Our next author interview is with popular member, Riis Marshall. Riis has been a member of WritingForums since October 2014.
I am an American ex-pat who has been in Britain for thirty years, first in England and now Northeast Scotland where I live with Mary, my Scottish wife. After a long career in management consultancy, first in America then in Britain, with one short project in West Africa, I ended my working life teaching Maths and Physics at Grantham College in Lincolnshire. Since retirement I enjoy taking long walks with Dilbert, Mary’s Chocolate Labrador, and using writing as an excuse for not completing DIY projects as promised. I hope to sell enough books to eliminate DIY projects altogether and pay for any future painting, shelf-erection or decorating.
I aspire to write intelligent thrillers that would interest readers of Nelson DeMille’s, John le Carré’s or Robert Harris’ work: credible characters behaving in credible ways in extraordinary circumstances.
What inspired you to write, The Bureau of Happiness?
Throughout my working life I have wanted to write fiction but never seemed to get around to it except for several short stories and the feeble beginnings of two novels. Now I am fully retired and no longer have to scrape ice off windscreens at six-thirty on cold, frosty mornings, all the excuses have been eliminated and I can get on with my writing. The particular inspiration for The Bureau of Happiness is somewhat complicated and is discussed below.
Is there a particular aspect about your book you identify with such as character or circumstance?
This question, also, is answered below.
What is the book about?
Way back in the mid-nineties just at the time the National Lottery came into being here in Britain I read about Robert Edwards, an eighteenth-century pirate who ended up owning seventy-seven acres in lower Manhattan Island. The estimated value of this land today is 560 billion dollars and is unclaimed. As I listened to people discuss what they might do after winning the lottery I remarked if you’re going to fantasize why limit yourself to a couple of million when there’s some serious money out there waiting to be claimed.
A few years later for another possible project I thought about Atlantis that might have been located on the north shore of the Black Sea and was inundated around 5,600BC. Could this have been an advanced civilization that created the Proto-Indo-European language and might they have had plans for an eventual New World Order? Might their secret society, called the Keepers of the Book of Wisdom, still exist today, waiting for the time of their NWO?
These two separate projects sat on my bookshelf until retirement when I decided to sit down, finally, and write my Opus Magnus: In the style of the thriller genre, Charles Morgan Carpenter wakes up one morning as an ordinary sort of a guy and goes to bed that night the richest man on earth, having inherited this vast fortune. The Keepers kidnap Hannah, Charlie’s wife and hold her to ransom for Charlie’s fortune to finance their drive for their NWO.
Charlie, Michael Lawrence, his chief of security and Brian, two Ps Snapp, a computer wizard, set out to rescue Hannah and save the world. The action begins in Lincolnshire in Britain and moves to America where the showdown takes place in Washington, DC. Our heroes, naturally come out of this intact, the Keepers’ plan for a NWO is foiled and their organization is destroyed (well, not quite).
The work contains quite a bit of humour, so much, perhaps, it emerges as a parody rather than a ‘proper’ thriller.
Is any of this autobiographical, does Charlie bear any resemblance to me or does Hannah bear any resemblance to Mary? Certainly not!
Can you share a short excerpt?
‘He didn’t understand it then and he didn’t understand it now.
‘If you were a little Jewish kid growing up on the wrong side of a street in the Bronx and every day on the way to school a bunch of Irish kids beat you up then it might be understandable if you hated Irish people. And if you were a little Irish kid growing up on the other wrong side of the same street in the Bronx and every day on the way to school a bunch of Jewish kids beat you up then it might be understandable if you hated Jewish people. But why should a man in his mid-twenties from Sleaford in Lincolnshire travel to Belfast every year on the twelfth of July to march up and down banging a big drum proclaiming his hatred for Roman Catholics? Charlie doubted when this man was a child in Sleaford he was beaten up by a bunch of Catholic kids every day on the way to school. Sleaford! Hell’s fire there couldn’t be more that about eight Catholics in the whole of Sleaford, let alone enough to form a gang to go around beating up little Protestant kids.’
‘When Charlie thought back over his life and the things he had been told when he was young, he began to understand why those who were most ardent in the pursuit of activities connected with their various secret societies were also those most concerned about conspirators of all kinds attacking them from all sides in efforts to destroy them and their ways of life. He recalled the Hollywood Blacklist: how could anybody with an IQ of more than about seventeen seriously believe people like Jack Guilford, Burl Ives and Artie Shaw were actively trying to destroy the United States of America? Oh, yeah, and don’t forget about Orson Bean—Orson Bean for Christ’s sake—now there was a true danger to America!’
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) you experienced in writing The Bureau of Happiness?
As my first full length work of fiction the challenges were as expected. The first, and most important to me, was simply trying to tell a good story. Next was the task of keeping the action consistent with credible characters behaving in credible ways while still making the kinds of things readers expect from thrillers to happen.
Because most of the characters and their actions (except, naturally, for the idea of a 7600 year old secret society bent on taking over the world) are based on people I have known and their world views, research was not that demanding. And now, of course, with the Internet, Google, Streetview and Wikipedia, it’s possible to create a credible car chase through Washington, DC without leaving my desk in Scotland.
But just sitting down and completing a 144,000 word thriller was a learning experience in itself. You will note I have referred to this as a ‘story’ and not a ‘novel’. The first work I’m confident is mature enough to be called a novel is my third book.
Do you read reviews of your book? If so, do you pay any attention to them, or let them influence your writing?
Yes, I read reviews and I’ll use constructive criticism to try to improve my work. I’ll ignore those who tell me, for example, they don’t like my hero because he is too old and he has grandchildren or they don’t like my hero’s faithful companion because he has a mean streak. I’ll also ignore those who question elements of style such as the occasional incomplete sentence or split infinitive.
What importance do you place on cover design and why?
Along with your title, I think cover design is important because this is clearly the first thing prospective readers see when they pick up your book or click on your link. And as someone pointed out recently, in online presentation, a properly designed cover must look good as a thumbnail.
Traditionally published authors tell me one of their recurring arguments with their publishers is agreeing cover designs. While both parties can agree cover design is about marketing, there the agreement stops; publishers almost always seem to want to go off in weird directions that don’t look to have any connection whatsoever with book content.
How important do you feel it is for authors to have a strong social media presence?
So far I’ve not been convinced this is useful. Every time I’ve tried to set up a Facebook or Twitter page all I seem to end up with is people trying to sell me stuff I really don’t need; others who seem to use the ‘F’ word a lot under the assumption, I presume, this suggests they are truly cool; others telling me what they had for breakfast and their constipation is no longer a problem, and people like Sarah Palin and Kim Kardashian who, God knows why, want me to follow them.
I probably need to spend enough time to understand these media properly then try again.
What social media platforms do you use to promote your books and why?
None so far. My only activity in this respect is my postings on WF. I have registered the domain name www.RiisMarshall.co.uk that I use for correspondence with prospective agents. My future plans are to develop this into an active author’s website. When I’m finally convinced of the need for a social media presence then I’ll link this to Facebook and Twitter pages.
Did you follow the traditional publishing route or did you self publish?
The Bureau of Happiness has been self-published strictly as an e-book but for my current and later work I want to go the traditional, bricks and mortar publisher route. Right now I’m actively looking for an agent.
If you could choose an author to be your mentor, who would it be and why?
Robert Harris and The Ghost. Even the title carries a triple whammy I won’t tell you about; you’ll have to read it yourself.
Have there been any authors or books that have influenced you over the course of your writing career? Who and why?
The old masters are still a fantastic source of inspiration: Poe, Dickens and Twain for their sheer skill in the use of our language and ability to tell great stories. Modern writers include, in no particular order, P D James, Nelson DeMille, John le Carré, Robert Harris and Robert Ludlum for their ingenious plotting, meticulous research and attention to detail. This list naturally is not exhaustive; it might include many others such as Colin Dexter, Tom Clancy, Jack Higgins and Michael Connelly.
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
So far in the past five years I have been writing actively, no. I have, however, as Daniel Boone was reputed to have said: ‘I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.’
When I get a little bewildered I open my Notes file and head a new paragraph with: ‘What happens next?’ then I begin what I like to describe as ‘solo brainstorming’. It usually works.
Do you work to an outline, or do you just let an idea evolve?
No, I don’t work from an outline; I have a general idea of what I want to happen in the next chapter based on my overall plan for the story so I make some notes in my Notes file and go back to my writing. The downside of this is I can back myself into a literary corner and it takes some truly creative thinking to get my hero out of the jam he is in without descending into cliché or, even worse, convenient coincidence. The upside, sometimes, is something really interesting, sometimes even exciting happens I had no idea was going to happen.
What advice can you offer new writers?
Write every day and read every day, then do it some more. Build a bookshelf that includes, at least, two big paper dictionaries: British English and American English; a Thesaurus; a couple of style guides: maybe Chicago Style, and Strunk and White; a collection of grammar books: perhaps Gower, Fowler and Oxford English, and finally at least two of your choice on the use of our language. My current favourites are Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View.
Finally, build a library of everything you can find by contemporary writers in your genre.
If you were a castaway on a desert island and could choose five books to be a washed ashore with you, what would they be?
This is a trick question: If complete works qualify as books, then Dickens and Twain. Modern writers would include, perhaps, Robert Harris’ The Ghost and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardner for their abilities to write engaging thrillers. Finally, maybe Sebastian Faulks’ On Green Dolphin Street for a beautiful modern love story.
What are you working on now?
Everything I read suggests to land an agent and a publisher for commercial fiction such as the thrillers I write I must demonstrate I am capable of producing a series. I have created Os Doran, close Protection Security Agent, who gets into all sorts of scrapes, usually involving a woman. He is really too nice a guy to be successful at close protection; he keeps letting his heart rule his head and he keeps getting caught. So far two are complete: Nudge, Wink, Die about corruption within National Health Service procurement and Injured or Seriously Killed about National Front activity in Lincolnshire. The third, Dark Triads about a flock of thoroughly greedy and dishonest bankers is in preparation.
Most of my time right now is spent trying to find an agent.
Where and in which formats are your books available?
To date The Bureau of Happiness is only available as a Kindle book on Amazon.