Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Saunders. He has been writing for 17 year, and just released his newest fiction novel: Sker House! Read the interview below.
Q: How long have you been writing? Why did you start?
A: I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I started writing adventure stories long hand in notebooks, then taught myself how to type and graduated to a typewriter and then, obviously a computer. To be honest, I have no idea why I started. It just felt like the natural thing to do. I was a terrible student at school and was absolutely useless at most things, except reading and writing. When I told my career’s advisor I wanted to be a writer he just laughed and told me to get a real job. I failed all my exams and ended up working in a local factory. I carried on writing around my shifts, and nine years later finally did enough to get into uni, literally through the back door.
Q: What inspires your writing? Do you have a muse?
A: Not exactly. I’ve written professionally for over four years now, and I don’t have any other source of income. So for me, it’s very much write or die. Of course, there’s pressure to be successful, but I kind of like it that way. It rams the point home every morning when I wake up that I’m not playing around anymore. I’ve made my choice, and I have to see it through. Fear of failure motivates me, and I find the idea of not starving to death pretty inspirational!
Q: You write both fiction and non-fiction. Tell me about the differences between writing the two. Which do you have more fun writing?
A: The main difference for me is that you can take a more scientific approach to non-fiction. There’s a formula. You find a story, identify a market, do your research, and write the piece in the publication’s house style. Fiction is more organic. The spark of creativity comes and goes. It’s very hard to force yourself to write good fiction if you aren’t ‘feeling’ it. The money is better in non-fiction (usually) but I must admit I do find fiction more satisfying. It’s like you’ve created something from scratch. With non-fiction you are very much a conduit, just relaying bits of information or re-packaging it for a new audience. I don’t like the politics that often comes with working for magazines. Too much of what they do is driven my PR’s or advertisers, who all have an agenda.
Q: You have been writing for 17 years. What are the most important things you learned? What do you wish you knew sooner?
A: I’ve learned to be more resilient, compromise less, and not take criticism personally. If a critic or reviewer doesn’t like my work, I remember they are just doing their jobs and they probably don’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings. As a reviewer myself, now I can see things from a different angle. Writing, and learning to write well, is a very long process and there are no shortcuts. You have to put the hours in. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I first started having things published. All we can do, as writers and as human beings, is keep improving. Only then can we hope to get where we want to be. Too many people want everything, right here, right now, but aren’t willing to put the required effort in.
Q: What advice would you give to a budding writer?
A: Read widely, and write every day. Even if it’s just a journal or blog entry. Half of what I write never sees the light of day, either because it’s unfinished or because I don’t think it’s good enough to put out. I read newspapers every day, subscribe to two or three magazines, and have several books, which range from horror fiction to rock star autobiographies, on the go at any one time. I once met a so-called journalist who confessed to never reading anything more substantial than TMZ. I was horrified.
Q: What advice do you wish you had received when you first began writing?
A: When I first started I think I was a bit full of myself. I’d finish a story and think, “Yes! Nailed it! That’s the one that’s gonna make the world sit up and take notice!” It’s good to have that self-belief, but you have to keep it in check. I see it with young writers all the time. Everyone thinks they are a bit special, that they offer something unique, and everyone in the world is going to want to read about it. The harsh reality is, that is rarely the case. The one thing that most people overlook is getting (and maintaining) an author platform. You need to be active on social media, you need to be a presence on Goodreads, you need a website or at least a blog, which requires regular updating. You need to always be promoting yourself and reaching out to a new audience. This is without the writing, research and constant search for markets. I wish I had known earlier that writing is actually the easy part!
Q: You have been published in many anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. Which stories were your favorite to work on? Are there any you wish you hadn’t done?
A: I have a fascination with the unexplained and the paranormal. I love mysteries, so I’m probably most proud of the features I’ve done for Fortean Times. They have a very high standard, so when you start getting published there you know you’re doing something right. I also have a soft spot for them because they were one of the first mags to give me a break. I did a cover feature for them last year about Chinese UFO’S, which I loved doing, partly because I have such a close affiliation with Chinese culture. Elsewhere, writing for Nuts magazine was special because they were one of the biggest consumer titles in the country at the time, and writing for Loaded was a dream come true because I’d been a fan for about twenty years.
Q: After being a writer for so long, you decided to publish indie. Why did you make this choice? What are the benefits?
A: Before I turned indie, I’d had five books traditionally published by publishing houses toward the lower end of the scale, and there were a lot of things I wasn’t happy with. Each one did minimal promotion and instead kept asking me to do more, so they could make more money. With paperbacks you typically get around 15% royalties, which is ridiculously low. Also, I had to change the content of certain books to fit in with whatever vision the publisher had at the time, and a recurring problem was them setting prices far too high. I mean, I’m not Stephen King. Not many people outside my field have even heard of me, so to ask someone to pay £6 or £7 for a book by someone you’ve never heard of is asking a lot. By going the indie route, I have complete control over everything from the cover art to the pricing, and I know where the money goes.
Q: You taught English in China for six years because you “got bored”. Tell me about the experience. Has it influenced your writing in any way?
A: Yes, it undoubtedly has. Living in China was a surreal and often bizarre experience. Being outside my comfort zone, completely immersed in a culture I barely understood made me mature a lot and look at the world in a different way. One of my best-selling books, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story, which I plan to re-release in the near future as the rights have just reverted back to me, is not just about a haunted flat. It’s also about being a stranger in a strange land, and having nowhere to turn when things go wrong. I’ve used China as a setting for several short stories, too. Notably Little Dead Girl from my collection X2. Life is about experience. There’s a great quote that used to be in the Lonely Planet guidebooks: “The world is a book, and if you don’t travel you only ever read one page.”
Q: How has your writing changed since you released Into the Dragon’s Lair, your first book, in 2003?
A: As I said, writing is a learning curve, and you never really stop honing the craft. You only get complacent and settle for what you have. There is always room for improvement. As with most things, the more you do it the better you become. When I look back at some of my early stuff, it amazes me that it ever got published. I like to think that these days, I am less indulgent and understand not only more about the business end, but more about what readers want.
Q: You have just released a new book! Tell me about it! What was the original idea behind it? What about it makes it special?
A: Yes! It’s called Sker House, and it’s actually based on a real place, this creepy old house on the Welsh coast. My parents used to take me to look at it when I was a kid. There are loads of legends and ghost stories associated with it. I always thought it would make a good basis for a book, so a few years ago I started researching it and found the truth to be a lot stranger and more macabre than the fiction. The book turned out to be a gothic ghost story with a contemporary twist, containing a lot of historical fact.
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