Andy Maslen, thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog – again :D.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Andy Maslen, wearing my author hat. You were kind enough to interview me when you launched The Writer’s Desk. Then I answered as a copywriter. Today, I’m going to answer as an author of crime and action thrillers.
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
The book I refer to it all the time is called Military Small Arms of the Twentieth Century.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
Not so much a campaign as a single, unbelievable direct response ad, using a story. It’s commonly known as The Billion Dollar Sales Letter (though it’s now grossed well over two billion dollars for The Wall Street Journal). It ran, unchanged, from 1974 to 2005. It was finally beaten in a split-test when the new writer retained the entire text of the control and added two more pages.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
The secret to good writing is, as Fay Weldon said, “Don’t be boring and have something to say”.
If you want something more detailed (and forgiving ourselves for begging the question “is there such a thing as “good” writing, and if there is, what is it?), I would say the secret lies partly outside our control and partly within it.
The part that lies outside our control is the gift. No matter how hard one might wish to be something, sometimes that wish will stay as just that. “Identifying” as a writer gets you precisely nowhere. God, Gaia or Good-old Selfish Genes decided that I wouldn’t be six-foot-three. Wouldn’t have perfect pitch. Wouldn’t play football like Ronaldo. But one or more of them did bestow a gift for choosing words and arranging them pleasingly. If you have that gift, and a lot of your readers do, then that’s half the battle won.
The part that lies within our control is work. Specifically hard work. Working at being a writer means reading voraciously and with a catholic taste. I despair when university-educated copywriters turn their noses up when I suggest they read The Sun. Wrong, and for so many reasons.
And you need to study your craft. I hate it when I meet people who say they are writers and then say that their grammar or punctuation is rubbish. I find it hard to imagine meeting an airline pilot who says she loves flying planes, it’s just her instrument reading skills that are a bit shit.
While we’re on the subject, what’s with “aspiring”, as in “I am an aspiring writer”? It’s not as if there are huge barriers to entry. One writing implement + One substrate + One sentence = You’re a writer. It’s one of the two completely free activities we humans can do that bring pleasure to us and other people.
So if you want to be a writer, good or otherwise, just write. Then you are one. Unless, and I suspect this is the truth, what many people mean is, “I aspire to be a published writer.” And published by a traditional publishing company at that. Which is a whole new ballgame and largely outside your gift or your hard work, determined mostly by luck, timing and other people’s subjectivity and commercial needs.
So four things over which you have no control.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Write every day. Invest time and something of yourself in your characters. Remember that people love stories, opinions, less so. Stephen King says, “If you want to preach, go and buy a soapbox.”
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Birdsong (I write in my summerhouse).
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
For the sex and the Jewish reality, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.
For his incredible dialogue, The Whites by Richard Price.
For the parrot sequence, a bravura passage of thousands of words without any punctuation, (well, parrots don’t use it, do they?) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
The best thing I have ever written is Hit And Done, the concluding book in my “Vengeance Trilogy” featuring the troubled detective Stella Cole. It was shortlisted for the 2018 Kindle Storyteller Award.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A new iMac. My old one died, taking eight years of email contacts and documents to the grave.
Who was your teenage crush?
Last time I think I said Kate Bush. So Deborah Harry.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
That would be a recent trip to the Gilbert Scott Room after Copy Capital with Vikki Ross. A melting steak, triple-cooked chips, eighteen barrels of wine and the relief knowing we’d pulled it off for
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
Right now, I am partial to a Sunday evening Negroni. One part Campari, one part Martini Rosso, one part Roku gin by Suntory. Serve with plenty of ice in a tumbler, garnished with a single orange slice.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
Cambodia. I was lucky enough to be able to visit earlier this year and would love to go back. Last time I was there, I wrote a novella about the deadly impact of mines that were the legacy of Kissinger’s secret war. This time, I would write a crime thriller.
What’s in your pockets?
Thirty seven pence in loose change, my iPhone and, as per, a poo bag.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Macbook Air. Though I like to draw locations and action sequences on bits of paper with a pencil.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your
desk and recycle?)
No. I think they are mostly overrated. I see the same ideas being endlessly recirculated. Write what you know. Give your heroes flaws and your villains virtues. Blah blah. It’s far better to read novels. Lots of novels.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Tea, coffee, tea, coffee, rinse and repeat.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
Aha! Yes! Last time I talked about my dream cup – a bone china number with a fox hunting scene on it. My wife found a set in an antique shop and bought them for me.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
Honestly? I can’t remember. My own kids loved a book by Carol Ann Duffy called Underwater Farmyard. Mad, surreal book with beautiful language, as you would expect.
Your favourite word?
Carking (it). You taught it to me.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Lost in the aisles of a bookstore, wondering, “What if a serial killer were stalking customers in a shop just like this one?”
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
“It had to be you.” We played it at our wedding. It was (and remains) true.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
The Dandy Warhols.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
I cock and fire my replica 9mm pistol. It gets me in the mood.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
The second draft of a crime thriller featuring Stella Cole. It’s called Let The Bones Be Charred, which is a quote from Ezekiel. In the pipeline, my seventh full-length Gabriel Wolfe novel, two audiobooks, an Iceland-set thriller, um, shall I go on?
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
Three stainless steel saucepans full of veg chilli we cooked it for my wife’s charity Ceilidh; she’s raising money for a trek to The Great Wall of China.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
“You’re a writer who does marketing for a living.” (My wife, again.) It unlocked a creative wellspring that has been gushing ever since.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
Everything I write has something to do with my job. If you’re a writer, words are oxygen.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“Write shitty first drafts”. Anne Lamott said it and I endlessly repeat it to writers I teach.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Singin’ in the Rain. Too many individual reasons to list, but Jean Hagen’s performance as Lina Lamont has spawned so many family phrases in our house. “‘People’? I ain’t ‘people’!”
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
The Vory by Mark Galeotti.
Before the War, After the Peace, and Why Will No-one Publish My Novel?, all by Fay Weldon.
A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
Mr Dearman. He taught me science and forgave my digressions.
Who is your favourite artist?
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
I work wherever I can. But I really enjoyed channeling my inner Hemingway at Sister Srey cafe in Siem Reap, Cambodia – here’s a photo.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
And I’m on Twitter @Andy_Maslen