1) When did you first discover your love for writing?
I wrote my first stories while I was still at primary school. It took me a few years to figure out the art of planning and pacing a story though. I then took quite a long break from creative writing while I did my A-levels and degree, before I came up with any new ideas and then finally re-discovering writing in November 2011.
2) Do you have a favourite place to write?
I write in so many different places that it’s hard to say where I prefer. I’ve written in fast food restaurants, trains, pubs, friends’ houses… I find that different places put me in different moods, so sometimes I’ll go somewhere specific to write a particular scene. I do most of my writing at home on my sofa, so I guess that must be by favourite. I turn the radio on, put my feet up, and type into my laptop.
3) Do you have a writing routine or process that you adhere to?
I have to plan what I write. If I don’t have a plan, then strange things start to happen to my story, and I allow my imagination to create some rather unrealistic situations. Even within a plan I allow myself a little grace to wander from the path. Most of the time that results in many of the witty remarks that my characters make, as I play with the ideas and themes I’m working with. Originally, In Exchange was a ten-point plan. I later added more ideas, and it grew into a thirty-point plan, each one roughly relating to a chapter. Then, later, as I re-wrote the story, some chapters were merged, others moved to where they worked better, and five chapters actually ended up in the bin and the entire section of the story had to be completely re-written. So even plans aren’t fool proof.
4) Are there any authors or specific books you aspire to?
I really like young adult stories. I have to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The final book left me in puddles of tears (that’s really not a very manly thing to admit). To develop characters to the point that you really care for them is a real art, and the best authors make it seem so effortless.
I also like John Green, who has some really interesting views on the relationships between authors, readers, and books. Essentially, authors have to let go of their books, and let the book belong to the reader, who is free to interpret the story any way they like. Further, authors should only have the same manuscript as the reader, without privilege. It’s quite brutal really, to insist that stories and characters only exist within the bounds of the book, and that there’s nothing more to it, but it makes sense when you think about it.
5) What inspired you to write In Exchange?
My maternal grandfather taught me everything he knew about space. He taught me the names of the stars, and the history of the space race. I have quite a good memory, and facts stuck in my mind easily, so it’s little surprise that I’ve maintained some interest in astronomy and space travel all these years. This resulted in me studying space robotics as a part of my master’s degree in software engineering. My tutor, Professor Dave Barnes, was a real expert in the field, and I found a way of combining my learning with my passion.
The idea for In Exchange first popped into my head while I was sitting in church one Sunday evening. I’m a church organist. I spend a lot of time sitting in churches. No, I don’t always pay attention to what’s going on (I even fell asleep at the organ once). I was just day dreaming about space travel, and interesting experiments that could be performed, and some of the ideas stuck in my mind. I then developed them gradually over several years. I think it took me about four years to completely form the story in my head.
6) Can you tell us a little about your book?
I’ve often thought about what it would be like to live in orbit. I guess I’m not the only person to dream about that. But what if things were the other way around, and you were to dream of living on Earth, only ever having lived in a space station? This is the situation that Michael Morgan finds himself in, space-born, and alien to this world. Worse, he doesn’t have any real family to help him fulfil his dreams. In Exchange explores the ordinary through extraordinary eyes. With the help of Earth-born Peter Davies, Michael finds that he has a lot to learn about the world and himself.
7) Do you have a favourite amongst all your characters?
I love Max Marchbanks. He’s the nicest guy you could hope to meet, and the closest thing that Michael has to a parent. He’s part astronaut, part scientist, part teacher, part comedian… oh, he’s so many things. He’s a fountain of information, and that makes him really easy to write.
8) Does your book contain a message for readers to consider?
You can blame John Green for this answer! Maybe. But I’d rather let the reader work that out for themselves. Who knows, they might read something into the story that I hadn’t considered. I’m pretty sure that there will be a lot of disagreement as to who is a ‘good’ guy, and who is a ‘bad’ guy in this story.
9) What would you say has been your biggest challenge and achievement in writing In Exchange?
The biggest challenge was starting to write the story. I’d been dreaming up ideas over several years, but it took quite a lot of effort to start writing the words on the page. It’s no secret that I wrote the first draft of In Exchange for National Novel Writing Month in November 2011. I totally failed the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. I managed about 40,000 words in the month, and then finished it off in February 2012. But I have a really good excuse! While I was writing the first draft, I met a wonderful woman who just over three years later became my wife. So if finishing writing In Exchange wasn’t an achievement in itself, meeting my wife rather overshadows that.
10) What have you learned about yourself as a writer through writing In Exchange?
I can be really sarcastic! This comes out in a lot of the dialogue, and to this day, there are still some lines that make me shake my head in disbelief that I’d ever write that sort of thing. I hope readers get a few laughs out of it, at least.
11) Do you have any advice for other aspiring authors?
Make sure you fall out of love with your story after you’ve finished writing it for the first time. It’s almost certain that it will be rubbish. You’ve love writing it, and you’ll love reading it, because it’s your baby. Put it away and forget about it for several months. Only come back to it when you’ve forgotten your love for it, and then be nasty, and pull it apart. Everything that is even slightly wrong with it. Then write it again. This time, try not to make the same mistakes. And when you’ve done that, do it again!
I said before that I threw away five chapters. I really did. A sixth of my story went in the bin. When I read it, I realised that it wasn’t a children’s story at all, but a reference manual on network topologies. While my degree and knowledge about IT is really neat, it doesn’t belong in my novel, and no matter how well I explain things, no one will wade through it for fun. It’s heart breaking to realise this, but I’m so glad I did, because the story is so much better off without those five chapters. What I wrote to replace those chapters is far more exciting.
12) Anything else you would like to say?
How long have you got?
13) And finally, do you have any future works planned?
When I finished writing In Exchange, I said “This is a stand-alone novel. When the story finishes, the characters and the world they live in ceases to exist. There will be no sequel.” However, I am not John Green, and I lied. I’ve got a note book filled with ideas that didn’t make it into In Exchange. And I just know that I’ll be asked “What happens next?” I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away, if I tell you that Michael grows up a little bit, and the itch for even more adventure returns. And with Michael being a little bit older, the possibilities for things to go right or wrong are even greater.