Creatives in Profile: Interview with Josh Spiller

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It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

So how can new writers hope to deliver something genuinely new and unique when the old models are so built to actually stifle, rather than support, new ideas?

One intrepid expression explorer (this interviewer’s  favourite term for writers) is looking to do just this. Josh Spiller, author of The 8th Emotion, is using the crowdfunding model to bypass risk-averse corporate structures and so publish a piece of speculative fiction that  promises to be different to anything you’ve ever read before.

In the following detailed interview, Spiller discusses the inevitable challenges and opportunities that crowdfunding presents to new, aspiring creatives hoping to make something new and unique.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SPILLER

Born in Sydney, reared mostly in Cheltenham, before breaking through the paper-sky of that Truman Show town and fleeing to London, where I live wild and untamed like an escaped gorilla, yet plagued by the paranoia – whenever I spot a CCTV camera – that, secretly, I’m still trapped, but just in a bigger TV show.

I primarily write prose stories and comic books, but have tried my hand at pretty much every form of writing I can think of, including screenwriting, stand-up comedy, scripting scenes for plays, poetry – both conventional and (perhaps embarrassingly) rap-inspired – advertising copy, restaurant & theatre reviews, a radio play, newspaper articles, essays, and even a (sadly aborted) spoken-word piece that would have been accompanied by music. Obviously, having been a lucrative success in these other fields, I now focus on prose and comics merely to support my gambling addiction.

Beyond the “work” side of my life (writing, tutoring in English, working in a bookshop a couple of days a week), I mainly like to exercise (football, swimming, rock climbing), socialise, gorge on stories/art, and try new things. However, this is starting to sound like a dating profile, so I think I’ll end it there.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SPILLER

First love (well, after Thomas the Tank Engine). I think I began writing stories when I was about six, but the conviction that I was going to dedicate the bulk of my life to writing, specifically storytelling, only crystallised when I was 16 or 17 years old.

I have other passions, but if you took writing and reading out of my life, there would be an immense vacuum, and I’m not sure anything could fill that hole. Best not to risk it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SPILLER

Arguably, there are two types of people: those who list and compulsively rank their favourite things, and those who don’t. I definitely belong to the former. So – even if I accidentally and egregiously miss out some luminaries – I feel well-prepared for this question.

First and foremost, Alan Moore.

Then, completing the “Trinity” with him (I may have a deluded sense of grandeur about this stuff) are Shakespeare and John Fowles (The Collector being maybe the greatest debut ever, The Magus being my top novel of all time).

Just below this, but still in the top echelons of global literature and worthy of much hero-worship, are Tolstoy, James Joyce, China Miéville, Nabokov, Gene Wolfe (whose Book of the New Sun tetralogy literally left me flopped out on the sofa, awe-struck), Grant Morrison, Iain Sinclair, David Simon, David Chase, John Milton, Matt Stover, Lovecraft, and Dostoevsky.

Like I say, I’ve doubtlessly left out some key players, but there’s my crème de la crème in a nutshell.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your speculative fiction project, The 8th Emotion?

SPILLER

Wouldn’t it be weird if I said no?

Basically, it’s set in a small post-civilisation society long after the world’s economies have collapsed. On the surface, this post-civilisation – at the novel’s outset – seems to be a utopia.

Mixed with this is the core high-concept that humans, having supposedly evolved from single-celled organisms (which don’t seem to have our range of emotions), must, therefore, have evolved emotions over time. So what could our next emotion be?

An exiled scientist-figure, through the chance discovery of a plant-based psychoactive agent, learns the answer. And although he is only a bit-player in the larger story, the hitherto-unknown emotion he unlocks – and its implications for society and humanity in general – cause the “utopia”, ultimately, to erupt into a civil war.

8th emotion

Spiller’s The 8th Emotion is illustrated by Victoria Stothard – producer of stunning, psychedelically vibrant, and highly-textured paintings, and also the winner of The One Show’s competition to create a garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

INTERVIEWER

Talk us through the title. Which emotions do you think define us as human beings?

SPILLER

The title was inspired by a 16th-century Japanese shogun called Tokugawa Ieyasu, who claimed that humans have seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, adoration, grief, fear, and hate.  Now, I don’t happen to agree with him (there seems to be at least several distinct shades of human emotion not accounted for by his statement, such as boredom, yearning, despair, hopefulness, even straightforward love – of which ‘adoration’ feels like a subset, but not a complete description).

However, the ‘Seven Emotions’ thing sounded cool, and made me wonder what the 8th one could be. So ‘The 8th Emotion’ became the working title I never let go of.

And if you look at Ieyasu’s list, five of the seven emotions are negative. Which is a bummer. I thus thought that the 8th emotion, for the sake of balance, should perhaps be something a bit more positive…

As for what emotions most define us as human beings, I’d say – off-the-cuff, and this may just be a reflection of my mood – love, boredom (a great springboard for creativity), and (often misguided) yearning.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did your interest in speculative fiction initially come from?

SPILLER

A+New+Hope

Star Wars: inspiration for speculative fiction?

Star Wars, I’d guess. Blew my mind. Still a killer film, and still a high-water mark for the type of energy and affectivity – by which I mean, emotional power – that I’d like my fiction to have.

 

(Incidentally, I think Star Wars a far stranger creation than I think most people perceive it as; with its bizarreness obscured beneath its patina as the pre-eminent popcorn blockbuster).

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that the project took you four years to put together. Could you tell us a little bit about the processes involved? Was it a labour of love?

SPILLER

It was definitely a labour of love. To begin with, I just wanted to write a novel for the its own sake – without any concern as to whether it would be published or not – just so I could learn how to handle a story on that scale.

The first year, during an MA in Creative Writing and the time for thought that afforded, was spent planning it. The next three years were spent writing it, mostly in the evenings after a 9-5 job. (My weekday target was 1h15 of writing in which I had to produce 400 words, no matter what their quality).

All the key points of the story were mapped out before I started writing, apart from one: the ending. However, I had two or three very vague possibilities, so I knew I’d be able to come up with something that did the trick (otherwise, I wouldn’t have begun writing the story). But I thought that leaving the final point unknown would help sustain my energy and enthusiasm for the story; somehow keep it more alive in my head. Having now completed the piece, it’s certainly a tactic I’d recommend.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

SPILLER

The main one was just to keep going, and ensure the story was finished, even after it kept taking longer… and longer… and longer than anticipated. But apart from that crux of sustained application, most narrative hurdles could be solved through a combination of thought, and looking to other fiction I admired for guidance.

Meanwhile, in the dastardly “real world, the biggest challenge/tedious hassle was waiting for responses from agents. Many never reply, and in my experience, those that do frequently take twice as long as they say they will. I spent a year-and-a-half just waiting for responses.

“Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again”

Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again. Too much dead time, and I like the creative control self-publishing offers. And if the book –  which, crucially, I can ensure is put in the world as I intended – strikes a chord and catches on, a publisher could still buy it off me at a later date anyway.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve decided to pursue the crowdfunding route for your project. Do you think the internet has made it easier or harder for aspiring writers to break into various ‘literary scenes’?

SPILLER

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have the experience to usefully comment upon this topic. All I’d say is that I imagine snobbery is present within numerous literary cliques, and that without the imprimatur of being signed by a major publisher, self-published authors are likely to be on the receiving end of this prejudice. That’s understandable – I’ve done it myself.

But I suspect this is something that will change more and more over the next few years, as more self-published or crowdfunded books win or are nominated for awards (see The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, shortlisted for a Kitschies ‘Golden Tentacle’ award; and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, longlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Gordon Burn Prize) or are runaway commercial hits (see Letters of Note and The Good Immigrant).

Incidentally, as a lot of my favourite writers are or were cultural fringe figures, breaking into a literary scene isn’t something I worry about.

INTERVIEWER

What would it mean to you to see The 8th Emotion in print?

SPILLER

EVERYTHING! But maybe that’s a bit far. An awful lot. There – that’s a bit more dignified.

INTERVIEWER

When writing fiction, what do you try to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

SPILLER

Before writing a scene, I plan it in detail, so I know the flow it should have (for The 8th Emotion, I probably went a bit overboard with this, even – for a period – working out what the key symbol, colour, smell, and other things would be for each chapter, to give it a unique identity. Very Joyce à la Ulysses. Now, I would just scribble down the scene’s key beats and put them in order).

This means, by the time of the writing, all the heavy-duty thinking is already taken care of, so I can simply focus on making each sentence as good as possible. Tell the story you’ve plotted, as well as you can: that’s my sole aim when writing my initial drafts.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

SPILLER

Yes – me. I believe the reaction of any general audience is far too hard to predict to be a useful reference point. Moreover, it is not really the audience that you would be using as your reference: it is your imagined version of that audience. Their likes and dislikes. And the odds of your version mapping accurately onto reality are pretty slim (for example, consider how often political pundits – whose job it is too predict the behaviour of the public – get it massively wrong).

I think if I was writing a story for a close friend, even then I couldn’t be certain they’d like it. They might tell me they enjoyed it, but how could I be sure they weren’t just being nice? And if they did like it, did they like it as much as that novel/comic/film/etc. they’ve been raving about, and which weren’t even made specifically for them? If not, why not?

If I can’t with all confidence predict a single friend’s reaction, I definitely don’t think I can second-guess the reaction of a mass audience of strangers. That way lies madness.

Besides, even if you could, and you tailored your piece to make it a critical darling and a commercial smash… would that be enough? Perhaps – you’d have a fortune, people may adore you. But if, at the heart of it, I felt I’d compromised my own vision – what I genuinely wanted to say – for the sake of these rewards, then I believe all the subsequent success would ring pretty hollow.

“I would rather I loved my stories and no one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish”

In fact, I believe I would rather I loved my stories and one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish. I think the former would give me more happiness.

And not to harp on the same point too much, but foreseeing the next big trend has been shown to be almost impossible. No one – no one – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be. And when everyone was desperately snouting around for the next book to take the world by storm, did anyone place a bet on it being a piece of BDSM erotica (50 Shades)? I certainly didn’t.

Harry Potter.jpg

“No one – no one  – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be”. Image via Flickr.

No – I reckon it’s better to write for yourself. You’re the only person in the universe whose opinion you can truly know. Use that as your lodestar. Remove your work – as much as possible – from the need for any external validation, and its success (and your attendant psychological well-being) becomes much more under your control.

Furthermore, if at any point in the creative process you suffer doubts, big or small, you can always ask yourself: would I like this if I found it in someone else’s story? Although it may be hard sometimes to make these judgements, you have a much better chance of fine-tuning a story to suit your own tastes, than moulding it to suit anyone else’s.

And if all this sounds a bit insular and poverty-stricken, just consider: without people following their own against-the-grain vision, we wouldn’t have had William Blake. Or Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or superheroes. Paradoxically, the people who are most attentive to their personal predilections seem to be the ones that connect with the largest portion of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SPILLER

I think, at its most basic, as problem solving. Nigh-on every artistic piece, in its creation, is just a series of problems that need to be solved in order to achieve the desired outcome.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

Someone who writes frequently. You don’t have to make money from it: those who do are professional writers. But they’re not necessarily better. Payment doesn’t correlate with quality. In fact, the inverse is often true.

This straightforward definition also means that, if you sold 10 million copies of a novel a year ago but haven’t sat down at the proverbial typewriter since, you’re not a writer. You were a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SPILLER

“… he killed me!” Apocalypse brings necro-trials.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

SPILLER

In no particular order:

  1. Cordon off time – Getting writing done requires time to focus on it. I’d advise setting a clear timeframe in which you have to work that day (say, 10am-2pm). In that period, you can either write, or do nothing. And when I say nothing, I don’t mean watch TV, go on the internet, idle away time. I mean nothing except sit in your chair, lie on your bed, have a sleep, or – if you need some fresh air – go for a brief walk. No one’s forcing you to write. You can do sod all if you want.

But you’ll be amazed how quickly the fidgety urge to do something else before writing… to tackle it later, when you’re more in the mood… is dispelled when boredom is your only other option. You can’t just sit there for four hours. That’d be mad. So, tentatively, you begin to write. And within a few minutes, you’re in the flow. Easy.

  1. Ideally, make your writing times a habit – As with exercise, once your body is used to the routine, it automatically readies itself for the endeavour. Helps prevent that heavy, sluggish mental state that is the bane of getting going.
  2. Finish things – Told this by a visiting speaker at university. Top advice. If you at least finish pieces, no matter how bad they are, your confidence will grow, and you’ll have something to show for your labour. Earth-shatteringly simple, this may be the main key to getting better at a craft.
  3. Follow the energy – This is one of those personal mantras that is of great help to me, but may be hopelessly vague to anyone else. Essentially, it means follow whatever interests you; whatever feels energised in your head, no matter its obscurity. If it means a lot to you, there will automatically be an audience for it. No one’s so unique that there aren’t other people on the planet who share their taste.
  4. Relax properly – vital for recharging your mind and creativity. I find working mornings and afternoon is best, as that way, I’ve earned my evening relaxation and thus its pleasure is enhanced.
  5. Pretend the internet doesn’t exist – The super-villain of distraction, you have to have some way to thwart it. For me, this works wonders. As long as you think you could be on the internet, you can be tempted to justify to yourself why you should, this once, be allowed to quickly go on it, just to check that one thing.

But: tell yourself it doesn’t exist and, suddenly, there’s nothing to persuade yourself about. No distraction demanding your attention. Just an added sense of calmness and simplicity, making it easier to be productive.

(It’s amazing how quickly telling myself the internet doesn’t exist convinces the rebellious part of my brain. Maybe I’m mentally simple).

Note: Only break this rule if there’s something you absolutely NEED to research online for your piece. Confine yourself to the research. Close your web browser straight after.

  1. Treat yourself as a terrorist – Don’t negotiate with yourself over any writing rules you’ve made, at least for that day. You can reassess afterwards if they’re worth sticking with or not.
  2. Read idiosyncratically – I disagree with the publishing advice that says you should be up-to-date with the latest fiction, and au fait with the current trends. Reading novels is time-consuming. You could spend all your energy simply keeping abreast of the newest releases, and it’s not like modern fiction is a priori better than the classics (the clue perhaps being in the term ‘classics’).

If every aspiring writer reads similar stuff, they’ll produce similar stuff. Instead, read idiosyncratically. Follow your own interests, wherever they lead. Do that, and your brain is likelier to make fresh connections, come up with new ideas, and bring something different to the table.

Which means this approach is not only better for you as a reader and writer, but better for the reading public as well.

  1. Write ideas, not words – I don’t know about you, but thinking about that X number of words I have to write… oh, that can feel so tiresome. But wait. Think of the ideas (as in the feelings, visuals, scenes, etc.) you’re going to convey, and the task suddenly seems like a much more exciting prospect.

Words, devoid of content, seemingly just an abstract target you have to hit, sit dead and oppressively on the mind. Ideas are full of animation and life. Focus on capturing them, one at a time, and the words will take care of themselves.

  1. Art requires willpower – Lots of people have good ideas, but that doesn’t make them good writers or storytellers. Once you have an idea, it is your job as a creative person to bring it down from idea-space (in your head) into the real world (this can be as a book, film, album, whatever. Just something others can experience).

In fact, this process is how all ideas manifest. Even something as simple as thinking I’ll see my friend tomorrow, then arranging that meeting and going to it: that’s having an idea, then bringing it into the world through willpower.

It may not be as glamorous as a sudden burst of inspiration, but for me, this application of willpower – which enables you to turn the abstract into the tangible, the blurred outlines of a notion into vivid detail – that’s where the real magic happens. It’s an often necessary, and incredibly empowering, part of the process. Enjoy it.

 

You can pledge your support for Josh Spiller’s exciting debut novel, The 8th Emotion, via Kickstarter – you can get a signed first edition copy, and lots of other exclusive rewards

 

 

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