I’ve known Lisa Scullard for several years now. She’s the author of some fabulous books, most notably the darkly comic urban novel Death and the City.
Lisa is not just a great writer, she’s a great person, both inspirational (as we’ll see), generous, and with impeccable taste in Linving Dead Souls hoodies. She’s also the very model of the multitasking mastery required of today’s self-publisher. Do catch up with her on twitter, and read her fabulous blog. But first buy her book and read what she’s got to say about the whole shebang.
1. You are in many ways the perfect self-publisher because you seem to be highly skilled in so many relevant areas – was that part of the motivation?
I’ve been at home around computers since the ZX Spectrum Plus and Commodore 64 came out, and was already writing and illustrating my own stories back then as a youngster, so it was just a matter of time until they came together as a platform for self-publishing. Not in the form of those old computer platforms though. Jet Set Willy and friends didn’t open a publishing house fast enough for my liking.
I’d never pictured myself as an indie, however, because I got industry interest very early in life – initially from Gollancz in 1990, suggesting I do a rewrite of Living Hell, and almost immediately after that from Simon Spanton, who was at the time with Pan-MacMillan, and asked to see a sequel to Living Hell, based on a pitch about a motorcycle hitman. I wrote the sequel and submitted it, but hadn’t enjoyed writing it quite so much, as I felt I lacked life experience to reference at the time – I was only just out of my teens by then.
So when Simon left PanMac after three or four years of pondering, I wasn’t too bothered about it and went my own way for the next couple of years, using the motorcycle hitman premise in the screenplay Heavy Duty in 1999, which won me Raindance Film School’s “Live!Ammunition!!” pitchfest in July that year. I spent a couple of years testing the waters in the film industry, and got some interest in the feature script, including from the US.
By that time I was back at university and working full-time as a bouncer, and shortly the sequel to Living Hell was completely rewritten as Death & The City, in 2008, with the screenplay, Heavy Duty, used as the back story. It did the rounds of agents and publishers for a year – Shiel Land probably still have it at the back of some cupboard of theirs – while Living Hell went into the Pratchett/Transworld contest 2010 – and it was the contest deadline passing which became my planned publishing date. I did a test publication with The Terrible Zombie of Oz, a parody mash-up I’d done for fun, to see how hard it was to format for print and ebook – and it was a piece of cake, so I published Living Hell and Death & The City immediately – the latter being so long, I split it down the middle into two for ISBN versions to keep the print price manageable, but also released special combined editions in ebook form. It was so much easier (and cheaper) to self-publish than the 19 years of submitting and waiting around previously – although I realise now it was just about waiting for technology to catch up, and for the process to become dirt cheap.
The most frustrating part was editing from the proofs, where the errors jump out at you. I’ll still spellcheck and re-load if I spot a corker.
2. You seem to be at home in so many genres – where do you feel happiest?
With being myself I’ve tried to write dead straight-faced stuff, but it bores me. I’m like a kid in a cinema inserting my own comedy dialogue at the back of my mind, so I just allow it right through like a bulldozer when the mood takes me, so I love a good parody mash-up. With Death & The City, I was basically keeping a diary of nightclub incidents and funny anecdotes at home previously, woke at 6a.m. on the first Sunday in April 2008, and it was snowing, ruining my plans for the day. So I decided to write something else instead of my diary, and started writing exactly as if it was my diary (except I had to change the starting day in the book to a Saturday to fit the plot). It’s basically about some of the same characters as appear in Living Hell, grown-up, only written in the first person POV of one of them. That part was a great fun challenge to do – writing from the limitations of a single POV. But in nightclub security, you have to mind-read and pre-empt a lot, so it was a perfect observational point to write from, second-gueesing the other characters and their motivations, exactly as in real life at work.
3. You are a remarkable and inspiring person as well as a brilliant writer – do you mind sharing some of that story?
Ooh, haha, where do you want to start? I’m the eldest of eight, with six of them brothers. And I’m the one that took up all the martial arts, and trained as a motorcycle mechanic… As a child people thought I’d become an artist, but my mum guessed I’d be a writer from the age of about seven, she encouraged me to write stories, while I found school and socialising difficult. I had autoimmune Graves’ Disease from age 15, which led eventually to surgery, the aftermath of which led to a lot of personal research on my part into personality disorders – I took it as far as working with the mentally and physically handicapped as a CSV live-in volunteer for a year in north London, which put a lot of issues about mental health into perspective. I also had my eyes corrected from the Graves’ Disease eventually, when the surgery became available aged 34, which meant I had to learn from scratch how to distinguish between different facial expressions and eye contact, having only had people respond to me with staring for twenty years. But I took it all in stride – I hadn’t ever had a ‘normal’ life, so the extraordinary happening was everyday stuff to me. I have one child from a holiday romance, I like my cars sporty, and I like my own company. I’m quite happy on my own in the evenings with a camera, photographing clouds and sunsets, or with a hula hoop in the garden, listening to Thin Lizzy and The Beastie Boys.
4. Why is it so much more interesting to write about life’s darkness than its light?
I think because for me there’s more personal referencing in it that’s relevant to me and my life, and more scope for humour. I wasn’t raised religious, but was raised to be open-minded, so I was interested in everything from Buddhism to Satanism, as a teenager. Until I met a couple of real Satanists, who said you still had to read a ‘Bible’. No fun in that. Just more rules and stuff to remember. I value my free will. But I have an overriding moral ethic, which is why enforcing the licensing laws was my ideal job, in security work. I’ve got no time for alcoholism, or human rights abuse, domestic or otherwise. You see a lot of the dark side of people in that kind of job. And how stupid and narrow-minded they can be at the same time. I like to create objective characters who use others’ dark sides and weaknesses against them, like blackmailers and hit-men.
5. You write screenplays as well as fiction, and your style and your subject matter feel very cinematic – I can picture you as a Neil Gaiman type figure spanning the divide between the two worlds. Is that a goal of yours?
Neil Gaiman? I’m honored I’ve already sensed out the film world experimentally, as I said earlier. I think the Hollywood machine has enough invested in Tim Burton to stop me worrying that my kind of fun isn’t reaching the big screens for a while yet I do like to reference things in a postmodernist way in my writing more as an adult now, I think because as consumers we’re all hyper-aware of anything self-referential within the media, as well as being a part of it ourselves. If you remember the old stereotyped soap opera demographic – the family who never watches TV, never goes to the cinema, never listens to music, never laughs, never goes on the computer, and never has birthdays – if you wrote about that family now, it’d be classed as dystopian fiction. Nowadays you’ve got 12-yr-olds blogging and reviewing, sharing recommendations with each other faster than the companies can stick an ad onto the TV. I’m open to offers of interest to collaborate on film projects. I own my own companies already since 1999, and already work regularly with a film producer on the IT and publishing side of her work. I’m in no hurry though. For me personally, it’ll happen when something on the technology side inspires me – like putting bonus material into ebooks, or reader-preference enabled interactive reading, both of which I’ve already done. I know the industry in publishing, film and gaming platforms are desperate for anything with Transmedia potential, but individuals are already creating their own – to quote Jason Kingsley at last year’s London Book Fair 2011, they (Rebellion) got into Facebook apps because ‘As a business, how do you compete with free?’ I am still a big fan of graphic novels though – some I just know it’s a movie storyboard, itching to be made. And they don’t require electricity, or a satellite or Wi-Fi signal. I think that’s the reason reading will be around for a while yet – just printed text on a page, and the reader’s imagination running the show.
6. What would success look like?
I’m already full-time freelance/self-employed, and being interviewed by Eight Cuts, so I guess this is it. Yay me
7. What next?
There is a teenage reviewer in my house demanding sequels, which will appear eventually. And pizza. My car might be due for a tune-up… no, seriously, at some point I’ll finish my sciences degree, and then maybe do another one for fun. I never get bored of learning new stuff. Although I do tend to go home and write fiction about what I’ve learned that day, instead of doing my homework assignments. I’ll never make it to PhD, unless they give me one just for turning up and showing enthusiasm xxx