Interview with Stephen Carver

What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have a Kindle Fire I inherited from my wife when she upgraded, which I will figure out how to turn on at some point.
Describe your desk
You've seen those photographs of Einstein's desk, right? My desk is generally covered in piles of paper, empty coffee mugs and sometimes laundry. It has a device with a bell on it that rings every time I try to concentrate. I have PC speakers with water in them that dances about in LED light and a very old Anglepoise lamp. It's a flat pack desk, but very cool and ergonomic. I had an old-fashioned desk for many years - way back to student days - but it was killing my back. There's an action figure of the Metalunan Mutant from the movie This Island Earth that my son bought me for my birthday next to the phone. Dust lays as thick as fallen snow.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I am rubbish at marketing and self-promotion! I don't have much free time and money for marketing right now, so have mostly been using social media and active blogging. In terms of connections, sales and deals, Twitter (combined with WordPress, like a freezer and a microwave) has probably been the most useful tool, but I should stress I've not tried very hard, largely because writing is so demanding in the first place - you know how it is. Local press have also been very supportive. Also, as an academic, I'm used to not being read! I found Kristen Lamb's book Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World very informative and inspirational on first reading and I still recommend it to indie authors I work with as an editor.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
That's a big question. I grew up in a ground floor council flat in Norwich in the late-sixties like the one in which I set the story 'The Empty Flat.' When I was a teenager, my parents unexpectedly inherited enough money to buy a bungalow in an unfashionable suburb. My most abiding memory of both places is of social isolation: I was too nervy, nerdy and bookish to get by on the rough estates, but at the same time too common to socialise with the middle class kids. The burbs weren't that different. By fifteen I had a motorcycle and got away as much as I could, hanging out with dissident punks, bikers and hippies. When I was seventeen I left for good. So as a kid my gaze turned inward pretty quickly, and I would always get lost in stories. I guess this made me a writer, while the sense of being provincial, poor and in-between classes comes up a lot in my work, alongside a long-standing sense of political scepticism and subversion - I am a child of the punk rock period. I think the keyword for all this is probably: 'bleak.'
When did you first start writing?
This will sound contrived, but it's the truth... My mother had once tried to take some Pitman courses with a view to getting a better job (which never happened), so there was a portable Imperial typewriter kicking around the flat which fascinated me as a child and which she let me play with. I was banging away on that before I could really read and write. I remember writing a lot of short stories at school which were quite well received, but packed it all in when I left home. I didn't write another story - 'Reptiles,' the first one that ever got published - until I was an undergraduate in the early-90s. Since then, I've wavered between fiction and academic writing, with the latter dominating until I finally committed to the 'Shark Alley' project in 2012.
What's the story behind your latest book?
The last one to be published - SHARK ALLEY - was an epic project. I conceived it when I was still a grad student but didn't do anything serious with the idea because I was writing my doctoral thesis. I had a serious run at it when I was working in Japan about ten years back, doing most of the research and writing two versions of the first act of the first draft, one in the first person and a better one in the third. I had about 100 pages of usable material, but when I moved back to the UK in 2005 I let it slide because of family issues and my academic career. In 2012 I started it again and came up with what I thought were two very strong opening chapters. By then I'd been teaching creative writing for several years and had a started appraising manuscripts for TLC so I felt that I knew what I was doing. The Christmas break killed it off and I lost traction until my wife basically ordered me to get out back and finish the first draft. I resolved to write every day until it was done, and that's what I did, never missing a day. The first draft took a year, revisions another year. I wasted one more trying to get an agent, and then put it out through my own company. My latest book is a sequel to this project, against the historical backdrop of the rise of Spiritualism in the 1850s. This one resolves a storyline I intentionally left open in SHARK ALLEY. I am not free of academic writing either, an am under contract to write a book called THE 19TH CENTURY UNDERWORLD. Fortunately, the research for both projects overlaps.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I was really evangelical about the opportunities afforded by the digital print revolution. Having been published traditionally, I was keen to retain control of the project this time. I also wanted to write an epic, which is always hard to sell in an industry that expects first novels to be no more than 80,000 words long, and to release it as a free online serial. I wanted my wife to design the book as well. We had designed many high quality books for other indie authors, and were confident we could produce a very tasty product. As a consultant, I also know how hard it is to acquire an agent, and I wanted to get my work out there. As quite a successful blogger, I figured I already hard some sort of receptive audience. I had a chance at the mainstream via one notable agency, but that required me to brutally turn my intricate parallel narrative into two short novels. I tried, but at the eleventh hour I realised I just couldn't compromise my vision to that extent. Probably the wrong move commercially, but I got to publish the book I wanted to write, and which I had effectively worked on for the better part of a decade. I'm not rich, but I'm proud of the work.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
I've only just registered - I'll get back to you on that... I can say that a former student of mine was an early-adapter, and Smashwords got her noticed. She has now broken into the mainstream bigtime. I wish I'd done this sooner!
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Editing. I love finishing a project and then polishing it till it shines. Getting read and positively reviewed is also nice.
What do your fans mean to you?
They feel like family.
What are you working on next?
The sequel to SHARK ALLEY, so another fake memoir/found manuscript historical novel, provisionally entitled THE DEATH HUNTERS. This will resolve the mystery of the protagonist's lost sister, and is set against the backdrop of the rise of Spiritualism. My goal is to be gothic but not supernatural. I have also been dragged back into non-fiction again, and am under contract with Pen & Sword to write a history of the 19th Century Underworld. Here's the blurb:

Underworld n. 1. the part of society comprising those who live by organised crime and immorality. 2. the mythical abode of the dead under the earth.

Take a walk on the dark side of the street in this unique exploration of the fears and desires at the heart of the British Empire, from the Regency dandy’s playground to the grim and gothic labyrinths of the Victorian city. Enter a world of gin spinners, sneaksmen and Covent Garden nuns, where bare-knuckled boxers slog it out for dozens of rounds, children are worth more dead than alive, and the Thames holds more bodies than the Ganges. This is the Modern Babylon, a place of brutal poverty, violent crime, drugs, pornography and prostitution; of low neighbourhoods and crooked houses with windows out like broken teeth, wraithlike urchins with haunted eyes, desperate, ruthless and vicious men, and the broken remnants of once fine girls: a grey, bleak, infernal place, where gaslights fail to pierce the pestilential fog, and coppers travel in pairs, if they venture there at all.

Combining the accessibility of a popular history with original research, this book brings the denizens of this vanished world once more to life, along with the voices of those who sought to exploit, imprison or save them, or to simply report back from this alien landscape that both fascinated and appalled: the politicians, the reformers, the journalists and, above all, the storytellers, from literary novelists to purveyors of penny dreadfuls. Welcome to the 19th century underworld…
Who are your favorite authors?
Wow. Another big question. When I was younger I was amazed by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon and Angela Carter (still am) and inspired to tell stories by Iain Banks and Alan Moore. Right now, I love Sarah Waters and Michael Faber, and am otherwise very into Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories; my absolute favourite writers in this genre being MR James, JS Le Fanu, E. Nesbit, William Hope Hodgson, J.H. Riddell, and May Sinclair. If I had to take the work of one author to a desert island, it would be Dickens. My favourite poets, meanwhile, are Coleridge, Siegfried Sassoon and John Cooper Clarke.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
My kid. I have to take care of him, however I feel. That's my job.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I have a day job, which I do from home so I can work round our son's school day while my wife goes out to work at the University of East Anglia. I appraise manuscript novels, teach creative writing online, and sometimes copy-edit and proof-read. For fun, I like old movies - usually horror or sci-fi - and listening to music, or riding my motorcycle. I have three classics, but right now only the Harley is running. To be honest, work and parenting keep me pretty busy. relaxation is usually just a bit of TV before bed. Am loving The Exorcist, Westworld and Z Nation right now. I read a lot of ghost stories and graphic novels as well. Sometimes I draw.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
I usually have something definite in mind, generally something old and obscure, like a 19th century Spiritualist tract. Impulse buys tend to start out as Tweets by other authors I think sound interesting enough to check out.
What is your writing process?
I'm a planner; I'm not much into discovery writing. I can be more freeform on a journalistic piece but fiction only works for me if I have some idea where I'm going. As noted elsewhere, I endeavour to add new words to whatever project's ongoing every day until it is finished. You have to do this if you're serious - I've learned from experience that not finishing projects can be habit-forming. I keep an 'Ideas' file on my PC to add to the initial premise, while also doing my primary research. I usually get the first scene down quite quickly, then the slog begins. I try not to revise works in progress too much, aiming for a full first draft I can then go to work on. My writing time is structured around the day job and the family. If I can get ahead on editorial work, I might write through the morning and early afternoon on weekdays when I have the house to myself: large latte, CD on loud in the front of the house while I work in the study out the back. (This week I'm revisiting early-90s industrial.) Otherwise, I write in the evenings after the boy's gone to bed. I have also learned to snatch time as and when. On big projects, I keep a weekly word count. To avoid distraction, I log-out of social media for quite a lot of the week, and try not to give in to the lure of junk TV in the evenings, however tired I am. Whatever else I'm doing, there's always that nagging thought whispering away: 'You should be writing...'
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
Are we talking serious, adult fiction? I still have a copy of the Scholastic Book Services edition of Frankenstein that I bugged my mother to buy me when I was ten. That amazed me, and I found my way to H.G. Wells, John Wyndham and Dickens after that. Frankenstein has clearly stayed with me; it's that horror archetype that fascinates me over the vampire, so stories about zombies, destructive, Promethean knowledge and the nature of the self, the Miltonic paradigm as it were, have appealed to me as a reader, writer and critic ever since then, while my entire academic career was based around gothic fiction.
How do you approach cover design?
I'm married to a graphic designer who specialised in publishing. I've learnt a few things about colour, fonts and organisation but mostly I tell her vaguely what I think I want and then let her get on with it. When I'm working with a publisher, she informally consults. My advice to other indie authors is to never do it themselves. Hire a book designer - they don't cost that much, especially if using stock or licensed imagery or typography. Having Photoshop installed does not make you a designer.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Wow...

Ulysses by James Joyce, for the sheer joy of the prose and as a symbol of the Modernist experiment as a whole, which is one of my favourite periods in literature. The English language goes on as much of a journey as the protagonists: the human condition in epic terms. Beautiful, complex and life-affirming, this book inspired me to go to university to study literature, not an easy thing for a working class kid to do in the 80s.

Watchmen by Alan Moore. I could choose several books by Moore, and it's a close call between this and V for Vendetta, but I love the structure of this as much as the characters and story, the alternative and perfectly credible history, and the first really fresh exploration of the 'superhero' in a realistic setting (Moore carrying on from his innovative re-working of Marvelman.) This is existential, postmodern, intelligent and moving, with parallel and multiple narrative voices that are all equally compelling, mixing comic strip with prose, pastiche and nested storylines, including an allegorical EC pirate story.

Jaws by Peter Benchley. My mother owned the first British paperback edition, and because of all the hype I snuck it off the shelf and read it when she and my father were at work. I must've been eleven. It scared my to death but I couldn't put it down. It's like a handbook on how to write a best seller. The prose is so tight. (The Exorcist and The Godfather being other examples.) Have been addicted to sea stories ever since, moving on to Melville and Hemingway afterwards, and the Jaws movie, which was equally traumatic and wonderful. I love the way Benchley used a historical event to create an original narrative, and his Moby Dick allegory, Quint being an Ahab for the Watergate generation. Given that I wrote a novel called Shark Alley you can see the effect this book has had on my life.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. This is an early novel, and far from a masterpiece but it has always been my favourite. It's very much of and against the Newgate tradition, dramatising an urban underworld that is no longer Regency but not quite yet Victorian. Tremendous characters, great story, also angry and political. I encountered this story early, which is probably why I love it, through the film version of the musical when I was four or five. I was apparently so distressed at the death of Nancy that my mother had to take me out of the cinema. I've taught it, written about it, and put characters from it in my fiction, passing them off as real. 'Don't you know the devil when he's got a great coat on?' Fabulous.

The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James. Often imitated, never bettered. Beautifully crafted, very disturbing. James was an academic and his use of language was meticulous, though very easy to read. Stories tend to involve haunted objects; the atmosphere and suspense is intense, and the epiphany always nasty. There's also a gallows humour running through that is oddly charming. Wonderful man.
What do you read for pleasure?
I read all the time professionally. Because I teach creative writing and appraise manuscripts I spend hours every day reading for a living. Then I have to find time to write. Mostly, reading for pleasure has to be combined with research, so it's quite hard sometimes to tell where business ends and pleasure begins. I'm writing a book about Spiritualism at the moment, for example, so I'm reading a lot of Victorian history and ghost stories for homework, although I read these for fun as well. Because I am so busy I read a lot of short story collections and graphic novels. I love the Lone Wolf and Cub mangas, for example, and the original Walking Dead comics. Unless I've got completely hooked on a novel, I will have a collection of ghost stories on the go at all times. They're a bit of a happy place. (My mother was a Spiritualist, and I've always been fascinated by and a little bit afraid of ghosts.) A novel now has to be a real page-turner to keep me interested. The last one I absolutely couldn't put down was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I like life writing too, and have a stack of autobiographies I'm working through, including John Lydon's and Adam West's.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Discounting stuff in school English classes, the first one was a little gothic number called 'Reptiles' about a misfit male narrator talking to a psychiatrist about the death of his mother in a remote Norfolk village written in 1991. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that he is insane. It was loosely based on my mother's family, and the premise and voice hit me when I was riding my bike to university one morning in my second year. I spent a week obsessively writing this thing, and a friend encouraged me to share in in the famous UEA 'Lit Soc.' There was an indie publisher in the audience and suddenly I'm in an anthology of new writing and reading at the Brighton Festival while agents hover and Malcolm Bradbury wants me on his creative writing MA. Looking at it now, all I can see are compositional errors, but I did quite well out of it at the time.
Published 2016-12-20.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Empty Flat
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 7,090. Language: English. Published: December 20, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Horror » Ghost
In the first of an irregular series of short gothic stories set in East Anglia, an unemployed loner is offered a council flat with a sinister history on the outskirts of a remote village. He cautiously befriends an elderly neighbour who reminds him of his father, but this new-found sense of security proves to be short-lived as the surrounding darkness encroaches…
Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner
Price: $3.50 USD. Words: 202,670. Language: English. Published: December 18, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Victorian
Jack Vincent used to be somebody; now the only job he can get is on the HMS Birkenhead, the Victorian Titanic. Lost for over a century, Jack’s memoirs offer a history of the English novel that they don’t teach you in school, from his apprenticeship with the original Bill and Nancy to the boudoirs and brothels of Victorian London, while all the time his ship draws ever closer to Shark Alley…