Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I started writing when I was at University in Bristol studying Business and apart from fairly regular travel have lived in Bristol since. I’d always enjoyed writing short stories so continued writing as a hobby after my studies, and I didn't stop. Now I divide my time between working business contracts and writing. In between this I surf and rock climb as much as I can. Life is good.
Describe your writing career up to this point. You've written fiction as well as non-fiction, short stories as well as novels. What prompted you to pursue each of these avenues?
My first published piece of writing was also my first paid writing gig. Ironically it was for a UK writing magazine that gave advice to people about how to get published. I’d read a couple of issues and just decided, "I could do that". So I wrote a single page about why Shakespeare’s works are still popular today despite everyone looking for the next big thing (which back then was The Da Vinci Code). I couldn’t believe it when they accepted it. It was the first time realised writing might not just be a hobby.
After that I completed a terrible first novel (about a boy saving his sister from a famous pirate) that turned into a huge learning experience. Luckily a friend gave some honest criticism I’m thankful for to this day. She taught me how much I can assume a reader understands in a story and it made me raise my game. I think it’s Stephen King who says your first novel should probably sit in a drawer and never come out. It was true for me, even though the advice hurt at the time.
So I concentrated for a while on short stories, trying to craft something small and perfect instead of something large. I had a lot more luck here and a number have been published with places like 3AM Magazine, The Pigmy Giant, Parameter, and so on. Short stories don’t get enough good press in my view. I used a lot of them to try out ideas and characters. It’s much better to try a new character out in a short story than spend 20,000 words getting it wrong and having to do a heavy revision. That’s where the character of Nick Hawker came from for my debut novel The Thickening Water. He started out as the protagonist in a short story called The Revenge Against Mr. Barnhover, which is in my short story collection All the Bad Circles.
Tell me about your debut novel, The Thickening Water. How would you sum up the premise?
The Thickening Water a coming-of-age story is set in a sleepy South Wales village and follows the fortunes of sixteen-year-old Nick Hawker and his three friends. The novel’s central event is the death of their school teacher at their hands, which you’re introduced to in the first paragraph:
His fingertips slipped beneath the water’s surface. He arose gasping from the water at once, turning slowly, the way a whale turns itself in that bloated, yawning gesture before crashing back into the deep. This time his domed scalp ran red as a blanket of river water washed over him, taking him under.
As the novel begins you’re led from the weeks before the death and then all the events that follow it as the boys unearth the village’s terrible secrets. Despite the subject sounding quite dark it’s very much a character-driven story about growing up and how the concrete understanding you have of events can be built upon shaky foundations.
What inspired the story?
There’s a saying that blood is thicker than water, which is to say that the bonds of family are stronger than friendship. It’s a true saying too in the long run, but for a specific time in our teenage years it doesn’t feel true. At that time the metaphorical water of friendship thickens so we think our friends will never betray us and we’ll always be together. This is what is behind the title The Thickening Water.
I’d say The Thickening Water shares three main influences. The first was my love for Lord of the Flies, and the second for The Secret History, which have both been of great influence on me as a writer. Both also get fair nods of recognition in my novel. Perhaps most important though is that I grew up in a small South Wales village where nothing much seemed to happened. But every now and then trouble would shatter the peace in the form of a stolen car crashed at high speed during the night, a police raid on someone’s property, and once even a murder.
You have made your works available as e-books on Lulu and Amazon. What (or who) encouraged you to self-publish? Any words of advice for other authors who are considering doing the same?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak in me. I started with the traditional route to publishing by approaching publishers. The publishers told me to get an agent. The agents returned my manuscripts untouched and told me they received too many requests to read and their books were full. I don’t mind being rejected because my novel doesn’t fit their business model, or the writing style isn’t for them, which was sometimes the case. But when you’re denied entry because of market saturation I think you’ve got to look at things differently and help yourself.
My plan was instead to self-publish, collect reviews, prove my product in the market and see what happened next. During this time there have been so many indie author success stories you begin to wonder if going it alone might really work. What I will say though is that it takes a lot of time and effort. Writing the novel is half the battle. You then need to market it, sort out your artwork, promote, price, and try to earn a living. Added to that your returns on a printed book at the market price are miniscule next to e-book returns, so it’s in your interest to push e-book sales. If you engage professional help it’s possible to spend $1000 buying professional cover design, interior design, and editing. It’s worth shopping around and trading services with other writers and professionals if money is short. And when you’re really stuck and someone does you a favour a good bottle of wine to say thank you goes a long way in my experience.
You are also an illustrator and a photographer and have released two photo books so far. Do you plan on merging these interests further, to create your own book covers or collaborate with other authors?
I’m going to concentrate on writing instead of art or photography for a while. You can spread yourself too thinly trying to do everything. I still illustrate for fun but I know a few illustrators and designers now who are better at it than I am. I’d rather work with them than try and do everything myself. Collaboration is better not just in terms of time and quality, but also for marketing. Instead of one of you promoting your work, now two of you are, so there are more benefits than you initially think.
But I am really interested in cover design. In most cases I work with my brother, who plays a large part in the visual content of my books and designed the cover for The Thickening Water. He’s an artist and product designer who I have immense respect for when it comes to these things. We both like covers with a strong design ethic that keep things simple. One thing I can say is that my covers are unlike anyone else’s and people remember them. For now, in a market where so many covers look alike I’m happy with that. But I’m also aware of the trade off where similar cover design prompts readers to pick up books by associating it to something else they’ve read.
That said, I’m part way through polling a number of friends on their opinions on a variety of covers to understand what works best. It’s amazing the different things people assume from a simple cover. It’s a work in progress that may result in me changing my strategy.
What are you currently working on?
1) Completing the proof of 101 Things I Wish I'd Been Taught at Business School. In our current economic climate I'd like to share my experiences with people starting work or looking for a change. A degree gets you through the door and has its place, but I've collected 101 tips that have furthered my career and salary after stepping through the door that I wasn't taught at Business School.
2) I've completed the first draft of a novella for adults, currently titled The Devil's Only Friend about the corrupting power of money and the American dream.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
My top ten (in no particular order) are:
1) Vernon God Little
2) Lord of the Flies
3) The Secret History
4) Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell
6) Life of Pi
7) The Alchemist
8) Oryx and Crake
9) Right of Thirst
Visit Ashley Sandeman's website.