Paul Collins was born in England, raised in New Zealand and immigrated to Australia in 1972. He lives in a historic bluestone home built in 1851 with his partner, fellow author, Meredith Costain, and a menagerie of pets including a kelpie called Jack and Molly, a red heeler.His many books for young people include The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler and series such as The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars, The Quentaris Chronicles and The World of Grrym in collaboration with Danny Willis. His latest book is Mole Hunt, book one in The Maximus Black Files. He is also the author of over 140 short stories. Paul has been the recipient of the A Bertram Chandler, Aurealis, William Atheling and Peter McNamara awards and has been shortlisted for many others including the Speech Pathology, Mary Grant Bruce, Ditmar and Chronos awards.
He is currently the publisher at Ford Street Publishing.
1. Paul, it’s fascinating that you didn’t read books as a kid. How do you think your early diet of comics and movies has shaped your writing career? For instance, do you think it contributes to your very visual writing style and what Buzz Words described as ‘pace (that) would give Matthew Reilly a nosebleed’?
Apart from the fast-paced action many reviewers allude to, many also refer to my fiction as being “filmic”. Both of these are attributes of comics. Mix all this with my owning bookshops for many years during which I did novels, and I suspect we have a good mix there. We all have our little niche and not everyone wants to read “literature”. Hopefully my fiction is above a “hack’s” work.
2. A number of more recent YA novels deal with dystopian societies, including your new release, Mole Hunt. To what do you attribute this appetite for dystopia? When you reflect on our global current state of affairs, do you personally feel optimistic or pessimistic?
I’ve written dystopian fiction in the past with The Earthborn Wars published by Tor in the US (The Earthborn, The Skyborn and The Hiveborn). Fifteen years before The Hunger Games, I also wrote a virtual reality dystopian novel with a remarkably similar plot called Cyberskin. Characters get killed live combatting others for the audience. So it’s a genre that I feel comfortable with. I think dystopian fiction also lends itself to my style of writing. Sometimes it’s best to stay with what we know and love. My own favourite authors are Ioin Colfer (Artemis Fowl) and Philip Reeves (Mortal Engines). I can just as easily see these books as films, as I can Mole Hunt. To be honest, I have a bleak view of the world up ahead. We haven’t got it right after all the years we’ve been here — why would 100 years or more be any different?
3. Paul, you’re a master world builder. With Mole Hunt, you’ve once again created a complex, credible universe. How do you go about designing these imaginary environments? Is it difficult to keep the geography of a fictitious place in your head? Do you draw up maps, or even base some of the terrain on real places? What are some of your favourite imaginary worlds from literature and film?
It’s reasonably easy creating a universe. Using jump-gates characters can travel anywhere in the blink of an eye. It’s much, much harder creating a fantasy world such as Quentaris, Grrym or Q’zar. These have landscapes, whereas a universe scenario doesn’t. Most, if not all, fantasy writers draw a map of their world first. It’s too difficult to draw one from a book because it’s easy to say characters took two days to reach here, and six days to get there, etc; then when you decide you need mountain ranges (at the very least to provide water for those lakes, etc), you come to realise your novel doesn’t make sense. It’s much easier to have your map in front of you and see how long it will take to get through the pre-existing mountain range.
As an aside, Isobelle Carmody sold her first Obernewtyn book when she was 21 or so. Penguin contracted it and then asked for the map. There wasn’t one. If ever you interview her, ask her how hard it was to draw a map from the book! lol
Re my own tastes, I liked the Lord of the Rings films. They’re simply epic. From literature I loved Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines series. So very easy to see his world of cities trundling over the desolate countryside swallowing up smaller towns.
4. Before you entered the publishing world, you had a number of jobs dealing with the public: you were once a waiter at the Brekky Creek in Brisbane; you were a club bouncer; you ran a clothes store; you were even a commando for a time! Have these work experiences provided you with writing material?
Most of my more substantial novels have action, and this comes from my martial arts experience. If I were writing contemporary fiction, such as Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski-style, then of course my experiences in shops, being a waiter, etc, would help create characters and situations. However, my writing style isn’t character-based, it’s more plot- and action-based; filmic, some say.
5. Mole Hunt’s main character, Maximus Black, has been described as Artemis Fowl’s evil twin. Can you tell us a bit about the way you developed Maximus and how he evolved over time? When did he first creep into your consciousness?
I thought the time was nigh for an anti-hero. I’ve been asked if I wrote a dystopian novel because of this genre’s popularity, but truth be known, The Maximus Black Files have been around for over four years. It just so happens that at last I had something on hand when a particular genre became popular. Writing something after a genre’s popular can often be too late. Most books take at least a year to appear once they’ve been contracted.
6. You’ve been in the publishing business for many years now and have therefore witnessed some major shifts in the industry. How do you feel about modern publication models and what are your predictions for the future of the industry?
There are some fundamental problems with the publishing industry, which, if addressed, would solve many problems. One being sale-or-return. Booksellers can take all the books they can accommodate and simply send back all those that don’t sell. This came about during the Great Depression. In a bid to get their industry back on its feet publishers offered this sale-or-return to help establish bookshops. Trouble is, the formula stayed long after the depression. You’d find bookshop staff would know their stock a lot better if they had to buy their books upfront and there was no return.
Some shops like Of Science and Swords does have this business model, and you’ll not find better qualified and more helpful staff. The other problem we have are high discount chain stores that sell their books as loss leaders cheaper than the independent stores can buy them at from the publishers. Two very silly situations that publishers have instigated.
I’ve also seen the library market shrink to a fraction of its former self. Once upon a time libraries were basically autonomous and would buy their own books. Then they formed clusters so that one library would lend their copy of a book to another library in its cluster so that only one copy need be purchased. It went on from there to inter-cluster lending, so that one system of eight libraries, for example, doesn’t need to purchase a particular book — they simply borrow it from another system of perhaps a similar size. So you have one book circulating among sixteen libraries. Of course, postage is such now that some libraries are charging a $10 postage and handling fee for this service, so I predict the loan system is about to get hit! Not before time, either, if we want our authors to write books and at least get food in their mouths for the effort. I bet you’re sorry you asked that question!
7. You’ve mentioned that contemporary writers need to be adept at social media in order to compete in today’s publishing environment. Writers have traditionally been viewed as somewhat solitary creatures. What are your thoughts on this new dimension to the writer’s life?
Oh, you can be the world’s greatest hermit and still participate in online chats via Skype, Facebook and Twitter. It’s more the upfront and personal side of publicity that most authors baulk at. I had to go to Toastmasters for two years to overcome the fear of public speaking. Some people can’t even face up to that. Public speaking is apparently number one in people’s fears.
8. Fitness is important to you and you have a background in martial arts. How do you maintain the balance between body and mind, and can you tell us a bit about the discipline you derive from your martial arts training and how that has enhanced other areas of your life?
You can’t put a price on health. Luckily for me I’ve always been sports-oriented so never had trouble keeping fit. I started martial arts in my twenties and that paid handsomely financially as well as health-wise. I now train in my gym (I’ve taken over the garage) four times a week. I also have a kelpie and a heeler — both working dogs. I jog with them every day. I also play tennis every couple of weeks. They’re things I enjoy doing so I don’t see them as being onerous.
9. I’ve heard that wading through the slush pile can be a pretty soul-destroying experience. When it’s time to start reading, how do you approach the new submissions and keep yourself from becoming jaded? What are a few tips you would offer newbies when it comes time to send their manuscripts out?
If I’m to be completely honest, my interns are the first readers of anything submitted to Ford Street. Most of them have studied publishing and editing at tertiary institutions such as RMIT, CAE, NMIT, etc. I get them to write assessments. Not only do I send these to the authors, which hopefully helps them revise their work), but I gauge whether or not to spend much of my own time reading the unsolicited MSS. Publishing up to a dozen books a year is more than one person can reasonably handle, so I do take short-cuts. Regardless, I don’t think I’ve let slip any great manuscripts so far. At least, I hope not!
Regarding tips for authors submitting MSS — simply go through the potential publisher’s website. See what they’re publishing. If it’s children’s, then don’t waste anyone’s time on submitting adults or non-fiction. Check the submission guidelines. You’ll be surprised how many people email me their MSS or send disks. Publishers aren’t made of money, and small presses actually lose. There’s no way they should print out authors’ manuscripts when cartridges are now $100 plus. Also, always provide return postage if you want the MS back.
10. Authors clearly derive inspiration from a huge range of sources. You’ve described using quirky newspaper stories as ‘jumping-off points’, for example. What else do you do to get the creative juices flowing? Are there particular places you like to travel to, for example, music you like to listen to, or people you like to spend time with?
I doubt there’s a magic formula, Bec. We all have our own methods. As you mention, anecdotal stories are the easiest to write because the plot is there from A to Z. The Glasshouse, illustrated by Jo Thompson, was perhaps the easiest book to write and it’s possibly one of my top three best-sellers. It came about from my telling another writer some home truths which she disagreed with. I was quite frustrated to have these truths dismissed, that I used the metaphor of a girl in a glasshouse oblivious to the world about her. It’s been chosen by international IBBY as an Outstanding Book (one of only four chosen from Australia) and has also been short-listed for the CBCA’s Crichton Award. But longer works aren’t so easy to write. Most times, I just sit myself down at the computer and start typing. Sometimes I write a lot, or even a very, very rough draft. I have no particular method.
11. The last time we caught up with you, you were working on this very book and had another series, Broken Magic, on the go. Are you still working on that series? What’s next in line in your very busy schedule?
I was going to publish Broken Magic as a six part chapter series, one coming out every month. But I had to put that on hold because of Mole Hunt. And now it appears as though a French publisher wants to purchase rights, but needs book #2 for 2012. So I might need to find time to concentrate on Dyson’s Drop. I have the rough draft ready, so it shouldn’t take too long. Regardless, I can’t have Broken Magic coming out in the same year as Dyson’s Drop — that would make seven books in one year. The good thing about fantasy is that it’s not topical, so I think it’ll be fine even if it sees print in 2015.
Visit Paul’s website here.
Check out the Ford Street Publishing site here.
Mole Hunt trailer: