When I first thought of inviting unorthodox authors to let rip on my blog, I had a few names in mind. One of them was John Collick, both of whose books I have read and very much enjoyed.
I first came across John when I was Googling Noggin the Nog (we all have our favourite forms of procrastination) and his blog post came up. When I’d finished with Noggin, I went on to read his very thoughtful and funny piece about the Moomins, and I said to myself, this bloke is right on my wavelength. When John wrote an article about The Singing Ringing tree I decided that whatever this Thumb novel was about, I was going to have to read it. Someone whose literary enthusiasms range from Moomintroll to Mervyn Peake was not going to produce a string of formulaic banalities. I wasn’t disappointed.
Time to hand over to John and let him explain how and why he is writing a series of novels that just don’t fit into any category Amazon has yet discovered.
Jane: Tell us what the story is about, the setting, the background, and where it takes the reader.
John: I’m jumping the gun to the next question as well but the best way to start is probably to explain where the original idea for The Book of the Colossus came from. Long ago I had a dream of an enormous mannequin hundreds of miles long lying in a desert. It was being built by a society of people to save them from something, but they’d been creating it for so long that they’d forgotten its original purpose. As the eons slipped by they splintered into competing groups, each associated with a part of this giant body, and started fighting amongst themselves. Over the years I played with the story in my head, and each time the colossus got bigger until, in the final version, it’s half a million miles from head to toe (roughly twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon).
The series is set at the end of time, when all the stars and planets have vanished and the remnants of humanity live on an artificial landscape created as a work bench for this immense figure they are fashioning out of scrap stolen from the past. Somewhere in the void is a portal leading to the next universe, but only Gods can pass through. Of all the sentient races left in the dead universe, only humanity lacks a God. Hence the mad scramble to build a deity that will save mankind.
The first book, Thumb, is set in a backwater city in the shadow of God’s left hand. The two main characters, Max and Abby, rescue a stranger from the wilderness only to find that she is a refugee from an invasion fleet bearing down on their home. In trying to stop the advance they discover a secret about the nature of the unfinished God’s mind that threatens the future of humanity. In the second book, Ragged Claws, Max and Abby make their way through the vast body of the sleeping titan in an attempt to save the colossus from destruction. Right now I’m working on AntiHelix, the third novel. This is a tale of politics and betrayal set in the corrupt Empire of the Ear, and will be released at the beginning of 2015. The fourth and final book doesn’t have a title yet.
Jane: What on earth inspired the story in the first place (and I don’t necessarily mean which illicit substances)?
John: Apart from the initial dream I can think of countless ideas and images that have influenced the books. I’m a massive fan of Franz Kafka and I wanted to explore the question, what would a science fiction adventure story by Kafka look like? The city of Metacarpi, which lies in the shadow of the Thumb, is based on Kafka’s Prague. I’ve tried to write the tales as exciting page-turners, but in a universe that is very surreal and dream-like. If I was pitching the series to Hollywood I’d probably describe it as Indiana Jones meets Kafka.
Other writers who have been a massive influence on me are Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard, all of whom take images and ideas from 20th century urban landscapes and turn them into vast shadowy realms inhabited by strange creatures and splintered societies. There are also a couple of paintings by Francisco Goya – Saturn Eating His Children and The Colossus.
Several people have assumed that because The Book of the Colossus is about man making a God at the end of time it’s a tale with a Christian message. Nothing could be further from the truth and I’m not in any way religious. In one sense I tried to take the story of Frankenstein one step further. In Mary Shelley’s classic, the hero played at being God by creating a monster, who he then abandoned. What if man builds God? What is his duty and responsibility to this vast, powerful being which is ultimately nothing more than a means to an end – a divine slave?
I think there are also lots of unconscious influences as well. Jane, you pointed out a similarity between bits of Ragged Claws and Tove Jansson’s Moomin books and after thinking about it I can definitely see echoes. My problem is that I’ve lived with this idea for decades and so in my head it all seems very logical. When readers tell me the stories are really weird and sometimes quite disturbing, or that they’ve given them nightmares, it takes me by surprise.
Jane: Did you try to get agents/publishers interested? What reactions did you get?
John: I wrote a first draft of Thumb about ten years ago and sent it to John Jarrold, who is one of the best agents in the SF/Fantasy world (he’s worked with the late Iain Banks and George R. R. Martin among others). He liked the idea but thought the writing wasn’t good enough. I asked if he’d be my editor and to my delight he said yes. So the last two years have been a brutal masterclass in how to write. He tore Thumb version one to pieces and I had to totally rethink my approach for version two (which is the one that was released). I told John my goal was to indie-publish something that was of the same quality as the authors he represented, so if he’s happy with the book and gives it the nod then I know the only reason it would get rejected is because it’s simply not commercial. I can’t over-stress the importance of having an editor who is both an expert and utterly ruthless, and I’m really lucky to have one of John’s calibre to work with. His recipe is very simple – a story must have pace, clarity and a strong POV.
Jane: Has it been a handicap not being able to stick a handy label onto your books?
John: I don’t think Thumb and Ragged Claws are that left-field (though again I’ve lived with them for so long my judgement’s probably clouded). Personally, genre-wise, I’d put them alongside books by Iain Banks, Gene Wolfe, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance, who all have written surreal and quirky dark science fantasy. If I were to put a label on the books, apart from science fantasy, I’d call them New Weird – similar in tone and themes to China Mieville’s books or Clive Barker’s fantasies. There’s a strong tradition of unusual and grotesque dream-fiction running through British and Irish culture, from the Gothic novels of the 18th century, through writers like Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson to people like Moorcock. These days it gets buried under the steampunk, vampires snogging werewolves and space opera that are currently dominating the corners of Waterstones where we lurk.
Jane: How do you tackle promotion?
John: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask because I suspect I’m not great at it. One thing I’ve tried to avoid is promoting too aggressively. I think that too many authors constantly plug their books on Twitter and Facebook, often to each other, and I find myself just tuning out the constant “5 stars times 722 on Amazon – ‘A Great Read’ says someone no-one’s heard of”. I think that a couple of years ago everyone was sold the get-rich-quick dream of self-publishing and when the dream doesn’t materialise people become more strident and desperate. All my promotion efforts go into my blog, johnguycollick.com and my author’s Facebook page. I try not to talk about the books too much, and instead I post or write about things that I think my readers would be interested in – articles on art, literature, astronomy, film reviews etc. It seems to work because I get about 400 daily visitors to the blog, though it hasn’t yet translated into massive sales.
Jane: If you were to direct the public towards your novels, whose fans would you solicit?
John: I’d like to think that anyone who likes Science Fiction, Science Fantasy or Weird Horror would find the books interesting. In my head I was writing for fans of Iain Banks, Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, Clive Barker and Jack Vance. I wanted to make sure that they were, above all, exciting character-driven adventures with protagonists readers could root for, despite them inhabiting a universe that is very strange. The feedback I’ve been getting has been positive – people enjoy the tales even if they find parts unsettling. I’m actually quite pleased to think that readers think some of the concepts are disturbing – it shows that the books are resonating with the readers.
Jane: Anything else, advice, experiences, anecdotes you’d like to add, feel free.
John: One thing that’s surprised me is how the books take on a life of their own when others read them. From things people have said it’s clear that the characters and universe of Thumb in their minds is often very different to mine.
My advice to anyone like me would echo what every successful author I know has said to me – write because you enjoy writing and have stories you want to tell, and be prepared for a very long haul. I don’t expect to gain any major traction for five, if not ten years. I’d also re-iterate John Jarrold’s comments to me – pace, clarity and a strong POV. By clarity he means don’t assume that because a scene or world is perfectly understandable in your head then it’s obvious to everyone else. Make sure the reader understands what’s going on at all times. And write and write and write, and read, and then write more. Isaac Asimov was once asked what he would do if he found he only had eight minutes to live, and he answered that he’d type a little faster.
Thank you, John, for that insight into your world. I have to say that I found your books fascinating. Not disturbing, but the reader has to be prepared to have his/her mind boggled. Constantly. Definitely not to be missed by fans of Mervyn Peake and Clive Barker. I am looking forward to reading the third volume, already fastened my safety belt, but Ragged Claws is a hard act to follow.
If you want to read some of John’s very eclectic articles, I strongly recommend you visit his website.
You can find his books on Amazon here and here.