Bill Kirton and I met via RB Wood’s Word Count Podcast a few years ago.
How time flies. Bill is fun to know, and he’s a terrific writer and storyteller.
Please find out more about this talented man, and his wicked, dry sense of humour.
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Welcome Bill. It’s great to finally have you on my blog. In twenty words or less, tell us how your best friend would describe you.
He’d probably say I’m less selfish and less lazy than I really am, but what does he know?
Aww … he must like you. Are you a full time writer, or do you have a day job?
I’m a full time writer, which means writing books (which is enjoyable) but also writing commercial scripts for DVDs, training courses, safety inductions and various other corporate things (which isn’t, but it pays the bills). So most of the time, I’m sitting at the computer. However, when I feel like it, I get up and ride my bike or drive up the road and climb a hill or do things in the garden or get on with my latest bit of wood carving or just go into town and look at people. And, of course, I waste time on Facebook.
Yes, I’ve seen you fooling around on Facebook now and again. ;) If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I thought I’d skip this one but started asking myself why. It comes down to something I repeat ad nauseam: Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’. So my answer is: there are plenty of things I’d like to change, not because I’m evil or uncaring or any of those things I deplore so much in others, but just to make my life easier. For example, I’d like to stop having to remind myself to network and plug my books. But whatever I do, however I am, I’ve absolutely no control over how others see me.
You’re reading this, I want you to like me or at least think I’m interesting but you may already have decided I’m a bore, or dull, or pretentious or God knows what else, so changing who I am would probably have no effect, so in keeping with my natural idleness, I’ll stay as I am. It won’t make any difference.
Good segue for this next question. What are some of your favourite curse words? (I get the feeling you want to say a few right now, heh).
I only ever use about 4 or 5 – the usual ones plus Merde. I don’t choose them for their meanings; they’re all just noises, vocal explosions usually to vent frustration or anger. I had a friend (sadly now deceased) whose only curse was ‘Rats’. When my young stepson asked him what he said when he was really angry, he said ‘Hamsters’.
That’s hilarious. How about what makes you laugh, and I mean, REALLY laugh?
I rarely take anything seriously so the answer is lots of things. I’m of the absurdist persuasion so anything that highlights life’s absurdities does it for me, especially when it undermines the pompous. I like intelligent, surprising wordplay (although that maybe brings a smile and a general feeling of well-being, rather than a boisterous guffaw), but also physical stuff of the sort Steve Martin used to do in his films or as encapsulated in Buster Keaton’s blank-faced response to outrageous circumstances.
In the end, it’s usually comedy of character that’s most effective. People can be ghastly, evil, nasty or compassionate, charitable, generous but the ones I prefer are those who, along with whatever else they are, are also funny. My most cherished response to everything – yes, everything – is laughter.
Unfortunately, so many things in our world make it impossible. (And this whole answer shows how precious and unfathomable laughter is. I’m writing about it in a serious way, which kills it stone dead.)
You make a good point. Life is too short, and laughter has a way of putting things in perspective.
Let’s talk a bit about your writing. What motivates you to do it?
This is going to be a glib, pretentious sort of answer but really the question is like asking what motivates me to breathe. (See? I told you so.) I’ve always written, from a really early age. I get lots of satisfaction using words, of having the time to shape sentences and paragraphs until they say exactly what I want to say, not only in terms of syntax and semantics, but also in their rhythms. (God, it’s getting worse.)
When I give workshops, especially to students about academic writing, I suggest to them that, until you’ve written a thought down, it’s not clear. You may believe you know the answer to a question but, in order to prove that you do (to yourself as well as to others), you need to give it a distinct shape – and you can only do that with words. Writing is thinking. (And that final sentence undermines everything I’ve just said because I began by saying writing was breathing, so I’m obviously talking self-contradictory rubbish.)
How do you market yourself?
With great reluctance and frustration that I’m having to do so. I really mean that but it’s not a helpful answer, so it’s just the usual online networking, trying to be funny, trying to make myself interesting. But it all feels so desperate, as if I’m needy, begging for attention. I think my books are good (it’d be weird if I didn’t), but I don’t want to force them on anyone. I’m also (and this is a recurrent theme in my blogs) lazy. If the choice is between networking and daydreaming, it’s no contest.
I prefer to think of daydreaming as ‘gathering ideas’ for a writer. ;)
What would be your favourite and least favourite parts of being a writer?
The previous answer covers the least favourite bit but there are so many favourite bits that they more than compensate for it. First, there’s the feeling of getting lost in the world you’re creating, being with and knowing the inner workings of the characters there, losing touch completely with the actual time and place of the real world, even losing touch with your self. When the need to eat or pee or answer the phone or whatever drags you away from it, you really feel you’re waking up and suddenly becoming aware of who and where you are. It’s as if you’re coming round after an anaesthetic.
Then there’s the strange intimacy of the contact with the reader. You only get glimpses of this in reviews and the occasional contact, but it’s like alchemy. Somewhere – maybe just down the street, or in London, or Canada, or Brazil, or anywhere – someone opens a book of yours (or, more often, clicks on a screen), and brings your characters to life. The reality you created is recreated (maybe with variations) in his/her mind, which brings the two of you – total strangers – together to share something unique.
And finally, it’s the fact that you’re in control. Life is absurd, accidental, chaotic, totally unpredictable but, in your stories, you can give it shape, meaning, even purpose if you want to. It’s illusory, of course, because it’s fiction, but writing lets you live the illusion for a while.
Do you outline, plot and structure, or do you just sit down and write?
I just sit down and write. I have no idea of the title or ending and both may change several times as I’m writing. Whether I’m writing crime, historical or even the children’s stories featuring my misanthropic fairy, Stanley Henderson, who lives under a dripping tap in my bedroom, I start with some undeveloped thoughts about the themes I’ll be following and what impact I’d like to have on the reader. It’s when the characters have begun to form and take over that the plot strands begin to appear. In a crime novel, for example, I may start by thinking that I know who the perpetrator and victim are but, as the interactions begin and personalities and motives reveal themselves, other, better candidates may emerge.
Once they’ve set their various courses, I usually stop and jot down some vague thoughts about major set pieces that may occur, a few narrative lines that parallel the main one (so that I can introduce the necessary red herrings), but even then, I may jettison the lot if better ideas occur. The actual, final plotting occurs when the first draft’s finished. By that I mean that the plot’s already there but, by tweaking some events, adding or deleting others, I can sharpen the focus and give it the sort of narrative necessity that wasn’t apparent as I and the characters were living our way through it.
Are you working on another book now? Tell us a bit about it.
I’m answering this because it’s the first time I’ve spent so long on a book and it’s making me think not only of how the characters and plot are going to progress but also of the external factors which affect how we write. It’s a sequel to my historical novel, The Figurehead.
That featured a woodcarver and the daughter of a merchant for whom he was carving a figurehead for a new ship. As well as solving a crime (an obligatory theme for me because I’m labelled a crime writer), they were attracted to one another and that made it part romance as well as crime (their fault, not mine). That book ended on what I described as ‘a lovers’ kiss’. OK, fair enough. But the sequel’s set a year later, so what the hell have they been doing during that year? It’s 1841, so untrammelled sex is out. Neither seems particularly keen to get married and, anyway, there’s the social gulf between them to consider.
In other words, these characters have been leading a life in their limbo and now, here I am again, intruding on them and asking them insolent questions about what they’ve been up to. I’ve got a rough idea of what they’ll be doing next but, before they can do it, I need to know where they’re starting from. In other words, I need to read the novel of their intervening year. But it hasn’t been nor will it ever be written.
Hmm … we can hope, right? Tell us your best advice for new authors.
I always give the same answer and it’s threefold.
First, trust your own voice. Too many people think writing has to be ‘posh’ or use a special vocabulary or florid imagery or difficult metaphors or any number of other high-faluting ‘literary’ tricks. Well, yes, these things are all available, but when you write, don’t adopt a persona, be yourself, tell the story your way. Literature is so varied that there’s room for all styles, all registers.
Next, read your work aloud. That’ll not only help you to find typos (although some always seem to get through), mis-spellings, repetitions, grammatical errors and the like, it’ll also help you to get the feel of the all-important rhythms of your prose, whether there’s enough variety in the length of your sentences or the ways you’ve linked them. This never gets enough attention but it’s crucial.
And finally, separate the functions of writer and editor. When you write your first draft, don’t worry too much about the technicalities – spelling, grammar, etc. – tell the story, follow its pace, get it down on the page/screen. Then put it aside for as long as possible and return to it as an editor to tidy it up, eliminate the errors, polish it and get it ready for others to read.
What is the genre of your current book?
That’s a harder question than it appears. The book’s a novella called Alternative Dimension and, for a change, it’s not about crime.
Its subject is the online role-playing game of the title and it tracks the fate of the game’s inventor from when he first conceived it until the denouement, which comes about as a result of his experiences in both the real and the virtual worlds. So I suppose it’s a modern, or maybe slightly futuristic, satirical fantasy. But its main purpose was twofold – to make the reader laugh and think.
(By the way, I said earlier that writing is thinking but I believe laughing is thinking, too, but that’s another question. So certify me.)
Ha! Why should people read your book?
‘Should’ is a difficult word to justify. The only writers who might legitimately exercise that sort of compulsion would be those who ghost-wrote for gods and prophets. But it’s the sort of question we rarely ask ourselves so, from that perspective, it’s a challenge. The first answer is because I think (hope?) it’s funny and laughter never needs any justification. But the interplay between real and virtual is very much part of modern life and some people spend more time in the latter.
The virtual world is a wonderful escape from the tedium and stresses of day-to-day living, but it’s so enticing that distinctions between the two can begin to blur. If you have the choice between changing the sheets, washing the dishes and riding a unicorn into the Sistine chapel where you have no-holds-barred sex with a wolf, it can colour your perspectives and judgments and change who you are. So the book’s supposed to make you laugh but also remind you of which reality you inhabit and how it’s threatened by seemingly harmless games.
What inspired you to write Alternative Dimension?
As I said, it’s about an online role-playing game and it’s the result of me spending some time a while ago playing the game Second Life™. It’s an amazing creation and I originally joined to do some research for a short story. I found, however, that I was spending quite a lot of time there and enjoying myself a lot.
So much so that I realised it could become addictive. It was so different from the everyday and yet the person visiting this magical kingdom was still me, and I met lots of other, fascinating people who were effectively living other lives. But the writer in me kept stepping aside and writing stories, not about Second Life™, but about a hypothetical equivalent. It was only when I revisited these stories with a view to publishing them that I realised they had a common thread running through them and that, in fact, they belonged to the same sort of narrative.
So I grouped them into a progressive structure, rewrote them to link them more closely, then bound them together by introducing a single, central narrative featuring the game’s inventor who, himself, had two avatars who played the game. It’s the only time I’ve ever written a longer prose work in such an episodic way and I have to confess I was pleased with the result.
Please read the blurb for Alternative Dimension on Amazon US or Amazon UK, where you can also purchase the book.
How are you marketing your book?
Badly, i.e. not at all.
I hope this interview helps a little. ;) What would be the best way for someone to support your book, aside from buying it?
OK, let’s assume they’ve bought it and think it’s OK, or even good. The next step is to say so in a review which they post on Amazon UK and USA, Goodreads, and any other outlets they know. But, perhaps even more importantly, tell their friends, real and online, about it. If you don’t have a promotional/marketing budget of several thousands, word of mouth is the best form of advertising.
I agree. Let’s have a fun lightning round, Bill, go!
Aside from people/pets, what is the ONE item you would save if your house was on fire? My iPad, which would have taped to it (in order to make it qualify as one item) a memory stick carrying all my books and notes.
Favorite place you’ve traveled to or would like to travel to? New England and Paris – can’t separate them.
Name a food you can eat everyday. Ice cream.
Salty or sweet? Sweet.
Cat/dog/other pet? Nope.
Favourite style of music? Nearly everything.
The best gift you’ve ever received? iPad. (Thanks, son.)
Your most guilty pleasure. The combined experience of watching Barcelona play football as I’m eating ice cream or chocolate or both, especially if Lionel Messi is playing and there’s a peanut butter flavour involved.
Favourite season. Nope. I like them all.
Name something you cannot go a day without. Nothing’s that important.
Is there anything else you would like to share with my readers? Well, if they’ve got this far, thanks for that, and thanks to you, Eden, for such a fascinating, challenging and highly enjoyable set of questions.
Thank you Bill, for taking the time to provide such thoughtful responses. ‘Twas a pleasure to learn more about you.
Please find all of Bill’s books on:
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Connect To Bill
Bill Kirton was a lecturer in French at the University of Aberdeen before taking early retirement to become a full-time writer. He’s won two 2011 Forward National Literature Awards: The Sparrow Conundrum won gold for Humor and The Darkness silver for Mystery. The Sparrow Conundrum also won the Humor/Satire category in Big Al’s Books and Pals Readers’ Choice Awards in 2013 and his historical novel, The Figurehead, was long-listed for the International Rubery Award in 2012.
He’s written radio and stage plays and been the visiting artist in the Theater Department of the University of Rhode Island on four separate occasions. He’s also been a TV presenter, a voice-over artist and a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow in universities in Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews.
His novels are set in the north east of Scotland. Material Evidence, Rough Justice, The Darkness, Shadow Selves and Unsafe Acts all feature DCI Jack Carston. The Figurehead is set in Aberdeen in 1840 and The Sparrow Conundrum, is a spoof spy/crime novel which moves from Aberdeen to Inverness. The only book not set in Scotland is a futuristic satirical novella which explores the world of online role-playing games. It’s called Alternative Dimension.
He’s published a collection of short stories called Other People and other stories, three of which appeared in the Crime Writers’ Association annual anthology in 1999, 2005 and 2006. In 2010, another was chosen as one of the Best British Crime Stories, Vol. 7. It has also been optioned by a film company in Los Angeles.His non-fiction output includes Just Write, co-written with Kathleen McMillan, Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essay, Brilliant Dissertation, Brilliant Workplace Skills and Brilliant Academic Writing.
He also writes books for children. The Loch Ewe Mystery is a stand-alone adventure and Rory the Dragon and Princess Daisy was specially produced for the charity.
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