The author hot seat: That was nice. What was it?

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.

Invaders from The Empire of the Ear
Invaders from The Empire of the Ear

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)?

The Colossus (Panic) by Francisco Goya
The Colossus (Panic) by Francisco Goya

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.

Cover art for Ragged Claws
Cover art for Ragged Claws

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.

Journeying across the skin of God
Journeying across the skin of God

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, 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.

To review, or not to review

Authors are advised not to write book reviews, probably so as not to be accused of gunning down the competition. But when I have finished something I enjoyed, writing a review is an extension of that enjoyment. Perhaps my enthusiasm will be contagious. But what happens when I don’t like the book?

Since I acquired a Kindle, I have stopped reading ‘books’. As owning a Kindle automatically draws you into the Amazon buying experience, I have acquired a lot of ebooks by authors I would otherwise not have heard of. At first I was dismayed to find that the big names were still expensive even in digital format, but also made the much happier discovery that there is a wealth (or at least a hell of a lot) of cheap to free books to be had.

As a new author, who will one day be published, I have been trawling through the lists looking for those books that, like my own, are by complete unknowns, but could be as entertaining as anything on the lists of the big publishers. The first two I read, The Fifth Circle by Tricia Drammeh, and Thumb by John Collick I very much enjoyed and was more than pleased to write reviews to encourage others to try them out.

Since then I haven’t had such good luck. I have abandoned a couple after getting far enough to know that I was wasting my time, and a couple more that I finished, enjoyed certain aspects, but the overall impression was of something lacking, glaring plot holes, or an irritating plethora of typos.

Much as I would love to write about the things I enjoyed in these books, I put myself in the place of the author, and think how crushed I would be to be told, kindly, but firmly that the characterisation was nice, the description effective, but the storyline was just a random string of events with no connection and no tension.

The rating system on Goodreads and Amazon makes a review more like a judgement. Some aspects can be good, others less good, and others frankly rubbish, so do you take the highest or lowest denominator? Either is unfair to the book. Seems to me that criticism ceases to be constructive once the book is published, except at the level of, you’d be well advised to take this book down and clean up all the typos.

Even when it is laden with what seems to me to be completely unjustified praise, I would feel very uneasy about giving a critical review to an indie book. I feel too much for the author, the ego and self-confidence that is so easily bruised by a less than glowing review. If I can’t praise a book wholeheartedly, I’d rather keep quiet.
This is the difference between the review written by a reader to inform other readers, and the review written by an author to encourage and support a fellow author. Is it hypocritical to only write reviews of books you have liked? Can an author gain anything except a red face from receiving a critical review? Is it incumbent upon every reader to stick red warning lights on every book they dislike?

I don’t know the answers, but I know that there is a bunch of books that I have liked, but felt were flawed, that I am keeping quiet about, unable to steel myself to writing an honest review for fear of hurting an author’s pride.

Book review: Thumb

Thumb is like nothing I’ve read before, and I absolutely loved it. If this is steampunk, I’m a convert, but if you are already a fan, don’t expect steam-powered horses and musketeers taking potshots at airships. The atmosphere is more like the original Star Trek series, complete with polystyrene scenery and murky colour, but instead of being set in a studio, the playground is an immense dull orange wasteland littered with waste building materials, stretching thousands and thousands of miles, punctuated by wormholes stretching back millions and millions of years. This immensity is broken by man-made monuments that soar high above the clouds, secured and protected by chains and gun installations of colossal proportions, but higher, bigger, more colossal than anything imaginable is God. Or rather God’s body. For this wasteland strewn with rubbish is the table on which God is slowly but surely being constructed.

Into this vastness, in the shadow of God’s left thumb, John Collick has set his handful of characters. Each is a brilliantly-drawn, real human being, Max and Abby are both tough and hard-bitten, funny and a bit gauche, with enough of the little child searching for a lost affection to be terribly endearing. Even when the story veers from Indiana Jones type adventure to surreal horror, it never loses its tenderness and humour. The not so endearing characters are true products of an immense, impersonal world, cold and relentless as machines.

In this flat singularity, rolled out in space like a giant workbench, there seems to be nothing but machines. And, of course, God. Ever-present, too colossal to see, the carcass of God fills the world, the atmosphere and beyond. After a million years of work, God is almost complete; all he needs is his mind. The construction of God’s mind though, is proving a far more hazardous enterprise than all the rest, and not everything in the universe is happy about the idea of God’s completion.

Max and Abby find themselves at the centre of one of the most original concepts I have ever read in a fantasy story: protecting the creatures who each possess a part of God’s mind, from the villains, human and alien, who want to destroy them. To say any more would spoil the story.
This is a remarkably creative piece of writing, highly recommended to anyone who enjoys sci-fi/fantasy, steampunk, or 1960s TV space operas.

Thumb, by John Guy Collick