Friday, June 18, 2010

Interview: Jasper Bark

Posted by LD Keach on Friday, June 18, 2010

Recently, I got the chance to talk with Jasper Bark, the prolific UK-based author and journalist whose most recent work, Way of the Barefoot Zombie, is currently available through Abbadon Books.

You've published four adult novels and nine children's books. Tell us, which came first? And what kind of experience did you have with selling your first book? Did your experiences differ between publishing children's fiction and adult fiction?

Actually the first books I had published were poetry collections. If I'm honest I was probably published a little too early. When I signed the contract for my first major collection I was only twenty two and I didn't really have enough work to fill a whole book. Most poets are in their late twenties or early thirties when their first major collection comes out and have an excess of work to choose from. I had to compose a lot of work especially for the collection otherwise it would have been an exceedingly slim volume of verse.

The first fiction I had published was in comic strip form. I contributed quite a bit to the sci-fi and fantasy comic anthologies that are quite big over here in Europe, like 2000AD and Warhammer Monthly. Then I had my first child and realized there weren't anywhere near as many good children's comics around as when I was a kid. So I decided I ought to try and move into that market.

The comics writing led to my first novel commission. A new imprint called Black Flame started putting out novels based on characters from the comic 2000AD. As I wrote comics I was asked if I'd like to pitch for a series called Strontium Dog which is about a mutant bounty hunter. Think spaghetti western meets Firefly by way of the X-Men. There was a mess up with the deadline which got put forward and as it was my first novel the publisher decided to team me up with a more experienced novelist to get the novel in on time.

I was resistant at first but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. The other writer was called Steve Lyons, a really talented guy who's worked on everything from Doctor Who through to the Micronauts and even the X-Men. He was able to share his experience with me as we went along and I learned a huge amount about novel writing in a very short space of time. I quickly became a much better writer as a result.

Most published writers tend to have at least two unpublished manuscripts languishing in a drawer somewhere. These are the novels they cut their teeth on, that taught them how to write. Almost all of those writers would cringe at the thought of those novels ever being published. Mine did get published and you could say I grew up in public. I suppose I'm lucky that I got paid to learn how to write a novel and thanks to Steve's in-put my first one stands up pretty well.

Having sold a couple of novels and written a lot kid's comics I thought I ought to try my hand at being a children's author. I started writing children's poetry for a variety of anthologies then moved into picture books and graphic novels. Unlike adult poetry children's poetry is actually quite lucrative.

As the editors of children’s books work in a different market, they have a different set of skills and knowledge that they bring to bear on your work. Children's literature works within a specific set of limitations determined by how suitable the subject matter and vocabulary are for the target age group. So along with the standard conversations about plot resolution and character motivation, that's the sort of thing you tend to discuss with the editors.

A lot of the things I've written for children and young adults recently have been in new media formats. I've just started a series of illustrated stories called 'The Recyclies' which are only available as apps on the i-phone and the i-pad.

And my next children's book is about to come out purely as an MP3 on i-tunes (watch this space).

Your Horror novel, Way of the Barefoot Zombie, is your most recent publication. What inspired you to deviate from children's poetry and lit to Adult Horror? And, you planning on venturing into Young Adult Horror with your experience in both fields?

Actually I've always been a big horror fan. The first novel I ever sat down to write (when I was 14) was a horror novel. If I recall it was portmanteau story set around a graveyard with a central plot that branched off into self contained stories featuring supporting characters from the central storyline. I plotted the whole thing out and wrote about half of it before abandoning what was quite an ambitious work for a teenager...

I'd written and published quite a few short stories, novellas and comics in the horror/dark fantasy vein by the time I came to pitch to my current publishers Abaddon. In fact, although the first novel I wrote for Abaddon (my second novel Spear of Destiny) was a WW2 espionage thriller, the first thing I pitched to them was a horror novel (which I subsequently turned into a graphic novel).

The next two things they asked me for were a zombie novel and a post apocalyptic novel. My editor Jonathan Oliver decided to go with the post apocalyptic novel (Dawn Over Doomsday) first which is why it seemed to take me so long to get around to writing my first horror novel, even though the intent to write one was there from the start.

I would love to write a horror novel for the young adult market. I have several ideas but I don't have a publisher lined up at the moment. I have just finished writing a 30 part graphic novel series for young adults for Channel 4 which you can see here:

Channel 4 are a British network broadcaster, publisher and film company. The project was commissioned by their education department.

I'm also at work on a lot of other horror projects at present. I have an anthology of horror stories coming out as an audiobook on i-tunes called Dead Air that I'm also touring (in a somewhat shorter form) as a one man, multi-media theatre show. It's somewhat in the vein of classic shows like The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and even legendary old radio shows like Inner Sanctum.

In addition I have a story coming out in a prestigious horror anthology called End of the Line alongside some of the biggest names in horror fiction which I'm very excited about. It's being published in November by the major British publishers Solaris.

With your extensive history in theater and journalism, your Dead Air project seems an awesome way to roll your varied experience into one cool package. Have your other accomplishments (such as your Fringe First Award and hosting the Erotic Oscars) helped you during your writing career?

Thanks Lorna. I think it's fair to say that I'm still learning and honing my craft as a writer, even at this stage in my career, so mostly everything I've done so far has taught me something and helped my writing in some way. I won the Fringe First (which is the Edinburgh International Festival's equivalent of an Oscar) for playwriting. Working as a playwright has helped immensely with my ability to write dialogue.

It's also shaped the way I approach prose fiction in that I tend to use dialogue to drive the narrative forward, rather than employ great swathes of expository text or over descriptive prose. I also write fiction a little like a monologist and try not to have any authorial voice. Whenever I'm writing from a particular character's view point I will try and capture their specific speech and thought patterns, even when I'm writing in the third person. In fact, although I usually write in the third person, it often sounds like first person stream of consciousness. This is a stylistic effect that I'm still working quite hard on.

Doing gigs like the Erotic Oscars helps me gain a certain notoriety and that in turn helps with my public profile. These days my performance career tends to benefit my career as a writer. It's a bit like my secret weapon if you like, the thing that makes me stand out a little from colleagues who are equally talented but prefer to remain a little more in the shadows.

A good example of this is the series of three short films I shot to promote Way of the Barefoot Zombie which you can catch here:

Do you have any advice for writers just starting out? Has your extensive experience in the publishing industry offered you any insights you'd like to share with us?

I'll start with an insight if I may. Like many new writers, when I started out I found that established writers weren't very encouraging to new writers. In fact they were often quite hostile when it came to giving advice or assistance. Now I'm a little more established I'm often asked by new writers why many published authors are so discouraging. As this seems to be quite a common experience I thought it might help your readers if I tried to explain this behaviour on the part of my published colleagues.

Aside from wanting to thin out the competition, as much as anything I think this is something of an initiation rite. It's similar to the scene in Fight Club where the new recruits to Tyler Durden's 'Project Mayhem' are made to stand out on the porch of the ramshackle house Tyler shares with Ed Norton's character. The recruits are verbally and physically abused and told point blank that there is no way they will make it inside. Only those recruits determined enough to take this treatment will be accepted. It's the same with writers and writing.

Real writers write no matter what anyone says to us. Like dope addicts and people who expose themselves on the subway we can't help ourselves, we don't have a choice. So nothing an older hack says to a writer will stop them writing, if it's incredibly discouraging it will only strengthen their resolve. If it does discourage you so much you ultimately stop writing, then maybe your weren't a real writer after all and you may have been saved a lot of unnecessary heartbreak and toil. In that case the writer may have actually done you a favour by being so cruel. So please bear that in mind next time you approach an established writer only to be growled at.

The careers advice I would offer to any writer just starting out is that you should decide from the outset how much of your income you want to derive from your writing. This will largely depend on your temperament and material expectations. At least sixty to seventy per cent of all regularly published authors have another career that provides the bulk of their income.

If you make writing the primary, or sole, source of your income then you face an uncertain economic future. One in which you will have to constantly accept rather more work then you can reasonably deliver within the given timescale (that's if you can find it) in order to make rather less money than you need to pay all your bills and eat regularly. I know we read a lot of reports about first time authors getting six and seven figure advances for their first novel but these people are very rare. Mainly because that six figure advance accounted for 90% of the publisher's budget for that year. The rest of us make do with what's left, which is a few thousand dollars in advances and a few thousand more in royalties over a ten year period. If you factor in the fact that it takes between three to six months to write a novel (if you're fast) you can see why you have to take on so much work simply to make a bit less than minimum wage.

Not everyone can live with this sort of stress, constantly worrying about money, about hitting almost impossible deadlines and about not running out of work - which can happen at any moment. There is no harder market in which to be freelance than creative writing. It is a dream job but you do it under nightmare conditions. If you have a lot of financial responsibilities and don't have an understanding partner who can constantly bail you out. If you don't like having to choose between eating and paying your rent on a regular basis, then maybe full time writing is not for you.

Don't take the picture I'm painting of a writer's life as discouragement though. Think of it as another test of your mettle. If all you've taken away from the above two paragraphs is the prospect that you might one day be paid for what you write. Never mind that it's not enough to live on, if that one simple idea fills you with a burning excitement and determination, then you're probably a full time writer and could not conceive of doing anything else with your life.

If it's given you pause for thought then don't worry. You can still have a long and rewarding career in publishing without having to worry where your next meal is coming from, if writing is your secondary source of income. And who knows you might strike gold with your first novel and end up in the company of writers like Dan Simmons, JK Rowling and Stieg Larsson.

Good luck.