J.J. Marsh talks with David Penny, author of the Thomas Berrington series of historical novels, which are set in the last remnants of Moorish Spain. He is Tech Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and has spoken at Book Expo America and London Book Fair. Published at an early age, David is the author of four science-fiction novels which appeared between 1975-79, published by Robert Hale. He returned to writing after a break of over 30 years, and is now independently published. David will be guest tutor at November’s WriteCon.
As one of those rare creatures who’s been on both sides of publishing—traditionally-published in the 70s and indie since 2013—you have an overview of the landscape. No doubt it has changed, but for the better or worse?
Yes, much has changed in publishing over the intervening period, but for me one of those changes—for anyone who wants to pursue a traditional career as a writer—is for the worse.
When I was first published, the big six didn’t exist. There were many smaller publishers, and almost all of them were willing to take a risk in new writers and wait for them to learn their craft. They bought into promise, not the finished article. Nobody is born a great writer. Even Hemingway and Steinbeck had to learn how to do it. These days, with fewer publishers, they appear to be interested only in a blockbuster, and stick to names they know will sell thousands of copies. For a writer starting out this makes getting a traditional deal tough, if not impossible.
But the good—no, the great—news is that such a traditional deal is no longer necessary to see your books for sale, and to sell significant quantities of those books. Writers will always need to learn their craft, and it’s sometimes unfortunate that due to the ease of self-publishing some publish before they’re ready. However, I’m a firm believer that quality counts. If you write a good book, and if you hire an editor and cover designer, there is absolutely no reason why your book would look any different to those published by big names. And as a reader, when was the last time you put a book back on the shelf because you did not recognise the publisher’s name?
In your original incarnation as a sci-fi author, you were writing what you loved to read. Now, older and most certainly wiser, you’re penning a historical crime series set in Moorish Spain. Is history or Spain the passion?
This question made me laugh for a number of reasons. But yes, I have always written what I love to read and would encourage everyone else to do the same. It is possible for a good writer to write in any genre, I suspect, but they will write best when they love their subject.
So, Spain and history: until six years ago I had visited Spain only once, as a sixteen year old on a school cruise more interested then in girls from other schools and the wondrous discovery that in the Spain of 1966, you could walk into a bar and they would serve you beer! Our school trip involved a long and dusty bus journey from Malaga to Granada and a tour of the Alhambra. I took some photos, tried to talk to some girls, and remember hardly anything at all about the experience. Male, sixteen years old, history? Forget it. Also, I have never studied history, and my intention was to write a straight crime novel, except some of my old habits kept intruding.
Six years ago, the family was sitting around the living room after dinner and for some reason, I said, “Has anyone ever written a detective novel set in the final years of Moorish Spain?” I have no idea at all where the idea came from, only that from the outset it was going to be a ten-book series, and I knew what the final scene was … but you’ll have to wait for that. We talked the idea around and I did some research and discovered that no, nobody had written a detective novel in the Spain of the 1480s. Of course, it is always possible there was a reason for that. But I’m stubborn.
I visited Manchester’s John Rylands library where my daughter, who was at university there, managed to get me a reader ticket, and some fantastic librarians wheeled out these ancient books, handed me a pair of white cotton gloves and a string of beads that looked like a rosary to hold the pages open, and left me to it. Two days later I emerged wiser and shell shocked. What had started as a vague idea mined into a deep and rich vein of history that hardly anyone had covered. I was hooked, and have been ever since.
So, although neither history nor Spain were passions at the outset, they have since taken over my life. So much so we purchased a house in the Andalusian hills north of Malaga—to help with the research, obviously.
Historical fiction has seen a huge resurgence in recent years both on screen and in literature. Why?
All genres have resurgences, but for me one of the major trends I see is that historical fiction has slipped into bed alongside other genres and become a mixture of many, widening its appeal.
One of my favourite writers is C.J. Sansom, who writes perfectly researched novels set around Henry VIII and Cromwell, but they are also detective novels, seamlessly merged. Game of Thrones is fantasy mixed with history. Bernard Cornwell writes boys’ own adventures set in historical periods. And then there is alternative history, an amalgam of sciencefiction and history.
History is where we live now and where people lived in the past. Science fiction is nothing but future history imagined, so perhaps I’ve not moved quite as far as it might appear.
I think part of the current love affair with history is down to the world we live in now. Our lives are fast, instant, and you are never out of touch. Transport flies us around the globe in hours, communication is constant, and news stories all come at us faster than we can consume them. Speed and instant gratification have become our holy grail. History offers an escape from the modern world to one where events moved slower and, even if it is untrue, people acted in a better way. Or, at least, their motives were easier to understand.
You’re also a curious combination in terms of your skills—a man of letters who comprehends technology. [David is technical advisor to the Alliance of Independent Authors.—Ed.] Do you feel you’re changing persona when working on one or the other?
In the past I became an accidental entrepreneur. As a young man I had absolutely no intention of working for myself or employing staff, yet that is what I did. As a schoolboy who failed GCE Maths six times, I never dreamed I would get a degree in maths from the Open University and then write computer software. So the simple answer is: hell yes, I change persona!
The world of technology put bread on the table and a Mercedes in the garage, but it was never where my heart lay. That has always been, and will continue to be, in putting words to paper, in writing stories I love to tell and hopefully readers love to read.
Oddly enough, in this brave new world of indie publishing, I am discovering my accidental skill set is an almost perfect grounding for what I now do. I retired in 2015 and was only working part-time for a few years before that, concentrating on my new career. Some people choose to write and hand off everything else to someone to get their books uploaded and marketed. I’m probably too big a control freak to relinquish control, but also fortunate to understand almost all the techniques needed to produce and sell my books. I hire an editor and a cover designer, but everything else I do myself.
So although the act of creation, of sitting at my desk and hammering out several thousand words a day, is the creative side, I can then switch to the technical aspects almost immediately to compile and upload my work, and use the business head to understand how to get readers to buy it. So yes, a curious mix of skills, but they are useful!
Tell us about nailing the advertising route. If I’m not wrong, you’ve grown your sales by 150% a month via advertising. It’s a huge subject so give us three reasons why it works for you.
I understood from the outset that most writers (me included) are more comfortable marketing to other writers than readers. I don’t do that. I use Facebook and Amazon advertising to directly target people who read the kind of fiction I write. In my case Historical Mysteries. There are literally millions, hundreds of millions of these people desperate to find a new author they can love and cherish. Reach them and you are most of the way there.
Your advertising has to hit certain trigger points before anyone will click through to look at your book. This means it must be simple, colourful and to the point. As writers we find it hard to distill the essence of our great work down to 100 words, but that’s what you must do.
There must be absolutely no disconnect between what the reader is looking for, what your advert offers, and what the book offers if they click through. The more seamless the process, the more likely someone will be to click on the ‘buy’ button. There are dozens of traps lying in wait for the unwary, and you need to avoid every single one.
Like many of our readers, you straddle two cultures, dividing your time between Spain and Britain. What has that dual cultural experience taught you?
Number one: learn the language.
Number two: embrace the culture.
There is a great restaurant a mile up the hill from our house in Spain where the expats gather in the evening, and we’ve stopped going there because they are belligerent, talk loudly in English only, and make jokes at the locals’ expense. At lunchtime the clientele is almost exclusively Spanish, so that is when we go.
The biggest lesson, however, is that people are the same the world over. If you make just the smallest effort to meet them not even half way, but ten percent of the way, you will be embraced and welcomed. So take your own culture with you, it is yours, but love the country you are living in when you are there.
With a varied career behind you, what compels you to write?
I compel myself to write. It has always defined who I am. I never wanted to do anything else and I bless every day I can now wake up knowing this is what I do, and what I will continue to do.
Finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?
Joyland by Steven King. It is the book of his most people have never heard of. It’s a crime novel, around 200 pages long and printed like a pulp paperback. It distills everything King is a genius at. Small towns. Instant character building. A sense of unease that something is out there and will get you (except this time it’s not supernatural). And it shows what a great writer can do when they work outside the genre expectations placed upon them. To me, it shows that if you love to write, you can write about pretty much anything and make it work.
The Woolf is very happy to announce that David will be heading up the next WriteCon fiction workshop, which will take place in Zürich on 11 November 2017. Find out more here.