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Author Interview: Gary William Murning

One of the great pleasures of being an author is connecting with other writers and sharing details of our journeys. Recently, I had a virtual meet-up with novelist Gary William Murning. His quirky and highly readable fiction focuses on universal themes – love, death, loss and aspiration – but always with an eye for an unusual angle or viewpoint.

Jane: Gary, you are the author of five published novels, the latest of which you launched only last week, so I’m especially  grateful that you agreed to take time out of your hectic schedule to answer some questions.  Perhaps you’d start by telling us something about your background and how you came to be a writer.

Gary: I live in the north-east of England and started writing in my late teens. Having had to finish sixth form college early due to illness exacerbated by my physical disability (Type II spinal muscular atrophy), I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. I’d always been an avid reader—horror fiction especially, back then—and so I thought I’d have a bash at writing The Great North of England Horror Novel. It didn’t work out quite as I’d planned, but it was a beginning—and once I had that appalling but complete first novel behind me, there was no looking back: I had to keep writing. I enjoyed the process too much, even if no one particularly enjoyed reading that early stuff!

Publicity—2013 #2 (1)Jane: I too have a metaphorical dusty bottom drawer dedicated to my first novel. (In my case it’s a typical semi-autobiographical debut.) What genre do you generally write and have you considered experimenting with other genres?

Gary: My work is kind of difficult to categorise, actually—which is why mainstream publishing has such a tough time with me. Broadly speaking, I suppose I write literary fiction, in the sense that theme and character in many ways predominate. That said, I borrow heavily from other genres. I like to take standard tropes and motifs and take them somewhere unexpected.

Jane: I honestly believe that Indie publishing is where the majority of innovative writing can be found – if only it were easier for readers to discover us. What was your first recognition/success as an author?

Gary: That came long before publication, I think. I’d written three novels by this point and had had some truly appalling but very accurate rejections. And then I submitted a novel that would one day become, in a very different form, Children of the Resolution. For the first time in my “career”, an agent used words like “well-written” and “challenging” (in a good way, I think!) It was still rejected but it confirmed what I’d started to believe myself: I was improving and I could do this.

Jane: Some of the first advice that I received as a writer was to develop the hind of a rhino. Rejections are par for the course. Sometimes I find they spur me on and sometimes I find the urge to challenge them. Have you developed any coping strategies?

Gary: I’ve had countless rejections—and these days … well, I won’t say they don’t bother me, but they tend to bother me now for quite different reasons. In the past, a rejection was often a reflection of my failings as a writer—and while there is probably still an element of that, at times, at least as far as some editors might see it, I think it’s more to do with my not being a neat fit. Which doesn’t trouble me half as much (I just tend to think, “Sod it—if nobody wants it, I’ll publish it myself … again …”)

Jane: I agree. I recently had a very honest email exchange with an agent who wanted to represent my self-published novel These Fragile Things subject to the addition of some sub-plots featuring some dark family secrets. When I explained my reasons for not wanting to do so, he replied to the effect that he is equally frustrated by the constraints of the current market.  So, can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?

Gary: I can do better than that: . Okay, so they spelt my first name incorrectly, and went under a couple of months later, but it felt good at the time.

Jane: And the cover looks fantastic on the display! I had built up a great relationship with my local branch of Borders in Kingston and found them hugely supportive, so I was really sorry to see them go. You’ve mentioned your name. Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym?

Gary: No, I want everyone to know I wrote this stuff! Though sometimes I regret it!

Jane: Are your books available for eReaders? If so what was your experience of publishing eBooks?

Gary: They are, yes—and, in fact, the Kindle editions of all my books now outsell the paperbacks. The reason for this, I think, is pricing. With my independently published work, especially, I have almost complete control over how much they are sold for, and because there are no production costs I can keep the price very competitive and still make more than I make from a paperback sale. As for the process … I’ve found it remarkably easy to produce high-quality eBooks. Much simpler than “typesetting” the paperback!

Jane: And, push come to shove, what is your personal preference: eBooks or ‘tree books’?

Gary: You know, if you’d asked me a little over a year ago which I preferred, I would have given you my standard spiel about how I would never switch from “real books”. I loved them and couldn’t envisage ever enjoying the experience of an electronic book in quite the same way … and then, being the mad, impetuous fool that I am, I bought myself a Kindle—and promptly fell in love. Part of this, I have to say, is that it is physically easier for me to handle than a book (I have pretty limited hand strength/movement), but that aside, I also find that the device is quickly forgotten, and because it’s physically easier for me, I fall into the work much more readily. Granted, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it works really well for me.

Jane: So your books are out there. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?

Gary: As much as possible. Online marketing/promo is central for me: my disability means that I can’t do signings, books tours, festivals, et cetera, so I have to try to engage new readers using Twitter, Facebook, blogs and online magazines. In all honesty, it’s a slow and demanding process. But what can you do? Books don’t sell themselves, alas.

Jane: Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?

Gary: I haven’t, but then I’ve never entered/been entered in any. I do think they have definite value, but I have to admit I still find the idea of a panel of “experts” deciding that one book or story is somehow superior to others pretty preposterous.

Jane: I watched a discussion panel dissect this year’s shortlist for the Booker prize on television last night and had to remind myself that these were highly acclaimed works and not manuscripts selected at random from an agent’s slushpile! I wonder, do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?

Gary: They do, yes. My first was dedicated to my parents—for numerous reasons. The second was dedicated to the memory of a friend who died while we were both still at school. That particular novel, Children of the Resolution, was heavily autobiographical and had I not known him, it simply couldn’t have been written. The third and fourth were both dedicated to writer friends who had/have been there with me from the (almost) beginning.

Jane: I particularly admire the cover of your new release, The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost. Who designed your book covers? And if you commissioned/designed them yourself, how did you choose what to go with?

Lorna Front (1)

Gary: Most of them have been designed by the designer I first encountered while with Legend Press, Gudrun Jobst. She’s really great to work with—not at all precious, and always ready to hear ideas/suggestions. I’m especially pleased with her latest work, so I’m glad to hear you agree.

Jane: Can you tell us a bit about the novel itself?

Gary: The Legacy of Lorna Lovelost is a quirky tragicomedy (think John Irving if he’d  been born in the late 1960s in the north-east of England!) that plays with the whole idea of, as the title suggests, legacy. It deals with themes of loss and continuance in a hopefully amusing and moving way. I was very aware of the fact that the themes I was dealing with could be very heavy going and, while I didn’t want to in any way trivialise them, I did want to present them in a very human and hopefully quite unique way. It was a rather daunting prospect but, as it turned out, it was my most enjoyable novel to write to date.

Jane: Its’ already getting some great reviews and I  know you’re very busy with marketing activity. Are you taking a break from writing or have you moved straight on to the next project?

Gary: I’m already working on the first of a series of “literary” psychological thrillers, The Architect.

Jane: Do you stick to a writing routine and what’s the most you’ve written in a day?

Gary: I generally write five days a week, always writing one thousand words. I could write much more, but this always feels about right to me—and allows me time to focus on the other aspects of writing (staring into space with a glass of Laphroaig in hand, that kind of thing).

Jane: What’s your creative process like? What happens before you sit down to write?

Gary: I wake up! A glass of prune juice, strong cup of tea—and off we go.

Jane: Apparently, Truman Capote always wrote lying down, either in bed or on a couch, with a cigarette and coffee. The coffee would switch to tea, then sherry, then martinis, as the day wore on. He wrote his first and second drafts in pencil. In fact there seems to be a growing number of writers who find that ideas flow more readily when writing a first draft on paper rather than a computer. Which is your preference?

Gary: Computer. I used to write on a PDA using handwriting recognition, which I liked a lot (it had the benefit of being automatically converted into a Word document, but it felt like writing longhand), but these days I use voice recognition software—which I love.

Jane: Some writers like the noise of a coffee shop or to listen to music. I have to have complete silence. Which camp do you fall into?

Gary: I listen to music to drown out background noise—but never anything with lyrics. Only classical. (Glenn Gould playing Bach and Philip Glass most often.)

Jane: And where does your inspiration come from?

Gary: All over the place, actually. Ideas come from … well, circumstance, dreams, chance encounters. And sometimes, you know, you just have to go hunting for them with a really big gun!

Jane: I heard Khaled Hosseini record a programme for Radio 4 on Friday and he admitted that, rather than plot, he tends to have one big idea which he takes to its natural conclusion. Do you tend to plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?

Gary: I never used to, but these days I plot in intricate detail. The novels kind of demand it.

Jane: Do you find that this cuts approach down on the time you need to spend editing?

Gary: My writing is usually very close in the first draft to what I want the end product to be—but I do edit a lot. Of course, for some people, it’s never enough!

Jane: I know authors who say that, provided they get their characters’ names right, everything else falls into place. Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes them believable?

Gary: At the risk of sounding a little odd (or odder than I already do), they generally tell me—through their behaviour or, sometimes, almost literally.

Jane: Is there a person you always first show your work to?

Gary: Usually my father.

Jane: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first or third person?

Gary: I love the first person. I’ve always been a frustrated actor, I think, and the first person really allows you to live in the novel. My latest, however, is a multiple viewpoint third person. My first in a good while—and I’m really enjoying the freedom and variety it presents.

Q: I’m a huge fan of multiple viewpoints and I think this can work in both first and third person. Now confess: what’s your least favourite aspect of your writing life?

The industry. The rest of it I love.

Jane: You’ve already said that you’ve always been an avid reader? Are there any authors you could recommend?

Gary: My favourite authors would probably include, with some qualification, Michael Ondaatje, John Irving, Garrison Keillor, Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens (for non-fiction) and countless others. I have very varied tastes.

Jane: I’m so glad you mentioned John Irving. I’m a huge fan. Where can we find out more about you and your work?

Gary: Google me—but only if you’re feeling brave. Failing that … or

Jane: And finally, is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

Gary: Write. I know that sounds terribly trite, but if you want to perfect what you do, it really is the only way. Even if it’s only a couple hundred words, two or three times a week, find a pattern and stick to it. It doesn’t even matter all that much if you’re writing what you initially consider to be complete rubbish, just do it. Sometimes you have to write pages of nonsense before you get to the good stuff.

Jane: Gary, thank you once again for taking part in this blog interview and I wish you all the best with your future projects.