Today I’m delighted to have the privilege of interviewing James McEwan, author, blogger, and army veteran. I’ve followed James’ blog for quite some time.
F: You are a Scot living in Lanark, Scotland. How important is your country of birth to your writing?
My reading experience began with Just William, The Famous Five, and novels by Robert Louis Stevenson. I won a book as a school prize, Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott, which at the time was intense reading for a twelve-year-old. I was more influenced by the descriptions of the countryside in those books rather than the characters. The Scottish landscape and towns are important in my writing as it is a way of discovering the history and atmosphere that may pass by in everyday life.
In my book, The Case of the Mahjong Dragon, the short story “Murder at The Falls” takes place around the Corra Linn Falls on the River Clyde, New Lanark and along the areas where I frequently go for long walks. Areas of Glasgow also feature in many other stories.
I selected the stories for The Listener from a collection of my work, which I originally did not consider publishing. The project came about from a challenge by some friends to compile the stories into a book. This took about three months. I changed the cover twice since 2014 and made some editorial corrections after the initial publication. This was my early learning process in self-publication and a great experience. Afterwards, I published two short stories and poetry books for the Lanark Writers.
F: You feature ‘Flash Fiction’ frequently on your blog. How important is flash fiction to YOUR writing experience? What is your own personal favourite flash fiction of those you have featured on your blog?
I take part in the online Friday Fictioneers, the site posts a picture as inspiration for a 100-word story. For me, this is an exercise in concise writing where I take the fiction beyond the immediate illustration and create a world where the reader’s imagination explores alternative possibilities. The response and brief feedback are excellent as it allows me to judge if I have captured and conveyed the story’s emotion succinctly.
F: Your novel “Missing” is touted as “A subtle, psychological revelation of a family’s secrets”. What inspired you to write this novel?
I have only recently returned to live in Lanark after working abroad for most of my time. At a family gathering I met some people I started primary school with. I always thought of them as my cousins, in fact they were my father’s cousins. This sparked an idea about family history and how little I knew about my wider group of relatives. What other revelations would I learn about our family from the archives? (I add, the story in Missing is not about my family). I came up with the idea; what if you were not who you thought you were?
F: I’ve been following your blog for a while now. Do you think your blog in any way influenced your literary success?
Writing on the blog has given me the confidence to try out different styles and ideas and has become a weekly pleasure. Success is subjective and to me it means when people find my work entertaining and enjoy the stories.
F: There is a widely held opinion that authors should ‘write what they know’. Have you followed this advice? Why? Or Why not?
I let my imagination and creativity take over; it feels liberating, particularly in the initial draft of writing which I follow up with research to fill in the knowledge gaps and background detail. However, writing what you know adds credibility to the story and authentic gems borne out of experience. I write my stories for the Lanark Writers Group based on my childhood experience in the countryside as it stimulates interest and discussions about their lives.
F: If you attended a writer’s convention and all of your favourite novelists were in attendance, who would you most like to meet?
F: Writers also tend to be avid readers. What type of book do you like to read for pleasure?
I do not have a specific genre but will read what catches my attention. I will always pick up a Tartan Noir – I absorb Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, James Oswald’s The Inspector McLean Mysteries. Other authors I read are Alex Grey, Chris Brookmyre, Val McDermid and Lin Anderson.
I also enjoy James Paterson, Clive Cussler, Stephen King and Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series.
I frequently will read novels that never reach the limelight, for instance – Ramshackle by Elizabeth Reeder, and The Healing of Luther Grove by Barry Garnell.
This week I am reading, I’ll Keep you Safe by Peter May.
F: If you could sit and enjoy a chat and a drink with another novelist – who would it be?
So many; I would like to meet Denise Mina, she comes across as entertaining company. Her Garnethill crime series of books were a dark period of my reading.
The Garnethill trilogy is a personal favourite of mine too James.
F: What current novelist do you feel is underrated or deserves to be more well known?
I first met Diane when we used to write and comment on a Shortbread Stories. An online site run from Dundee University with support from Robin Pilcher – son of Rosamunde Pilcher. (The site is no longer available).
Diane and a few friends from the Shortbread Site have set up their own short story site https://literallystories2014.com. Where they have attracted hundreds of writers and publish a new story every day.
F: What has been YOUR favourite fiction title read recently? (I ask so that we can all add that title to our TBRs.)
Unfashioned Creatures by Lesley McDowell.
F: Did you have family and/or friends proof-read your novel?
I avoid letting my friends and family read my draft work, although I appreciate their views on the finished work. I had a contact from Glasgow University who critiqued and proofread my novel Missing.
F: Do you read all the reviews of your work? How important are reviews to YOU as a writer?
I love Amazon and Goodreads reviews; it means someone has thought about the book and taken the time to say something. I have no qualms about critical reviews and respect that every reader has an honest opinion. As a new writer, these reviews are important as they help to pin-point areas in my writing ripe for improvement. I have received complementary e-mails from readers of Missing; these were an uplifting bonus.
F: What part of being an author do you dislike the most? Re-writes? Book promotion?
I enjoy all aspects of writing, publishing and getting people involved to create the book. (Editing and re-writes). I find book promotion uncomfortable and there are a series of hurdles in the process I am working on to leap over. My stumbling block is self-promotion where I feel awkward talking about myself to an audience.
I attend an Indie Authors World Group in Glasgow. At one meeting I promoted my book with a trailer video and a reading. It went well, although I did not enjoy being stared at, but since most of the onlookers were aspiring authors, I felt this was the wrong audience for book sales.
F: Other than flash fiction on your blog, what are you working on right now?
I am writing a collection of short stories about relationships, where conflict exists because of unresolved expectations.
F: I am a huge fan of cover art and have been working on a blog series called “Cover Love”. How much input do you have in choosing the covers for your books?
For my book Missing I received advice from a cover designer from Indie Authors. We considered what genre market to aim for, and colour scheme. I sourced the images and produced three draft covers. I wrapped them around some books to give the impression of a published product and gathered opinions from the Indie Authors Group in our Waterstones book shop meetings. The final cover was darker than I originally intended and I am not comfortable with the red waterfall.
F: Have you ever ‘people-watched’ to gain inspiration for any of your characters in your novel “Missing”? And, how did you pick your character’s names?
In the novel Missing, the story is one of discovery and a family history search for the main character Laura. I created a complete family tree going back three generations in a small village and farming community. I selected the names at random, but I could visualise the characters and related them to real people I knew. For instance, I had an Aunt Margaret who enjoyed gardening, and I also knew a woman who spent most of her time in Wellingtons looking after horses. I based Charlie Dawson on a bad-tempered farmer who lived alone. The main character Laura came from observing a person on my school bus journeys. She would sit in the front seat and rarely spoke to anyone.
The mannerisms for Detective Sergeant Jackson were an exaggeration of a one of my college lecturers who spent most of his afternoons in the local pub.
Since I started writing I observe people more closely, watching how they behave and speak in various situations. When creating a scene, I imagine how this person may appear and act – how they think is pure fiction.
F: Do you write every day? Tell us a little about your writing practice.
I like to work from a spider diagram to collect ideas until I can see a story emerge. This could be a piece of poetry for the writers’ group or flash fiction. I have the end in mind and work backwards to form an outline with a list of words or short sentences before I write. My writing then becomes an irritative process where new ideas emerge, and the outline expands.
When writing Missing I focused and wrote most days until I completed the project. A typical day would start with a reviewed outline of the next chapter with the aim to complete relevant scenes, (I do not use word count targets and each writing day would range from 500 to 2000 words). I spent my time at weekends checking facts, editing and correcting. My research is always basic at the outline stage as not all the detail is relevant in the first draft. I do further research on my second draft with rewriting and making changes throughout.
F: Other than writing, what are some of your favourite leisure activities?
The Glasgow Concert Hall has some great music events and recently I went to see and listen to Belle and Sabastian. I also enjoy hill walking off the beaten tracks and keeping relatively fit with 5 – 10 mile runs.
I enjoy visiting the cinema for the large screen, also it is less disruption than watching films on the television at home. “Joker” was the most recent film I attended.
I have played golf in the past and intend to get out more.
F: What interview question have you not been asked yet that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Why do you write?
I took up writing after a 40-year career in Military Telecommunications, (from the mechanical teleprinter to the solid-state information age), to keep myself active. I see this as a retirement career where I can explore ideas and challenge myself to learn a wide range of subjects and to keep learning. I have resisted the temptation to write about my Army experience as there are many excellent books in the genre already.
Thanks SO much James for taking the time to answer my questions. It has been a treat to learn more about you and your books.
Check out James McEwan’s blog