> What is The Alchemist of Souls about?
The Alchemist of Souls is the story of Mal Catlyn, an impoverished Elizabethan swordsman who is plucked, almost literally, from the gutter and given a prestigious job as bodyguard to a foreign ambassador. Quite why he's been chosen, Mal can't fathom - and when he does find out, he wishes he hadn't!
To make matters worse, the ambassador in question is not human but a skrayling. These mysterious creatures have brought exotic trade goods from the Americas, but what is their true purpose in London? Are they the faerie folk of the New World, are they demons as the Puritans claim, or something else entirely?
Soon Mal finds himself up to his neck in intrigue and dark magics, and what he finds out about the skraylings and their unholy powers could lose Mal and his twin brother their lives - and their souls.
> What drew you to writing historical fantasy and why did you set your series in 16th Century Europe?
I've always been interested in history, especially the late medieval and early modern periods. That might be because they were the settings of many of the swashbuckling movies I loved as a kid. As I grew older I became interested in the political intrigue behind the names and dates we were taught in school, and also the everyday life of the period: clothes, architecture and so on.
The 16th century is an important era in English history, as it's when our national identity really emerged as separate from the rest of Christendom, and it was when we stepped onto the world stage by sending men to explore and colonise the New World. Of course the latter part of the century saw a great flourishing of the arts, particularly secular drama, and the explosion of the English language with new words and grammar. All in all it was a very vibrant period of our history, full of storytelling possibilities, but also not so very different from our own in many ways.
> What made you want to be a writer?
I was a voracious reader as a child and teenager, and it just seemed the natural next step to "join in the game", so to speak. Especially when I read books that weren't so great and thought "I can do better than that!".
> If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?
I'd love to change places with Coby, who's a tireman (costumier and dresser) with a London theatre company. My parents met through an amateur dramatics society and I always loved hanging out backstage. Her job is quite creative, though sometimes hard work - she lives disguised as a boy, so she's expected to help haul the chests of costumes around when the company goes on tour - but it would be worth it to see the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe performed by real Elizabethan actors.
> What were your literary influences for The Alchemist of Souls?
I always loved swashbuckling movies as a kid, so when I got older I naturally gravitated towards historical novels such as "The Three Musketeers" and also swords-and-sorcery, particularly Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Later on I discovered writers like Ellen Kushner and Tim Powers who were blending those two genres in a more sophisticated way.
I suppose those are the most direct influences, but I read quite widely - fantasy, science fiction, historical mysteries, classics like Jane Austen - and it all gets thrown into the mental melting-pot. That's probably why I'm not very good at sticking to a single genre in my books!
> What's the first novel (published or unpublished) that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?
The Alchemist of Souls is actually my first completed novel. Before that I'd made many stabs at novels but never managed to get more than a few chapters in before running out of steam. To break this pattern I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2006, and whilst the resulting draft was in no way publishable, it gave me a complete story and well-developed characters that I loved and couldn't walk away from.
After that it was just a matter of rewriting. And rewriting. The whole process, from that first draft to sending it out to agents and editors, took almost exactly four years.
> When and where do you write?
I write whenever and wherever I can grab a little time and privacy - I still have a day-job, like most writers, so I have to fit my writing in around that. Mostly that's at home with my laptop, but I've written in the library on the campus where I work, outside at lunchtime by an ornamental lake, in cafes, on buses, trains and planes...
> What’s the best/worst thing about writing?
The best thing is when the words are flowing from your fingertips as fast as you can write them down; the worst is when they won't come at all and you have to keep writing anyway just to push ahead with the story and hit your deadline. That's what sorts out the men from the boys, so to speak.
> What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?
I used to be a non-fiction production editor (I would arrange for manuscripts to be proofread and then send them off to the printers), so I knew a lot more about the inner workings of publishing than most new authors. The one thing I've learned is that promoting your book is even harder work than writing it - I'm in awe of self-published authors who make a success of it without the advantage of a publishing team at their back!
> Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?
Write with passion. If you don't love what you're doing
a) it will lack that vital spark that gets agents interested, and
b) the path to publication is very tough - why go through that for something you don't care all that much about?
> Any tips against writers block?
I don't believe in writer's block. Sometimes you're genuinely too tired, stressed or unwell to write, or burned-out from having just finished a project, and your brain needs a break. That's fine. Chill out, do something else you enjoy, and come back to the writing when you feel better.
If you don't have a solid reason for having a problem writing, then you just need to sit down and get on with it. Don't stress about getting the words right the first time. Don't be afraid to write scenes that you know won't make it into the final draft, if that's what it takes to get back into the mood. Take your city-bred character on his first trip to the beach, or write a steamy sex scene between those two characters who hate one another - whatever it takes. Time spent writing is never wasted, ever.
> How do you discipline yourself to write?
I set myself goals appropriate to the stage of the draft I'm at. That might be "brainstorm five new scenes this weekend" or "edit three chapters this week" or whatever. When I'm on a deadline I'll actually mark up those milestones on a calendar by my desk and tick them off as I reach them (or make a note in red pen when I don't!).
I find that deadlines help hugely. Even before I had them imposed on me by a publishing contract, I set them for myself. For example, I decided I was going to have the manuscript of The Alchemist of Souls finished and submitted to agents in time for FantasyCon 2010 (a UK convention), so that I could relax and enjoy myself guilt-free. I hit that deadline, and my unexpected reward was that I was then able to pitch the novel to the editor at Angry Robot Books, whom I met at the convention.