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I had the pleasure of meeting Michael through my interview with V G Lee a few weeks ago. I am really delighted to present a fellow LGBT writer Michael Harwood.
Michael’s first fiction novel ‘Manservant’ was released in February. The extremely enticing blurb reads:
Anthony Gowers has lost his job at a high-end London hotel—and with it, the massive tips and perks that come from working for the super-rich. In despair, he takes the first offer that comes along, to work as the personal butler-valet-and general manservant for Lord and Lady Shanderson of Beadale Hall, deep in the countryside. Instead of being buried far outside London, as he fears, he finds that Beadale Hall offers many, many diversions, not least the particular interests of (the married) Lord Shanderson himself.
What are you currently working on?
My agent has just requested the first three chapters and a synopsis of my next novel. The synopsis was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. You have to be so concise and not ramble which is hard for me.
When and how do your characters come to you? Is it in a moment of inspiration, an epiphany? Or do they grow in some murky recess of your mind?
Many of them arrive fully formed but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t made up of bits and pieces of people I have met over the years. Lord Shanderson is based very much on somebody I once worked for but only in looks! Once I have a fully formed character they take on a life of their own and behave in my mind as if they were real people. I sometimes feel I have little or no control over the things they say and do.
There’s an acceptance that authors often write in traits or characteristics of themselves into their work, you have several books, is there any part of you in any of your characters?
Anthony, my main character has some of the attributes I wish I had when I was his age. He’s a good ten years younger than me and very sexually confident. I wish I’d had a bit of his confidence at that age.
How do you develop your characters? Do you let them brew in your subconscious, use character interview sheets, or something completely different?
I tend to let them develop in my imagination for ages before I start writing. By the time I begin committing them to the page they are living and breathing people with minds of their own.
Are you a planner, or free writer?
I’d say I am a free writer but I always know how the story is going to end. Part of the fun for me is the bit in the middle where I have little or no control over where the characters take me.
When you are developing a book, what tools or techniques do you use, e.g. timelines, mood boards, character interviews, scraps of notes?
I write in a very linear way and rarely does one of my stories span more than one time line so I don’t find the need for detailed notes. I do cut lots of things out of magazines and newspapers just for visual references though. I found a fantastic feature on a Jacobean mansion that was for sale in Yorkshire that became the template for the house in my next book. I also cut pictures out of people if they resemble any of my characters. I also visit places I plan to use in my book. I recently spent a couple of days in York, the setting for my next novel. I just wandered around aimlessly soaking up the city and I came away really inspired.
Has your technique changed over time?
I’m only on my second novel so my style hasn’t changed much since my first but my confidence has really improved. There’s nothing like seeing your first novel in print to boost your confidence!
Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you actively look for it?
I’ve been a private chef to the rich and famous for almost twenty years and worked in some of the world’s most expensive houses. When you hang out in those kinds of circles inspiration comes thick and fast. Although I have to be very careful about what details I put in my books – Rich people are very touchy about people like me spilling the beans about the bizarre lives they lead.
What kind of an environment do you write in? Day/night/silence/music/desk/sofa etc.
I only write first thing in the morning which for anyone who knows me is hilarious as I am most definitely not a morning person. My mind is still fuzzy from sleep and somehow that keeps out the real world just long enough for me to get a couple of hours work done. It’s usually all down hill from there. I also have to have total silence. I’d love to be able to write music but I’ve tried and the end results were not pretty.
I have a small office at home overlooking the garden which is where I try to write but sometimes I write at the kitchen table and I’ve occasionally been known to write in bed.
I’m 53K words into my first novel, it’s taking over my brain! 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?
There is only one answer to this for me and that is write every day and don’t get fixated with word count. I used to know exactly how many words I had done on a day-to-day basis and as soon as I stopped counting my productivity doubled. Nowadays I try to focus on writing scenes. Write enough of those and you have a book on your hands.
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?
Obviously I am biased but nothing can replace the sensation of opening a brand new book. The smell and the feel of it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. However I also fully support anything that gets people reading. I don’t own a Kindle but I have been known to read the odd book on my iPad or iPhone.
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?
Actually, most of the negativity surrounding EL James’s work is from people who haven’t read her books and most certainly from people who have not written any books of their own. I admire the fact that she managed to get three huge books written – Hats off to her for that. And if they are not to everyone’s tastes, so what?
Another lesson that working for the super rich has taught me is that worrying about how much money other people earn is a recipe for misery.
If a fascist regime was burning the worlds libraries, what books would you save?
If I were to list all of them it would run to several pages so I’m going to list just three –
Perfume by Patrick Suskind which is a remarkable book anyway but when you think that it was originally written in German it seems all the more remarkable to me.
Interlude by Rupert Smith – I love Rupert Smiths books (Including the filthy one he writes under the name of James Lear) but this latest one is by far his most accomplished. I dream of being able to write as well as him one day.
When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman. This is the most fantastic book that I simply couldn’t put it down. The characters are so vividly drawn that it is truly mesmerizing. Every now and again I read a book that I love so much that I deliberately slow my reading down to prolong the ecstasy. This was one of those books.
Which publishing route have you taken? Did you always know you were going to go down this route, and if so why?
Before The Manservant I had published two cookbooks. The cookbooks were produced by UK based publishers but I was lucky enough to sell my novel to a big American publisher which was a whole different ball game. The British publishers were wonderful and I was happy to get my books into print by whatever means necessary. I enjoyed the process enormously and it did wonders for my career as a chef.
However, I have been bowled over by the amazing level of support I’ve been given by my American publisher. They just do everything at a faster more concentrated pace which I like. The Americans are just so business like! I love it.
What do you wish you knew about the publishing process before you started?
Books don’t sell themselves. The hard work starts after publication and authors have to work their arses off to promote their work. This is where many authors find this really difficult but it has to be done and all publishers expect it.
What is the best advice you could give to aspiring novelists like me? Or what was the best advice you were ever given?
The best advice I was ever given was by my agent Sharon Bowers. She told me to start writing my second novel before the ink was dry on the first. Its brilliant advice from a brilliant agent.
Is fanfic to be welcomed as it broadens interaction and the readers experience or a scourge that devalues the ability of an author?
I just don’t get it. What is fan fiction all about? I can’t imagine not dreaming up my own characters. It’s like literary ventriloquism – Creepy.
I am finding more and more, that writers often have several creative outlets. Do you? Or is writing your one source?
Originally I went to art college to study fashion and textiles and I’m always promising myself that as soon as I’m not writing a book I’m going to take up some kind of textile based hobby – Maybe needlepoint!
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I guess I’d have to go back to cooking for the rich and famous if any of them would have me.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been a story teller all my life so it was just a matter of time before I got round to writing them down
What authors do you admire, and why?
Gore Vidal, Rupert Smith, Jonathan Harvey and anyone else who puts their money where their mouth is and sits down and finishes a book.
For more information see Michael’s bio below:
Michael Harwood has published two cookbooks, Miniature Feasts and The Ultimate Insanely Super Hot Chili Pepper Cookbook. A member of the Guild of Food Writers, he lives with his partner in Brighton. For more information please visit www.mjharwoodauthor.com