various technological tools available to writers. What are some of your favorites?
MS: For sitting down and working out a plot I find FreeMind a great tool. It’s quick, makes it easy to rearrange things, and is abstract enough to allow for non-linear development. I wrote Sixty-One Nails using RoughDraft, but nowadays I use Scrivener on the Mac almost exclusively. It has all the tools I need and is aimed at writing large complex pieces where you need to focus on the detail but keep an eye on the big picture. For small articles I use Bean, which is a very nice RTF text editor.
TP: We’ve all heard the hype about how traditional publishing is dying, and self-publishing via e-readers is the way of the future. What do you think? Will there always be a place for traditional publishing? What made you decide to go with a traditional publisher?
MS: I don’t think self-publishing will replace traditional publishing. In 2009, my agent Jennifer Jackson, read 8,004 queries, from which she signed 5 new clients. The other 7,999 writers could theoretically self-publish their work without an agent or publisher, but you have to ask yourself, were they ready for publication? That’s just one agent. There are hundreds of agents and publishers, and their slush-piles are similarly full. As a reader, how do I find the one brilliant self-published masterpiece from the hundreds of thousands of novels that just weren’t quite ready?
Having said that, the publishing business is being forced to change. The economics are harsh but simple. We’ve seen similar scenarios in the music business where bands now make money from touring because their music is sold for cents and freely pirated on the Internet. They can’t make enough from sales to keep going and the result is that you have to pay £50 a ticket to see a band. Authors are not going to be able to do that.
The app model of publishing where the publisher sells novels for 99c works for the publisher if they can produce enough titles. Two hundred titles selling a thousand copies each nets over a hundred thousand dollars. It doesn’t work for authors, though. Even at 25% of gross, that’s only $250. It doesn’t pay your bills.
I believe that readers want new and inspired voices producing work that is original and exciting, and that publishers are able to find and develop those authors successfully and bring them to market. All we have to figure out is how to fund it such that it becomes a sustainable business model and everyone will benefit as a result.
TP: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
MS: I am a keen target archer and spend quite a bit of time sending pointed missiles across a field at paper circles. There is a beautiful simplicity in archery. All you have to do is draw the bow back and let the arrow go in a way that is clean and consistent. It sounds easy but in turns it is both challenging and frustrating, and wonderfully rewarding when you get it right. As Eugen Herrigel noticed, there is zen in the art of archery.
TP: Since I live in Wisconsin, the land of cheese, I was interested to see on your website that you’ve invented “Squeaky Cheese Curry.” What’s that?
MS: Squeaky cheese is our family name for Halloumi, a cheese from Cyprus which can stand cooking heat without melting or falling apart. It’s salty and has a texture that, when you bite it, squeaks against your teeth. When planning a meal for vegetarian friends I made a massaman curry with Halloumi instead of meat, grilling the surface of the cheese to keep it firm, adding massaman paste, lime leaves and star anise into coconut milk, and Squeaky Cheese Curry was born. It’s now a firm favourite with vegetarian and non-vegetarian friends alike.
TP: What are the top three things on your “bucket list”?
MS: I would like to sail around the Greek Islands, stopping off at little villages and tiny fishing harbours and immersing myself in Greek culture, food and hospitality. I would like to explore New Zealand; my visit in 1990 left me wanting to see more of that beautiful country, and I would like to be on the New York Times Bestseller List.
TP: The Quit-Rent ceremony is a huge part of your debut novel, Sixty-One Nails. What made you decide to build a novel around this little bit of legal arcana?
MS: I was researching English folklore and was following a thread to do with iron and its role as a protection against magical influence, particularly with respect to blacksmiths and horse-shoes, when I came across the ceremony.
When you find a ceremony involving six iron horse-shoes and twin knives, one blunt and one sharp, you have to accept the gift and write a story about it. When I realised that they had been carrying out the ceremony for eight-hundred years it started me thinking – why?
I realised that if you wanted something done long past any individual person’s life-span, and you needed it to be done perfectly and regularly, every year, come what may, then this would be a perfect way to achieve that. It was a mystery hidden in plain sight. The question was, what was it hiding?
TP: What was the reaction of the staff at the Royal Courts of Justice when you told them why you were interested the Quit-Rent ceremony? Did you ever get to meet the Queen’s Remembrancer?
MS: I have always found the staff at the Royal Courts of Justice to been wonderfully polite, helpful and tolerant. After all, they deal with people every day who are in the most difficult of situations and my enquiries were, perhaps, light relief from their more serious role.
I’ve attended the ceremony several times, including 2009 after the book was launched, and I got to meet the Remembrancer and the Chief Clerk, who were both bemused, I think, by the enthusiasm with which I told them about the book. I did send the retiring clerk a copy, but I’m not sure if she read it. I also got to chat with the smith who made the knives. Lovely people, and the ceremony itself is absolutely fascinating.
TP: The Quit-Rent ceremony is of course just one of many historical oddities that are part of the British constitution. What would you say to those who would love nothing more than to sweep such things away?
MS: Britain’s constitution is written not in one document, but in many. It is formed by the precedent and practice, by challenge and convention. As such it is a living document with roots in the birth of nation states. If you will sweep that away, what will you replace it with?
TP: You recently announced on your website that Angry Robot will be publishing two more books in The Courts of the Feyre series. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going to happen in the next two books?
MS: The Road to Bedlam ended with Niall rescuing Alex and releasing the inmates from Porton Down into the wider world. In Strangeness & Charm we see what happens to these individuals, how people who have been mistreated by the state react when granted freedom, and what they do with their power and liberty when they find that society has no place for them.
We also see the relationships between Niall and Blackbird change with the birth of their baby, and how that affects Alex, a teenage girl who has endured torture and cannot return to the way she was.
The Eighth Court is where all the threads come together and the plans of those behind the scenes are finally revealed. The grand experiment comes to fruition and all the pigeons come home to roost. Sides will be chosen, friend will fight friend, and old scores will be settled in blood.
TP: If Hollywood were to come calling, who would you want to play Niall? Blackbird?
MS: You need an English Rose to play the young Blackbird – Keira Knightley or Kate Winslet, perhaps, and I would love Dame Judi Dench to play the older Blackbird. She has that instant presence. Niall is harder to cast. You need someone understated and subtle, who can portray someone who has closed themselves off from the world and is then slowly revealed. Having seen Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, I can see him in that role.
TP: As you know, there’s a long-standing debate within the writing community about the merits of first-person narrators vs. third-person narrators. What made you decide to write in the first person?
MS: Sixty-One Nails is about discovering that the world is a stranger and more wonderful place than it appears. It’s about opening up to new ideas and new ways of being. For me, the best way to portray that was to follow someone who is going through that experience, so that you can be with them as it happens.
In The Road to Bedlam, Niall and Blackbird become separated and we see Blackbird from a third-person perspective. This is because I don’t want the reader to have access to Blackbird’s knowledge and experience of the fey world. That would undermine Niall’s perspective by giving the reader more knowledge about the world than Niall possesses. Neither is right or wrong. It’s about what’s appropriate for that character.
TP: For me, one of the most chilling parts of Sixty-One Nails was the scene in Niall’s apartment with the Darkspore. What was the inspiration behind it?
MS: My house is surrounded by large trees which are host to many moulds and spores, and I have a constant battle against mildew gaining a foothold between tiles or around windows because the spores are in the air. I’d already formed the view that magic in The Courts of the Feyre would be innate rather than learned, and wanted to bring in some unusual aspects to that power. Darkspore was one of those wonderful moments when a problem and an idea come together.
TP: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
MS: Write. Keep writing. Challenge yourself to get better. Share your writing with people who will be honest and give you constructive feedback. Join a writing group. Learn to see your own mistakes by critiquing the work of others. Never stop learning.
TP: Do you plot your stories beforehand, or do you write by the seat of your pants?
MS: My approach is a hybrid of the two. I have a rough outline in one-line sentences, and I use that to structure the story. I don’t always stick to it though, and if the writing goes off in an interesting direction then I follow it. I may end up deleting it all later, but it’s worth the time to chase a thread – it can lead you to some really interesting places.
Having said that, I have a very clear picture of some scenes – the funeral scene from The Road to Bedlam is an example, and you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it. It emerged as part of the plot and I knew how it would have to go before I started typing. It didn’t make it any easier to write, but I knew it had to have that emotional weight to deliver the impetus for what comes after.
TP: What are your plans once you’ve finished The Courts of Feyre series?
MS: At the moment I’m immersed in the Courts of the Feyre, and I don’t want to think too far beyond that. I have an idea for a stand-alone novel I want to write – a modern haunting, not horror but a psychological thriller, and I also have ideas for a trilogy, set in a different world with an entirely new set of characters, but that needs work to bring the ideas into focus and I don’t have time to work on that while I’m busily writing Strangeness & Charm, so it’s gone into the ‘later’ folder until I can spend more time on it.
Please click below to purchase one of Mike Shevdon Books:
Image courtesy: Mark Lewis Photography