Thursday, March 24, 2016

Twenty Questions With G. J. Brown

G. J. Brown lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK, the USA, and Spain. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non-alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice, and floated a high-tech company on the London Stock Exchange. He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival, and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final. Gordon also helped found Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival.

Gordon has been writing since his teens and has four books published. His newest book, Falling, drops next week from Down & Out Books. (Falling? Drops? See what I did there?)

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Falling.

Gordon Brown: Charlie Wiggs is a quiet, unassuming accountant who has worked in a Glasgow firm for thirty years. When he agreed to look after a package for a work colleague, he didn’t expect to be flung from the roof of a forty-story building. He didn’t intend to be caught up in a world of money laundering and blackmail. Nor did he ever think he would find himself being hunted by a vicious criminal gang. Forced to flee for his life Charlie is reluctantly joined by George, a maintenance man, and Tina, George’s girlfriend. The trio find themselves falling into a world they are ill-equipped to deal with. A world populated by criminals and death. A world that gives them three choices: run, die or fight back.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
GB: Sometime, in the dim and distant past, I read a story about a business man in New York (let’s call him George) who, during the Depression, decided to commit suicide. He leapt from a window but, instead of dying, fell three floors, landed on a ledge and survived. Many years later, as an old man, he asked his wife would things have been that different if he had died that day. She told him to ask some others. So he talked to his brother who pointed out that had George died that day then he, his brother, would have never met his wife and that their son, a cardiac surgeon, would never have been born. Since the son had saved many lives the brother argued that, had George died, many of those people would have had far shorter lives. I took the idea and I open the book by throwing my main protagonist from the roof of a building and, like George, he doesn’t die.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Falling, start to finish?
GB: I was working as a Marketing Director for a TV station when one day I turned to my wife. ‘Lesley I’m going to give it one more shot.’ So I sat down, mid-May 2008, and typed the first line ‘Falling is the last thing I wanted to do’. I put a full stop on the book at the end of August (fitting the writing in around my day job), then spent a month fixing it before sending it off.

OBAAT: Where did Charlie Wiggs come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
GB: I’m a fan of taking my characters and placing them in situations well outside their comfort zone. I find that this technique opens up so many doors to great stories. Charlie is an accountant. You don’t find many accountants as the hero of a crime thriller. Given the way I write books, not a lot of planning - more doing, Charlie, in the beginning, could well have been nothing more than a bit player. But he grew on me. It’s fun to look at how someone with no criminal background deals with being thrown into a world that they’re unprepared for. I have a habit of doing something similar myself—taking challenging jobs, volunteering for some off the wall projects—saying yes when I should say no. So a little bit of me is reflected in Charlie.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Falling set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
GB: It’s set in present day Glasgow in Scotland. Place is key to my books. It’s the canvas upon which the words fall. I need to see the streets and rooms in my head while I’m writing. Throughout my books you’ll find places I’ve lived or visited. This gives me the freedom to focus on the characters. As I travel the world I build up a bank of backdrops for future books.

OBAAT: How did Falling come to be published?
GB: I sent the book to four publishers. My expectations were low. Everyone has heard the famous stories of multiple rejections. I sent a synopsis and three chapters to them all.  When one of the four came back with an offer I was amazed. So amazed that when they asked me to send the rest of the book I was in such a rush to get it to them that I emailed an old, unedited version. I received an email from the publisher saying that they were still interested but, and to quote, ‘Was it usual for me to send a manuscript with quite so many typos?’

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
GB: Diversity is a good way to describe my reading. My affair with crime started with The Hardy Boys when I was at school. Crime and thriller novels cram my bookshelf to this day. I have a slight penchant for the mainstream: Stephen King, Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Andy McNab, Lee Child. I also have an obsession with books of facts and trivia. To give you a flavour sitting next to my bed is a large hardback book called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. It sits under a copy of Chance from The New Scientist magazine.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
GB: I have been writing since I was a child. Although, at school, I was not a fan of English as a subject. I was, however, a fan of the times in English class when you were asked to write a short story. If I were to pick a moment when I thought ‘Writing’s for me’ I can name two. There’s the day that my grandmother returned from the library with a copy of The Fog by James Herbert because there were no more ‘Hardy Boys’ or ‘Tom Swift’ books left that I hadn’t read. Boy, did that open my eyes to a new type of writing. Then there was the time as a nineteen-year-old, while clinging to the rear of a jeep, I saw a backpacker walking in the back end of Crete. Wondering where he was going and what his life was like I borrowed paper from a waiter that night and started to write Drifter. A book that sits in my cupboard to this day.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
GB: My father was a policeman. He never talked much about the job and died before I took to writing crime. What he did do was give me an unhealthy disrespect for the profession. I wasn’t a bad kid. I just found, like other police kids find, that familiarity does indeed breed contempt. That gave me a very interesting perspective on crime. Today I have a phenomenal respect for the police but back then it was what my dad did. Shift work meant you could go weeks without seeing him. This left me with more questions than answers. Answers that my keyboard now tries to help me with.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
GB: Getting lost. I love getting lost. My blank screen is a world waiting to be explored. Only there’s no map. I can go anywhere, be anyone, see anything. I drive myself down blind allies only to find a way out. Then I seek another. And so it unfolds. Give me a spare five minutes and I’ll start writing. You probably don’t need to know this but I’m writing this while lying in bed on a Sunday morning and loving it. (Editor’s Note: We’ll leave whether we need to know how Gordon spends his Sunday mornings in bed to the reader.) I also love the sense of accomplishment from writing. Whether I’ve laid down three thousand words or a single line I get an immense sense of accomplishment from the process.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
GB: My wife. Until I met her my writing was a sideline to life. She has supported me every inch of the way. Given I still have a day job I often write at the times when others might be cuddling up to their partner. Lesley has to put up with me typing at the oddest times. Without this support not a single book would have made it out alive.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
GB: I fly without wires, without GPS, and without a horizon. When I start I have no idea where I’m going. I start by finding a line I like. Once its written I go looking for the next one. At some point I step back to look at where I’ve reached. I’ll then play out what might happen next in my head. As soon as I have a direction I stop thinking about it. I like the freshness of the unknown and don't plan too far ahead. But, and this is my favourite “but,” at some juncture a big idea will leap forward. This will shape the whole book. Sometimes this happens early on. Sometimes near the death.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
GB: I like to get the first draft finished with a minimal of revision and editing. I love the momentum that this delivers. I often write in first person, present tense. This gives my novels pace. It also presents challenges. Without playing some literary tricks I need to describe the entire book from the protagonist’s POV. In Falling I do this through multiple POVs. When using this methodology it helps to write without revision. Just as if you were telling someone a story. It keeps the process interesting. It also makes for a more intriguing book. 

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
GB: I am a music addict. I write with my iPod plugged into my ears. I’m quite eclectic in my music. I’m also a bit of an explorer, seeking out new music rather than revisiting old favorites. If I was to pick a soundtrack to my books it would be Trance Dance and Electronica. Upbeat is essential. I like my books to move with lick. A great beat, a repeating melody, and minimal on the vocals helps me achieve this. It also needs to be loud. It lets me cut myself off from the world around me, to fully dive into the page. Something that isn’t helping my hearing.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
GB: Set yourself a target every time you sit down. I aim for a minimum of one thousand words. I don’t always make it. Sometimes I can double it. The little word count ticker at the bottom of the page is a great way to make me write.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
GB: Just start. Overthinking is your enemy. Once you start you move from ‘I’m going to write a book’ to ‘I’m writing a book.’ It is a big mental shift. It also puts some pressure on you, especially when you tell your friends and family. They will ask how it’s going. There’s only so many times you can dodge the question before everyone realizes that you’re not serious about it.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
GB: I like to focus on character at the outset. Not in a fully developed way. This takes time. I favour taking that character, placing them in a situation and seeing where this takes the story. For me the narrative drives the creation of the story. This narrative has a tone that flows from the character. In Falling the tone changes with each of the narrators. Yet woven through the book is an undercurrent of humor. All of this is built upon a familiar setting. A place that I know. Somewhere that gives me that solid base to create on.

The ranking of the above is fluid. A great idea might push story to the fore in some places but I find that character always takes over. If readers don’t empathize with the main characters even the best story will fall over. Charlie’s limits force me to accommodate him. This drives the story in directions that I never planned, which is a great thing.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
GB: I love a book called Nightmare Blue by Gardner Dozois and George Alec Effinger. A sci-fi crime novel where a human and an alien need to team up to defeat an alien invasion. I’ve read the book half a dozen times or more. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read. The plot is simple. The bad guys have a drug that, with one injection, hooks you for life. If you don’t get your next fix you die. They inject world leaders and, by stealth, are taking control of the world. The two main characters are wonderful. A grumpy, Raymond Chandler-esque, German private detective and a telepathic, very smart alien. I wish I had written it.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
GB: Music. I’m a DJ on a local community radio station. I also love live music. Even in my advancing years I’m front and centre at gigs and festivals. My iPod has near on 11,000 tracks. My CD collection fills a room and I still have every vinyl LP and single I ever bought. I also own two jukeboxes, one for 45s and one for CDs.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
GB: The fourth ‘Craig McIntyre’ novel. The third is out this summer in the UK. I’m also working on a sequel to Falling. I never thought that there would be a sequel but with Down & Out Books picking up the rights for publication in the US and Canada I got to thinking about what might happen to Charlie next. Eric Campbell, my publisher, also asked for a short story as a prequel to Falling. Both have given new life to Charlie. So maybe there’s a series in there somewhere.

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