Tuesday 3 May 2011

Dan Holloway interview: The Company of Fellows

The Company of Fellows by Dan Holloway

As well as thrillers, Dan Holloway writes and performs transgressive shorts with titles like Meat, SKIN BOOK, The Last Fluffer in La La Land, and The Things We Talked About While She Was Bleeding Out, which can all be found in his collection (life:) razorblades included. He is also the author of literary novels Songs from the Other Side of the Wall and The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes (all royalties from which are being donated to the Red Cross Tsunami Relief Fund)

Can you sum up The Company Of Fellows in no more than 25 words?

Imagine the Hannibal Lecter novels set in Oxford University

How important is a book's central character?

Absolutely essential, especially if you’re writing a series. The problem a writer faces though is balancing their protagonist against their villain. A villain is always more fun for the writer and more alluring for the reader. If you’re writing one-offs you can give in to that to some extent. You can’t if you’re writing a series, because however great your villain readers will come back for the second book if they love the protagonist. Which is also a great exercise for the author because it makes you put the effort into the repeated characters. The other challenge I’ve found with a serial character is how to keep enough back to allow them to develop over the series, or at least to allow the reader new information.

My main character, Tommy West, has a massive great conflict at his centre which gives me all kinds of fun to play with. He was a successful academic till he had a breakdown. He reinvented himself as an interior designer, but he desperately misses the intellectual cut and thrust of the life he left behind – only going back to it brings back all the ghosts that sent him to his breakdown first time round. So I get to dangle him on this tightrope, unable to resist mysteries that draw him back into that world, but unable to cope when he gets there. It gives an extra dimension of danger to everything he does.

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?

Live readings. Without a shadow of a doubt. Like I get tiresome saying to people, we don’t write books we write stories, and storytelling has a history that stretches back way way before the written word to the campfire. I just don’t get any writer who doesn’t relish standing or sitting in front of a live audience and watching the whites of their eyes as the story unfolds, listening to the laughter turn to gasps, watching faces smile and contort to horror then come back to an uneasy smile. Of course it helps if you’re a complete exhibitionist. I once crossed over a square in Athens when we were on holiday so I could happen to be passing a camera crew that was interviewing tourists about restaurant prices for local news.

If you had to re-read a crime novel right now, what would you choose?

Hannibal. It’s a book that pushes so many boundaries for a crime novel – in many ways it’s more Interview with the Vampire than Silence of the Lambs. I hated it first time I read it because I was expecting something like Red Dragon or Silence, but I went back and read it again and realised just how good it was. It’s like Edgar Alan Poe at his best. I must have read it about 20 times now. I even had the Hannibal Lecter novels as my specialist subject when I went on Mastermind in 2006.

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

It depends entirely what you want. I think if you write in commercial genres, you can sidestep some of the old barriers and prove that you *can* sell. I also think midlist writers have a great opportunity to make the kind of modest partial living they no longer can in print. But I think to some extent Kindle is the opiate of the writer. The success stories we see around us can blind us to what’s best for our books and our writing – we can spend too much time trying to do what Amanda Hocking or Saffina Desforges did and stop thinking what *we* should do. But the one real edge we have as indies is flexibility – the ability to tweak and change and do what’s right for us. If we give that up to follow “accepted wisdom” uncritically we lose the edge.

Which author should be much better known?

Cody James. She writes the most extraordinary, exhilarating prose you’ll ever read. I’ll declare a conflict of interest – her novel The Dead Beat was one of the first books I published when I set up eight cuts gallery press, but that was because it left such a blistering impression on me. It’s based on her life as a meth addict in late 90s San Francisco. I learned the most important lesson of my writing life from Cody. I want to quote a fairly long piece from an interview she gave. It’s something everyone who, like us, writes about the darker side of life, would do well to read and digest.:

“We were characters, misfits, and outcasts, and that’s why we gravitated towards each other, towards a scene where there was acceptance, loud music by bands who didn’t know how to play their instruments, S&M clubs, drugs, alcohol, motorcycles and fights. We weren’t stereotypes – that’s who we were. What upsets me more than anything in novels and movies in this genre (Selby Jr. I’m looking at you) is that they seem hell bent on portraying only the moments of shock and depravity – they rob the reader and the viewer of the full experience. Yes, we were really fucked up and yes, we did bad things, but we were still trying. I still spent some Sunday mornings eating cereal and watching cartoons with a 7ft tranny. And, even though you’re all jacked up and your apartment has no furniture, you still try. Even though the person cooking the turkey has been up for three days and can’t remember how to work a stove, and your guests keep going to the bathroom to shoot up and then keep falling asleep in the mashed potatoes, you’re still there celebrating Thanksgiving. There are still moments of utter joy and there is still so much laughter. If, as an artist, you don’t portray that, you’re nothing but a cheap hack.”

What are your views on eBook pricing?

This is such a hot topic. A couple of years ago I remember a massive debate about “free”, when Chris “Long Tail” Anderson’s book of that title came out. I wrote a lot of articles about it, got very irate when traditionally published writers waded in critically as though I’d been trying to diddle them out of a living. I think that’s what bothers me the most in the debate (which has moved on at a gazillion miles an hour since then) – defensiveness. I don’t get the idea that someone is somehow “entitled” to make a living at writing simply “because”, whether that because has to do with having a backlist or an agent or having a name on the indie scene or having put in a lot of hard work or having paid one's apprenticeship dues – whatever. The only thing we’re entitled to is what people will pay for our writing. So I really don’t buy into the whole “are books being devalued?” debate as a moral one.

The question for me is what works. I think the key here is that we’re in a shifting landscape and that makes flexibility and an open mind essential. I’d say keep your eyes open and be wary of putting too much store by established authors’ tactics. If I had to make a prediction, I’d say that the authors in the best position to benefit from e-self-publishing in the long run are those in what I call the large middle, midlist writers who build a loyal readership at a stable price from $2.99-$4.99, writers who aren’t interested in jockeying up the charts.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

I can’t remember a time when I had fewer projects on the go than I have fingers to count them on. I run a literary project for urban and underground writing, eight cuts gallery and our show The New Libertines is touring festivals and fringes this summer. I’m also performing some of my transgressive fiction at Brighton Fringe’s Grit Lit on May 12th.

In terms of my own writing I have two things on the go. There’s All the Dark Places, the next Tommy West thriller after The Company of Fellows. It’s about an elderly writer whose ramblings about a horrific murder she claims to have witnessed are dismissed as the ravings of an old woman slowly losing her mind when it becomes clear they are lifted from the plots of novels she wrote 40 years earlier. But Tommy thinks she may have written those novels to shed light on unsolved deaths that occurred during student riots in Oxford during the late 60s. And when he arrives at her house one day to find that she’s died in a fall he is even more convinced.

Publishing-wise, on June 1st I’m bringing out Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom, the most extraordinary debut collection of shorts and poems, and Stuart Estell’s mind-boggling novella Verruca Music, through the eight cuts gallery press imprint. I’m also polishing Black Heart High, a young adult dark urban fantasy/paranormal romance I’m publishing to Kindle on June 1st

The Company of Fellows by Dan Holloway


  1. Good interview! I had to laugh when I read that bit about crossing a square in Athens to be in front of the camera crew. Many's the time I've lurked around Dublin's Central Criminal Court (opposite my workplace) thinking about how best to put my crime novel in front of the ever-present media without getting sacked from the day job!

  2. Good stuff, Dan. Tommy West sounds like an interesting character. I'll be checking out Cody James's writing, too.

  3. 'young adult dark urban fantasy/paranormal romance' Now there's a genre. Fingers in many interesting pies there Dan - good to see.


  4. Interesting interview. Good luck in Brighton on 12th - I'm sure you'll be brilliant. Looking forward to Penny Goring's collection, too.

  5. Ruby, yeah - I think I may become Skinit's biggest client for that reason - I've just ordered the cover art as a netbook skin so I can"just happen" to be carrying it face out!

    Julie - thank you. Cody is a one in a million talent.

    And most of all - thank you Al!
    Nigel - too many pies for the hours in the day! I'm a secret sucker for PNR. I have a sentimentalist streak a mile wide and writing PNR is my way of keeping it out of my other stuff!

    Thanks, Helen. Very much looking forward to reading with you again - I was talking to th ewonderful people at Structo Magazine today who are launching issue 6 in June. I mentioned you for their launch

  6. Dan, I'm sure I'll never hear the last of it when Saffi realises she's been mentioned in the same sentence as Amanda Hocking. Any chance that can be deleted?

    Now I know Tommy West is a series I'm definitely going to have to hold off reading The Company Of Fellows until after we finish the first of our Rose Red series.

    Given the iconic setting made their own by Morse and Lewis, did you find yourself having to consciously distance your storyline and style from Colin Dexter?

  7. Ha ha! I'd pay a fortune to be mentioned in the same sentence as Amanda :)

    Oh, by the way - it'd be an honour and a whatnot to have you do a Piece of Rope interview.

    Morse. Tricky one because like you say he's such an iconic figure, and I just love the TV series. But other than wondering whether I should market on the back of or in opposition to Morse I never really thought about it. Colin Dexter writes about an Oxford University I just don't recognise. Sure he traditions and the closed ranks are there, and Morse's "money and sex" rule is pretty accurate, but Morse lacks what I can only call the gothic aspects of Oxford. The sense of a some kind of primordial, fundamentally malignancy at its beating black heart. And I don't like the lack of student and modern culture in Morse. My influences are fairly plain for anyone to see I think - P D James' intelligent gothic, Val McDermid's portrayal of unchecked lust, Minette Walters' deep characterisation, Thomas Harris in just about everything. I would hate someone to buy the book because they wanted a cosy getting-to-know-you with Oxford only to be horrified by the content. Likewise I'd hate anyone to assume the books were like Morse and go and buy the latest Val McDermid instead. I think the new cover by the wonderful Sessha Batto does a fantastic job of positioning the book.

    So yes, Morse is there, and Lewis means that he's still fairly high profile, but it's been a long time now since the last Morse novel, and I think it's time Oxford had a darker, more morally ambiguous (or just amoral - at the centre of the series we have Emily, who's a troubled but devout Chtristian police officer, and Tommy, who's an ardent atheist and doesn't even understand the idea of morality - his life, when it's not about surviving, is based on sentiment and aesthetics. It gives the books' centre a great dynamic, and then you have Rosie who, er, straddles the two :P), and more culturally engaged voice

  8. Great interview Dan and as Mark says, an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as AH!

  9. Oh, I'm delighted you take that as the compliment it was meant to be - I was worried Mark meant you'd be offended. I love Amanda - I'm reviewing Hollowland for the next issue of Words With Jam magazine