Sunday, August 25, 2013

Virtual Coffee Interview with Andrew Blackman
Andrew Blackman's first novel won the Luke Bitmead Bursary for new writers. Now working on his third novel and providing an editing service on the side, I have a few questions for him...

Hi Andrew. First of all, please tell us how you became a writer and what sort of thing you're drawn to write about?

I wanted to be a writer from an early age, so naturally I started out by becoming a corporate banker on Wall Street. Hmm... I think my logic at the time was that I would make a lot of money, retire young and then write, but I quickly realised this wasn't such a good plan. I quit and became a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and at first it seemed ideal: it was writing, but with a regular salary. But then I found myself waking up at 6am every day to write my own stories, and knew that I wouldn't be really happy until I at least tried to do what I’d always wanted to do. So I quit, moved back to London and started to focus on fiction writing, while temping at night and at weekends to pay the bills. After a few years of failure, I finally got a break and got my first novel published.

My writing, I suppose, reflects some of my life experiences. I like to write about characters who are struggling to assert their own identities and wishes in the face of the world’s contradictory expectations. I write about people trying to live authentic lives, and the compromises they’re often forced to make in the process. 

How did your first book, On The Holloway Road get published? Did you have strong ideas on the final product or were you happy to put it in the hands of your publishers?

It was a very straightforward process, actually, involving no mysterious contacts or connections or chance events. I just submitted my manuscript to a contest for unpublished writers, the Luke Bitmead Bursary, and a few months later discovered to my amazement that I’d won. The prize was a cheque for £2,500, and a publishing contract with Legend Press. About seven months later, the book came out.

Luckily there wasn't much conflict with my publishers over the final product. They only edited the book quite lightly, and when I disagreed with some edits they were mostly happy to go with my version (except for a few strange issues of “house style”). I left the cover design and the blurb to them, because I decided they knew more about it than I did. 

What a great start! Did you feel the need to get an agent after that? Have you stayed with the same publisher?

Yes, I was clear from the beginning that I wanted an agent as soon as possible. I signed up with my agent after I won the prize and before On the Holloway Road was published. Even though I already had the publishing deal, and even though I stayed with the same publisher for my second novel, having an agent helped because he could negotiate the details of the contracts on my behalf. I would have found that difficult to do myself, firstly because I don't feel as if I know enough about the intricacies of rights, royalties, ebook terms, etc, and secondly because I want to have a good relationship with my publisher. It's good to have someone else to go in and negotiate, so that I can just concentrate on working with them on the editing, publicity, etc. I also had a few approaches for film rights, and he handled those for me too. I think having an agent will be more useful as my career progresses and there's more complex stuff to handle, but I wanted to have one from the start.

You offer an editing service, as well as regularly write articles and blog. How do you balance these activities with writing?

No matter how busy I am, I always make sure that writing fiction is the first thing I do each morning. And most importantly, I do it with the internet switched off! Only when I am happy with what I've accomplished do I put it away and start on the other stuff. I find that the most important thing in creative writing is not time, but mental space. If you have time, but your mind is cluttered with other things, then you won’t get anything done. So I resist the temptation to work on anything else in the mornings, and write while my mind is fresh. When I fire up Twitter, I know that’s the end of my creativity for the day!

All successful writers say discipline is the key - that's a good example. Recently you moved from Barbados back to London. A big cultural switch! How does the change effect your creativity?

Well, since then I've moved from London to Crete, so another big cultural switch! The moving obviously disrupts my creativity for a while, because there’s a lot of logistical stuff to be done each time you move anywhere, let alone internationally. But once I settle down, it’s worth it. Moving to a new place gives me new ideas, a new way of seeing the world. The worst thing for a writer is to get stuck in a rut. Good fiction relies on fresh ideas and fresh images, and I find that living in a different place helps recharge my imagination. Plus, to be quite honest, a big reason for moving first to Barbados and then to Crete was that the cost of living in both places is much lower than in London. Here I can write full-time and just about get by, whereas in London it was a constant struggle just to pay the rent and council tax and keep the lights on each month. Living a simpler, cheaper life means more time and energy for creative work.

On The Holloway Road and A Virtual Love have both received high praise. What can we expect from you next?

I’m working on my third novel, which is quite different. I like to write in different styles and with different subject matter each time. Certain themes are common in all three – identity, authenticity, living a life you want rather than the life other people expect, the compromises people make, etc. But they’re explored in quite different ways. The new novel, although it’s mostly contemporary, also has a historical component, which is something I've never done before. The historical part is based on some real-life family history involving a distant ancestor of mine who gave up a claim to the throne of Spain in order to move to England and become one of the early nineteenth-century photographers. 
Read more interviews...

That sounds exactly like living the life you want rather than what people expect - inspiring. It must be nice to research something in the family. Good luck with it and thanks for taking the time away from the beach for the chat!


  1. I want an agent for the same reason. Went without one for now, but hopefully, I'll have a successful enough start to be able to get an agent for the rest of my books.

    1. Yes, I thought it was interesting to see the long-term viewpoint. Thanks for your comment, Misha :)