Tuesday 20 February 2018

Interview: Rob Campbell

This morning, I'm pleased to be welcoming author Rob Campbell to The Writing Greyhound for a chat. From life and writing to his latest Young Adult mystery novel Monkey Arkwright, there's plenty to discover in my latest author interview!

Firstly, tell me a little about yourself and your background.
I’m a Mancunian born and bred. I live with my wife and two daughters, and pretty much everything that I do is centred on family. We all love holidays and try to get away as much as we can. When I’m at home, I enjoy reading, films, TV and music. I love music, particularly American singer-songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but I also like some lesser-known artists such as Josh Ritter and Ryan Bingham. Basically, musicians who combine great music with thoughtful lyrics or a good story in their songs. I’m a life-long Manchester City fan (of the armchair variety). 
I’m a software engineer by day, and I think that writing all that code, and the documentation that goes with it, has given me the discipline that’s necessary to get on with writing my novel. My day job requires a lot of technical skills, and I think that some of those skills are transferable to the creative writing process; activities such as organising the plot, planning the chapters out, keeping track of the characters arcs have some overlap with software development process (but writing is a lot more fun, of course).
How did you first become interested in writing?
I’ve always tried to be creative. I was pretty good at art as a kid and in recent years, I’ve enjoyed making some amateur comedy videos based on family holidays at our favourite hotel in Spain. I love music and I can play a few chords, but in truth, I don’t think that I’d ever been able to write a decent song (unlike my daughters). But I think that I can write an interesting story and create some likeable characters. I’ve always enjoyed reading, and I love how you can lose yourself for hours in a story well told. So, trying to write something that would entertain others just seemed like a natural thing to do. A colleague and I wrote a comedy farce about twenty years ago, and we also wrote a couple of TV scripts, none of which piqued the interest of the literary or TV world. But the enjoyment that I got from the experience has always stayed with me, and the writing that I’ve done over the last two years, culminating in my debut novel, has been an immensely rewarding experience.
monkey-arkwright, rob-campbell, book

Tell me about Monkey Arkwright.
Monkey Arkwright is the name of one of the main protagonists in my debut novel of the same name. He’s the boy who loves to climb. The narrator of my story is Lorna, a budding young writer who is struggling to come to terms with the recent death of her father. In my earliest ideas for the story, I was going to cover Monkey’s life; documenting all the climbs that he made growing up. I’d have a secondary character (that became the book’s narrator, Lorna) who Monkey would tell these tall tales too. But rather than focus on Monkey’s upbringing, having fun describing more innocent times, I decided to craft a plot that would take Monkey and Lorna to darker places. Lorna is already in a dark place when the story starts; luckily, I never had to go through the experience of losing a parent when I was a young, but I tried to imagine what this would be like and how it would influence Lorna’s thought process. Monkey turns out to be the catalyst for change in her life, but together, they become embroiled in a black-hearted mystery that has its roots in some dark deeds that took place more than a century earlier. They meet in a graveyard at the start of the book, and I’m really proud of that opening scene; it sets up what is to follow beautifully.
What’s the best thing about writing for young adults?
I’ve been quite open about the inspiration for Monkey Arkwright. I set out with the intention of writing a coming-of-age tale in the spirit of Stephen King’s The Body (better known in its film version Stand By Me), but melding this with the type of mystery/adventure stories where a group of kids latch onto something strange that is going on in their hometown (again, using a film reference, think of The Goonies). These were the types of books and films that I enjoyed growing up, and I think that they have a timeless appeal. A young adult audience is prepared to open their mind to a bit of mystery and wonder; they represent a group of readers who are not always after a police procedural or a cold crime thriller – otherwise, how would book series such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games have turned out to be such successes? I certainly don’t want to undersell my book, there’s a bit of grim reality in there as well, and I think that it’s this balance of reality and fantasy that makes the young adult market so fascinating to write for. Having said all of that, I would like to think that my book would appeal to anybody young at heart, not just teenagers.
What drew you to writing mysteries?
There are certain books that you can read where the plot is almost incidental; either it’s nothing new or it’s simply run-of-the-mill. But what makes it stand out are the characters. Some characters are so well written that you’d quite happily read 500 pages of them pottering about the house, being cynical or emotional or funny. Characters that leap off the page. However, I don’t think that I could write a book like that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve put a lot of work into my protagonists, a couple of antagonists and even the minor characters – I hate it when a book is full of cardboard cut-outs that could have wandered in from any generic book of the same genre. However, I love the mechanics of building a plot; spending the first half of the book setting the wheels in motion and then having the characters untangle the web. Taking all of this into consideration, what’s better than writing a mystery? What’s in that box? Where did the box come from? Why does the one-armed guy want it? Why is the one-armed guy scared of mice? None of these questions applies to my book, but hopefully, you can see what I mean.
Did you undertake much research for the book?
Being honest, no. Any that I did do, I resorted to Google. At one point, I became obsessed with making sure that none of my character names were real people but quickly realised that this was a futile exercise. I think I managed that with Monkey Arkwright though! Without giving too much of the plot away, I did do a bit of research on a few famous people from history, and also a few myths and customs.
How did you get inspiration?
I’ve already mentioned a couple of films that have inspired me, but I also take great inspiration from music. Listening to the kind of music that I like - story songs, often played out against a backdrop of poetically-described landscapes and places – it’s hard not to be inspired. The odd lyric has sneaked into my writing here and there and quite often, a brilliant lyric, or even the music itself, can be the launchpad for a series of ideas that take root in my mind and keep me writing for paragraphs on end. I also find that going out for a walk is a good boost for the imagination; time to dream, when your eyes are not locked on a Kindle or a computer screen. The rocks next to that pine tree – what would happen if I discovered a hidden door there...
rob-campbell, author

What’s your writing process like?
I try to write at times that won’t affect family time too much. If they are all watching a two-hour episode of The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing, this is golden writing time for me, and I usually get two or three hours done at the weekend. I’ll spend half an hour here or there in the week. For Monkey Arkwright, I wrote three chapters at a time before handing them over to my beta readers (my two daughters and my friend) and getting their feedback. For future books, I think that I might hand over each chapter as it is written – taking feedback on board and editing three chapters together seemed a bit of a mammoth task at times. I write mostly in the autumn and winter – spring and summer are for dreaming up the next plot!
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Starting and stopping. After a hard day in front of my computer screen at work, sometimes the last thing that I want to do is sit in front of my computer at home and write. If I’m not careful, hours and days can go by, lost to procrastination, trying to decide if I should write something. Conversely, when I do manage to summon up the enthusiasm to write, I find it very hard to stop! Even though I know that I have to be up early for work the next day, that “just another paragraph, just another chapter” feeling that you get as a reader is amplified ten-fold as a writer.
What do you love most about writing?
Creating a story that I know is all mine. That plot that you’ve been working out for the last month or so, that character that you’ve dreamed up and tweaked until he’s perfect; getting those ideas down on paper is incredibly satisfying for me.
Which authors inspire you?
Surprisingly, given that I write for a young adult audience, most of my literary heroes write in either the thriller or fantasy genre. David Morrell, the author who originally created the Rambo character is, in my view, the finest thriller writer that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. His plots involving government spies and assassins twist and turn, yet his characters are never supermen, and there’s often a shady organisation lurking in the background. Scott Lynch (more on him later) is one of the recent stars of the fantasy world. Similarly, Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy books feature the finest set of characters that I have ever read, and I love the way that he takes well-established tropes and turns them on their head.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
If you get an idea, start writing. Don’t worry about literary conventions – write in your own voice. Just because somebody hasn’t written a novel in this style before, doesn’t mean it won’t work. Make sure that your characters are as interesting as your plot. As an independent author, prepare for a long, hard slog after you’ve released your book!
What are you currently working on?
Whilst I was developing the backstory for Monkey Arkwright, I realised that it was far too much to fit in one book. I could have written a longer book, but this didn’t feel right for the market that I was pitching my story at. I’m not out to extract money from of my audience ad-infinitum – it feels like the story will fit nicely into a trilogy. So, I’m currently in the planning process for the second book in the Wardens of the Black Heart series. I like to plan things for months before I start writing – you wouldn’t believe how many notes I have in notepad on my computer!
What are you reading at the moment?
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. Mark’s written quite a few books in the fantasy genre in the last few years, but I’ve never got around to reading any. A friend recommended Red Sister, and given that it is the first book in a new series, this seemed like a good point to jump in at. It’s one of those books where a young apprentice goes to an academy (in this case, a convent) to learn a set of deadly skills. The characters are well written and I have high hopes for it.
What’s your all-time favourite book?
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Whatever I write in this short paragraph could not possibly do justice to this masterpiece – but I’ll try. It tells the tale of a group of orphans, trained by a Fagin-like character in the art of thievery, and is set in a fantasy world, specifically the city of Camorr, a medieval Venice-like city. As the story progresses, so do Locke’s skills, bringing him and his group into contact with ever more dangerous people. The descriptions in this book are beautifully written and the plot twists are of the jaw-dropping variety. Plus, Scott Lynch presents The Lies of Locke Lamora in an interesting way; the heart of the story is Locke and his band of brothers pulling off an elaborate con, but every few chapters, we get a short segment of backstory in which we learn about certain key events and characters from Locke’s past. Whilst this sounds like it might be jarring, trust me, it isn’t, and I love the way that Lynch cleverly segues from the present to the past and back (or is that forward?) again.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
Modest if I’m being honest. I certainly hope to complete the Wardens of the Black Heart trilogy and pick up enough fans of the series to make this happen. I’ve said on my blog that I want to sell 200 copies in the first year and that’s my immediate target. When you look at the numbers, an independent author would have to sell a staggering number of books to be able to become a full-time author. I don’t believe that this will happen to me and to be honest, I’m not complaining. I’ve got a good day job and I’m quite comfortable with writing software by day and novels by night for the foreseeable future.
Monkey Arkwright is available to buy now. For more information about Rob and his work, you can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

Will you be reading the book? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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