Geoff Nelder kindly visited us once before, with guidance and advice on writing. This week has seen the release of his latest book, wonderfully named 'Suppose We', and it seemed like an ideal time to grab him for a follow-up interview.
Geoff, my first question has to be why that title?
'Suppose We' was the enigmatic title of a spaceship that became the title of the work-in-progress novella but, Mark, your critique group said—as if they were one angry person—‘Nelder, don’t you dare change the title. We thought it stupid at first but have fallen in love with it.’
Please, tell us a bit about your book.
'Suppose We' is a science fiction novella, the first in the 'Flying Crooked' series. It might be the only science fiction book written by a vegan (my lifestyle for over 40 years. I’m no jump-on-a-bandwagon fashionista), with a vegan main character and set on a vegan planet. What? How can a planet be vegan, you ask? The planet has no predators larger than insects. Yes, I’ve done the ecosystem schematics: I used to teach ecology and environmental science and some of the alien bacteria are huge and vicious. Not all the human characters are vegan, allowing for juicy debates.
The ship crash-lands on a faraway planet. Sadly, the natives are a million years ahead of Earth, so ignore the humans. How do they get the help they need, survive the strange planet and discover what is in the mission’s secret payload?
Here’s a question for you, when did you realize that you were a writer?
In 1962 at the age of 15, I wrote skits for school performances. One of my gags was stolen by the Bishop of Gloucester and he repeated it on BBC radio years later. The cheek of it! I didn’t get any credit except that golden epiphany: I knew I could write well, if a bishop plundered my work. If you want to see that joke send me an email. I could write it here but it takes half a page and I don’t want to be responsible for you choking and spluttering your cornflakes all over your screen.
Do you have any other books coming out this year?
Besides 'Suppose We' – have you bought it yet? [Author’s note: Indeed I have, and I read it in one day!] – its sequel
'Falling Up' will be published this year. It’s also a bit surreal; the title says it all, and you’re stopping me. I have deadlines you know. Lines that are dead, or dying.
What author inspires you the most?
Oh that’s hard. If I need inspiration, I read a page or two of anything by Tibor Fischer, especially 'The Thought Gang', or 'Collector Collector'. Between lunch and tea, I turn to A.L Kennedy – she’s probably the best short story writer ever. After tea I read something by Idries Shah such as 'The Pleasantries of the Incredible'. They’re kind of koans except they’re not Asian but Turkish-ish. I was encouraged to read Shah by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, when I followed him for a day. My stalking was for a sf magazine.
Who is your current favourite author?
Claire North eg her 'The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August'. She’s my fave because she writes like me, or I write like her.
What was the best thing you’ve ever done for your writing career?
Career? Ha ha. Anyway…seven years ago I went to a writing retreat on Greece. Absolutely marvellous. Time and scenery to relax and write, write, write. Meet arty types and absorb the Mediterranean. I go every year for two weeks if my wife can’t find a good enough reason to stop me.
What would you consider the most fulfilling moment you’ve experienced as a writer?
The day my first novel came out, and a month later at my first book signing. Yes, every publication day is great, but nothing quite beats the first one. I say this even though that humorous thriller, 'Escaping Reality', was riddled with typos and OTT sex. It’s been cleaned up a bit since. A contender for best moment is when my grandkids realised that their Pop is a writer. They tell their infant teachers who then want me to read to the kids. Umm. Okay, so now I’ve written a few kids stories so that the police aren’t called if I read my novels to a class of ten-year-olds!
What book would you suggest to anyone who wants to write?
Many writers would say Stephen King’s inspirational 'On Writing', or David Lodge’s clever tome, 'The Art of Fiction'. However, everyone should really read 'How to Win Short Story Competitions' by… guess who? Yes, I co-wrote it with Dave Haslett. We’re both experienced competition judges. ISBN 978-1719861663 ASIN B07GS36Y1N
Pitching your work to an agent or publisher isn't easy. Do you have any advice here?
The sure way to get your oeuvre accepted by an agent or publisher is to have one as a close family member, work at a
publishers, in journalism, or be a TV celebrity. This isn’t as flippant as it sounds. As a hobby I used to research the backgrounds of Man-Booker prize winners. In every case they possessed one of the above connections. I thought I was beaten by DBC Pierre’s 'Vernon God Little', which won the Booker in 2003. Pierre was a criminal, and had nothing published before this book which was a quirky dystopian, relatively superficial story. Then I discovered he was an occasional illustrator for the publisher. Connections. Of course it had to have some factor X. The judges said, “…We saw it as a coruscating black comedy, reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with America.” This neatly brings me to the more significant part of this answer: your novel has to have something different. Some unusual attribute whether it’s in the plot, writing style, or whatever personal experience you can apply to it.
One example is my own 'ARIA: Left Luggage.' The publisher, LL-Publications had sent a call for submissions for a science fiction or fantasy that bore a unique theme. Tough? As it happened I was cycling up Horseshoe Pass in North Wales earlier. On solo hikes and bike rides ideas ferment, don’t they? I was thinking of my mum who, after a stroke, lost her memory. I thought thank goodness amnesia wasn’t infectious! What? Had anyone written a story with infectious amnesia as a theme? I couldn’t think of one. It developed as retrograde amnesia: losing a year’s worth of memory per week. No cure. No immunity. LL-Publications said they liked that. It turned into the ARIA Trilogy.
If a unique theme doesn’t come, make at least one character unique, OTT.
What would you advise new writers to watch out for in today's market?
There remain rogues eager to prey on aspiring writers. Vanity press that charge thousands to publish your book and still charge you for copies. Worse, sham publishers that take money but do not publish your book. The best organisation to check on these is Writer Beware https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/
Of your covers, which is your favourite and why?
There are aspects of all of them that I like. My first novel was a humorous thriller, 'Escaping Reality'. I wanted the fugitive’s hand to come out of the page, and it does. My son suggested my name could be embossed in the gun barrel rather than separate from the image, as is normal. To this day I’ve not seen an author’s name as part of the artwork, but I bet you know of one?
I’m most pleased with the cover of ‘Suppose We’. I was going to commission an artist to produce an astronaut on a lilac-coloured world with a butterfly somewhere in the scene. I scrolled through a stock photo database and Whoa! There it was. A Finnish artist, going only by the name GrandeDuc produces many scifi paintings and this was as if he’d read the book! My publisher bought the rights and played around with it to fit the format for paperback and ebook. We decided to play with a font that was unique and tested it on my facebook page. Dozens of people hated it, dozens loved it. We went for it!
Is that it? Can I get back to my writing? Hey, grandkids, that’s my laptop not your games console…