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Ian Whates interviewed

Ian Whates is an author, editor and Ian Whates: City of Dreams and Nightmarepublisher.  He lives in a comfortable home down a quiet cul-de-sac in an idyllic Cambridgeshire village, which he shares with his partner Helen and a manic cocker spaniel called Honey.  Ian has seen more than 40 of his short stories published in a variety of venues and has two ongoing novel series, the ‘Noise’ books with Solaris and the ‘City of 100 Rows’ series with Angry Robot.  The second volume of each, The Noise Revealed and City of Hope and Despair appeared in early 2011.  Ian has also edited a number of anthologies, many of them through his own NewCon Press.  He is currently the chairman of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), has served as a director for the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), and has been one of the key organisers of the Newcon series of conventions in Northampton.

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You organise events like Newcon; you run a successful indie publishing company, NewCon Press; you’re so prolific a writer that you have two publishers as a mere one can’t keep up; you edit anthologies; you write short stories… How do you find the time?

That’s a question I often ask myself.  I do tend to work long hours – often ten hours plus on a week day, three to five hours a day at weekends.  The last time I spent a day without doing any work whatsoever was December 25th.  However, I’m not really the martyr that might suggest.  Various factors make this sort of schedule possible.  I work from home, which means no commute.  I simply walk downstairs and switch on the computer.  As you suggest, there is variety.  If I ever get bogged down with the writing, I can generally switch to editing someone else’s work for an anthology, working on a book cover, chasing up an author for a promised story that hasn’t arrived… and come back to the writing with a fresh eye later.  Most importantly, I genuinely love what I do, so although it’s often hard and intense, it’s rarely that much of a chore.

How did you get your break as a writer?

The short answer is through determination, a great deal of hard work and perseverance.  To put that into context, I’ve always wanted to write.   I made an attempt to do so back in the late 1980s, selling half a dozen stories to small press magazines, but that early start was aborted for reasons that don’t matter now.  In the mid-noughties I took stock of my life and realised that if I ever was going to be a writer, now was the time.  I jacked in the rat race and set about trying to establish myself as an author.  I joined the BSFA.  I joined a writers group.  I went to conventions and met authors and industry professionals etc.  Then, in 2006, I began a relentless regime of writing and submitting short stories.  This led to a shed load of rejections but an increasing number of acceptances as well.  By the time I turned my attention to novel writing in 2008, I’d had 30-odd short stories published in various venues, been nominated for a BSFA Award and qualified for SFWA membership.

I then set about writing a novel.  When I mentioned this to the editors at Solaris (who had bought one of my later shorts, “the Assistant” which was itself award nominated), they asked to see what I had, which was just six chapters.  The novel was also enough to secure my first agent, John Jarrold, and my career as a novelist was under way.

Tell us about the Noise series: pacy, action-packed space opera, described by Stephen Baxter as “Unreasonably enjoyable. 24 meets Starship Troopers. If you read Reynolds, Hamilton, Banks – read this.”  What was it about space opera that made you want to write it?

The ‘Noise’ books had an interesting genesis.  Among the short stories I’d written was a loose series of tales set against the background of a centuries-long war in human space.  The idea was to tell the story of a war from the point of view of the ‘little people’ who are caught up in the conflict, creating a collage-style impression of events and consequences without ever actually addressing the war itself as a continuous narrative.  The intention was to pull all these tales together at a future date and create a mosaic novel.

As mentioned earlier, Solaris asked to see the first six chapters of my work in progress, which would become City of Dreams and Nightmare.  It turned out, unfortunately, that this wasn’t the type of novel they were looking for at the time.  They wanted space opera.  They evidently loved my writing, though, and invited me to pitch a space opera idea to them.  The only thing I had was the mosaic novel, so I duly sent them a rough outline of that.

Except this was Solaris, who were then owned by Games Workshop.  They politely pointed out that they already had all the war and military SF they needed.   However, there were several elements in the outline that they liked.

I mulled this over and decided to carry forward the ideas they were keen on (AI spaceship, intelligent gun, etc etc) and contemplate a story using those elements but set a generation or two after my war.  The narrative would centre on an element from a story that I’d planned but not yet written, an experiment attempted during the war which went disastrously wrong and had now returned to haunt its creators.  I pitched the resultant synopsis along with the first chapter, and Solaris liked it enough to offer me a two book deal on that basis.

City of Dreams and Nightmare might appear to be a bit of a departure for you, a steampunky Peake-y fantasy. Why fantasy? How do you feel about genre boundaries: constrained by the ghetto or inspired?

Not really that much of a departure.  I’ve always written both SF and fantasy and have had several short stories in both fields published.  As for ‘genre’ boundaries, when I was younger they mattered a great deal, but now not so much.  I actually think the ‘City of 100 Rows’ series straddles boundaries, and tend to describe it as urban fantasy with SF underpinning and steampunk overtones.  That pretty much gives me licence to weave anything I want into the narrative and I’ve delighted in doing so.  I’ve been very much inspired by the urban surroundings rather than constrained, though of course Thaiburley is a great deal more than just the City Below, its basement level, so I was able to dip in and out the other 90-odd Rows as well, and, in the second and third volumes, pursue some elements of the narrative in the world outside the city’s walls.

What’s a typical working day for you, with so much to pack in?

‘Typical’ might be pushing it a bit, but… Get up between 6.00 am and 7.00 am.  Come downstairs and turn the computer on.  Over the next hour or so, and fuelled by cups of tea, deal with emails and visit a couple of regular forums, then start writing.

7.45 Take dog for a walk (30 to 40 minutes).

8.30 Make breakfast for me, the dog, and my long-suffering partner, Helen.

9.00 Back to work – writing.

12.30 Stop for lunch.

1.00 Back to work; mainly writing, probably interspersed with some editing or other NewCon Press related matters.

Anywhere between 5.00 and 6.30 (depending on the situation with the writing and who’s cooking the evening meal) stop work.

What part of the writing process do you like best? And least?

The best bit is the writing itself.  I write in a very organic way, with only the loosest of plots.  I generally write a given book’s closing scene when I’m perhaps a third of the way through, because the ending will have come to me very vividly while I walked the dog or ate my breakfast and it simply demands to be written down.  Immediately.  The exciting part is then discovering how my characters got to this final juncture.  I love it when a character surprises me, which might sound a little odd coming from said character’s creator, but it happens all the time.  In one particular instance it was only right towards the end of a novel that I realised two characters were actually the same person.  As soon as I had, it was obvious.  I went back and made one small tweak to an earlier chapter to provide the reader with the hint of a clue, but didn’t necessarily need to.  I don’t believe this was my subconscious shaping the writing so much as the creative process continuing to evolve even as the narrative nears conclusion.

What next?

Well, I’m about to launch two new anthologies through NewCon Press (one of them homage to Sir Arthur C Clarke’s classic Tales from the White Hart), featuring original stories from a raft of fabulous authors – Neil Gaiman, Charlie Stross, Dan Abnett, Stephen Baxter, Lauren Beukes, James Lovegrove, Ian Watson, Eric Brown, Tony Ballantyne, Stephen Palmer, Liz Williams, Adam Roberts etc etc – many of whom I’ve worked with before but some of whom are completely new to the Press.  Then, in the summer, I’m launching a new short story collection by Liz Williams with introduction by Tanith Lee – A Glass of Shadow – and in the autumn a novel by Gary McMahon entitled The End… not forgetting I’m throwing a party at a London pub in July to commemorate five years of NewCon Press.  I’m also co-editing with Ian Watson a new ‘Mammoth’ title for Constable and Robinsons – The Mammoth Book of SF Wars – and putting together a new SF anthology for Solaris, Solaris Rising, due out at the end of the year…

As for the writing, I’m taking a break from the ‘City of 100 Rows’ and the ‘Noise’ books – either of which I could return to in the future – to write something new.  SF again rather than fantasy… and this one will feature a banker as central character (yes, really!).  I’m planning this as a trilogy, the working title for which is ‘Drake’s Dark Dilemma’.  As for describing it, I’m aiming for something akin to Sherlock Holmes meets Firefly.  How close to that I actually get, we’ll have to wait and see.

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