“You’ve got to be more than a little crazy and self-believing to get ahead or even just persevere in this game.”
Some days I think I’m certifiably crazy. But I’ve come a long way. When I was younger, I thought I was loony every day. Now, at least once a week I know I’m crazy or just stubborn as hell. Why else would I continue to believe I’m capable of building a writing career against all odds? There are a million other productive things I can do with my time yet I continue to crave word manipulation. Sometimes word manipulation feels a bit like self mutilation.
Last week I was at Book Expo America (BEA) in The Big Apple. I stood at the center of the Jacob Javit’s center, turning circles to take in the giant, colorful banners naming publishers I’ve studied and dreamed about over the years. It was exciting! I felt like Dorothy stepping into the land of the Munchkins. I couldn’t wait to get to the Emerald City where a magical Wizard might help make my dreams come true.
I picked up Tom Grimes’ memoir, Mentor (available August 2010) at the Tin House Books booth. I sat next to author R.L. Stine and gave away nearly 200 signed copies of Aberrations. Mr. Stine left carrying a copy of my debut novel close to his chest. I chatted with VPs and editors from some of the top publishing companies in the world. A few knew who I was as I approached; they extended a hand saying, “Penelope …” It felt like finding water in the Sahara. I stood within three feet of authors who have accomplished some of my top literary goals. I say some because being there made me re-evaluate (once again) who I am and what I want.
What kind of publisher do I want?
What kind of editor?
What kind of PR team?
Am I desperate for whatever and whomever I can get?
Because I have something of value to offer.
How do I know?
Because I believe in myself and I’m more than a little crazy.
During the train ride home, I selected Mr. Grimes’ book out of the 15 or 20 I’d carried five blocks to PENN Station. As I began to read the beautifully written memoir about his writing career, head stuffed full of the day’s events, I was reminded of the kernel that pushes me forward despite failure, rejection, disappointment, and dissatisfaction.
My guest today, Darren Shan, refers to that kernel as self-belief and craziness. Darren’s first novel was published when he was still a teen. Sales were disappointing but he pushed forward. His subsequent phenomenal success proves that the ability to believe in yourself when no one else does is a critical piece of the never-ending puzzle that challenges writers. It’s a puzzle of tiny pieces that aren’t so easy to fit together. Often you find yourself working with a confusing mix of perfect color and shape, missing links, and damaged goods.
Like Darren, I want to be one of those writers who actually completes the puzzle. If necessary, I’ll spend the rest of my life studying the components, rearranging them, and testing how they might best snap together. The picture I’m bringing to life will be different from that of Tom Grimes, R.L. Stine, and Darren Shan. I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s one of the things I was reminded at BEA. I don’t generally do well with formulas, color by numbers, or well-worn paths. I’m not difficult, I simply prefer not to follow the crowd. When I face the unknown, I pack my bag of information and head down my own strange path.
I often say to my daughters, “We are a family of champions!” When I said this last night, the 21-year-old noted that we sound like a bunch of horses, and the 10-year-old laughed.. The older one recently decided to take a stab at writing her own novel, and so I felt compelled to remind her of the deep push one might need to succeed. In the end, perhaps the true champion is the one who pushes on despite all odds, who tests the limits and gives their best never-ending shot rather than the one who easily stumbles upon, finds, or wins the mountain of gold. Anyone can potentially win the lottery. It takes a special breed to never say never and never give up, whether you’re Darren Shan, R.L. Stine, Tom Grimes, or Penelope Przekop.
I don’t know about those guys but I come from a family of champions. I’m at the lead and I’m determined to set the pace for those coming up behind me. Some day I’ll step aside, count my blessings, and watch my daughters soar.
How do I know this?
Because I also believe in them.
What’s your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an author? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?
I always wanted to be a writer. As a teenager I began working towards making that dream come true — I began writing for myself, in my spare time. I finished my first novel when I was 17, realized I had a lot still to learn, and kept on going, experimenting, learning from my mistakes, improving. All of my novels were aimed at adult readers. I managed to interest an agent with one of them. He provided me with lots of essential feedback, I worked some more on the book, and we managed to sell it, as well as its sequel — they were Procession of the Dead and Hell’s Horizon, which are coming out in the States for the first time this year (June 2010, January 2011). The advances were small enough, and they didn’t do brilliantly sales-wise at the time (they’ve done much better more recently), so I think my career would have floundered if I hadn’t had another card or two up my sleeve.
But luckily I had!! Purely for fun, I wrote a children’s book in the middle of 1997, about a boy who meets a vampire at a freak show — I called it Cirque Du Freak. I had no idea if publishers would be interested, or if it would make any money even if published, and I didn’t care. I had a blast writing the book, and went ahead and wrote a sequel to it even before I had heard from any publishers — I needed to know what was going to happen next with the story! In the end, after it was turned down by 20 publishers, HarperCollins in the UK took a chance on it. It was published in January 2000 and started selling like hot cakes all around the world. By accident I found myself in the position of a globally successful children’s author, and I haven’t looked back since!
With regard to your current creative focus, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?
In retrospect, Cirque Du Freak changed everything. When I wrote it, I was drawing unemployment benefits, living at home with my parents, struggling to make any headway. I’d tried all sorts of different styles and stories, the one constant being that they were all aimed at adult readers. Cirque turned my world upside down and led me in a whole new creative direction — I’d found something that I was really good at. I still enjoy writing for adults, and hope to continue publishing for both children and adults in the future, but my children’s books helped me find my true voice and that has fed over into my work for adults too.
For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?
For me it’s all about creation. It’s great when you can express something too, and I usually do (The Thin Executioner, which comes out in the USA in August, is a fantasy novel, but it also summarizes my response to the war in Iraq, with particular focus given to a certain Master Bush and Master Blair). But the story always comes first for me. I want to create an exciting, action-packed, twist-filled tale, with characters that readers can identify with and care about. That’s always the most important thing. Without that, people aren’t going to be interested in your work, so they aren’t going to read it, so who are you going to be able to make your point to?!?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you just keep pumping, the water will eventually start to run. Do you ever run out of things to say, or do you experience an endless river? What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t believe it in either — but I think it certainly exists!! I think it happens when writers think too much. Writing is a bit like riding a bike — you need to jump on and keep pedaling. If you don’t do that, if you pause and study the bike and start thinking about the laws of gravity and momentum, and all the complex things that must happen with your nerves and brain in order to keep your balance and keep your legs moving and… well, it starts to seem like a very difficult, arduous process, and you might lose faith in yourself, you might start worrying about falling and hurting yourself. That’s when writer’s block happens, when a writer thinks about the process too much and starts to be terrified by the enormity of what they are facing. If you don’t do that, if you keep going, if you force yourself to pump out stories, then yes, you can avoid the dreaded block. But I think some writers struggle to do that. With some, they can’t not stare into the abyss and shiver. And I don’t think those of us who don’t struggle with writer’s block should be too cocky about it, because we never know the day that we might come to the edge of the writing cliff, pause, glance casually and smugly over the edge at the drop below… and then start to freeze!!!
Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both?
My creativity both messed me up and led me back to normality. I’ve always been interested in the darkness of the human soul, in exploring tortured minds and the genesis and ways of evil. In my teen years, and into my early twenties, I sometimes wondered if my interest would lead me further into the darkness than I cared. If I kept going the way I was, would writing one day cease to be enough for me? Would I need to go further, experience the darkness firsthand? Could writing about evil stain my soul, lead me to act out on my dark fantasies,and damn me? Would I become an aberrant, twisted, wretched excuse for a human? In time I realized that I wasn’t inclined towards experiencing evil in real life, that by writing these dark stories, I was able to get to know myself better and deal more evenly with the world around me. My writing was a way of working through my problems and dark bents, and by doing this I’ve been able to lead a reasonably normal and productive life ever since.
During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?
Of course. I don’t think any young writer hasn’t heard the immortal line, “But what are you going to do for a real job?” Writing’s a hell of a hard job. Very few of us get to taste success as most of society judges it. For me, it’s always been about the stories, about telling the best stories I can, pushing myself as far as I can, producing the very best work that I can in the time that I have available to me. And that’s how every writer should judge themselves. But that doesn’t always translate into commercial success. I think my first adult book was every bit as good as my first children’s book, and I stand by that view, but the adult book didn’t sell and the children’s book did. Since the kid’s book did so well, I made a lot of money, and society looks upon me now as a “success”. But if I hadn’t written Cirque, I would have been branded a failure in the eyes of everyone who knew me. Most people don’t care about intangible, personal success — they judge you by money made. You have to be brave and ignore the norms of society, the pleas of your parents to not be foolish and pledge your life to a career which might make sparse financial returns, the sneers of friends and associates who think you have ideas above your station.
Writing ultimately is about sticking up two fingers to the world and saying, “Sod the lot of you, I’m living life on my terms.” As long as you’re happy to do that, as long as you set the terms of your success, as long as you don’t feel that failure to be a bestseller equates to personal failure, then you can shrug off the criticisms and skepticism of those who know you and tut astonishingly. I’m not saying it’s easy, or that the verbal slings and blows don’t hurt — they bloody well do — but anything truly worth having in this life is worth fighting for, and most writers have to fight for the right to write.
Successful writers often focus on the same genre. Have you ever grown tired of working on similar types of projects, and if so, how have you dealt with that?
I’ve never grown tried of working in the same genre, because I never have. My books are a mix of all types of genres — when working on a book I might weave in elements from Clive Barker, Mark Twain and Enid Blyton, and they’re all the same to me. Because my books usually deal with dark themes, I’ve been branded a horror writer and I’m fine with that — I’ve always loved horror. It makes life easier if you fit into a specific genre, if booksellers know where to stock your books and how to market you. But it’s not something I’ve ever focused on or worried about. I go my own way, do my own thing, and let my publishers worry about how to brand and market me.
Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?
First comes the thinking, bouncing ideas around, trying to link up images, looking for a story to go with the scene or scenes that have popped into my mind. Then I plot it out, sometimes vaguely, usually in quite a lot of detail. Then I force myself to write 10 pages a day, 5 days a week — I prefer to work to a page count rather than set aside a certain number of hours a day, as I find I do more productive work that way. The I’ll spend an average of 2 to 3 years on the editing process — I like to give myself plenty of time to work on a book, so that I don’t have any regrets later — I’ve never had to rush a book to make a deadline. Luckily, I can juggle several books at the same time, which is why I’ve been able to be so prolific.
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?
Noli illegitimi carborundum — don’t let the bastards grind you down!
If you go against the grain with your work, as I’ve always done, you’re going to have to fight all the way. Sometimes you can get weary from the fight, you start to think that you’re deluded, that the others must be right. Don’t believe it!! When 20 publishers turned down Cirque Du Freak at the same time, it was one of the most miserable days of my life. But the misery was short-lived. I went for a walk ad put the question to myself — are the experts right, or do you truly believe that you know better than every publisher in the UK? I stuck out my chin and crazily decided that yes, I did know better. Upon my return home, I continued working as I was. I didn’t let the project die. I pushed ahead regardless of the overwhelming rejections. Fifteen million book sales later, I’ve been justified in that decision. But if the book had never been published, or if it had and hadn’t sold, I would still believe that I was right! You’ve got to be more than a little crazy and self-believing to get ahead or even just persevere in this game.
Noli illegitimi carborundum!!!!