In a series I’ve decided to call The Fahrenhista Social Club I have a Q&A with the authors of new indie publishers Fahrenheit Press. You may have already seen my Q&A with James Craig and today is the turn of Grant Sutherland. Grant is the author of a number of novels and his latest, West of the City, was published by Fahrenheit Press on 28 November 2015.
1. Tell us a little about West of the City.
It’s set in the financial and political world of London in the 1990s. It uses the thriller form to capture the historical moment when many of the older values and practices of finance and politics (for better or worse) succumbed to the modern world.
2. What inspired the book?
I’d worked in the Foreign Exchange market for several years, and it was clear to me that almost every modern book of fiction set in the world of finance and politics was nonsense. In the 20th Century a big and unhealthy split opened up between fiction that was termed ‘literature’ and fiction that was termed ‘genre’. ‘Literature’ for the most part, turned away from the larger stories of public life and went down the introspective route. In the extreme case, literary writers didn’t – and don’t – appear to have a clue about the mechanics of the world. ‘Genre’, in the meantime, attempted the larger stories, but in ways that I found increasingly one-dimensional and ridiculous. I think both types of book suffered – and are still suffering – from their ongoing separation.
In West of the City I was attempting to make my own reconciliation between ‘literature’ and ‘genre’, using a financial and political backdrop.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
Every writer has a plan: the only difference is in the depth. For some writers the plan might be as simple as taking a character and setting him running to the end of the book. And that can work. But I think John Buchan’s novels show the both benefits and drawbacks of that approach. The powerful fluency of the Buchan stories at the sentence-and-paragraph level is too often bought at the cost of absurdities and disjunctions in the plots.
‘Plan’ is perhaps too grandiose a word for what I do. I certainly think intensely about the structure of the story long before I start writing. When I have the structure reasonably settled in my mind, I jot down a list of chapters (or scenes, if I’m writing a play). The ‘seeing where the words take me’ part then happens in the day-to-day writing within that listed framework. I’m not religious about sticking with the ‘plan’, but I find that I rarely need to deviate from it much.
How long does writing a novel take? Something like the historical books (400-500 pages) takes about a year, including the research. Novellas (about 150 pages), take about 3months.
4. You’ve a prolific writing career with an array of thriller and historical novels previously published. Which is you favourite genre to writing and are what are the biggest challenges to both?
I don’t have a favourite genre, I just like to work on what interests me at the time.
For the contemporay thrillers, I like to use the story to open up a particular background or subject. In West of the City, for example, it’s finance, the City of London, and Establishment politics. In Diplomatic Immunity, it’s the United Nations and international diplomacy. Each of my contemporary thrillers opens up some aspect of the modern world that interests me.
For the historical pieces the challenge is slightly different. I generally do a lot of reading of original sources around an episode of history that I find interesting. That reading generally suggests to me an overarching structure for the story. Within that overarching historical structure, the personal story then takes shape. I’m very careful about the interplay between the facts of history and the fictional element of the story. I never consciously alter a fact. In these historical pieces I’m also highly aware of something I’d call ‘tone-of-mind’. That is, I maintain a proper respect for the historical characters’ view of their own world. Most historical fiction either utterly fails in this, or hammers at those particular attitudes or points-of-view which the writer happens to have noticed, researched or disliked. I prefer the challenge of suffusing the appropiate ‘tone-of-mind’ throughout the work. That’s part of the reason I like writing in the ‘first-person’.
I’m also interested in traditional forms of writing from other cultures, and the non-realist Western tradition. Most things I’ve written in these forms are plays, so I won’t bore you about them here.
5. You’ve been self-published books, had books published by a large publishing house and have now signed up with hot punk publisher Fahrenheit Press (Chris told me I had to call him this). What have you found are the benefits and down sides to the differing publishing methods?
The best thing about self-publishing is the obvious one: you can publish whatever you like. (Also the worst thing about self-publishing)
For example, I’ve self-published a novella (called ‘Francis’) on the life of St Francis, that I wrote in the style of a Medieval fable. I wrote it several years ago, but never bothered showing it to a publisher. Why not? Because I knew it would be a nightmare for them to market even if they wanted to publish. But now there it is, out in the world.
I’ve had a good run with the large publishing houses. I’ve found most of the people involved in big publishing are trying to do the right thing by the books they bring out. But like all organizations of a certain size, there’s a bureaucratic momentum (or inertia) in large publishers that’s pretty hard to overcome – from both inside and outside.
As a business-and-management study it’s been fascinating to watch them as they try to stay on their feet and manouvre around the new environment.
Best thing about them? Capacity to move physical books into the bricks-and-mortar ecosystem globally, and at scale. Worst thing? Inertia.
Which brings us to Fahrenheit Press, and Chris McVeigh.
Here is what Fahrenheit Press doesn’t have: a staff of thousands; a central London/New York office; a decades-old method of operation; a heirarchy; siloed divisions; a ‘book-app’ specialist; a reliance on outdated software systems; a publicity department; a contracts department; shareholders; a parent company; a Senior Management Committee; a travel and entertainment budget; a Conferences budget; a cafeteria.
In other words, what Fahrenheit Press doesn’t have is inertia.
On the down side, Chris really isn’t that pretty. (N.B from Chris – this is where Grant is talking out of his ass).
The other form of publishing you haven’t mentioned is the one I think is going to take an increasingly large share of the market in the coming few years: the Amazon imprints. I haven’t published anything with them, but I’d be quite happy to. The challenge for Amazon will be the same that every software platform of this type finally faces: how to grow as a vendor on your own platform without destoying your own ecosystem.
I’m completely agnostic about which type of publishing my work goes out under. Different books are suited to different types of publishing.
6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
Lie down on the sofa (according to my wife). I tend not to get away from it all.
7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
8. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
It’s endlessly interesting to me.
You can find out more about Grant here:
About the book:
“Things could scarcely get worse for Raef Carlton – his marriage is on the rocks and his family-owned merchant bank is threatened by a hostile takeover. But then Daniel Stewart, Raef’s closest friend and Carlton’s treasurer is found shot dead at point-blank range and Raef’s life really plunges into free fall. ”