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I first found ‘A Disturbed Girl’s Guide to Curing Boredom’ in DIVA, a magazine for lesbians. It had the tiniest of blurbs (as all their reviews do) about this little book with a rather intriguing title. I absolutely HAD to read it. So I did, and I was an instant fan. His trilogy is one of my favourites… EVER. So it had to make my ‘books that MADE me write‘ list, because it was just that good.
I dropped him an email and asked if he would let me interview him for my blog. To my amazement he agreed! If you want to find out more you can visit his website Disturbed Girl (where you can buy the books) or his Facebook page here.
I can’t believe I am lucky enough to say this but, I am ecstatic to welcome James Howell to Sacha Black’s blog…
What are you working on?
I’m currently working on my new collection of short stories, Guinea Pigs, which will be out later in 2015. Following that, I’ll be starting work on my next full length novel.
When and how did Hannah come to you? Was it a moment of inspiration, an epiphany? Or did she grow in some murky recess of your mind?
The idea for Hannah Harker started growing in my mind while I was working as a local newspaper reporter. I was a bored journalist and would occasionally think about what it would be like to create the news. Rather than actually set fire to buildings and murder people, though, I decided it would be better if I created a literary alter-ego to live out these fantasies on my behalf!
There’s an acceptance that authors often write in traits or characteristics of themselves into their work, given Hannah’s personality, is there any part of you in her?! Or do you draw from life experiences instead?
I think it’s inevitable that some of an author’s opinions, values and prejudices will rub off on their characters, and that’s certainly the case with Hannah Harker. When I wrote the first draft of “Curing Boredom” she was far too similar to me, so I did go back and change some of her traits and characteristics. Part of the reason for making her female was also to create a divide between the character and myself.
How do you develop your characters? Do you let them brew in your subconscious, use character interview sheets, or something completely different?
I start off by writing a basic outline of a character based on their background in the story, their occupation, their age, where they’re from and how they’re going to be interacting with other characters. I don’t go into too much detail at this stage though because I find it more interesting to let them develop organically as the story progresses – a very confident, headstrong character may become very fragile and damaged as the result of a traumatic scene in the story.
Given that you are a new parent, you work, and have various other projects on the go, how do you find time to write? Do you have to sacrifice one for the other, or do you have a solution that would help me (and readers) get more sleep?!
I’m afraid the solution is less sleep, not more! I’m not very good at knocking out a hundred words here and there – I prefer to binge write a whole chapter in the early hours of the morning.
Are you a planner, or free writer?
A bit of both. I plan the skeleton of a story, but then let my creative mind wander as I’m writing. Most of my best ideas come while I’m actually writing because I get absorbed in the story and fresh plot twists/quirky scenes etc spring to mind.
When you are developing a book, what tools or techniques do you use, e.g. timelines, mood boards, character interviews, scraps of notes?
As mentioned, I don’t get too concerned with writing techniques. I prefer to write free for the first draft of a novel so that I can let new ideas develop and I’m not bound by any pre-defined structure etc. I think that helps a writer be more original.
After the first draft I do use timelines to check chronology, and I’ll analyse each character to make sure they are consistent and not doing something out-of-character in the story.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you actively look for it?
I never actively look for inspiration, I think it comes when you least expect it. I’ll occasionally be inspired by a film or a book and jot down some notes after, but I don’t sit down and think “right, I’m going to watch these films tonight for inspiration”.
I love travelling and draw a lot of inspiration from this, but again I let the inspiration come to me rather than actively seeking it out. I will walk around a city for hours looking at people, buildings, activities etc. If something could potentially fit into a story, I’ll tuck it away in my mind and let my subconscious work on it for a while.
Are you naturally this gifted at writing? Or did you have to develop? If you have developed, are there any key things that helped you get to where you are now?
You can go on courses and practice techniques, but in my view the only way to improve is to read a lot of books and write as often as you can.
I’ve been writing short stories since I was at primary school and I’ve continued that throughout my life. Every time you write a new story, it should be better than the last one. If you don’t feel your writing is improving, read some new authors to see if you learn and get inspired by them.
What kind of an environment do you write in? Day/night/silence/music/desk/sofa etc etc
Night, complete silence, at my desk. Any interruption completely kills my flow.
I’m 53K words into my first novel, it’s taking over my life. :s What advice can you give me on completing it? Or maybe an easier question, What do you wish you had known about writing a book before you started?
The first sentence is the hardest, but the further you get into a novel the easier it becomes.
It will take over your life and you’ll be thinking about it all the time, but you reach the stage where you’ve broken the back of the story and can see light at the end of the tunnel. The important thing is not to rush the end though – it’s arguably the most important part of the book.
The publishing industry is in decline across the board. Do you think things like the Kindle are bridging the gap, is there still the same love for the written word, or is it being diluted by the modern obsession with tech and gadgets?
The traditional publishing industry is probably in decline, but I believe literature in general is healthier than ever. Kindle and other technologies are simply changing the way books are presented and consumed. I’m involved in an international project called The Black Page which will create multi-media stories, for example. The decline of traditional publishing also means that more authors will have a chance to be published, thanks to digital publishing and Amazon distribution etc. I believe everyone should have the right to see their work published, although it does create a problem of quality control.
50 Shades of Grey author EL James was reported to make around £100k a day at the book’s height, and the upcoming film will make her millions. Do you find it a shame that the most lucrative and famous book franchise of the moment is one so widely derided for its lack of literary value? Or is it just good to have a book going mainstream?
It’s easy to be jealous of EL James, and in my opinion her books are quite poorly written, but if any author is successful I think good luck to them.
Hollywood seems obsessed with re-boots, re-makes and sequels, so if an original novel makes it to the big screen then it’s a great thing. 50 Shades, Gone Girl, etc will all give authors hope and inspiration that they can achieve similar success.
If a fascist regime was burning the worlds libraries, what books would you save? Or maybe I should ask what Hannah would do?
That’s a tough one. Hannah would probably be too busy shooting the fascists to worry about the books.
Did you always know you were going to go down the indie publishing route, and if so why?
I originally planned to find a traditional publisher and get paid a hefty upfront payment, but it’s too bloody difficult to be honest! You are competing with thousands of other manuscripts, and if you do manage to secure a literary agent who gets you a book deal, you’re not actually likely to make as much money as you think.
Self-publishing used to be considered cheating – it was for writers who weren’t good enough to get a “real publisher” – but that’s all changed in the last few years. The more I researched it and thought about it, the more it made sense. It’s a hell of a lot of work and you’ll never have the contacts or marketing punch of Harper Collins, but you have complete freedom over every decision and any money you make is yours (although don’t get me started on Amazon seller fees!)
What do you wish you knew about the publishing process before you started?
I wish I knew anything – I had no idea about any of the publishing process. It’s long and complicated and frustrating – somebody should write a book about it.
What is the best advice you could give to aspiring novelists like me?
Don’t write for fortune and glory, you’ll probably be disappointed. Write for yourself because you love it. When you no longer enjoy writing, stop.
Is fanfic to be welcomed as it broadens interaction and the readers experience or a scourge that devalues the ability of an author? (don’t worry I’m not writing fanfic!)
I’m quite anti fan fiction – if you want to write a story, do something original with your own characters instead of nicking somebody else’s ideas. There’s also the issue of copyright infringement, which I could see some people getting into trouble with.
Other than Hannah’s ‘unique’ personality, what is it about your books that make them so successful.
I’ll let you know when they’re successful!
As a lesbian, I was particularly impressed that a straight male wrote such brilliant lesbian sex scenes. Tell me more about how you were able to do this?
I didn’t really plan them, I just sat down and wrote each scene from beginning to end in one sitting, going with the flow. At the back of my mind I was thinking “don’t write internet porn”, which hopefully I avoided. I have a couple of friends who are lesbians and I asked them for feedback too – they gave me a few tweaks, but on the whole they enjoyed these scenes!
I am finding more and more, that writers often have several creative outlets. Do you? Or is writing your one source?
I used to make electronic music which I really enjoyed, but as my life has got busier I’ve had to narrow my focus to writing.
Instead, I collaborate with photographers, musicians and film-makers now so they can bring fresh approaches to the Disturbed Girl brand.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
An electronic music producer.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
From as young as I can remember. At primary school I wrote a story called “Revenge of the Burger Man” about a guy who had half of face blown away and replaced with a cheeseburger. Thankfully the school social worker never read it!
What authors do you admire, and why?
I grew up reading Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and these are still a huge influence on me. He was also a former journalist and you can see that in his writing – he has an eye for detail, but can tell a story without waffling. I loved the exotic locations, danger, sex and violence – all ingredients which make it into my stories.
These days I tend to go for non-fiction. I like Alain du Botton, Professor Kevin Dutton, Naomi Klein, people like that.
Finally, two questions about Hannah:
Do you think motherhood would have changed Hannah?
Yes, over time it will change her for the better. She will need to recover from her injuries and bond with Naomi , but ultimately motherhood will be the best thing that’s ever happened to her.
Lastly, what do you think she would do, if her daughter wanted to grow up to be an assassin like her?
She would give her a good slap around the chops!
Big, MAMMOTH thank you to James for taking the time out of what must be an extremely busy schedule, to make one fan’s year by answering all her questions.
If you want to know more, James’ biography is below, or you can catch him at the websites above.
James Howell (born 1978) is a former journalist and author of the Disturbed Girl series of novels.
His experiences while working on a local newspaper in Essex, England, and on national newspapers in London, inspired the adventures of anti-hero Hannah Harker in the novels.
Howell’s debut novel, A Disturbed Girl’s Guide to Curing Boredom, follows the story of local reporter Harker as she gradually grows insane in her quest to find excitement at all costs.
Published by Amygdala Press in 2011, the debut is a “harrowing, savage and sexual exploration of a broken mind” and has attracted over 50,000 Facebook fans. In January 2013 it was named 7th in Really TV’s top 10 must-read erotic novels of all time.
The sequel, A Disturbed Girl Implodes, continues Hannah’s demented adventures and was published by Amygdala Press in May 2012.
The final part of the trilogy, A Disturbed Girl’s Redemption, was published in autumn 2013 to huge acclaim from fans globally.
In late 2012, London-based electronic music artist Mush No Candy collaborated with Howell and produced a unique soundtrack to accompany the novels, which was the subject of a BBC radio programme.
Aside from writing, Howell is a keen diver, amateur sailor, abysmal skier and occasional romantic. He has travelled extensively in the pursuit of fortune and glory, with extended periods in South America, India and Asia, but finds himself always returning home to the shores of Southend-on-Sea in the UK.
He would like the track Avril 14th by Aphex Twin to be played at his funeral.