Craft & Culture Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Stevyn Colgan

Professor Wu catches up with Stevyn Colgan to discuss, writing, crowdfunding, inspiration, and everything in between.

Stevyn Colgan is the author of nine books, a former police officer and oddly spelled Cornishman. And, for more than a decade, he was one of the ‘elves’ that research and write the multi award-winning TV series QI and he was part of the writing team that won the Rose D’Or for BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity. He is a popular speaker at UK and international events such as TED, QEDcon, the Ig Nobel Prizes, Latitude, the Hay Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe and many more. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and radio shows including Freakonomics, Saturday Live, Do The Right Thing, Ex Libris, No Such Thing As A Fish, Eat Sleep Work Repeat and Josie Long’s Short Cuts. He is the co-host of the We’d Like A Word podcast and his first novel, A Murder to Die for was nominated for two awards.

He is also one of a select group of authors who are helping innovative (and award-winning) publishers, Unbound, to tear up the traditional publishing model with the help of crowdfunding. Having successfully crowdfunded four books with Unbound, he’s currently knee-deep in his fifth campaign for his new book, ‘Cockerings’.

All in all, then, you could say that Colgan is QUITE INTERESTING. And, so, it was a real treat to catch up with the author to talk about writing, crowdfunding, inspiration and everything in between.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and how you got here

COLGAN

Hello! I’m Stevyn. I’m an author, artist, public speaker and ex-pat Cornishman. Currently living on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border where they film Midsomer Murders so I spend a lot of time looking nervously out of the windows. How did I get here? Well, when a Mummy and a Daddy love each other very much they have a special kind of hug …

INTERVIEWER

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

COLGAN

Absolutely, and to the exclusion of almost anything else. I’ve never done sports, I don’t watch a lot of TV and the last computer game I played was Lemmings and I didn’t enjoy that much. What time I have that isn’t spent writing is spent reading. I do have a passion for the countryside though and my three dogs ensure that I spend at least a couple of hours a day romping through woods, fields and meadows. But that’s good thinking time and I always carry a voice recorder with me to capture ideas for bits of dialogue and plot. I love art and music but, despite having some small modicum of talent in both, i’m more as an observer or listener these days.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

COLGAN

People that challenge the norm. I spent half of my police service challenging the way policing was done because I believed that prevention is better than cure and that catching the bad guys is focussing on the wrong issue. Most people would rather not be the victims of crime, so put your efforts into preventing crime and then there are no bad guys to catch.

I studied crime science and behavioural insights and tried some ideas that worked. Crime rates dropped. I then ended being part of an experimental team at Scotland Yard that developed these ideas. It’s now part of basic police training and I lecture all over the world (and wrote about it in my book One StepAhead: Notes from the Problem Solving Unit).

I love creators like Nick Park and the guys from Aardman that have a unique vision. When everyone else was going CGI they went to plasticine. I think the Wallace and Gromit movies are the closest thing we’ve produced to Ealing Comedies in decades. Oliver Postgate was another visionary who bucked the trend of puppet shows by using stop-motion (his autobiography Seeing Things is amazing).

I am also inspired by great storytellers, whether raconteurs like Kenneth Williams, David Niven, Peter Ustinov, Will Rushton or on the written page. Comedy writers like Galton and Simpson, Victoria Wood and David Nobbs wrote such beautifully observed stories about real people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I love that.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve published 8 books, worked as a policeman and as one of the ‘elves’ on QI. You’ve sculpted aliens for movies and dinosaurs for museums. Quite simply, how do you fit it all in?

COLGAN

I refer the honourable gentleman to my answer to Q2. Plus only needing about six hours sleep a night helps. I have an incurably inquisitive mind and a natural tendency to want to try new things. I’m not very good at saying no to opportunities.

INTERVIEWER

Is there one thing you’ve done in your career that you keep coming back to – one thing you’d choose to keep doing above all the others (if forced to choose)?

COLGAN

Writing. And writing comedy in particular. I’ve written a number of non-fiction books but I still couldn’t resist the urge to add humour. Great comedy is so uplifting and laughing is so good for us. If I had my way I’d publish at least two comedy novels a year.

INTERVIEWER

How do you first come up with ideas for your books, and how do you then proceed to start writing them?

COLGAN

They spring from the strangest places. A Murder To Die For grew from the simple idea of ‘how would the modern police react to someone like Sherlock Holmes?’ Real policing and detective fiction exist in parallel universes and I knew both well because I’m a voracious reader of classic whodunits and I was a London cop for 30 years. I’ve been at many crime scenes and worked on homicides. Investigation is pretty dull and procedural for the most part, a far cry from the sleuthing of Poirot or Marple. I thought it might be fun to throw the two cultures at each other. And after visiting Comicon in San Diego and having witnessed the cosplaying and the fan club rivalries, I realised that the perfect place to set the book was at a murder mystery convention where the victim, suspect(s) and witnesses are all dressed as characters and where the police , and the fans, want to investigate the crime. The comedy wrote itself.

The current novel I’m working on was inspired by seeing a circus in France back in the early Eighties where everyone was elderly. A circus trudging towards its own inevitable death but no one will leave because … where would they go? What would they do? The circus has been their whole life. I’m never short of ideas – humans are so damnably fascinating.    

INTERVIEWER

5 of your books have been published through innovative publishers Unbound, who use crowdsourcing as a means of funding the publication of their titles. Crowdfunding is increasingly being viewed as a model by these types of independent publishing companies. Why do you think this is, and what was the experience like for you?

COLGAN

A publisher like Unbound wouldn’t need to exist if traditional publishers hadn’t become so risk-averse in recent years. My first book was published in 2008. I got a good advance, a three book deal and all was well. But, between it coming out and the release of the second book, the entire industry went into meltdown.

First came the perceived threat from e-books. Then, mostly due to online sales, several major bookshop chains collapsed such as Books etc., Dillons, Ottakars etc. The recession didn’t help either. Publishers looked for a life-jacket and found it in celebrity books – guaranteed sellers. However, celebrity agents want the best deals for their clients and, pretty soon, the pool of money for advances for people like me dried up.

To add to my woes I also write comedy, which is a notoriously tricky sell because humour is very subjective. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of comedy, which is why someone who likes Python may not like Mrs Brown’s Boys or vice versa.

My agent punted my books around but kept getting notes back that said, ‘This is very funny, very well written … but we’re not sure how it would sell so we won’t take the risk’. They’d then go off and publish a book instead about some ephemeral B-lister who’s been on Strictly that gets bought for Christmas and is in the charity shop by January 5th. Bitter? Me? Possibly!

But then Unbound came along and just at the right time for me. I knew the three founders (two of them worked with me on QI) so it was a no-brainer.

Crowdfunding is hard work – no two ways about it. But, in the world of trad publishing, the accountants have taken over the asylum, sadly. And until that changes I’ll get my books into the shops by other routes. There’s no shame in public subscription – Dr Johnson did it, Dickens did it, now I’m doing it. Yet another example of challenging existing norms.

INTERVIEWER

What are your main tips for other writers who might be thinking of going down the crowdfunding route?

COLGAN

Know what you’re getting into. Unless you have a huge fan base, it’s tough. Very tough. You need a hide as thick as a rhino’s. You need to be a salesperson, a publicist, a beggar, and an unremitting nuisance at times. There have never been as many books being published as there are now. Getting yours noticed means doing anything and everything you can to shout above the noise.

INTERVIEWER

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve come across in crowdfunding, and how have you overcome it?

COLGAN

Compassion fatigue among friends and family. The line you walk between pissing them off and getting them to support you is a fine one. You need to constantly check that you’re on the right side of that line.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through your writing process?

COLGAN

They say that there are two types of writer – the Plotter and the Pantser. The Plotter meticulously researches and plots the book before they start writing. That’s not me. I’m a Pantser. I have an idea and a loose outline of the plot in my head. I have some ideas for characters. So I literally fly by the seat of my pants. I start writing and see where the journey takes me. Then, once that first draft is completed, I’ll do a series of re-writes until I’m completely happy with it. I once described it as the difference between following a proscribed route set by the Sat Nav and knowing where your destination is but having to find your way there. I prefer the latter because you’re constantly discovering surprises along the way.

My writing day is pretty disciplined – it has to be or I’d be distracted all the time. I’m lucky in that I have my own room in which to work. I start at 8am, then take a break for Elevenses. I have a longer break and walk the dogs at 2pm and then afternoon tea and a snack. I work through to 6pm when I shut the office door, cook a proper meal and be sociable. I listen to music when writing- usually instrumental so I’m not distracted by words. It ranges from Oscar Peterson to Bach and from prog metal to ‘elevator music’; it’s whatever feels right with what I’m writing. And if even that is too distracting, I use the website Coffitivity.com which plays the sound of a coffee shop as background noise. Stephen Fry put me onto it and it’s amazing. It really does help. There is some science behind why, apparently.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

COLGAN

Very much so. I once said that I’m trying to write ‘Ealing Comedies for the 21st century’. What I mean by that is writing character-based comedies that are quintessentially British and have, at their heart, a strong sense of morality. The joy of films like The Ladykillers or The Lavender Hill Mob or other Ealing-era films like Two Way Stretch or Too Many Crooks is that, even if you’re rooting for the bad guys, they never get away with it.

We love to cheer the underdog in this country – all of our folk heroes are villains like Dick Turpin (armed robber), Robin Hood (armed robber), Guy Fawkes (terrorist), Rob Roy (armed robber) etc. – but there’s far too much romanticising. Take Jack the Ripper for example. We have guided tours and exhibitions and films and plays about him. It’s madness.

I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, a wonderfully researched book about the Ripper’s victims. These were living, breathing human beings who loved, got married and had children. They weren’t, as the Ripper myth contends, prostitutes and they didn’t, in any way, ‘deserve’ their fates. Their stories are far more interesting than that of the terrible, damaged man who savagely murdered them.

My first novel, A Murder To Die For, was very much about getting murder mystery fans to confront reality. And the second, The Diabolical Club, was about justice for someone killed a long time ago. I insist that the rule of law must be seen to work. There are many more good people than bad and good always wins in my books. I also like to throw in a surprising romance now and again. I’m keen to say that there’s someone for everyone out there. And all with a good dollop of slapstick and farce or course.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in the writing industry at the moment, what are your thoughts and feelings on the way the industry is developing? What should we be looking out for over the coming months/years? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the scene?

COLGAN

Tricky. The way the industry is currently set up it just seems to want ‘more of the same’; if a book is a success, trad publishers look for others in the same mould. My big bugbear is the lack of comic novels. We used to produce hundreds. Now there are hardly any. It’s all Scandi Noir and grip lit and misery memoirs and I’m sick of it. I’m on a crusade to change that.

Just a few years ago there were new comedy books coming out all the time from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Helen Fielding, Tom Sharpe, George McDonald Fraser, Simon Brett, Sue Townsend, Leslie Thomas, David Nobbs, Harry Harrison, Michael Frayn, John Mortimer, Jasper Fforde … I could go on and on. But now there’s barely any being published due to the risk-aversion I mentioned earlier. The fact that many of those authors have died in recent years doesn’t help – without their trailblazing and sales figures, the accountants don’t have anything against which to predict sales. There are still some great romcoms being produced by people like Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes etc. and people like John Niven, Nina Stibbe and Jonathan Coe are flying the flag too. But god knows we need more laughs in these depressing times. I’m out to provide as many as I can. I’m challenging the status quo again, albeit because I have no choice.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

COLGAN

My next novel is called Cockerings (it’s pronounced ‘corrings’) and, all being well, it’ll be published next year. That will be the third novel in my ‘South Herewardshire’ series following A Murder To Die For and The Diabolical Club. I’m a goodly way into writing book four and book five is plotted. I also have an interesting non-fiction project on the go but that’s all hush hush. Oh, and I do a fortnightly podcast on writing with a friend called Paul Waters, a BBC radio producer. It’s called We’d Like A Word and it’s getting some good traction now. I’d like to see that develop more.

Quick-fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

COLGAN

Favourite book is Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. The perfect mix of travelogue, comedy and pathos. It carries an important message too. I defy anyone not to enjoy it.

Favourite author has to be Tom Sharpe. If ever I need a good guffaw I’ll re-read Ancestral Vices or The Throwback or Wilt or The Great Pursuit or … okay, any of his books.

INTERVIEWER

Can you name a book you love, and a book you hate?

COLGAN

Love: The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser. A riotous comedy that played havoc with all the pirate tropes long before Captain Jack Sparrow mumbled his way into Tortuga Bay.

Hate: Tricky. I try not to hate books because, like art and music and humour, taste in books is subjective and, just because I don’t like a book, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t loved by others. But, if I’m being honest, I got close to hate with 50 Shades of Grey. I just couldn’t understand why it was such a runaway success. Why would any woman buy it? Every woman I know that read it was appalled by it. The whole thing is demeaning and that privileged arsehole Grey treated Anastasia so appallingly that I just wanted to beat the crap out of him. As for the writing style … let’s just say that I didn’t like it. I can’t tell you how much I cringed every time I read the phrase ‘my inner goddess’.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

COLGAN

I like what I like and I tend not to pay any attention to critics (I don’t read reviews either – even about my own books). As I’ve said already, all art is subjective so why should I pay attention to someone else expressing their likes and dislikes? That said, I have a fondness for terrible old 1950s B Movies and for British comedies from the Fifties and Sixties. And, most of all, I love Laurel and Hardy. I watch one of their films every day.  

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

COLGAN

Jim Moray. Brilliant multi-instrumentalist and arranger. He’s dragging British folk into the 21st century in the most unexpected and interesting ways. Tremendous live too.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

COLGAN

People may hate me for saying this but I never got into any of those bands like Coldplay or Snow Patrol where every song has the same chang-chang chang-chang chang-chang guitar riff. I like a bit of artistry and virtuosity in my music. I like musicians that experiment and challenge me. The playlist on my MP3 player right now has some Bjork, some Skrillex, Cardiacs, Animals As Leaders, Zappa and Queen. And there’s music by brilliant new bands like Colossal Squid, Three Trapped Tigers and Lost Crowns. My favourite band of all time was XTC – every song different. Amazing stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

COLGAN

Kyril Bonfiglioli. He wrote the brilliantly funny Mortdecai books. They attempted to turn them into a film starring Johnny Depp. It’s not great. The books are.

INTERVIEWER

If writing didn’t exist – what would you do?

COLGAN

Write more songs and paint more paintings.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

COLGAN

I’m a drummer. And I play guitar. And I can balance eggs on their pointy ends.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

COLGAN

So many to choose from. The one that haunts me to this day is from the Seventies, during my school days. There was a girl I desperately fancied called Tracy North. One day I saw her struggling to reposition a heavy table. So I immediately acted all gallant and offered to help. However, as I lifted the desk, to demonstrate how strong I was, the effort made me fart noisily. And, as if Fate hadn’t punished me enough, it stank too. I never got the guts to speak to her again.

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

COLGAN

My three kids, naturally. They’ve managed to get to their Thirties without being imprisoned, or becoming drug addicts or alcoholics. They’re all wonderful, kind, hard-working and honest human beings and I couldn’t be prouder of them. Also proud that I was on the writing team for BBC R4’s The Museum of Curiosity when it won a Rose D’Or. I’m pretty pleased with some of the results I got in the police too. There’s nothing better than some pensioner telling you that she feels safe where she lives for the first time in years. That’s better than any number of arrests.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

COLGAN

Lord Lucan stepped aboard the saucer.

INTERVIEWER

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

COLGAN

One. Read. Read and read some more. I don’t think you can ever be an accomplished writer if you don’t read. It teaches you how to construct sentences, and how to build a complete book. It improves your spelling and punctuation. There’s no downside except possible eye-strain.

Two. Write. I know it sounds stupid but writers have to write. You can spend forever plotting, researching, developing characters, drawing maps and all sorts of other sexy and addictive activities. None of them will write your book. There’s no substitute for putting one word after another until you have that precious first draft. In your life you’ll meet hundreds of people who’ll say ‘I’d like to write a book one day.’ There’s a reason why they haven’t and probably never will. Writing a 90,000 word novel isn’t easy. But you have to get on with it if you’re serious. Procrastination is your Moriarty.

Three. I nicked this one from Neil Gaiman but it’s absolutely right – ‘When people tell you something is wrong or it doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. If they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’ Develop a group of critical readers who are close enough to you that they can honestly comment on your writing without you falling out with each other. They are invaluable.

Four. Read your work aloud as if it’s an audiobook. It slows you down and you spot the mistakes. It also highlights clunky dialogue and clumsy sentences.

Five. Keep a notebook. Write down ideas and snatches of dialogue you overhear. Only today, while at a village fete, I saw a lad with his face painted as Spiderman, shooting the portaloos with his toy gun. When asked what he was doing he said, ‘I’m killin’ all the Toilet People!’ I wrote it down. It’ll end up in a book one day. I’ve never suffered writers’ block and I can’t quite believe such a thing exists. The world is full of stories. If I get a bit bogged down in a novel and the writing isn’t going well, I put it away for a while and write something else. A short story. A blogpost. Anything. If writers’ block really is a thing, then the cure surely is to write?

Stevyn Colgan’s book, Cockerings, features aristocrats and geriatric circuses. It is a tale of greed, deceit and incontinent elephants and you can support it by pre-ordering a copy via the Unbound website.

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