Friday, September 11, 2015

WRITER 2 WRITER: An interview with author Mike Chinn

Mike Chinn is my kind of writer—whimsical and fearless. He wants to try everything, and pretty much has, if you look over all the types of tales he's written. He's totally at ease with himself and charmingly self-deprecating; admitting to having old manuscripts composting in drawers that had to be tossed out, and being not terribly liable to get much writing done before afternoon. He also is finding it hard to read as much as he used to, and freely admits to having a Facebook addiction. Plus he is a snack slave to guinea pigs—how can you not love that?

What makes interviewing other authors fun for me is finding those common threads amongst us that people outside the business would have trouble understanding. Most of us work from some sort of home space, and it's very easy to blow off an entire day's worth of writing because of a lengthy telephone call, some cat puke on the new carpet, or a new kitchen gadget offer that came in the mail. We've all crammed for deadlines after taking on more projects than we could ever hope to finish in one lifetime. Not one of us hasn't pulled out an old manuscript, turned the pages, and cringed at how badly written it was. Yet somehow, things do get done.

His words to the wise dealing with what you will learn about critiquing your own writing after editing a few books by others are spot-on.

You have to enjoy what you're doing to be a regular writer, because it requires that you give up a lot of time while pursuing that next great tale. Read on then, and see exactly what makes Mike Chinn's heart go pit-a-pat, because it isn't only guinea pig antics and the endless carnival world of social networking. There might even be a certain submarine or a tottering stack of unread books about to go into landslide mode lurking in there...

An interview with author

  • Welcome Mike, would you please tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?

I was born and raised in Smethwick: a liminal zone between Birmingham and the Black Country and considers itself in neither—though in all honesty, you can’t see the joins. In 1981 I married Caroline and moved to Birmingham proper, so after 34 years (as opposed to 27 in Smethwick) I can probably consider myself a Brummie. In those three and a half decades there have always been a number of guinea pigs about the house: cuter than kids, but maybe a tad more destructive (though it’s a close thing). In 2012, after 38 years working as a technician at the University of Birmingham Medical School the chance came for early retirement—and I grabbed it! Now a gentleman of leisure, I can indulge myself with no financial risk whatsoever. The easy option. And I passed one of those Big 0 birthdays earlier this year.

Like all authors, I suspect, I’ve been writing ever since I was a child—though I alternated between stories and comic strips. It started off with science fiction and superheroes, but eventually I discovered horror and fantasy—the latter an easy transition since I’d long been fascinated by mythology, sparked off by a mixture of Greco-Roman and Norse legends that I struggled through in a huge book from my father’s childhood. I think it was called 'A Child’s Everything Within', or something similar. I suspect the artwork may have had something to do with my late-blossoming love of Art Deco, too. Because I was the kid who always wrote fiction instead of essays whenever I could, it was inevitable that, come the Sixth Form, I was badgered for contributions to the school magazine. New Wave SF was big at the time, so some of the stuff I submitted was a little crazy, but I imagine they thought I was being arty, and published it anyway. They even let me illustrate them.

Joining the British Fantasy Society in the mid-1970s was a turning point. I’d been aware of comic fandom for some time, contributing to fanzines and even starting my own, short-lived title (two issues, before the money ran out), but the BFS was more literary—with artists in the membership who were so much better than me. I stuck to writing. I made new friends, discovered other writers, got the chance to hone my talents, and suddenly writing fiction was no longer just an odd pastime but something more serious. 

Some years ago I read that a good writer should be able to write anything. It’s a doctrine I’ve tried to live by and had a go at just about everything – with varying degrees of success. Crime, horror, fantasy, SF, How To books—even women’s magazines (a complete failure, I should add; take from that what you will). I’ve had around 40 short stories published and I was really proud when British Fantasy Award winning The Alchemy Press produced Give Me These Moments Back—a collection of 18 short stories, two of them originals—early in 2015. In keeping with the publisher’s ‘not just horror’ ethos and my own eclectic tastes, it’s a jumble of genres and sub-genres. From SF to ghost fiction, sword & planet to sword & sorcery, Westerns to Crime, and I’m really proud of it. Even the cover image is mine: I Photoshopped a rough for Peter Coleborn—we were batting ideas back and forth at the time—and he asked me to clean it up for use. Naturally, I’ve thought of a hundred ways it could have been done better ever since.

  • You seem to wear a lot of hats Mike: author, editor, graphic novelist, to name a few. How did you get involved in so many different projects? And what’s the issue with these ‘novels that never get published’?

You mean everyone doesn’t have a pile of dodgy manuscripts slowly composting somewhere? Funnily enough I came across some of my earliest attempts a few weeks ago when going through old, non-electronic folders. One hand written in exercise books, the other—a two-thirds completed fantasy trilogy—as typed-up second drafts. I binned the lot, wondering why on earth I’d hung onto them for so long. They were … not good. To date I’ve written, let’s see … nine novels. Only one of which has seen print—the Sherlock Holmes Steampunk Vallis Timoris from Fringeworks. Of the rest, I can honestly say only three might be worth another look. But for some reason, when I’ve finished a novel it’s almost as though part of me says: “Okay. You’ve done it. Now move on.” As though completing it is an end in itself (or that’s total self-justifying bullshit, and I’m not confident enough/too lazy to go the next step).

As for getting involved in so many projects—remember what I said about having a go at everything? Never say no. I started editing for the BFS: first the journal Dark Horizons, then what was meant to be a one-shot, Mystique, Tales of Wonder but which went on for several issues. Then I had a go at a real book, for The Alchemy Press: the heroic fantasy anthology Swords Against the Millennium. In the fullness of time I also edited three volumes of The Alchemy Press Book of Pulp Heroes—by which time I’d fully learned editorial ruthlessness. I recommend all writers should have a go at editing: it’s an eye-opener. You can always spot others’ mistakes, but your own not so much. Yet, after editing hundreds of thousands of other writer’s words, the ability to spot your own errors is heightened; that, coupled with your newly-found ruthlessness, eventually helps make a better writer. In my humble opinion, anyway.

Graphic novelist might be a bit of a stretch: I scripted around twenty issues of DC Thomson’s Starblazer digest comic back in the day. Admittedly each issue was a complete 40 odd page story (roughly 140 panels of artwork) but I’m not sure anyone would call them graphic novels. I was put onto it by Adrian Cole, who rang me up and told me about this forthcoming SF comic. I contacted them and editor Bill McLoughlin sent me a copy of the first issue of Starblazer, a sample script and the kind of thing they were looking for (Star Wars was big news, so initially that was the kind of SF they wanted). It took many attempts before I had a synopsis they liked and the script I submitted was completely overwritten (which I realized when I received my con copy) but Bill was good enough never to mention it. Although it was a considerable time before I sold them a second story, eventually I found my own furrows to plough: first the comic expanded to include heroic fantasy, and I created the d’Annemarc family saga; then I was asked to write a comedy SF Western involving a crazy robot. In fact the Robot Kid ended up in three issues (with two more sold that never saw print). I got on really well with the guys (they were good enough to recommend me to the editor of the Beano when he wanted to bring back the Billy the Cat strip several years ago) and I was sad when the title was cancelled.

  • As most writers are, I suspect you’re an avid reader. What sort of books do you go for? Any favorite authors?

When I packed in the full-time job I thought I’d have plenty of time for reading, but I seem to do less than ever! I don’t have a bus ride to and from work, and lunchtimes I’d rather switch off the brain and watch old episodes of Big Bang Theory as I eat my sandwiches. That doesn’t mean I’m not still buying books, though. Piles of unread material are steadily growing in my already cramped office. One day Caroline is going to come home and find me entombed under a mountain of horror paperbacks and Howard Chaykin graphic novels.

Over the years my reading tastes have changed and I rarely pick up most types of fantasy. I became disillusioned by what felt like countless multi-volume sagas, each book the size of a breeze block. I’m sure I’m doing many fine authors a disservice, and I’m the only one losing out, but I’ll stick to watching Game of Thrones on TV for now. I still buy horror, although I’ve outgrown the more visceral form, zombies bore me rigid (so overused) and the way vampires and werewolves have been turned into sexual fantasies for adolescent girls annoys me no end. I enjoy the occasional crime novel and Western (a weird one, normally, like Joe R Lansdale) and comics, of course—one-off graphic novels or collections, buying titles on a monthly basis is ridiculously expensive these days.
I have quite a list of favorites. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Alistair MacLean, Ross MacDonald, Michael Moorcock (of course), Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Joyce and Joel Lane (both of whom were friends and great losses to the world) and Joe Lansdale. I will buy anything written/drawn by Howard Chaykin and although they’re better known as artists rather than authors, I still love the work of Gil Kane, Barry Windsor Smith, Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, sometimes imagining a scene I’m writing as though it was drawn by one of them.

  • So what is a typical Mike Chinn writing session like?

I wish I could say it was organized and productive, but the truth is it’s normally random and chaotic. I allow myself to be distracted too easily (Facebook, I am looking at you); I lack self-discipline and put stuff off; I’m a born dissembler. I love approaching deadlines since they force me to focus.

Ideally, I’d start the day showering and feeding myself (not at the same time, obviously), talking to the guinea pigs and caving in to their begging for treats, then check my emails and log onto the dreaded Facebook – just long enough to see what’s new, honest. After that, getting on with it.

And pigs will fly out of my butt.

However, I do tend to be more of an afternoon person. Writing in the morning doesn’t come naturally, but if I must, I does. To be frank, it’s a miracle I ever get anything done.

  • If you aren’t writing today, what else would we likely find you up to? Any hobbies or other creative pursuits?

I keep buying kits that I know I’ll never assemble (and even if I did, there’d be nowhere to put them). I have a great model of the TV version of the submarine Seaview from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but that’s only because I bought it already assembled and painted. I wish there was a pre-assembled model of the Flying Sub available…

  • So what’s new in your lineup? Any coming attractions you can talk about? This is your spot to promote whatever you’d care to, and tease us with all the goodies on the horizon.

I have short stories in two recently published anthologies from Emby Press: “Deck the Halls”—a Christmas-themed Damian Paladin ghost story in A Grimoire of Eldritch Inquests: Occult Detective Monster Hunter and a superhero short, “Chasing the Dragon”, in Superhero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight. Always wanted to write a superhero story. 

The Steampunk Holmes book, Vallis Timoris, is to be officially launched in September. It’s based on Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, but in this version the dreaded Scowrers operate on the Moon rather than the United States, and I’ve added a third act in which the Great Detective visits the British Empire’s burgeoning lunar colony, Moonbase Archie.

In 2016, Pro Se Productions are to publish a second volume of Damian Paladin adventures: Walkers in Shadow. We get to meet the occult detective’s father, shape-shifting demons, a very non-sparkly vampire and proper zombies, find the treasure of the Templars and visit a parallel world of bizarre, monstrous creatures. 

I’m also writing a post-Civil War Western for the same publishers: Revenge Is a Cold Pistol, also due for 2016. It’s inspired by both Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (of course; what else?) and Italian Westerns.

  • Anything else the world should know about Mike Chinn?

I collect replica 19th century revolvers, I love steam trains (who doesn’t?), I may have mild fixations on submarines and early 20th century biplanes, and at night I fight crime as masked avenger The Black Tarot.

  • Mike, where can we find your work, or follow along with your writing life?

I have Author’s Pages on Amazon UK HERE and Amazon US HERE which are as inclusive as it’s possible to be within that organization’s peculiar and every-changing rules.

And I also have a blog, Displacement Activity, which I add to erratically. If you’ve read this far, you’ll know why it’s called that...

Mike thanks so much for sharing your work with my audience!

Thanks for having me. Hope they’re all still awake. 

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