Interview with Sam Maxfield

What's the story behind your latest book?
Every year since the early seventies my partner's extended family de-camp to Mablethorpe for one week in August. Three or four generations descend on the small, faded resort and treat it like a trip to Mecca. For anyone marrying, or living with, a member of this tribe, the trip to Mabo is an initiation ceremony. I passed my test more than ten years ago and haven't missed a year since.

I have to admit, at first it was obligation to my partner and his family. I found Mablethorpe to be a bit of a shock to my senses but soon started to find myself falling under its spell. Mabo simply isn’t like other places. It might be situated on the English east coast but at its heart it’s a weird, little mid-western town on the fringes of nothingness. Even approaching it by car, with the flat, dusty grasslands stretching for miles, and the wind-turbines lazily spinning, you know you’ve left normal.

I published a humorous article about the peculiarities of the town in Nottingham’s LeftLion Magazine and that got me thinking about a novel. In The Last Resort, Mapton-On-Sea is inspired by experiences of Mablethorpe – certainly its penchant for mobility scooters and dogs – but it is also quite different. Definitely exaggerated and fictionalised. Things exist in Mapton that don’t exist in Mablethorpe and vice versa. Certainly all the characters in Mapton are entirely out of my imagination not based on real people, but when Rick, the American chef in the book, tells Stella she needs to look at Mapton through different lenses this is very close to the advice my partner gave me. You have to search for the beauty and pleasure in some places – especially poverty-stricken areas – but when you find it you must treasure it. This is what my main character Stella learns, not just by adjusting her snobbish London eyes to Mapton, but also in how she sees her relationship with her outrageous grandmother, Gina.
Will you write any more books set in Mapton-On-Sea?
Yes, in fact I’m writing a second one now, and I have the idea for a third as well as couple of offshoot stories. Mapton seems to have taken over my life lately.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
It began really when I had an agent in a very respected, large agency who couldn’t place my work with editors because of the issue of genre. She kept getting feedback that was very flattering in respect of how much they enjoyed the story and my writing style, but that it didn’t fit easily into any genre and they weren’t sure how to sell me. I was also teaching at the time and in the end, perhaps foolishly – hindsight is a wonderful thing – I left my agency and put my writing on the back burner. I was still writing for myself but not as actively pursuing publication as I might have done. Then along came a novel that I simply had to write: Inspired by the true story of Elmer McCurdy, a mummified outlaw displayed on the carnie circuit across America for decades, I wrote a book that was part Western (but not), part magic realism (but not), part road trip… well, you get the idea. I’d done it again and was back in the same situation – ‘great story, love your prose, can’t find a way to sell it’.

But by this time, the revolution in self-publishing was under way, thanks to technology and pioneering companies. It felt like a huge challenge to go indie, and it’s certainly been a steep learning curve but it’s been worth it. I get to write the stories I’m driven to write – the ones that I love – and readers make the choice of whether to read them or not, regardless of how they do or don’t fit into traditional publishing’s narrow categories.
You write in different genres. Are there any elements that all your stories share?
A strong story is the most important thing I look for as a reader and as a writer. Genre tells me what type of story I might expect, and certainly there are genres I'm attracted to more than others but I must admit I read eclectically and widely. The story is the thing - the Holy Grail - and I am constantly seeking it out. A truly satisfying story is a magical, elusive creature. It can pop up anywhere but you have to keep your eyes open for it. The key elements are that you love the characters and want to spend time with them (even the horrible ones) and that the characters grow in some way. Things don't just happen to them - they initiate actions as well as react to them.

Although my books cross genres and locations - from the American West to Victorian London, to a shabby English seaside town – I think they all share similar themes which I return to regularly. For example, finding a place to belong, family estrangement and reconciliation, as well as a fascination with eccentricity all seem to recur in my writing. It’s not purposeful but something I’ve recognised in retrospect. And humour. I like things that tickle my funny bone.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I don’t remember the actual first short story I ever wrote. I know I wrote stories since infant school but no particular story stands out in my memory until I attempted to write to my first novel at eleven. At the time the Columbia Space Shuttle had just been launched so I called my villain, Miss Columbia Space Shuttle, as you do. It was set in stunt school – very cool learning how to be a Hollywood stunt person – and the heroines were named Vanilla and Priscilla, which seemed like super-glamourous names to me. There was also a toad called Beatrice and a helicopter called Cleopatra, all very natural sounding. It was hand written and illustrated. My parents and older brother had to listen to it in instalments. My parents were very encouraging and laughed in all the right places while my brother hated it and still does.
How did your childhood experiences influence your writing?
I grew up in Canada until I was five and then England after that. I know we moved seven or more times before I was eight but I only remember living in one house in Canada and two houses in England. After eight we stayed put in small town in Cheshire until I left home.

In terms of my writing Canada influenced me a lot. It was a key part of my identity growing up. I have very vivid memories of Canada – learning to ice-skate, going to the local rodeo, eating french fries under the porch of our clapboard house. I think the culture shock when we came back to England made those memories stick with me. Also, as a family we reminisced all the time about my parents’ adventures there. They were very young when they emigrated, in their early twenties, and had quite a tough time to begin with. Two working class kids with a baby and a big bag of dreams. At the time British Columbia seemed like the Wild West to them. When my Dad got a job in a Mercury mine they lived out on their own, in a company trailer miles from anywhere, and my mum had to take a rifle with her to the laundry room in case of grizzlies. Their local store had bullet holes in the window. I think that’s where my fascination with Americana began and manifested itself many years later in my novel, West of the Sunset.

Tall tales are very much part of my family inheritance. The teller of the tallest tales in the family was my Gran Maxfield. She could embroider the smallest incident into a wildly funny anecdote until she had herself roaring with laughter. I completely believed everything she told me for years. She was a tiny woman with a huge character, as well as unconventional. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, she wore trousers, despite my granddad’s disapproval. There’s definitely a tiny bit of gran in my character Gina in The Last Resort.

Growing up another thing that greatly influenced me as a writer was my mum and dad’s return to education as mature students. Both left school at fifteen. They got married really young – mum was only seventeen – had my brother at nineteen and me at twenty-one, went to Canada and back and then decided to get an education. Mum studied history and religion, going on to gain a M.Litt in Victorian Studies and Dad took a Craft degree and became a lecturer. What I clearly remember was the flood of books, ideas, and intellectual stimulation coming into our house. It was mind expansion without the drugs. A world of arts, craft, history, and literature opened up to me and I greedily gobbled up whatever came in. When mum did her M.Litt I swallowed every Victorian novel she brought home and even sneaked into a lecture or two with her. What a great gift for a budding writer.
Published 2015-06-25.
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