Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with humorous fantasy / magic realism novelist Jack Barrow. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Jack. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Jack: I’m a middle-aged technical writer, copywriter, one-time journalist, of some twenty-five years, living in Hertfordshire, England. I’ve written some non-fiction over the years, mostly philosophical writing related to what used to be called new age subjects but now often referred to as paganism. I’d often wondered about writing fiction and when I tried it I found I really enjoyed it.
Morgen: My mum lives in Hertfordshire. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Jack: I’m not really sure about my genre. Some people call it fantasy as my fiction is about magicians but there are few genuinely supernatural events, instead there are a lot of things happening by coincidence. There certainly aren’t any non human races such as elves or dwarves (do cats count as a non human race?) and the story is set in Blackpool, so can you call it fantasy? Other people have called it magic realism. I don’t really like to label myself but let other people decide what I’m writing. Oh and I find it difficult to write seriously when I’m telling stories so I put in jokes or observations as I see them, I write flippantly and often end up in absurd situations so I suppose you’d call that comedy.
Morgen: “flippantly” sounds fun. What have you had published to-date?
Jack: Apart from the non-fiction I’ve only published my first novel. The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil is the story of Nigel, Wayne and Clint, three master magicians who discover a plot to build casinos in Blackpool so turning it into a seedy, tacky and depraved town. Naturally something needs to be done. So they head up there on Friday night but they have to save the universe by Sunday evening because they need to be back at work on Monday morning.
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process?
Jack: Yes, I think eBooks are a vital part of the process, especially for authors developing their careers. You hear of authors who hit the big time just through eBooks but naturally they are a very small percentage of the market. I feel you can’t ignore the paper market as many readers and reviewers still won’t touch eBooks. At the moment I’m published by two different publishers, one for the paperbacks and one for the eBooks. I’m quite heavily involved in the development for both as the process only splits when you have a finished manuscript and generally that’s generating a PDF configured for the specific needs of the publisher. It’s not like the grown up world of publishing, you have to do a lot yourself (or hire people in) you really can’t expect the publisher to do everything. I’m also a bit of a control freak so I like to have as much control over the production process as possible, I can’t stand shoddy books and there’s quite a lot of them out there.
Morgen: There are, sadly, which gives a bad name to others. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Jack: Being as I have only one novel out so far it’s Hobson’s choice, however I’ve been faced with this dilemma for a very real reason. As part of the promotional effort I made a graphic novel type animation of a scene from the book that’s posted on You Tube. The plan was to get actors to do the voices but in the end I did speech bubbles. The two characters featured in the scene are Clint, a hippy and Wayne a guy who went to quite a good school so he speaks with quite a well to do accent. First of all I had to find images of people to do the faces and that means using celebrities as there are so many photos of them with different expressions. Because I’m not sure of the legalities I did my best change their appearance by adding a beard or hair but I’m not going to confirm or deny who they are. One day I heard Ian Ogilvy in a radio play, remember him? He’s the guy who played the The Saint in the seventies. I thought that’s the voice of Wayne but I doubt I could afford him. We are currently thinking of doing a voice track for the video but we are probably going to use out of work drama teachers rather than celebs. Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGOPShp9DGU
Morgen: What a great idea. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Jack: I was very much a fan of the likes of Douglas Adams plus all the fantasy novels that appeared in the Eighties. I used to read some sci-fi when I was a kid but I can’t remember much of it. I remember devouring all the Stephen Donaldson and Julian May books, massive long series. Later I got into Robert Rankin and he sort of inspired me to write absurd stories. People always think I’ve read lots of Terry Pratchett but I’ve only read a few of his early ones. I sort of stopped reading fiction when I started to study for my degree and now I only read fiction very occasionally. I still like the philosophical exploration of Douglas Adams. It’s not really hard core philosophy but it is vaguely metaphysical, sort of, ‘what if the universe worked like this?’ type speculations. Because I write about the supernatural that sort of exploration fits very will with the stories and I often put in a side bar to talk about an idea before continuing. It can get a bit weird, one reviewer said bonkers recently, which I really appreciated. I like the idea of being bonkers.
Morgen: One of my favourite quotes is a Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines; the sound as they woosh by.” (although I try and stick to mine). Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Jack: Yes, again because I’m so involved with the production process I’ve had almost total control over the covers and titles. The title The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil arose very early and it sort of stuck. It might have been better titled Four Magicians Go Mad in Blackpool or Casinos, Criminals and the Chronically Drunk but I’ve never really given it much thought after the title appeared. It does mean the second title will follow the same format thereby establishing the series.
The same goes with the covers. This time around I decided to go for an almost text only cover. There are lots or really great photoshop artists out there doing brilliant colour work but how does it translate to a black & white Kindle cover? text alone seemed the right way to go and it gave me the option to include a subtitle, A hard drinking occult adventure with gambling… and trouser issues.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Jack: Well that leads on from the question of titles. The working title of book two is The Hidden Masters and the Techno Knights but that depends on how the story pans out. All I can say is that it features an end of the world cult, the destruction of a literary festival and some Morris Men practiced in the ancient martial art of Sticky Knocky. The name of the martial art is an exclusive for you Morgen!
However, there is a distraction before then in that I’m planning to have a total change of direction before continuing. In the early summer I’m planning to go on tour around the country and write about it. I’ve often wanted to write a travelogue, particularly about travelling across Africa with a Land Rover and some drums, this would be in Britain rather than Africa but hey, what can you do? I’ll be away for about six weeks and I’m hoping that by the end of it I’ll have a manuscript that I can hand straight over to my editor to sort out, then I can get back to doing the next Hidden Masters story. How that’s going to pan out I don’t know.
Morgen: “Sticky Knocky” I love it! Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Jack: I struggle to write when I want to because there are so many distractions. That’s another reason to involve other professionals to help you as most of the distractions are related to promotions or production and all that. If you spend all your time building your web site you don’t get any time to write.
Some time ago I came up with the idea of Barrow’s Law, that states that, ‘Social media promotion expands to fill the time allocated for the creation of that which is being promoted.’ I don’t think anybody noticed at the time that I said it.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Jack: I do a bit of each. With the first one I knew it was going to be about casinos as there really was a plan to build casinos in Blackpool when I started to write it. Then it was just a case of adding some sort of evil entity that would be behind the plan. Of course that had to fit in with the nature of changing the legislation which was the background but there was an opportunity to interweave real events with the fiction. Perhaps that’s part of why I struggle to call it fantasy. Beyond that there is actually a formula because these guys, The Three Hidden Masters, two from Hemel Hempstead and one from Bricket Wood, are actually real people. They are out there in the world and you could meet them on the street, just you wouldn’t know it as they are like ordinary people, hidden but in full view. You often can’t tell a superhero when you meet one.
So these three guys do go on adventures, well okay, they go away for the weekend, get drunk and perform ceremonial magic on Saturday night before coming home on the Sunday. That’s basically the structure of the stories, blokes’ weekends away. These stories are basically male mysteries, male bonding adventures. I just spice it up a bit. Readers have to decide how much is fiction and how much is real. If these things happened in real life would you get to hear about it? Perhaps you have heard about it and not realised.
So the second story will follow a similar structure, a weekend away, plenty of booze and some falling down; oh and an adventure with an end of the world cult. However I don’t want to be accused of writing to a formula so when I get to story three I may change the whole structure and do away with the weekend bit, but by then the characters should be established and I’ll be able to play a bit more.
Morgen: Speaking of characters, do you have a method for creating yours, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Jack: As I said before, Nigel, Wayne and Clint are real people, as is their mate Geoff who lives in Blackpool. More than that I’m not saying because they might get annoyed and with their capabilities who knows what that would mean.
Morgen: <laughs> Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Jack: I write in layers so I tend to write a chapter then go over it again making it smoother, polishing the rough edges, refining it. I’m rarely happy with a first draft. Then I might go back and change something earlier in the story if I have an idea that needs to be preceded by something. The policemen in the first book were added when it was nearly finished. The book is basically the story of the decline of a town over the course of a single weekend and I realised that I wanted to have some police characters encountering the growing crime wave, so many of them were added in so that they could all come together towards the end.
The difficult thing is leaving it alone after it’s been edited. There’s a danger that it is finished and you can fiddle too much and put in errors instead of making it better. Typos are the bane of my loaf.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have to do much research?
Jack: That all depends on the subject. Because I’m writing about the world of the occult and people from the modern pagan movement I have to get that right and I have some connections there. Other aspects also require research as you simply have to get the details right. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it can be made up. The end of the world cult in book two is going to be based on a real study from psychology by a guy called Leon Festinger. His book When Prophecy Fails is next on my list. That might give you and idea of what happens at the beginning of The Hidden Masters and the Techno Knights. The first chapter is going to be called The End.
Morgen: Nice. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Jack: I write in the third person. I would think the first person would be terribly restricting because you would have trouble taking the action away from the main character, such as you need to for dramatic irony, unless of course you jump perspective. I think when I started years ago I would have struggled to do that but these days I might give it a go. I’ve got three main characters though: Nigel, Wayne and Clint, and there is usually a fourth magician whom they become involved with so which character would be the first person character?
Your second person question is interesting though as I’ve never heard the term. I’ve got no formal training in any of this although I have been making my living from writing of other sorts since the late eighties. However, having read your post on the second person now I realise that I might be using it without realising. When I put in the side bar explorations of ideas and concepts I often address the reader directly. Is that what second person is?
Morgen: If you use ‘you’ then, yes.
Jack: Because I’m exploring a world that many people won’t have experience of, i.e. the modern pagan movement, I often have to talk about these things. For example if the very first chapter of The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil Nigel, who is the seer or diviner of the trio, gets his tarot cards out. At this point I explain, or explore, the concept of how he treats his cards, where they are stored and whether he is worried about spilling beer all over them. Well not quite with the beer but if you read it you’ll get my drift. In this case I’m talking to the reader and I’ll address the reader in the first person. Does this mean that I’m writing in the second person?
The other thing that I’m told I do inadvertently is to break the fourth wall. I didn’t know what this was called until my editor told me she liked, ‘all this fourth wall stuff.’ When I do this it’s often Nigel referring to the situation they are in and addressing the readers or the author. It’s usually him who takes on this role because, as the magician with the divination skills, he can see across boundaries and into other universes. Perhaps, when the veil is thinnest (or when he is drunk enough), he can see into our universe.
Good question Morgen, by the way.
Morgen: <curtseys> Thank you very much. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Jack: I once wrote a poem about a spoon but only because I was trying to remember a poem about a spoon written by a friend and I ended up writing my own inspired by him. He’s the Grumpy Wizard of the west, by the way, and he features in The Hidden Masters and the Techno Knights. I’ve written a lot of articles over the years, some of them for my work or for magazines or web sites. I’ve never really written short stories but I have a few ideas. Trouble is there are always more urgent things to be done and you have to do the things that are likely to get results. A single shot story isn’t really going to do much whereas a whole bunch peppered all over the show would raise your profile. I don’t really have the time or energy to do that. I’ve been too busy making animated videos and stuff. I might have been better served by writing some short stories but, hey, I am where I am.
Morgen: Sounds like you’re having fun though. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Jack: Yes, some of the short story ideas. I also have some long ideas that would make whole novels but they are at the bottom of the list until the Hidden Masters have had four stories as I plan to do one for each compass direction.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Jack: Yes loads. I cry a lot.
Morgen: Oh dear. 😦 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Jack: An agent would be great and you have to have one to make it. Trouble is the big publishers handed the sorting process on to the agents some years ago and now agents have the slush piles. With so many people expressing their ambitions to write it’s almost impossible to get taken up. They might spot you as worth it but their list might be full, they might not deal with your genre or they might not understand what you’ve written if they can’t pigeonhole you into a particular genre. Whatever you do, don’t write anything original as they won’t know how to classify you, but don’t copy the trend as you’ll be lost in the mush of the competition. In fact don’t get out of bed at all. Actually these days you can stay in bed and write with a tablet, I haven’t dropped to that point yet but I may end up doing that with the Travelogue.
Morgen: You can although it would kill my back to do so (I get sciatica quite badly from time-to-time). Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Jack: I’m not very good at selling myself. I always feel like a wannabe when I say ‘will you please read my book,’ despite the fact that I’ve been writing in one form or another for 25 years. I probably do really need an agent. Lately I’ve had some support from readers who have really helped get the message out there. That’s the best sort of marketing, people who like the work and are happy to tell people about it.
Morgen: They do say a lot of a writer’s success is word of mouth and nothing beats reader recommendation, especially now some authors lower themselves to review their own books and / or slate other authors’! What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Jack: The isolation and the fact that you have to keep on going. You have to have stickability. I think I learned that from the Open University. With the OU you have to think in terms of years and the same applies to writing. Very few people make it overnight. The best aspect is the feedback from the readers. Please, I want to hear from you guys, you make it worth it!
Morgen: Yes, folks, please do. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Jack: Don’t give up and listen to the aggregate of your feedback. Not everybody will like it but if enough people do, in a global market, then you have a future. The opinions of strangers are more valuable than people you know.
Morgen: Absolutely. Friends are more likely to say they like your writing (except my mother, so I only show her the fluffy stuff!). If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Jack: Definitely a takeaway. I’d invite Spike Milligan because he was such a genius and so damaged by the world in which he lived; he deserves a final slap up treat. I’d invite the bloke who fixed my roof all those years ago and never came to collect his 45 quid, because he deserves it too, and I’d invite God so I could ask him what the bloody hell he thought he was doing!
Morgen: <laughs> You’re funny. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Jack: I’ve been making a living from writing for corporations for 25 years and I continue to do so in one form or another. I’d like to stop some time soon and do this instead.
Morgen: Answering interviews? 🙂 Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Jack: I used to use MySpace years ago but I had to look up my login the other day because it was so many years since I’ve been there. Facebook and Twitter are essential but you have to be careful not to over promote or it becomes spam. Ultimately people want direct contact, a relationship if you like, with the people whose work they enjoy and social media gives us that two way connection. You have to be careful not to spoil that relationship. I think the best writers at this are the ones that give you a slice of their life and I try to do that with my readers.
Morgen: I have a MySpace page too (as my name, I think) and haven’t logged on for years. I can’t even remember what I put on it. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Jack: I tend to steer people to my web site because there I can give all the links that are appropriate. At the moment I’m sending people to the page for the book I’m promoting (http://www.jack-barrow.com/books/unspeakable_evil.htm) but that might change. I’ve often been tempted to direct people to the reviews page on Amazon but that strikes me as a bit needy, best to be a bit nonchalant. Do you think my nonchalance is why I’m a bit rubbish at promotion?
Morgen: Which is why you’re here. That, and to escape writing for corporations. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Jack: I’m just very happy to have had this chance to talk about my work. Are most authors basically self-obsessed and want to talk about themselves? Thank you anyway, it’s been quite therapeutic and your questions have been different to many that I’ve come across.
Morgen: Re. the self-obsessed I’d say probably 50:50. Most of the authors I’ve hosted / yet to host have been delightful and certainly not pushy but some (not necessarily my authors!) tout prolifically on the likes of Twitter, perhaps because they feel it’s the way to go. But an author should never be more than 10% self-promotional. A platform like this is ideal because the reader gets to know the author and then wants to investigate their books; that’s definitely the right way round. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Jack: When can I buy you dinner?
Morgen: <laughs> Make sure there’s Banoffee pie for dessert and I’m there. Thank you for joining me today, Jack.
Jack Barrow is a novelist based in Hertfordshire from where he writes about the world of the occult and the supernatural with an absurd perspective that he hopes will make people think and laugh in equal measure. He has been making his living from writing for business ever since he talked his way into a magazine publisher in the late eighties. He is currently working on the second Hidden Masters novel about three blokey middle-aged friends who save the universe at weekends so that they can continue their day jobs during the week. He is also currently trying to learn to play the ukulele.
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