Author interview: Alex Clarkson

If you're in the middle of writing a tale for this year's Pulp Idol competition, you might benefit from some guidance by last year's winner. Alex Clarkson won Pulp Idol 2007 with a post-apocalyptic story called "Da Capo", set in Israel and featuring The Chorus, a world wide empathetic phenomenon. We asked him for any encouragement he might have for this year's entrants.

SFX: Did you enjoy the experience of writing for Pulp Idol 2007?
"Oh, definitely. I’d recommend it to anybody who’s ever had an idea that keeps them awake at night. Plus, if you do well, publishers become aware of your existence, which is no mean opportunity."

SFX: Is there any advice you would go back in time and give yourself as you began writing "Da Capo"?
"I wouldn’t have made the story so self-consciously ‘contemporary’ or ‘topical’ – being compared to Jeffrey Archer really took the wind out of my sails! Apparently a lot of people automatically assumed the main character to be a Palestinian Muslim and the story as a whole to be a pro-Zionist tract, which I found absolutely baffling. 'Da Capo' was supposed to be a social commentary, not a statement on politics in the Middle East, and perhaps I didn’t really convey that as well as I could."

SFX: Where did you get your inspiration?
"I’m very difficult to impress. I spend an embarrassing amount of my free time on the internet searching for things – be they literature, artwork, music, film, video games, anything – that are genuinely fresh, new or different. Unfortunately, as great as Google is, I can’t simply search for 'stuff I might like', so I take inspiration from pretty much wherever I can find it."

SFX: Writing a short story requires a different approach to writing a longer work like a novel. Now that you’re considering writing a novel set in the same universe, are you having to teach yourself new tricks?
"Maybe I’ve shot myself in the foot by continuing to write in the same fictional universe as 'Da Capo', but balancing character development, exposition, and plot is proving very tricky. I want to really lay my characters open for the reader and at the same time I want to fully evoke the near future world in which they live... and at the same time stuff has got to happen. Prodigious use of the backspace key is going to be absolutely vital if I want to end up with a manuscript weighing anything less than a metric ton."

SFX: What drove you to want to become an author?
"Messrs Orwell, Pynchon, Stephenson and countless other luminaries. If I can achieve the barest fraction of what they’ve done with the English language, I’ll die happy."

SFX: Are there tricks you’d pass on to this year’s entrants for getting back on track if they lose the flow of their story?
"By way of example: I couldn’t think of an answer to this question straight away, so I came back to it the following day. I think a healthy level of procrastination is the key – you have to accept that your concentration and attention span are finite, no matter how prolific you might be. Just don’t leave a paragraph hanging for so long that you forget where you were when you eventually come back to it."

SFX: Is there a perfect way to start a short story?
"I’m a big fan of in media res . You’ve not got much time for exposition in short stories so it can’t hurt to jump straight into the plot and drip-feed backstory as you go along."

SFX: What do you think competition judges, or indeed editors and publishers, are looking for in good SF fiction?
"I’ve just finished reading The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. If you were to reduce this book to its basic hooks - barbarians, wizards - you’d be left with bog-standard Ye Olde Fantasye fare. But there’s something in the way that Abercrombie writes that makes you realize that this isn’t just a rehash. I couldn’t tell you exactly what that something is, but it’s there. I think that this is what judges and publishers look for: not necessarily originality or ingenuity or Machiavellian plot (lord knows 'Da Capo' didn’t have much of those) but simply a good story, told in an authentic voice."

SFX: How do you avoid cliché?
"I suppose a good idea would be to keep an eye on whatever Hollywood is currently enamoured of and do the exact opposite; but I don’t think you can ever truly avoid cliché – you just have to keep your head down and hope it doesn’t notice you."

SFX: How can you keep yourself motivated to keep going when it seems to get difficult?
"Don’t force it. If you write for the sake of it, the chances are that you’ll despise every word. If you’re not enjoying it then you’re doing something drastically wrong."

SFX: "A piece of creative work is never finished, only abandoned." Is that true? How do you know when you’ve revised your story enough?
"It’s definitely true, in my opinion. Unfortunately, I think that the only way you’ll know when to abandon it is if you’re content with what you’ve written. Be sufficiently brutal with your editing, but be aware that at some point you’re going to have to put it to bed. Make it as good as time (and your sanity) will allow, then walk away."

SFX: What happens if you get halfway through your story, and you suddenly feel like have a better idea instead?
"I suppose the trick here is quantifying your new idea, and weighing it against what you already have on paper. It’s probably not worth starting from scratch for the sake of a gimmick. Consider incorporating it into what you’ve written, but always be prepared to drop it if it doesn’t gel."

SFX: Are there any tips you’ve discovered for finishing a story well?
"Some of my favourite endings of all time are The Usual Suspects, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and Neon Genesis: Evangelion – all of them soul-crushing, wholly dispiriting apocalypses. The misery factor isn’t particularly relevant – rather, I think they succeed because from none of them could you possibly derive a sequel. If I’d achieved that degree of finality with 'Da Capo', I think it would have been a much better story."

SFX: What one tip or piece of advice would you give to the people who hope to follow in your footsteps this year?
"Proof-read your story. Even if you’re completely sure of your diction, give it to two or three friends to read through, because they’ll inevitably spot something that you didn’t. I’d love to share some scintillating literary insight, but one of the most astonishing things I learned during my meeting after Pulp Idol 2007 was the number of manuscripts a publisher receives that are turned down purely on the basis of bad spelling or grammar. You could have a masterpiece, but if it’s ineligible, it won’t get a look-in."

Thanks Alex!

We'll bring you more author, agent and publisher interviews every week on this website while the Pulp Idol 2008 competition runs. So check back here regularly, and also look out for our writing features in the pages of SFX magazine.