Interview with Paul Holbrook
This week I'm delighted to be able to share this interview with the very talented Paul Holbrook. You may remember that I reviewed his debut novel Memento Mori last week. I enjoyed his book immensely and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel so its been a real treat to interview him. Paul and I are also working on a series of posts for you where we discuss the books that have inspired us over the years. Welcome, Paul!
1) To start with, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your current project?
My name is Paul Holbrook, I am a writer, from North Yorkshire. I’m not originally from up here, I’m from ‘That London’, but I was lucky enough to marry into Yorkshire and now would never think of leaving.
Currently I am writing a novel called ‘Regina Dolor’ which is Latin for ‘The Queen of Pain’ and is the third (and definitely the last) of a series of books that began with Memento Mori and continued with Domini Mortum, which is currently undergoing a crowdfunding campaign on Unbound.
There are three books, but I don’t really like to call them a trilogy. To me they are three books which stand alone but which have linked characters and themes. Memento Mori deals with ideas of grief, love and accepting your mortality (all wrapped up in the Victorian fad of Post Mortem Portrait Photography) and Domini Mortum is concerned with the masks that we wear with others, of trust and whether our past actions define us (whilst also looking at the birth of tabloid journalism and our inherent obsession with the darker side of life). Regina Dolor is a different beast altogether; broadly it’s a tale of revenge and restoring parity to the world, but I am getting to put it into the realms of Victorian stage magic, freak shows with a little hint of 19th century exploration and exploitation of the Africa. It sounds a rare mixture, I know, but it does all make sense on the page (in my mind anyway).
2) Would you mind sharing an excerpt with us, or a favourite quote
Regina Dolor is still a bit too raw and unwieldy; it needs a sharp knife, and a polish with a magic cloth, before I can show share anything from it. This following piece, however, is from Domini Mortum. The central character, Samuel Weaver, is visiting a young woman in an asylum who has first hand information about his obsession, a child killer who stalked the streets of London six years earlier.
I swallowed hard before pushing open the large doors at the entrance to the building and, after introducing myself, was led into the tower and up a steep spiral staircase to the room at the top.
The room was a bright burning in my eyes as I opened the door and stepped inside. Every part of the room was painted white and reflected the light of the day shining in through the large windows which seemed to circle the room. There was a sparsely dressed bed in the centre of the room, the only bedding a soft white blanket which lay neatly stretched across the sheeted mattress.
As my eyes became accustomed to the blankness of the room I saw her. She was sat upon a painted window seat, her face turned away from me as she gazed out into the freedom of the countryside beyond. She wore a thin white dress, no more than a nightgown, which caused her to further blend in to her surroundings.
“I have come to visit with you, Miss Finnan; I recently stayed with your father, Tom.”
She did not respond and I studied her frame, slight and poised. Her hands lay crossed upon her lap, their skin as pale and smooth as to almost appear translucent. The nails on her fingers were short and roughly bitten and I wondered then if this were the only physically noticeable sign of her lapse into hysteria. Her hair was long, dark and so brushed as to give it a glossy sheen and there were tinges of red within which I saw elements of her father. The hair hung softly in ringed curls across her shoulder and her back and I thought then about how striking a form she was, almost ethereal and ghostly.
As I approached the window seat, she did not stir, and I slowly sat down. I saw her face and I saw the truth in what her Tom had told me about the love which she had inspired in all who met her. Her green eyes stared into the distance, gazing upon some indefinable place within the trees which surrounded the hospital. She was indeed a most beautiful thing to admire, her eyes soft and large, framed by gently curved cheekbones which lifted her face and caused her mouth to appear pursed. Her lips, although without the benefit of rouge, were red, cushioned and tender as if awaiting the kiss of her long dead beau.
I was so struck by her countenance that when she spoke it caused me to start somewhat.
“Have you brought news of Sibelius to me?” Her voice was low and smooth.
“I have not,” I responded, “just news from your father.”
“Father, I know Father’s message already.” She said. “He loves me and that is why he keeps me here. It is... for the best, I am told.” There was a snap to her voice.
“Why did you ask about Sibelius? Was it not Niko that you loved and were betrothed to?”
“I did, and I was, but I said goodbye to Niko. We had our time for farewells, Sibelius gave that to us.”
“Then you do not believe that Sibelius murdered his brother?”
“Sibelius Darke was the bravest, kindest and most gentle man I ever knew. He did not kill Niko! Nor any of those children either, he did not have it within him!”
“But the evidence would say differently. I have read the newspapers; I’ve even spoken to those that were there.”
“Then you are more foolish than I first thought.” She laughed. “Do you really believe everything you read in the press? Even I know that they lie and exaggerate in order sell the latest edition - and I am a lunatic.”
3) What was your inspiration for your current project?
For each of the three novels my inspiration has been my own personal obsession with everything Victorian. I have a seemingly endless library of books about the time and the very nice man in the second hand book shop in Pickering, where I live, knows to keep any of those books back for me when they come in, as I will invariable have them. I don’t know what sparked this obsession, I’ve always loved the Sherlock Holmes stories as well as other books of the time but there's something greater, a wider view of the era.
I think that it’s because, to me, it was a time when anything seemed possible; the realms of science seemed to be expanded daily, and there was a sense that spiritualism and matters of death and the afterlife were things which could be explored and maybe even conquered by this newfound awareness and interest. Of course 99% of this was all poppycock which was abused by those who sought to make a profit from the wide eyed naivety of those that wanted to believe, but I think that it is that spark of hope that there is more going on that what we know which intrigues me and makes me just a little jealous that I didn’t live in that time where, as I said, anything seemed possible.
4) Do you have any other projects on the sidelines?
I always have other projects. I have about three other novels started but not finished and I return to them when the mood fits. They are all very different; one being a young adult science fiction novel, one a comedy fantasy about Angels in modern day London and the other a ghost story set in a small North Yorkshire village shortly after the First World War. There are other bits and pieces too, but those are the main other three that I revisit every now and again. I will finish them all at some point, but they are longer term projects and more for my amusement and entertainment than anything else.
5) What draws you to the genre you write in? Have you always been drawn to it?
I suppose my own enjoyment of books growing up is the biggest thing that drew me towards writing in the genres that I do. My favourite writers growing up were David Gemmell and Stephen King. I doted on all of their books reading them countless times and for different reasons. I love the idea of writing horror and fantasy. There is a freedom to it that I don’t see or find in any other type of genre (apart from Science Fiction, which I enjoy in film but have never been a real fan of in books).
For me writing is about imagination, about a writer pushing their own imagination in order to get a satisfactory response from the reader. I often tell myself that I don’t write for others I write for myself and for my own enjoyment. That is not completely true as I have to admit that I have found, after putting my first novel Memento Mori on Amazon, that my fragile ego thrives on praise (no matter how cool and brave I like to tell myself that I am)
With Gemmell it was just an instant love affair with the storytelling element of his books, I found a great sense of involvement with the stories and characters and always found the experience of reading a Gemmell book to be immersive. Looking back now I can see that there ended up being a lot of repetition in his stories; flawed hero, lost love, group of unlikely heroes up against a seemingly insurmountable enemy; but at the time I loved them and still go back to them occasionally to read particular favourites.
I own all of his books and even have signed copies of a couple, although I never managed to get them signed in person. Bizarrely enough though I cannot say that I have read all of his books as I started but never completed his last one ‘The Fall of Kings’. He died half way through writing it and it was completed by his wife Stella based on his notes. I just couldn’t finish it, maybe because by finishing the book it would bring an end to things, to the relationship between the author and I, and I have never been one for goodbyes.
6) Who/what is your writing inspiration?
My writing inspiration comes from Stephen King. Again, as with David Gemmell, I adored his books when I was younger and read and reread my favourites with an appetite. The difference with Gemmell though, is that with Stephen King it was all about the voice. I heard his voice in my head when I read his novels and stories. Despite the subject matter there was something warm and friendly about it. The way he would talk to me as if he were talking to a friend, relaying a story had a real impact on me and still makes me return to his books now. I must admit that I stopped reading anything new of his in the early nineties. I tried but they just didn’t have the same feel and seemed to be going over old ground again and again (something which Gemmell was also guilty of in his last books). Particular favourites are ‘It’ and the ‘The Talisman’, which he wrote with Peter Straub. ‘Salem’s Lot’ is astounding too, the only book I've ever been scared to read on with, something quite magically horrific about the fear that it brought about it me. I loved his shorter stories too though - ‘The Body’ (which was made into the film Stand by me), ‘The Long Walk’, ‘Rita Hayworth and the shawshank redemption’ (which need no introduction) and ‘The Running Man’ (forget the Arnie film when reading) are all amazing in their own ways and are great learning exercises for me as a writer in how to create perfectly formed stories.
Stephen Kings book ‘On Writing’ is also fantastic though. It’s part autobiography and part writing handbook, every page has a little twinkle of inspiration in it somewhere; mistakes to avoid, rules to be aware of (and break if you feel brave enough).
My favourite novel though is by Robert R McCammon, ‘Swan Song’. For me that is the benchmark in Horror/Fantasy that I always refer to if I want to think about how I wish my own writing to look. It’s a post apocalyptic story (which unfortunately came out at the same time as King’s The Stand and so was overwhelmed at the bookstore). However I think it’s a better book. The story is that bit sharper, the characters engrossing and just the way that the book is set out is, for me, perfect. It’s a long book but it is made up of short chapters of only a few pages each. But in each chapter, and I know because I’ve examined it in detail over the years, in each chapter something major to the storyline happens and there is often a cliffhanger. I love that, it suits me down to the ground and brings me back for more. The first time I read it I was seventeen or eighteen and I have returned to it so many times since that it is probably a bit embarrassing. Love it, love it, love it! Cannot recommend it enough.
7) What do you do if inspiration just won't come?
When inspiration doesn’t come, I try not to force it. I’ve had a go at that in the past and all that appears on the screen of my laptop is bad writing.
Normally if I get a burst of inspiration I get on it straight away and write pen pictures and plans. That way when I am feeling particularly ‘out of feck’ and uninspired I can return to these plans and work on a scene or a story that interests me.
8) Which part of the writing process is your favourite, and which part do you dread
I love the research and planning stage. Because of the historical nature of my novels I always try to make anything I write as historically accurate as possible. There’s always a whining voice in the back of my head, not mine of course, my voice is lovely, but the voice of some troll who would take great joy in pointing out that a certain word wasn’t in use until two years after my novel’s setting or a certain style of carriage hadn’t been invented yet. I want to punch the invisible owner of that voice.
I dread the blank page on starting. Getting those first five pages filled with words is the hardest bit for me and I rewrite and scrap so much of what I achieve in those first tentative moments of starting a novel. For me writing is all about bravery; not real bravery, like running into a burning building or battling some terrible disease, but the kind of bravery where you commit to a story and bring the workings of your mind into the real world, somewhere where just maybe others will be reading it at some point and may tell you that it’s pants.
9) What is your number one distraction?
Social media is horrid thing. I would have got so much more written if I’d have started writing before Facebook and Twitter were invented. When I’m writing I tend to hide my phone and turn the wireless off on my laptop to make it harder for me to wander.
And life… Life is another horrid thing. Howe am I supposed to do the thing I love when there’s work to go to, the bins need emptying or you have to eat? It’s all much too inconvenient and gets in the way of writing.
10) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little bit of both, I think. When starting a novel the first thing I do is plan each of the chapters out in turn – a pen picture of each, scenes, bits of dialogue and most importantly how they end. I do this all in red. Then when it comes to the actual writing all I do is expand these pen pictures, one page becomes ten, erasing all of the red as I go along. I find that this way works for me best, as I can then work on the scenes that I fancy, by jumping forward or backwards. This helps me stay interested and active, I can work on the slower more atmospheric sections when the mood takes me, or jump into a dialogue heavy piece if I've got the voices going on in my head.
The pantser bit comes at the end, as I plan all of the chapters apart from the last two or three. Until I started typing, I had no idea how Domini Mortum would end, it just happened and I'm very happy with the outcome. Doing that adds a bit of spice and danger to the project, a bit of a gamble that piques my interest.
11) Tea or coffee?
Definitely coffee, I need at least two cups in the morning to even begin to feel human. I’m not a coffee snob though anything will do. I have never really been a tea drinker. Can’t stand milk and, even though I can drink black tea if its all there is, there’s nothing that quite hits the spot more than a black coffee.
12) What are the most important three things you've learned about writing, editing or publishing (or all of the above!) since you started your journey?
- Don’t take it too seriously. Before 5 years ago I had never written anything of any length or purpose. Not sure why I started, but, since I have, I’ve been more content and happy and have had a healthy outlet for all my pent up feelings of needing to achieve something with my life. I write because I enjoy it and it keeps me mentally healthy, not because I have any serious aspirations at notoriety and making a living as an author; that would be nice if course, but I have no mad drive for it.
- Be honest with yourself. This is linked to the previous one, but it's about being brave enough to say “I wrote this and it's what I wanted to say.” It's about writing to please yourself rather than writing to be liked. Of course it's nice to have others love your work, but, if it's not honest to you, then it's not something that you can really be proud of. It's back to bravery again.
- Don't be afraid to be brutal in your editing. I find the editing process initially scary but ultimately cathartic. I always order a printed copy of any first draft from Lulu. It's works out cheaper than using your printer and it's so much easier to carry around your first draft in book form along with a pencil. I can then hack away at it whenever I get a free moment and it I find that it doesn't make the editing process so arduous. I love being brutal with it though; if it doesn't need to be said, or add anything to the narrative or character development, then hack it out!!! What is it there for? Who is it benefitting?
13) What's your favourite quote on writing?
Stephen King’s famous – ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’ is always at the back of my mind when I’m writing, it makes me smile and makes me work that little bit harder on my writing (and the end results are always better when adverbs are shied away from).
To be honest though I could pick a number of lines from King’s ‘On Writing’, it's full of great advice.
14) What is the best piece of advice you've received?
That's a tough one as my own writing experience has been a fairly solo one and I'm quite stubborn when it comes to taking advice. E O Higgins, another Unbound author and friend, once sent me an email with the James Joyce quote, “Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?” I have this printed off in big letters at my writing desk; it's harsh but it reminds me that I can write, it's something that I can do. How hard can it be to put words on paper?
Of course it's not as easy as that, and getting stuck in a rut can happen, but sometimes you just need a hard word with yourself to shake you out of it.
15) Where else can we connect with you?
I am on Twitter - https://twitter.com/cpholbrook
And on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/paul.holbrook1?ref=br_rs
My Unbound page is – www.unbound.co.uk/books/Domini-Mortum
Please support Domini Mortum if you can, it's kind of important to me. You won't be disappointed, honest.
My first novel Memento Mori is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Memento-Mori-Paul-Holbrook-ebook/dp/B01CWYXOR2/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1472910663&sr=8-4&keywords=memento+mori