So I'm interviewing T.O Munro because he donated money to a children's charity and got his book, Lady of the Helm, a place in my Million Dollar Bookshop.
Tell us about your debut novel, Lady of the Helm. I find this kind of question hard myself, but it’s a necessary evil. The ideal is that the people reading this are convinced to give your book a go by a super-excited friend who has just read it and converts them. However, being at the earliest stage in the process, you need to make that happen yourself. Lacking a presence on bookshelves and a big publisher to send your work to reviewers with their implicit ‘quality control stamp’ on it is a tough place to be.
Lady of the Helm and the rest of the bloodline trilogy have many of the features of traditional epic fantasy, but with complex characters following an intricate and carefully constructed mesh of story lines. There is the familiar scale of a great threat to the known world and defeating it depends on the actions of a few key individuals. However, it has I hope more nuanced characters and subtle plotting to fill what I felt were deficits in my own reading experience.
My villains and heroes are not always easy to tell apart, driven by more complex motivations than the mere black and white of good and evil. One of the leading villains is a favourite character for many readers because of the history that has shaped her and which betrays itself in her actions. The arch villain is bad but not without his own dark humour catching the reader unawares mid-smile with another act of imaginative evil. The heroine’s greatest attribute is more her sheer bloody minded-ness than her skills with sword or spells. And through it all there are the micro-motivations of individual humans (and elves and orcs) credible personalities plucked from everyday lives into the midst of unfolding catastrophe.
As a reader and a scientist, I like to understand things, to be able to explain them. Lady of the Helm has a complex plot that is woven very carefully together. I dislike unresolved mysteries, loose ends and deus ex machinas in my own reading, so in my writing I have tried to get a story that twists and turns and surprises but in an entirely logical and credible way. A lot of the reviews suggest I seem to have succeeded. I most want a reader to say “hell I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.” However, there is always a risk I guess, that the more the reader knows there are plot hand grenades waiting to go off, the more they will be on the lookout for them!
There are hordes of self-published books hitting the e-shelves every day. How does any author make themselves heard? It seems very daunting to me.
What a good question. Do tell me when you find the answer.
I self-published not because I doubted the quality of the book, but because I have a demanding day job and finding the time to write was hard enough, still less sending off synopses and resumes to a succession of agents and/or publishers. I just wanted to get the book out there and self-publishing is the simplest way. But it is a very crowded and diverse market. For example there are books of 25 pages or 38 pages, clamouring for attention alongside novels of a more traditional length. It is hard for the reader to filter through this to find what they want.
Ultimately all authors rely on word of mouth and a bit of luck. The best thing any reader can do is review an author’s book particularly. I have got an amazon review from about 1 in every hundred readers, I don’t know if that’s a good ratio or not, but I do know that a lot of my recent purchases have been because of recommendations made on internet forums, blogspots and reddit.
Once the trilogy is completed with “Master of the Planes” later this year I will be able to give more considered thought to marketing!
Describe your book as a cocktail, mixed from other authors, books, movies and the like. Maximum of five ingredients. Shaken or stirred?
Reviewers have mentioned Lord of the Rings, which fits with the traditional epic scale I was trying to achieve.
They have also cited GRRMartin due to my propensity for killing off characters they were just getting attached to – all absolutely essential to the story I hasten to add, no acts of gratuitous authorial vengeance here, and also I should add locked in and plotted long before I read Game of Thrones.
Like GRRMartin with his Houses of Stark (York) and Lannister (Lancaster) I have plundered British History for inspiration, though no-one yet seems to have realised just how extensively.
There are other fragments of influence sprinkled through all three books. A prize to the first person to spot the fleeting references to “Bridge over the River Kwai” and “The Railway Children” – neither of them normally considered as influences on the fantasy genre.
I am too much of a control freak to have shaken these ingredients together, they are all stirred to ensure a smooth structured blending of the disparate influences.
What counts as writing success for you?
Readers, readers, and more readers. Why else would I write? There is nothing quite like hearing someone is waiting patiently for the last book having stayed up all night to finish reading the second.
Also, I like books that move me, I am a big softie at heart. I cry at the closing credits of Lilo and Stitch. What the epic fantasy genre affords is a colossal scale with which to illuminate the struggles of individuals and in so doing to sweat some emotion from the reader. So success means readers who smile and laugh and cry because of what I wrote.
What I really want to do is write a book that gets turned into a film that has Annie Lennox singing a haunting soundtrack for it – but I think that’s already been done!.
You’re a school teacher by day – do you have an impression of what percentage of your teenage pupils are regular readers of books? How does that compare to when you were their age do you think?
I do push reading so hard at school. I’ve endlessly quoted GRRMartin about “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, a non-reader lives but one” I’ve quoted Professor Susan Greenfield on the value of reading over computer games as being the thing that builds those essential human skills of empathy, of placing yourself in someone else’s shoes. You do not glibly hurt those who you empathise with, you learn empathy by being swept up in a written story.
I don’t know that the proportion of teenage readers has necessarily changed, I think the big shift has been from outdoor physical activity to sofa based gaming, from TV watching to internet surfing, from gathering in parks to endless facebook exchanges.
Through all this I think reading has stayed pretty steady, just not in paper book form. But girls read more than boys. What encouraged me recently was to hear that, with smart phones, girls at my school were able to download books and read them on their phones on the bus home. This left them safe from the opprobrium of less literary peers who simply assumed they were on facebook.
What effect (if any) does being a science teacher have on your writing or reading even. Do you come across books where you just shake your head disbelievingly at some unrealistic events or other times do you appreciate science allusions in certain books?
There is a whole element in my science lessons of decrying the great science gaffs that completely dispelled my suspension of disbelief when reading books.
Wizard of Oz and the green tinted spectacles which turned all colours green, doh! everybody knows that blue and red would look black through such a filter.
Lord of the Flies and the wrong lenses, if his glasses could focus sunlight Piggy was longsighted and would always have seen the rock coming (sorry should I have put in a spoiler tag?)
Toy Story One and using a hemispherical shell to focus sunlight on an unlit fuse.
More recently I have abandoned a book “The Age of Miracles” because, despite its beautiful writing, the flawed science was really obstructing my enjoyment.
And then of course the film 2012 every law of Physics flouted from Newton’s laws of motion, to plate tectonics and back again. How did a film find so many ways to be awful?
My favourite bit of science in film is the concept of the weeping angels in Dr Who, the idea that these beings are quantum locked and can only move when unobserved was such a brilliant leap of imagination to get from a pithy science concept to the scariest monsters since the Daleks.
In writing fantasy you have huge potential to do extraordinary things, but I have tried to keep my magic limited and internally consistent. I have also come up with my own means of managing that perennial problem of magic, which plagues every story from Lord of the Rings onwards, namely “why can’t they just solve the problem with magical/eagle flight to get where they need to be.”
In Master of the Planes buried in part three there is a piece of homage to two titans of physics, not unlike your passing reference to IKEA in Prince of Fools. I will be curious to see which physicists may spot it and nod their recognition.
I’ve categorised readers into characterophiles, plotsters, and beauticians. How do you divide across these categories as a reader?
I read that post, and thought it was very good. That was just after I had read your Thorns trilogy and I wish I had recorded in advance where I would have put you on the scale just to prove that I guessed right.
As a reader I need stories that engage me, that make me care about the people. You need all three elements for that, so there is a threshold of quality for each element below which my enjoyment of the story is compromised. A great plot with bad writing will just annoy me. But provided those minimums are met I can be carried away by a book for its plot, its writing or its characterisation.
Does the spread differ when you’re on the other side of the page?
As a writer I am a plotster. I want to weave an intricate web of storyline that challenges the characters development and gives me opportunity to write them some great scenes, but the plot is the skeleton, the frame, the context through which I display the characters. While I hope I don’t neglect the other two, plot comes first.
A colleague quoted Maya Angelou at her retirement do, saying “people will never forget how you made them feel” and I want to plot and write books that make people feel, hopefully something good, but feel something.
What do you do best as a writer?
The features that come out most in reviews are plot lines that surprise and twist and turn, and a certain economy of style with no wasted scenes or words. It’s really great to see readers expressing unprompted appreciation for the very features I was specifically trying to achieve. So I’m happy with that!