I know, this sounds like pretty heavy stuff already. After all, those are two big questions. Probably two of the biggest you will ever ask.
Let’s try to make this fun then. You don’t want to see me soul-search too much, because this is a site about my fiction as much as me, so we’re going to link the two. You don’t need to have read my books or even have heard of them; this is about part of my method. If you like, consider it a craft essay with just a little soul food thrown in for good measure.
Why am I going for this? Simple: I’m in a place right now where I feel I can answer those two questions in the right way. Lately in life, my numbers have been coming up. Makes a difference from last year when I was posting about how Ghost of the Navigator was my depression-buster novel, and I was actually even more depressed when I finished and published it.
It’s my favourite out of my four books so far, and probably wouldn’t have been the same if I’d written it while on top of the world looking down, but I’d still rather be where I am right now. I’ve felt like I’ve known for a long time what the best use of my life that I can find is, and now I’ve actually got there and I’m finding it’s just as good as I’d hoped for.
Let’s start with my day job. I’m a ranger; I’m here to look after the outdoors, for a whole range of purposes. Some of it’s so people can enjoy it, some of it’s so an estate can make money, a lot of it’s that I just love working with machinery in all weathers. It took me a long time to get a permanent job in that field and finally move out of my parents’ house on my own decent salary. Mission accomplished.
There’s nothing more rewarding than going for a walk or run on a large estate and seeing how parts of it are different because of me and thinking ‘I did that.’ The next level up from that is ‘something is different about the world because I’ve been in it.’ It may only be a small thing, but I often think that’s what human kind really does: millions of small things that often add up to a collective big one.
The natural world appears in my stories all over the place. I think being one of those kids who got outside and got their hands dirty from a very early age gave me the bug for it. There’s no point in regretting any of my life, but if I do have one case of ‘Wish I’d done it sooner’ it’s that I never picked my dream career until I was in my late twenties. I was one of those people who experimented with different ones, always thinking I knew what I wanted but at the same time always feeling like I was in the wrong place. I called it the downside of being a dreamer: reality never quite worked. I’ll be really honest here: I even chose certain paths based on having explored them during book research. The examples are another essay in themselves, so let’s just stick with the whole ‘I’m a dreamer’ theme, because I still am.
Doing practical stuff outdoors is one of the few things I’ve ever found that can clear my head of stuff that’s not real. Ever since I discovered what fiction was when learning to read, there’s never been a time when I haven’t had either a story or a character in my head. I almost want to say that it’s like hearing voice, but it’s nothing to do with schizophrenia really, it’s more like having imaginary friends but ageing them up and making them more ‘real world’ as I got older.
Is it part of the reason why I can stand my own company to a level that most of my friends say would drive them crazy? Yeah, I think it is. It’s impossible to be lonely when I’m writing a story, or even just thinking about one. To the extent where sometimes I actually do prefer sitting alone with a bunch of made up people on paper than I do socialising with real people.
I do have friends, I do get out and do things with them sometimes, but I’ve had those times going out in large groups of people when I’ve spent a whole evening hiding what I was really thinking: ‘This is such a waste of time when I could be working on my books.’ I’ve certainly had the reverse, when I knew I was glad I put the books down to go and have good times with good people, but when I hear writers say ‘I just had to stop hanging out so much and get my butt on a chair’ I know I’ve really never had that issue.
I actually find human interaction considerably difficult. Sometimes I fancy that I can read people well but I know the reality is I’m really pretty bad at it. I often come over as confident but really I’m one of those guys many people can see the social nerves written all over. I’m like my own book for anxiety over unexpected situations. There are also times when I hate being made fun of. I’m far more relaxed when I’m alone and don’t have to worry about any particular situation involving other people. That’s another aspect of fiction: it only happens the way I want it to. Nobody plays God in real life, but on the page? It’s a form of personal empire building and I’m the master construction worker.
If someone were to actually ask me ‘Who are you?’ one of my first answers would be to point at my books and say ‘I’m the guy who can do this.’ What I am is an author, but it’s who I am that makes the books turn out the way they do, and makes sure that they get finished and published at all, because part of the answer to ‘Who are you?’ is ‘Someone who needs to put what’s in his head on paper for all to see, to the point where he’s becoming largely unafraid of it.’
Truth is, I’m afraid of a lot. I worry about a lot, sometimes to the extent where I know it’s made the side of me that’s prone to depression and anxiety a hell of a lot worse. At times like where I am right now, I realise a lot of those worries are just pointless and I’ve always been prone to working myself up about a lot when really I should just let go.
Writing the books is the biggest ‘Fuck you’ to being afraid of the world that I’ve ever had, and the biggest reason that even when I’ve had no sales for ages and all the signs point to nobody reading my stuff, I still can’t just jack writing and self-publishing in and say ‘Well, I tried.’ If I have to be angry or depressed or feeling like I can’t stand myself, I can do it on paper (Ghost of the Navigator…and HELL was I mean to some characters in that book.) If I’ve just started turning my life around for the better and admitted some pretty big things about myself, I can be happy on paper as well (I’m thinking of a story called Oscar’s Kitchen which started what eventually become the two ‘Carnathia’s Underground’ books you see up there next to this post.)
So that’s a small slice of me. Really a very small one, but the wordcount’s mounting up, so let’s have one last little idea for the road. One of my favourite things that I ever read in someone else’s book was in the autobiography of Slash, the guitar player, who talked about how his wife had platinum discs made and framed and put on the walls of their house, but he tolerated them for a short time and then tore them all down, and said ‘I don’t need [to be surrounded in my achievements] to remind me of who I am.’ I’ve never been sure if that same line also describes me accurately or not, but I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted it to.
Is that the same as wanting to be someone else? I don’t think so, because we creative people are prone to taking a certain amount of influence from others in the same business, and this was something where I was quite happy to be influenced by a great creative person. I do have certificates that remind me of stuff I’ve achieved, and I do have four books where I can look at them next to each other on this site and get another ‘I did that’ moment, but I feel like I shouldn’t have to. All this collectively adds up to ‘me’ to the extent where I should just remember it. Especially at the times that aren’t as good as this.
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Moving on, I’ve named this Part One because while writing it I realised that these two questions are what I effectively answer for every character I create, sometimes without knowing I’m doing it. I sometimes don’t know the answers until the end of the book, and sometimes neither do the characters. If they’re the soul-searching type at all.
Part II will be how to turn the sorts of things I’ve said about myself into a character interview that adds sometime to your books, and talks about what level of self-awareness to consider for fictional people.