# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
I have published five novels, all available as ebooks, Eileen McHugh, One On One, A Search For Donald Cottee, Mission and A Fool’s Knot, and a set of travel stories, Voyagers. Mission and A Fool‘s Knot are set in Kenya and look at cultural difference and similarity. A Search For Donald Cottee is a parody of Don Quixote set in a Benidorm caravan park and One On One describes an encounter between old friends whose life paths diverged, one into the media and one to become a billionaire recluse. I have also ghost-written a sports book based on rugby league, a sport known in the north of England, Australia, New Zealand and just a few other places. There are details on my website http://www.philipspires.co.uk
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
In A Fool’s Knot the central even is the murder of a son by his father. This event is examined and re-examined from different perspectives and at different times, largely from the perspective of cultural difference. A similar event happened the weekend before I arrived in a small Kenyan town in 1974.
Mission develops the same ideas and themes, but with a much bigger plot, which also features some characters from that same town. Mission also deals with the same events featured in the previous book, but now the theme is one of cultural similarity, not difference.
A Search For Donald Cottee was an attempt to bring Don Quixote in the twenty-first century. I based events in the book both on the original episodes in Cervantes and on actual events that happened here on Spain’s Costa Blanca. Rather than a part-time knight errant on horseback, I cast my Quixote as a British retiree in a caravan, seeking to live a dream.
One On One imagines lives that might have been lived by two friends of mine who both died from bone cancer as teenagers. In the novel, the only person who might be able to find out something about a recluse billionaire is the person who shared the same medical treatment as him in his teens. For other interested parties, however, the meeting is an opportunity they cannot forego, because they too want to know the source of his wealth. It’s really a novel about surveillance.
Voyagers is a series of travel stories, each one referring to some encounter or experience I have had on my own travels. Eileen McHugh – a life remade is a novel about an unknown sculptor. She flourished in the early 1970s and then her artistic life was cut short. The book’s narrator, Mary Reynolds, has befriended the artist’s elderly mother and has been given the notebooks and sketchbooks that the sculptor kept during her creative years. Mary Reynolds sets about remaking the life and work of an artist she judges worthy of recognition. Much of the book is set in places where I have lived.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
Give in! I cannot remember anything too specific, apart from getting car sick just once in my life and being asked to read my compositions to the class when I was quite small. The travel sickness came about when I decided to write the story of The Three Little Pigs in an out-of-date desk diary of my dad’s. I was determined to finish and finish I did. I’m afraid the copy got rather messed up when I was sick. And then I distinctly remember that I was repeatedly asked by a teacher to read my work to my classmates.
At the time I was convinced I was better suited to maths and science, and I rather dismissed what appeared to be a talent. I have been doing the same ever since. After many Biggles adventures, I can remember borrowing The Plague by Albert Camus from the school library when I was around eleven years old. I am not sure I understood it, but it made me want to read more. I do not worry myself with anything that might be described as genre fiction. I seek new worlds, not repetition of the familiar.
# How do you deal with creative block?
I think. The fact that I am not writing doesn’t trouble me. If I am not writing, it’s because the ideas are not yet fully formed. Once they take shape, the act of writing things down is not so difficult, but it is still a long and arduous process. It is, however, always enjoyable, a lot more enjoyable than slaving away at the technicalities of a PhD thesis!
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
In my opinion, there is only one mistake possible in creative writing, and that is to be more interested in creating a product than expressing yourself. Writing, for me, is about communication. If it can be said, say it. If it needs to be written, write it and don’t worry much about what others will think. If it eventually doesn’t communicate, people won’t read it. When, however, someone writes in a formulaic or stereotypical manner, it is usually because the author thinks that is the easiest way to slot into a sales niche. Fundamentally, I regard this as dishonest and, because of that, I sense a lack of communication that makes the work unreadable, rather not worthy of being read. What I want to do, always, is merely to communicate.
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Most of my titles arise from the material covered in the book. Usually, I use my own artwork or my own photograph for a cover. Where this is not the case, strangely, I feel I have lost some of the ownership of the text. Titles tend to come early in the process: they are often a means of crystallizing my thought around a particular idea.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
Any reviews are good. Very few reviews, however, actually address what the book, or whatever, was actually about. They usually concentrate on how the reviewer responded to the work, which is really a review of the reviewer, not the work. In my own reviews, I try to keep the work itself at the centre of the process. Of course negative comments hurt, but they can also help make the writing more communicative or focused.
# How has your creation process improved over time?
I spend a lot of time thinking about and around an idea. Linear plots and time really don’t interest me, because when we think, interpreted past and imagined future are always intruding on the present. And, as soon as a character thinks, that is also what they are experiencing. Having thought about a scenario, imagined it, re-imagined it and then fleshed it out, the writing down on paper seems to come quite naturally. In my opinion, if the process of writing is hard, then it’s the idea that’s not complete. More thinking is needed.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
There was one scene in Eileen McHugh, a life remade, when the experience of a character took a particular turn, only to be regretted years later, that actually brought tears to my eyes as I wrote it. Also, and I realise this is a cliché, when characters start to demand that events in the book turn in a particular direction, it seems like they really do have lives of their own. It’s an illusion, of course, perhaps I was thinking that all along.
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
Like cliché, I avoid like the plague anything claiming to be in a genre. I see so many authors who claim to be on this number or that in a series and I wonder why they didn’t say it in volume one. I concentrate on literary fiction, where the plot really doesn’t matter, because it’s how and why things happen that’s more important than the “what”. I have just finished reading a so-called plot-led novel based on the financial crisis of 2008-9, and it was surely one of the longest books I have ever encountered, though in fact it wasn’t particularly long. I had no interest in the people, the plot or what the author was repeatedly trying to tell me.
When I see a production of Shakespeare in the theatre, or an opera by Janacek, I know what will happen and I know all the characters before they open their mouths, but how and why things happen is always endlessly and repeatedly fascinating. I grew up worshipping Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and have read all four books about five times. I’ve read A Grain Of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiongó at least three times and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet also at least three times. And I would read all of them again, because there would still be new experience in all of them. For me, these are all examples of how the creator is trying to communicate a complexity of experience that bear re-reading because it can be seen differently each time. Too much concentration on the audience, for me, leads to work that is formulaic and one dimensional as a result.
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
I think that they are the currency of the experience. They are complex. They interrelate. They blur one another. They often conflict. They often contradict. They nearly always confuse, but they are always unavoidable. Writing – when it is done well – gets into this complexity without ever rendering the process didactic. If it’s too complex, the result is confusion. If it’s one dimensional, then so is the writing. Again, the only important goal is to communicate. But always, oversimplification for the sake of plot is patronising.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
I think it is very important to write a short review of every book one reads. Whether you liked it or not is irrelevant. What did it communicate? What dilemmas were faced by the protagonists and how did they respond? What was the writer assembling in this scenario and are the elements related? In writing such a review – perhaps 800 words or so – I find clarification of what the book was trying to communicate. And, as I have already said, if the process is thought through, the review writes itself, and so does the book that arises from the same process.
# What are your plans for future books?
I am about to start a new novel called Perspectives. It will become, I hope, a book whose form is an integral part of the plot and the theme. Put simply, an aged British archaeologist working in Indonesia on what he thinks is the remains of Flores Man on another island is in dispute with his colleague, who claims the same material as evidence of a new species of human, to which he wants to attach his name for posterity. The British academic comes home on leave, during which he has his annual medical check-up. The news is not good. He stays in London with his social-activist and environmental campaigning daughter. She is heavily involved with a project trying to block a major building development in east London, a development planned by an Asian company owned by the same family that also produced her father’s colleague in Indonesia. Her partner is also heavily involved in the campaign, but in fact he is an under-cover policeman, keeping an eye on things from the inside. Each chapter of Perspectives will be written by a different character and from a different point of view. Only when all chapters are consciously assembled by the reader will the overall plot become clear. The idea underpinning the novel is that issues are forever complex, usually far more complex than any of us can appreciate. Only when we assemble different perspectives on the same idea do we start to perceive this complexity.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
I am very fond of what cd shops call classical music. I have my own collection of live recordings, performances that generally are not available on cds, of around 33,500 pieces from 4,500 composers. I listen regularly!