Monday 7 July 2008

An Interview - Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville has been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra, a baker and a hand double for a well known Irish comedian, but is currently a partner in a successful multimedia design business in the wilds of Northern Ireland. He has published short stories in Electric Spec and Every Day Fiction, but it was a piece in the online crime fiction zine Thuglit that caught the attention of legendary New York literary agent Nat Sobel. THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, Stuart's first novel, is currently the subject of many emails between the author, his agent, and various editors. James Ellroy described it as: "The best first novel I've read in years … It's a flat out terror trip."

Q1. What are you writing at the minute?

I'm just starting to rev up the writing engine after it lying idle for a few months. I've been surprised by how much business there is in working with an agent like Nat Sobel, and the very stressful process of selling a book. Things like the submission package and marketing plans have been taking up my time recently, as well as kicking around ideas for the next novel. So, I've been digging out some short stories that need finishing, just to get that part of my brain working again.

Q2. Can you give us an idea of Stuart Neville’s typical up-to-the-armpits-in-ideas-and-time writing day?

Because my agent is in a different time zone, along with most of my network of writing friends, I usually have to take care of some correspondence first thing in the morning. As soon as that's done, it's off to my office in Markethill. I'm a partner in a multimedia design business there, and that can often push me beyond the usual nine-to-five hours. I get home, eat badly, ignore the piles of laundry and dishes, catch up on more correspondence, and hopefully start writing. I usually work quite late into the night if I've got a project on the go.

Q3. What do you do when you’re not writing?

I play guitar and watch movies, mostly. Outside of writing and reading, music and cinema are my two great loves. I've taught guitar for twenty years, but it's being phased out now because I just don't have the time for it anymore. I had been gigging fairly regularly with a singer-songwriter called Nina Armstrong up until the end of last year, but that's also fallen by the wayside due to various circumstances. I always have a guitar within reach when I'm writing; I noodle on it the same way people will doodle with pen and paper as a way to help me think. And it came in handy when I needed music for my book trailer.

As for movies, I have a stupidly large DVD collection. Everything from art house to blockbusters, from Billy Wilder to the Coen Brothers. I spent a couple of years trying to break into writing music for film, and got a little bit of work, but I can tell you it's an even tougher business than publishing.

Q4. Any advice for a greenhorn trying to break into the crime fiction scene?

It sounds rather glib, but read and write as much as you can. It takes time to learn your own voice. You can't rush it. The biggest thing, though, is give and receive critique. Taking subjective criticism isn't easy, no one likes to hear their baby isn't perfect, but the ability to stand back from your own work and see its weaknesses is the difference between a professional and an amateur. The two people you'll work most closely with to get a book published are an agent and an editor. When they pick your writing apart, they'll show no mercy. They're not interested in sparing your feelings; they want to make the book the best, and most saleable, it can be. The first time I sold a short story, the editor (the wonderful Betsy Dornbusch of Electric Spec) asked me to cut an entire section. When I first hooked up with Nat Sobel, he had me rewrite the novel from start to finish. If I hadn't gone through the mill of receiving and acting on critique before I got that far, I might not have had the ability to stand back and say, "You know, maybe they're right." If you're precious about your writing, if you're unable to extract your cranium from your rectum, then you won't get very far.

There are plenty of online venues for sharing your work with other writers. One of the best is I sold my first short when Betsy Dornbusch read it there. The short that went on to become THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST got its first airing there. Then the short that sold to Thuglit, and subsequently prompted my agent to contact me, first appeared there. Critique is not only good for your writing, it's also great for networking.

Q5. Which crime writer(s) have impressed you this year?

I've only recently read Ken Bruen for the first time. An American friend, an excellent writer called Chris F. Holm, recommended BUST by Bruen and Jason Starr to me. It's published under Dorchester's Hard Case Crime imprint in the USA, and I haven't enjoyed a book so much in years. I'm not sure how much is Bruen, and how much is Starr, but it's a cracking novel, and its sequel, SLIDE, is just as good. Both foul-mouthed, nasty, joyously trashy little treats. The third instalment, THE MAX, is due later this year. I'll definitely be investigating Mr. Bruen's work further. I've also been going back over some James Ellroy; American Tabloid is a masterpiece I've recently reread, and enjoyed even more the second time around.

Q6. What are you reading right now?

I'm reading THE CHOIRBOYS by Joseph Wambaugh. It's not at all what I expected. It's really a collection of short stories revolving around a set of characters, rather than a straightforward novel. After that, it'll be James Ellroy's THE COLD SIX THOUSAND for the second time. My To-Be-Read pile is quite large.

Q7. Plans for the future?

To make a dent in my To-Be-Read pile. And finalise a book deal. It's been a stressful few months, and it's now reached the endgame - if bagging an agent was like the Good Friday Agreement, then getting a publisher is like the St. Andrew's talks, all protracted negotiations and brinksmanship. Once the deal's in place, I'll be starting in earnest on a follow up to THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST which will introduce a new character into the same world with a view to creating a series. It's something very new and I'm really excited about it, so watch this space.

Q8. With regards to your writing career to date, would you do anything differently?

I sometimes wish I'd started earlier. I've wanted to write ever since I was a kid, but then I discovered guitars and Van Halen, so my teens and twenties were lost to the belief that rock stardom was just around the corner. Plus the insecurity of wondering if someone like me had any hope of writing anything worthwhile held me back for a long time. Having said all that, I think it takes a certain number of miles on the clock to make a writer. You need some life experience to draw on. I've started various novels over the years, but none ever got past a few chapters. But about three years ago I went through a difficult time that forced me to examine who I was as a person, and I guess it was that experience that planted the seeds for me starting to write seriously about twelve months later.

So, the short answer is no!

Q9. Anything you want to say that I haven’t asked you about?

You forgot to ask me what the best Van Halen album is. It's 1984, of course.

Thank you, Stuart Neville!


Chris said...

Damn right, it's 1984. Great interview, and I can't wait to get my hands on THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST!

Mary said...

A fascinating interview!

Anonymous said...

Wait! You missed the "what kind of guitar" question! Gibson, Fender....Frakenstrat knock off??

Gerard Brennan said...

Chris, Mary and Aerin - Thanks for stopping by. I'm sure we'll have more about this Neville fellah in the future, so check in on us again, wontcha?


Josephine Damian said...

Chris: Neener, neener! I've already got TGOB and I ain't sharing.

Stuart: IMO, the ability to self edit, to look at your own work with a critical, commercial eye is the best skill any writer can develop.

You said "stressful" a few times, and "crisis" on your own blog referring to getting your book out there. I do hope you get the deal you want, and that the process is worth all the "agita" (as the Italians say.

Stuart Neville said...

Josie - There's been no crisis in the submission process. It's gone relatively smoothly, and I hope to be able to announce something very soon. :)

The stressful part has been the general sitting here while people hundreds of miles away decide my fate - but, yes, I think it'll be worth it.

Julie Weathers said...

Ah, this was wonderful. Good job, both of you.

I really am looking forward to this book.

Gerard Brennan said...

Hi Julie - This Neville fellah sure seems mighty popular! I'll have to feature him here again.

I'm looking forward to TGOB too.