Morgen: Hello Quentin. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Quentin: Hello. These days I live in the south of England. I spent ten years living in Iceland and the links with that part of the world are still very strong, not least because that’s where my fiction is set. I’m not sure exactly how I came to write. It’s something that was always there in the background. I trained originally to be a ship’s officer and spent a few years at sea, and from there fell into an obscure branch of journalism. The step into fiction was something I had always seen as a mug’s game as the chances of becoming published are so slim for a newcomer. So I had to give it a try and was fortunate to be taken on by a fine literary agent who cracked the whip, supplied excellent advice and found me publishers in the UK, US, Germany and Holland.
Morgen: Cracking the whip is always a good incentive. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Quentin: I write what I like to think of as Gloomy Nordic Crime Fiction, set in Iceland, but hopefully without overdoing the gloom. Other genres? Not yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen.
Morgen: Oh but gloomy crime is great. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Quentin: Frozen Out (2011) (Frozen Assets in the US) and Cold Comfort (US, Jan 2012. UK, March 2012)
My favourite so far is the one I’m just starting on that should be number 4 in the series if all goes according to plan. I’m deeply fond of my rotund heroine, Gunnhildur, even though I give her such a rough time. The seedy taxi driver Fat Matti in Frozen Out was a joy to write and I like him so much that I’d love to bring him back one day.
Morgen: I love discovering incidental characters and making them meatier characters in later stories – Kate Atkinson did this in her anthology ‘Not the End of the World’, and I was hooked! 🙂 Can you remember where you first saw one of your books in a bookshop or being read by a member of the public??
Quentin: I saw Frozen Out on a supermarket shelf two weeks before it was supposed to be published. What was a surprise was seeing a second-hand copy in a charity shop for 99p. I should have bought it.
Morgen: But then you wouldn’t have earned anything. 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Quentin: The first picture I had published was a hugely exciting event made even better by being paid for it. Acceptance is normally a thrill, or sometimes a relief. It’s confirmation that your work is up to scratch.
Morgen: Absolutely. There’s a lot of difference between gratis and someone wanting to part with their money – just look at eBooks. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Quentin: Of course. The only choices are to give up and retrain as a plumber (which has been tempting sometimes, as I’m probably too old to join the Foreign Legion), or to crack on and try to do better.
Morgen: No choice then really. 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Quentin: So far I’m a completely award-free writer.
Morgen: That’s a shame… give it time. 🙂 You mentioned earlier your whip cracking agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Quentin: Although I can’t speak for others, for me being represented by someone with that kind of expertise was a real turning point. As soon as Peter Buckman took me under his wing, I immediately started getting a much better class of rejection letter. But it didn’t take him long to find me a publisher.
Morgen: I love that (class of rejection letter). I mentioned eBooks a moment ago, are your books available as eBooks? And do you read eBooks?
Quentin: The books are available in Kindle versions. I’d hope to keep a foot in each camp as I’m a great believer in paper. I’m something of a newcomer to eBooks and have only just started reading them.
Morgen: Me too, a couple of months ago. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Quentin: I’m a little daunted at the thought of being a brand. The publishers handle marketing, which normally means lining up interviews and opportunities for me to talk to potential readers. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m gradually getting better at it. The blogging, tweeting, etc is my province and I’m probably not as enthusiastic a blogger and tweeter as I should be.
Morgen: It all takes time though but a necessity these days. Do you write under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?
Quentin: I use my own odd name. It’s not something I’ve given much thought to. I’d maybe consider using a pseudonym for another genre, if I ever have time to embark on another genre.
Morgen: If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Quentin: I’m not sure. Gunna is a robust sort of lady in the book and I’m sure there are plenty of fine character actresses out there who could do her justice. I’d really like to see someone who isn’t necessarily well-known take her on. There was one enquiry a while ago from an American company who had an actress lined up, someone who has a long track record of playing the best friend role, as far as I’m aware. I’m not a big movie watcher, and generally lost interest half-way thorough and look for a book instead.
Morgen: I love movies but the cinema is the only time I sit and do nothing so I love it. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Quentin: My UK publisher changed the title of the first book to Frozen Out just before publication, which is why the book is Frozen Assets in the US. With hindsight, they were quite right to make the change, but I’d have preferred it to have been done earlier. There was a minor disagreement over Cold Comfort, as that was the title I wanted and I got my way on that. Covers are extremely important and you have to accept that the marketing whizzes know what they’re doing. They’re not something I have a much say in although I’d like to think that it could be discussed if there were a cover that I absolutely hated. For Cold Comfort I was fortunate enough to be able to persuade Yrsa Sigurdardóttir to supply the cover blurb, and that kind of recommendation really helps.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next? Do you manage to write every day?
Quentin: I’m in the process of finishing the third Gunnhildur book (provisionally titled Chilled to the Bone) and have been tinkering with the fourth book that’s starting to take shape. I try and write every day although I don’t always manage it. I feel it’s important to get some progress made every day, even if it’s only a couple of paragraphs, as that keeps the whole thing ticking over at the back of my mind.
Morgen: Well even 300 words a day would be a 100,000 book a year. 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Quentin: It’s not something I’ve suffered from – yet. I have a day job to do as well, so by the time I get a chance to work on something Gunna-related, it’s like a release from the strictures of what I do all day and normally there’s no problem knocking it out. When ideas are thin on the ground, I find that just cranking out the words, even if it’s sub-standard stuff that’s going to be deleted later, is what sparks the thought processes and gets things moving. Staring moodily into space and waiting for inspiration does nothing. I find that where I tend to get bogged down is in the later stages of the book, keeping track of who did what, when and why. That’s when I want to bin it and start another one instead.
Morgen: Oh dear. I’ve written four novels (which I’m about to edit) and it was the threading it all together by the end that drove me mad. It’s part of the reason why I stick with short stories. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Quentin: Normally I start with an incident or a scene in the middle, that may actually get edited out of the finished book, and work in both directions. It’s probably not a great way to do things. Book 4 is a little different, as that initial incident occurs right at the beginning, so I’m working in one direction this time.
Morgen: You mentioned Gunna earlier, do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Quentin: I don’t have a particular method for creating characters. They tend to simply appear, although they can change into very different characters after a while. My feeling is that the dialogue is the key to making them credible, although real people don’t talk like characters do in books or on TV. I try to be careful with names and check as far as possible so as not to use a name that could be that of a real person in a similar position. There are several Gunnhildur Gísladóttirs in Iceland, although none of them are police officers. While I was writing Frozen Out I met someone who was so close to one of my fictional characters that the resemblance was quite uncanny. I made some changes so the resemblance was not so obvious, but it was a complete coincidence as that character had been written before the meeting took place.
Morgen: Well, it shows how realistic your character was. 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Quentin: I’m still writing as a journalist. I haven’t tried to write poetry or short stories for a very long time, but I have written a few non-fiction books, mostly extremely dull technical stuff. I once translated into English a book written by a friend in Iceland, but completely failed to find a publisher for it. It’s called Pelastikk (‘Bowline’ in English), by Gudlaugur Arason, and it’s a seagoing story that I suspect is largely very true to life.
Morgen: I would have thought seagoing would be popular (I love the sea :)) – there’s always self-publishing eBooks online. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Quentin: I’m getting better on that score. I’m not over-writing quite as much as I used to.
Morgen: Me too. I can feel when I’m wandering. 🙂 Life is all about practice, isn’t it. You do something often enough, it becomes easier, you get more confident and enjoy it more. In theory. Do you have to do much research?
Quentin: I’m finding that I have to do more and more research now that I’ve begun to exhaust my own areas of knowledge. Much of the research tends to be simply spending time in Iceland, reading the papers and keeping up with the news there, listening to how people talk and what they say, and paying attention to what their worries and concerns really are. For specialised stuff, I’m fortunate to have a group of people I can call on who can either answer a question or who will know someone who can.
Morgen: I love people-watching and that we have an excuse to do it. 🙂 Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc., do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Quentin: I prefer peace and quiet while writing. I used to be able to have music on all the time, but for some reason I can’t do that any more. Maybe it’s an age thing.
Morgen: I’m better with classical music; no words to distract me. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Quentin: I’ve tried writing in the first person and couldn’t get on with it. I prefer the multiple viewpoints that the third person allows. Maybe I’m just not a skilled enough writer to manage the first person yet? I really don’t like to see ‘I’ all over a page. But looking back over this interview I can see ‘I’ all over the place and I’m not comfortable with it.
Morgen: I spoke with three agents at Winchester Writers’ Conference last July and they all said that they’d been swamped with first person and that third person would always be more popular with readers. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Quentin: Absolutely! I’m sure that most of us have an unpublished (and possibly unpublishable) first novel in a box somewhere. I have one and it was an invaluable learning experience.
Morgen: 🙂 I’m just about to go back and edit mine – that’ll be interesting. It’s a lad-lit so at least I’ll have fun doing it. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Quentin: I hate being late. It drives me to distraction if I can’t get something finished by the agreed date, but that’s a hangover from writing for magazines with weekly or monthly deadlines. I shudder to think what it’s like working on a daily. It has to be said that making up stories is highly enjoyable and it’s a privilege to be able to do it. It’s just a shame not to be able to do it all the time. It has been a surprise (although it shouldn’t have been) having to talk to people in libraries, etc. I’m gradually becoming more comfortable with that side of it.
Morgen: I used to go to once-a-month open mic nights (until they stopped) at a local pub and was so nervous to begin with that I’d wear a sleeveless top regardless of the weather. After a couple of months the faces became familiar and it wasn’t so bad. I’d even offer to read more if they ran out of material. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Quentin: Just get on with it. Crank out the words. If you gaze into the distance and wait for your muse, you could be facing a long wait.
Morgen: Absolutely. You can’t edit a blank page. What do you like to read?
Quentin: All sorts… I grew up in a house full of Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse. Oh, Saki. I dearly love Saki’s short stories, especially the dark ones. Recently I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson. I’ve also been reading Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s trilogy of books following the trail of the 13th century Moroccan traveller Ibn-Battutah, and they’re a real treat; enormously entertaining and very readable.
I try to keep away from crime fiction while working on a first draft of a book as I don’t want to encourage the voices or atmospheres of writers I enjoy and admire from creeping into my own stuff. The crime fiction I keep coming back to is Maigret and Sjöwall & Wahlöo.
Morgen: Kate Atkinson’s one of my favourite authors. 🙂 I did a course on her at college – just three fortnightly meetings on her first three books (my first love is short stories so I’d read ‘Not the End of the World’ before we started then again before the second session). I’d not heard of her before the course was advertised and am so glad she’s done so well. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or invite three people, hiding the takeaway containers)?
Quentin: The menu would have to be fish, something best kept simple; fried fish, crusty bread and a vast tomato salad. Who to invite… there are so many interesting candidates. Today I’d choose Rudyard Kipling, Victoria Wood and Django Reinhardt. Tomorrow it would be a different choice. I’d love to have three Saga Age Icelanders, Gudrún Osvifsdóttir, Gísli Súrsson and Egill Skallagrímsson, round a table, preferably not armed, and ask them what really happened.
Morgen: Well, you do have to eat every day. 🙂 Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Quentin: From my own stuff: ‘Gunna? Can’t miss her. She’s a big fat lass with a face that frightens the horses.’
From the wonderful Saki: ‘The aunt of Clovis responded gamely to the suggestion, and churned away like a Nile steamer, with a long brown ripple of Pekingese spaniel trailing in her wake.’
Morgen: I love those… yours especially… it’s my kind of humour. 🙂 Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Quentin: No, that’s about it. A couple of times a year I go and speak to a creative writing group in a prison. That’s an interesting way to spend an afternoon.
Morgen: I went on a prison writing day talk a few months ago (where I met Sophie King) – it was really eye-opening. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Quentin: I train in two very different martial arts. Not so much because I want to beat people up, but because I can’t face going to a gym and hammering away at a running machine to stay fit. It’s also a great way of clearing the mind, as for each two-hour training session you have to concentrate on that and nothing else. I’m also something of a tree-spotter these days. It’s not difficult, as they don’t tend to move about a lot.
Morgen: 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Quentin: I have a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage on the shelf in front of me. I don’t need it often, but wouldn’t want to be without it. I also use a thesaurus and have a couple of dictionaries to refer to when necessary; English, as well as English-Icelandic and a couple of others.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Quentin: I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and I have no real idea how valuable they are.
Morgen: Fun but time-consuming if you’re not careful. I’m a member of a couple of tribes (and have my own which I’ve done nothing with yet – I will when I have time) on Triberr and that’s a wonderful tool – picking up fellow Triberr’s blogged tweets and retweeting previously sent ones every few minutes. It definitely gets my tweets retweeted more often. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Quentin: Very hard to say. It depends a great deal on what the rise in eBooks brings with it. The spectre of piracy is disturbing as it could mean that writers simply won’t be able to afford to write. At the time of writing, Cold Comfort hasn’t even been published, but there are already download sites out there that are offering free downloads of the eBook. That’s disturbing.
The alternative is that to make piracy less worthwhile, eBooks have to be so priced so low that they cost less than a newspaper, which is pretty cheap for something that represents the best part of a year’s worth of work. So while eBooks are undoubtedly here to stay, I have a fondness for dead tree technology. There are paper books that go back centuries. Everything digital depends on little magnetic machines and technology that could be gone on a few years.
But presumably publishers expect to remain in business and will need to employ writers to write for them. Hopefully the publishing business will be able to learn from the music industry’s experience of the advent of digital. But we’re set for some interesting times.
Morgen: I do think eBooks should be more reasonably priced (mine are $1.49) especially for new authors as people will take a risk on you. It’s fair enough for an established author to charge more but not almost full price. OK, so it cost something to put it together (not a lot unless there are extras) and apart from commission on the likes of Smashwords and Amazon, it costs nothing to have it online. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Quentin: My website at http://graskeggur.com, or on Facebook, also Twitter (@graskeggur). I also contribute to the International Crime Authors Reality Check group blog.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Quentin: Gráskeggur is Icelandic for greybeard. My wife’s grandmother, who has trouble pronouncing my name, called me that one day and it stayed with me.
Morgen: 🙂 Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Quentin: How do you find the time for all the stuff you do…? Do you only sleep for six hours a week?
Morgen: <laughs> Yes, pretty much. Four or five hours a night isn’t unheard of although I’m better at going to bed at a reasonable time (midnight) since giving up the day job (two weeks ago). Although I’m tied to my computer probably too much I love doing what I do and am so grateful to the authors involved here. Thank you so much, Quentin.
Brought up in the south of England, Quentin Bates took the offer of a gap year to work in Iceland in 1979 and found himself spending a gap decade there. During the 1980s he acquired a family, a new language and a new profession, before returning to the UK in 1990. He has been, among other things, a trawlerman, truck driver, teacher, factory worker and a journalist.
Frozen Out and its sequel, Cold Comfort, are born of the author’s own intimate knowledge of Iceland and its people, along with the fascination of the recent upheaval in Iceland’s turbulent society. He and his wife regularly return to their friends, relatives and alternate home in the north of Iceland.
Frozen Out and Cold Comfort are already or are due to be published in the UK, US, Germany and Holland.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on the main blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have this blog, https://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com, on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. I welcome critique for the four new writing groups listed below and / or flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays. For other opportunities see (see Opportunities on this blog).
The full details of the new online writing groups, and their associated Facebook groups, are:
- Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group (http://novelwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/508696639153189)
- Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group (http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/388850977875934)
- Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group (http://scriptwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/319941328108017)
- Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group (http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/544072635605445)
We look forward to reading your comments.