Thursday, January 10, 2008

[Interview] Sean Parker

Sean Parker's debut novel, Junkyard Dog (BeWriteBooks, 2007) has been described as "an explosive mix of raw power and brutal energy."

The novel, which is set in Manchester, is the first of a trilogy of crime fiction thrillers exploring the city's mean streets.

In a recent interview, Sean Parker spoke about his writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

My first job was as an engineer working in the nuclear power industry. At that time I used to read a lot of westerns, especially those by such quality authors as Paul Wellman, Will Henry and Louis L'Amour and, as time went on, I decided to write one of my own.

After completion, the manuscript went out to the genre publishers. I knew that very soon I would be taking up shelf space next to Louis.

The rejection slips began to land on the carpet with some regularity, accompanied by the words: "Unfortunately the manuscript is not suitable for our list, but you may well find another publisher who thinks differently, a list of whom you will find in the Writers' and Artists' Year Book."

Naively thinking that these letters were personal to me and me alone I persevered until finally, the penny dropped like a ship's anchor. Through the pain of realisation, I began to understand about indentation; justification; colons and semicolons et al.

At the same time, I was also writing some children's stories for my two daughters, which involved them and their pet rabbit Snowy. Fortunately, their school found them good enough to print for the other kids. Unfortunately, I overfed Snowy and one morning I found him dead in his cage. The hire of a JCB was necessary to get him out and give him a decent burial, under a rose bush in the back garden.

I then switched careers and went into financial services with a major U.K. life assurance company. I now began to take up the business of writing very seriously. A year later I sent a manuscript for a non-fiction book on training and fitness to the publishers Foulsham & Foulsham. It arrived on their desk on a Friday morning. On Monday morning the M.D. telephoned and within twenty minutes the deal was done.

I told my wife we were on our way up; a year later she died of cancer.

How would you describe your writing?

Peter Walsh, the best selling author of Gang War, a definitive non-fiction history of the Manchester gangs, has endorsed Junkyard Dog by saying: "The Junkyard Dog is as close to real life as it gets."

Manchester can be a scary place and I'd like to think that my novel depicts the urban brutality hidden under the surface. I see the 'Dog' as a Mancunian, Long Good Friday.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

Being very independent, I tend to do what I believe is right, instinctively, on occasions and on the assumption that if others are telling me what to do, then I am leading their life and not my own. So, influences are very few.

However, on the discovery of a novel by Tom Barling called The Smoke, I was instantly hooked on crime fiction.

I told Tom that I was going to write a novel about modern day criminals in London.

He replied: "Come on, Sean. Don't tell me that Manchester is so crime-free you have to invade my territory. Get lost."

I got the message.

Bernard Cornwell who, after learning about my writing ambitions, very kindly gave me the name of his agent. What a gentleman.

Another influence was the author Derek Raymond. We once went out for a drink, a fatal mistake on my part. I finished up plastered, chewing on a beer-stained carpet but still trying to pick his brains. Another gent.

Also, there is a club in Manchester, which, for the last fifty years, has been at the forefront in providing training facilities for those with an interest in amateur wrestling and boxing, along with the teaching of general fitness. The founder of this club was Max Shacklady. The place was, and still is, known as Shacklady's. Max was for nearly twenty years the coach to the Olympic boxing team. His son, Tony, won a silver medal in the wrestling event in the New Zealand Commonwealth Games. Word spread about the club and one day the famous Joe Louis turned up to meet Max.

Max was also a Magistrate and his idea of justice was to sentence all young offenders to attend his club for two months of intensive training. Not many dared re-offend.

Because of its growing reputation, Shacklady's had begun to attract many of Manchester's bouncers and doormen who realised that keeping fit was a big help in staving off a spell in traction. I got to know many of them and have used this 'inside' information as the basis for the 'Dog'. And no, I do not know where the bodies are buried, honest.

What are your main concerns as a writer, and how do you deal with them?

I don't have any. I just write, and then re-write until I'm happy with it.

As a writer there is, initially, only one challenge to overcome; that of getting the book published. If you are not able to produce the best you are capable of then you're never going to be in with a chance.

How many books have you written so far, and what writing plans do you have for the future?

The Complete Training Diary was a non-fiction book published by Foulsham. It was designed to help those who did some kind of exercise every day to accurately record it so as to keep an ongoing record and therefore assess one's progress along the way.

Junkyard Dog is a crime fiction thriller published by BeWrite Books. As for the future, the second novel, which is complete, involves the same characters and is called Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie.

The last in the trilogy is about a cousin of Charlie and Burnett. Jack Mitchell is another Gypsy head case that, on the odd occasion, enlists the help of the Manchester mob in sorting out the opposition. It's at the halfway stage so I don't have a clue about the ending, other than that it will be an intriguingly explosive one.

What would be your advice to aspiring authors?

If I can help anybody I will.

The first thing is to ask yourself the reason why you are writing. If the answer is not money, then you'll be forever seeking assurances from family and friends about your masterpiece. They will tell you it's fantastic, and your chest will still be puffed up with pride when you're six feet under.

So, you're writing for money. Now you have to do whatever it takes to get there. Learn your trade. Write to authors that have a similar style to that which you are trying to achieve. Many will not reply, but from those that do, take their advice on board. You don't have to use it, but somewhere along the line it will all begin to click into place.

Is it true that all publishers have readers who go through the slush pile?

If they don't like the first line, the MS is rejected. Same thing happens again if they don't like the first paragraph; first chapter; or first line of the second chapter. So what does that tell you?

Now have a look at the "The Ten Deadly Sins" from Elmore Leonard:

  1. Never open a book with the weather. Unless it's needed to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather. Don't go on too long because the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
  2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially if they come after an introduction that comes after a foreword.
  3. Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb said. Example, "He admonished gravely." To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
  5. Keep your exclamation marks under control. You are not allowed more that two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words suddenly or all hell broke loose. Writers who use suddenly tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation marks.
  7. Use regional dialects, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. A simple reference can tell the reader everything there is to know about the character.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Too much description can bring the action and the flow of the story to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Readers will skip thick paragraphs of prose, all the writer is doing is taking another shot at the weather, or going into the characters head. The reader either knows what the guy's thinking, or doesn't care.


The most important rule is one that sums up all ten. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. You cannot allow what you learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

I prefer to remain invisible, not to distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. Words can get in the way of what you want to say.

Write scenes from the point of view of character that has the best view to bring the scene to life, that way you are able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what's going on. You, should be nowhere in sight.

And finally, for now anyway, some advice from me. Never use a word that is not needed; or a sentence; or a paragraph or a chapter. Take it all in and turn out the best work you are capable of. Rewrite it, and then cut, cut and cut again.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

[Interview] Alessio Zanelli

Alessio Zanelli is a private financial adviser and a poet.

He was born in 1963 in Cremona, a small town in Lombardy, northern Italy, where he still lives and works.

He began writing poetry in 1985, at first in both English and Italian and then exclusively in English, a language he has been learning on his own.

He has published four poetry collections.

Loose Sheets (UpFront Publishing, 2002); Small Press Verse & Poeticonjectures (Xlibris, USA, 2003) and Straight Astray (Troubador Publishing, UK, 2005) are in English while 33 Poesie/33 Poems (Starrylink, ITA, 2004) is in both English and Italian.

His poems have also appeared in a range of literary magazines and journals that include Potomac Review, Möbius, Skyline Literary Magazine, The Journal and Freexpression.

In a recent interview, Alessio Zanelli spoke about his writing.

When did you start writing?

In 1985. At first I simply wrote lyrics for a couple of local rock bands, then I began writing poems. I abandoned my mother tongue (Italian) very soon and English has been my literary language ever since.

How and when did decide you wanted to be a published writer?

After collecting dozens of poems, I think anybody would feel the need of being published.

Poems may remain in the drawer for a very long time, but they have to come to light eventually, whether worth much or nothing, which only readers (and, unfortunately, editors) have the power to decide on. As George Bernard Shaw neatly put it: 'What's the point of writing if not that of being read?'

I began submitting my works to magazines only in 2000 and, for several months, all I got were rejection slips but I never despaired. So far I have over 200 poems published (or forthcoming) in nearly 100 literary magazines from 10 countries, even though most acceptances come from the USA and the U.K. I have also published three full collections, the first two through [print on demand] POD publishers and the last one with a small independent publisher.

Here's my advice: read, read, read what other poets write; then write, write, write, and revise. In the end submit, submit, submit, and never despair. Listen to what editors may advise about your poetry but never pervert the nature of your writing, your style, your voice in order to simply gratify them. Simple, isn't it?

How would you describe your own writing?

Difficult, laborious (also because I write in a foreign language), but almost always gratifying.

I constantly try to write something which may help, intrigue, amuse or in someway interest the reader.

Who is your target audience?

I don't have any target audience. Only, I hope other poets may be among my readers.

Poetry is most problematic ('it doesn't sell', the publishers would say), therefore I think that when a poet arouses the curiosity of other poets, he's actually writing something worth reading.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you most?

Oh, so many! An exhaustive answer would take pages, so I only name the ones I regard as my favorite poets ever: William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Among the old ones, W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams. Among the contemporary ones, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Muldoon and Mario Petrucci among the living ones.

As to the poets of other languages (my own one included) I like Pablo Neruda, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Rainer Maria Rilke above all.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My greatest concern is not to make linguistic errors whatsoever and not to misuse the English language.

I'd like to write as well as not be recognized as a non-mother-tongue poet, but that's quite a tough assignment. Modern usage and idioms are difficult to retain and use properly when you don't speak a language in everyday life.

I try to write the best possible written-English poetry by referring to many linguistic tools such as dictionaries, thesauruses, style handbooks etc. (I own nearly 100 English reference volumes, many on CD/DVD). Above all, I keep on reading others' poetry, and all the latest collections of the most-read living poets.

Have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

From rejection to rejection, as well as from acceptance to acceptance, I've been slightly changing my stance on poetry writing.

A poet should never disavow his artistic beliefs to please editors, nonetheless small and gradual shifts in style, diction and even subject-matters are inevitable. Also personal experiences can influence the way a poet writes, but what he reads and hears around himself is also a powerful determining factor.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge I face is my constant effort to write a good literary English, as to poetic diction and command of all the linguistic tools. That said, the other big challenge is that of captivating the reader, of keeping him hooked from the first to the last line of the poem, which is really difficult, especially when you think that your very first reader is (almost invariably) the editor of the magazine you've submitted your poem to.

In the end, what one says and how one says it is of the greatest importance in grabbing attention: saying something useful or saying the truth may be the secret, but that doesn't mean the poet always has to speak of real facts. Good poetry can be also fictive (and I know many poets don't agree on this issue, since they believe a poet must be absolutely 'honest'), provided that what the poet imagines and pictures is of service to the truth and what he really believes in. This is another big challenge.

Do you write everyday?

No, I don't write everyday. My job and other occupations require pretty much of my time. On an average, I write about 10 hours a week, which is not much, but can be a huge amount of time for a poet. Moreover, I think everybody understands that a poet can't be forced to write, not even by himself! That is, I write only when I feel like writing, and inspiration, after all, still is the most important element.

Once a poem is started, I usually tend to finish it on the very same day, but sometimes it takes more days and, in a few cases, I have written poems whose construction has taken weeks, or months.

The revising process never ends. I have poems published in two or three different magazines, each time in a different version. Let me say: a poem is really, definitively finished only when the poet is dead.

How did you chose a publisher for your latest poetry collection?

My latest book is the collection Straight Astray. Over 90 percent of the poems included first appeared in literary magazine such as Aesthetica, California Quarterly, Dream Catcher, Italian Americana, Orbis, Other Poetry, Paris/Atlantic and Poetry Salzburg Review.

It was published in the U.K. by Troubador Publishing.

The time required to find a traditional mainstream publisher willing to publish (or even only consider) my manuscript could have taken ages, therefore I opted for a small POD publisher, which many consider as a discrediting option. I don't think so, since I'm perfectly aware that I'll never be able to earn my living from poetry. I prefer to have my book neatly produced in a reasonable time and at a reasonable expense. After all, nearly all of the poems had already been accepted for publication by literary magazines and that's enough for me to be sure that what I wrote is worth reading.

A full collection is a higher-grade need for a poet, but there are thousands of poets in the world and so few poetry readers! As a consequence, only a very small percentage of poets can attain the services of mainstream publishers such as Faber & Faber, Cape Poetry, Bloodaxe, etc. All the others have to make do with self-publishing and POD services.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Apart from what I have already said about the proper use of the language as an Italian-native, I think that the process of revising is what can most worry a poet. You never actually know if the latest version of a poem will really satisfy you forever. The 'perfection' and the 'persistence' of a poem are the real poet's torment.

The only virtues needed to deal with such problem are patience and belief. Sooner or later, every poet will run into the definitive version of a poem, the 'perfect draft'.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

What follows applies to all my books, not to one in particular. I enjoyed most having to deal with a foreign tongue. I really like the exploring of the language. I have so much to learn from the works of other authors as well as from all sorts of reference books while writing and revising. There's nothing more pleasant and intriguing for one who likes a language not his own.

What sets the Straight Astray apart from the other things you've written?

I think the poems in Straight Astray are way better than the ones in my previous books.

In what way is it similar?

Again, like its predecessors my last collection shows how a foreigner can use the English language for literary purposes. I think it can be really interesting also for English-native writers. A review I've had maybe can better explain this point: 'We can learn a lot about ourselves from how others use our language. Alessio Zanelli has paid our language, Edward Thomas' English Words, a rare compliment. In turn we should take the time to read what he has to say.' (John Plevin -- Pulsar Poetry Magazine, U.K.)

What will your next book be about?

Poetry, of course, The new collection has many tentative titles, among them are: Hand of Sand; Over Misty Plains; In The Middle Of The Ford.

I hope it will see the light in 2008 or 2009; for sure it will include poems first published in magazines and anthologies around the world.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Being published in literary magazines and anthologies in the English language along with English-native poets, some of whom are really famous, such as Rita Dove, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Mario Petrucci. And having being published there as an Italian who has been learning English completely as an autodidact.

How did you get there?

With much reading and studying, patience, humbleness, and a little savoir-faire.

This article was first published by OhmyNews International.