Monday, June 9, 2014

Interview With Helen Stringer


We have interviews lined up with a few of our guests and we are starting with Helen Stringer.  Currently her work, Paradigm, is available for FREE download on

What inspired you to write your first book?

It was a bit of a fluke, actually. I was going through some boxes of junk and came across a story I had written some years ago about a boy who lived in a house so big that he lost his parents. It was intended as a picture book, but when I reread it I had the idea to write a collection of stories all set in the same strange town. The first one I thought of was about a girl who could see ghosts, so I started writing. After about 100 pages, I realized it wasn’t going to be a short story! The whole thing just flowed out. I’ve always loved old cemeteries, particularly the ones with gravestones that tell you about the person, so the idea of a girl who could see the people was really appealing.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I write the way I talk, as if I were telling the story out loud. I’m also very visual, which probably comes from my filmmaking background, so I really see the places in my head, which is very helpful when it comes to describing the worlds of my characters.

How did you come up with the title?

Ugh! Titles! The original working title for Spellbinder was The House of Mists. My publisher didn’t like that and suggested Spellbinder, which was fine, but then my UK publisher wasn’t keen, so my agent and I brainstormed some ideas and came up with The Last Ghost. In France it’s Belladonna Johnson Parle Avec Les Morts, which is a bit too literal! My title for the second book in the series was The Queen of the Abyss, which I still love. But the publisher said it sounded like a fantasy novel. Me: Um…it is a fantasy novel. Them: It sounds too much like a fantasy novel. So another brainstorming session led to The Midnight Gate. My latest novel, Paradigm, is self-published, so there was no one to argue with me over that. The word means a pattern or example, and in the book the paradigm device is a kind of machine. I’m not saying any more about that because it’ll get too spoilery!

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

There is a message in Paradigm, but I don’t hit readers over the head with it. Many dystopian novels are pretty vague about what led to the collapse of our current civilization, or they go for a single apocalyptic event. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that civilizations fall as the result of a variety of factors and that’s the way it is in Paradigm – it’s how the world might end up if we continue to do nothing.

How much of the book is realistic?

It’s as realistic as I could make it. I think when you’re telling a science fiction or fantasy story, you are already asking your readers to take a leap of imagination with you. When your story is grounded in a recognizable reality, it makes that leap much easier. In Paradigm, the story is set in California. It travels from Los Angeles to San Francisco (up the I-5, a road I have driven a hundred times) and on to Lake Tahoe. Time has changed the places, but there are still elements that are familiar. As to the science, that was easy as my father was a very prominent scientist working in energy research and was always available to answer my questions. Scientists love acronyms almost as much as the military, so he came up with most of those as well. My favourite is Devastation Engineering And Tactical Havoc, Inc.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

Well, I haven’t actually traveled to the Land of the Dead or lived in a post-collapse America (*grin*), but quite a few of the characters are based on people I know. Being a writer is more than locking yourself away and writing, it’s also about observation. Watching the people around you and trying to understand them, imagining how they feel in certain situations. It’s also about remembering how you felt at a certain age and how you reacted to challenges. In the Spellbinder books, Belladonna and Steve are 12 and 13. It’s been quite a while since I was that age, but I can recall how I felt and why I did some of the things I did. I was the kid in school who was always in trouble and practically everything Steve does in those books is stuff that I did. I usually didn’t get caught – which is just as well!

What books have most influenced your life most?

Ooh…hmm. There are quite a few books that influenced me but that I no longer think are very good. Dune would be a good example of that. I must have read it four times in my early teens, but I picked it up a few years ago and just found it annoying. The same thing applies to the Narnia books. They were tremendously influential, but they’ve dated terribly – particularly in the way Lewis condescends to the reader. You can’t get away with that stuff now. Philip Jose Farmer’s The Green Odyssey was a big influence – I loved the mischievous humour, something that is in everything I write. When I was at school I hated Jane Austen and Dickens, but now I love them both. Austen for the way she can create completely believable characters with only a few words. She never actually describes what anyone looks like, yet the reader can see them as clearly as day. Dickens is the uber-observer. I’ve learned more from his descriptions of places and things than from anyone else. And both Austen and Dickens also wrote with a twinkle in their eye.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Ooh, that’s a hard one. I think it would have to be Alan Garner. When I was young, I devoured fantasy stories, but they were always set in London or some world of privilege that I didn’t recognize. But Alan Garner is from Manchester, just up the road from Liverpool, and his books were set in the north west of England in grubby cities with derelict buildings and rotten weather. It was reality, yet magical things still happened.

What book are you reading now?

I’m reading a book on the mythology of Mesopotamia. This makes sense if you’ve read the Spellbinder books, but it also factors into my current project The Gloaming. I’m also reading Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Yes. I love John Nelson’s Where Excuses Go To Die, which I didn’t expect to like at all. It’s about his time in prison (he robbed book stores and then moved up to banks before he was finally caught at 24), but is completely different from the usual prison memoir – it’s funny and touching and appalling all at once. Really excellent. I also just finished Julian David Stone’s first novel, Justice Girl, and am really looking forward to the follow-up to that.

What are your current projects?

I’m working on a web series called The Gloaming that combines elements of many of the stories I love. It’s structured like Classic Doctor Who, with six 20 minute episodes, and I’m currently trying to raise funds on Kickstarter so I can get it made. The story combines ghosts, the Land of the Dead, quantum theory, and wormholes. I’m contemplating throwing in the kitchen sink as well.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

That’s easy – one of my co-workers. Back when I started writing Spellbinder I was working at a “boutique” entertainment law firm. One of the lawyers liked almost all the same things as me: Doctor Who, Star Trek, fantasy and scifi books, etc., etc. Once I’d finished the first five chapters I took it into work and asked if he’d mind reading it and letting me know what he thought. He said that he was really busy and had a ton of scripts to read (he mostly represents screenwriters and directors), but that he would be happy to. I thought he wouldn’t get back to me for weeks, but he walked into work the next morning, brandishing the pages, and said, “Would you like me to help you with this?” From that moment, he not only helped me find an agent, he also bugged me constantly for new chapters. I’d started a lot of books and never finished them, but his encouragement and belief really kept me going. He’s my lawyer now and is still a great believer. He was the one who suggested I self-publish Paradigm, and he’s 100% behind The Gloaming as well.

Do you see writing as a career?

Yes, but these days it involves a tremendous amount of work that has nothing to do with the actual writing part. The traditional publishers are struggling and most have drastically cut back on their marketing departments (Macmillan in the UK actually told me “We only promote our A-list writers”), so writers have to take charge of their own publicity and really work to bring their books to the attention of readers.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

I wrote eleven drafts of Paradigm, and got a lot of input from a variety of beta-readers on Facebook, so I’m happy with the story. The one thing I would change, though, is that I would buy my own ISBN number and not use one of Amazon’s. Brick and mortar bookshops are boycotting Amazon, and that includes refusing to shelve any authors who use CreateSpace to publish their books. If you buy your own ISBN number from outside Amazon, the stores will accept the books. It’s ridiculous to punish authors for using the only service that many of us can afford, but that’s the way it is and I’ll know better next time!

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I’ve told stories for as long as I can remember. First to my younger sister and then to anyone who would sit still long enough. I wrote stories, plays, films, episodes for my favourite television shows – everything. I also made up stories to scare my sister. My greatest triumph in that particular arena was the genie in the toilet. Heh. I told her that there was a genie that lived in the toilet and if you didn’t flush and get out fast, it would leap out and pull you down. It worked so well that I started believing it myself, with the result that Becky and I spent the best part of a year, racing out of the toilet and slamming the door, before our parents figured out that something was up.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

Sure! Before I decided to make The Gloaming as a web series it was going to be a book. I wrote this first few chapters of it. Here’s chapter one.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

The biggest challenge for me was getting back in the swing of writing descriptions. Screenplays don’t include detailed descriptions (it’s actually frowned on), so my early drafts of Spellbinder were very dialogue-heavy. It took a while to figure out the best approach!

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

I’ve had to travel a bit to promote them. I even organized my own UK book tour for Midnight Gate. I’m planning a road trip on the east coast of America to research the second Paradigm story. I really want to set it in and around New York and Philadelphia, but I don’t know the area well at all. I’m hoping to be able to combine it with some book club and school visits.

Who designed the covers?

Eric Fortune designed the hardback cover for the US edition of Spellbinder. The paperback were designed by David Wyatt. I really love his work. I came up with the concept for the Paradigm cover, but don’t have the PhotoShop skills. In the end, the front cover photograph was taken by Diana Brown, a wonderful photographer who lives in Los Angeles. The back cover photograph is of the paradigm device, which I built. The whole thing was then made amazing by designer Josef Richardson.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Revisions are always hard. There’s the euphoria of actually finishing a draft, then the slow realization that it could be better. I always read my books out loud to someone. It’s a great way of proofing, but the responses of whoever is listening is a great help in identifying what does and does not work.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

With Paradigm it’s been weird. Because it’s set in a future where people are living with the results of climate change, mass die-offs, and all-powerful corporations, it involved a lot of research and then extrapolation out as to how things might end up. I thought I was writing about things that could happen a hundred or more years in the future, but there are stories in the news almost every day that show that my imaginary future might not be very imaginary at all, and not so far in the future either!

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Make your own rules. There’s tons of stuff out there saying that you should write so many pages a day, write even when you don’t feel like it, write a detailed outline, etc., etc. I think you should figure out what works for you. I never write outlines, I just dive in and go. Once I’ve written a few chapters, I might sketch out what’s coming, but mostly my first drafts are very much “make it up as you go along.” Some days I’ll write screeds, and other days just a few paragraphs, or nothing at all. I do always have the file open on my laptop, so I see it every time I pass. I find that I’m most productive in the earlier part of the day, but I know many people who do their best work at night. (Anything I write at night is destined for the bin the following morning!) I also make playlists for whatever I’m working on. The key is to find what works for you.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

I love talking to readers of my books – I spend big chunks of my day doing just that on Facebook. Often they see things in them that I didn’t realize were there, or ask questions I can’t answer. It’s inspiring and wonderful and many of the people I have met through my books are now good friends. If it wasn’t for fans of Spellbinder and Midnight Gate volunteering to proof and critique the early drafts of Paradigm, the world of Sam Cooper and Alma might never have seen the light of day.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Paradigm involved a lot of research and ploughing through scientific journals. My dad would clip articles and studies and then hand me massive folders whenever I popped around. Getting my head around some of that stuff was hard (although not as hard as getting my head around quantum theory for The Gloaming!). With a book like Paradigm it’s important not to get drawn into explaining things in too much detail, while at the same time understanding the minutiae of how the world you have created works. It was the same with the main characters. Sam is 17, but he’s been surviving on his own since he was 11, so although he is still an ordinary kid in many ways, he’s also savvy and a survivor. Alma is young, too, but she’s a Maori warrior who was raised fighting in the last global conflict. She witnessed her beautiful homeland being turned into a blasted wasteland. Those experiences affected her deeply and her response is to keep her feelings tightly controlled. I want the reader to identify with Sam and Alma, while appreciating the way their experiences have made them who they are. For me, the key to telling a fantasy or scifi story is making sure that the people who inhabit the world I am creating are as real as possible, with feelings and reactions that ring true. If I can do that, then the reader can sit back and just enjoy the ride.

Thank you Helen for taking so much time out to let us know more about you and your work!  Don’t forget to check out her Kickstarter and help get it into production!

No comments:

Post a Comment