Or, to put it another way, I’m playing double’s avocado.
Conrad Ho is an aspiring fashion designer with an incomplete grasp of English idiom. Dougie is an IT minion with dreams of becoming a hit man. Well, wouldn’t you want to shoot people too, if you worked on the IT helpdesk? They’re both characters in A Fistful of Collars, Mark Farrer’s finely crafted, excellently written romp of a page-turner. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you…go, really, is that how they make haute couture? And you can win a free print copy at the bottom of this post. Meanwhile here’s an interview with Mark on his (honestly, hilarious) work.
I am an Englishman living in Scotland. I was born in Liverpool in the sixties, moved to London after University and worked in South-east England until 2001 when I moved up to Edinburgh. Two years later I moved south of Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders – lowland country. Think the Shire. I love it here – the countryside and hills but close to the facilities, culture and glory that is Edinburgh (one of the finest capital cities in the world, in my view). Rose: Went there once…Sexy accents. Great fringe comedy. NASTY wind-tunnels!
All my books are intentionally set in Scotland and have a Scottish theme. I have a spreadsheet (I’ve seen it – I was awestruck!) full of plots dealing with salmon, whisky, North Sea Oil, Hogmanay, Forth Road Bridge, sheep-farming, textile mills, bio-sciences, wave & wind energy, Edinburgh Festival, Rangers/Celtic, etc. Each book will have one (or more) of these as a backdrop – for example, the novel I am just putting the finishing touches to now involves Rugby Sevens and the Scottish Legal System. So, I love Scotland, but I am definitely, irrefutably and will forever be, English. And when you die, a piece of Scotland will be forever England…which will seriously piss off the Scots, right?
Do you actually like that gut-wrenching, puke-inducing, medicinal-tasting substance known as whisky?
No, unfortunately I hate it. When I moved up to Scotland I wanted to try and integrate fully into my new home, intending to become a whisky aficionado and adopt a Scottish football team (I’m a Liverpool supporter). However, I found that I can’t even bear the smell of whisky and the taste makes me retch. And having watched some Scottish football (imagine a ginger-haired winger in front of a half-empty stand battling ineffectively into the teeth of horizontal sleet) I decided that I had failed in my efforts at integration and had to settle for liking shortbread and using the word Aye a lot.
How the hell do you know so much about high fashion production, and salmon farming, and cheese? I’m guessing you either do a shit ton of research (wrinkles nose. Hard work! Ugh!) or you’re a Renaissance man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of, well, just about everything.
I have to say that I don’t think I actually do know a lot, so am pleased if it seems like I do. My first book, Where Seagulls Dare, was set in the world of salmon farming. At the time I had been working (in IT) for a salmon-farming company for several years and had picked up a lot of information and knowledge about the business, the terminology, visited many fish farms, hatcheries, vessels, factories, etc. So the only research I had to do was about Orkney (where the book’s climax is set and where I have never been).
When I started my second novel, A Fistful Of Collars, it came as a shock to realise how much research I needed to do (since, as a middle-aged heterosexual white male I, obviously, know nothing about fashion) and how much I had taken for granted my knowledge of salmon farming for book #1. So I visited several textile mills around Scotland, googled madly about London Fashion Week, read up about the Church of Scotland, went to Stobo, and so forth. I’m not sure I needed to do as much as I did, and I hope I have deployed what I learnt lightly, rather than ramming it down readers’ throats.
I didn’t have to research any of the IT stuff in that book, but I did research, for example, where Dougie would be perched when he tried to shoot someone, and I went to Easter Road stadium to watch a Hibs match just so I could find this information out. I wasn’t interested in the match at all! If Mark decides to shoot me as a result of this interview, I have every confidence he will plan it meticulously.
I look at maps to make sure that a character can get from A to B in the time I have given them (my employers do that!), check weather facts, scout areas for likely locations and use real ones if they suit what I’m looking for – if not, I have to make them up, but I try to avoid that if possible. I don’t know what research other authors do Personally, as little as possible. I figure my readers have never been to Budapest or Byzantium, and if they have, they won’t have been making notes. But I’m lazy. But I do make an effort to find out whatever I can as I always feel that someone, somewhere, will one day pick me up for a mistake I have made and I’d like to pre-empt that if at all possible. I also go out of my way in my Author’s Note at the end of each book, to point out what is true/research and what I invented, just in case!
Have you ever wanted to be a hitman? If not, what WOULD be your dream job – I mean, the one you’d do if you could do any damn thing you liked?
Lol. I’ve only ever wanted to be a hitman for those few seconds when I’ve found myself immensely frustrated by something life has thrown at me, some intransigent jobsworth who is being (in my view) unreasonable and unfair. The chance to just take them out flashes through your mind and then is quickly trampled by the thoughts of the consequences. In reality, it may be one reason I invented Cullen – a character who is more resourceful and able to extract justice where, in real life, I would have to just sit and tut (being British). My dream job is to be a successful writer! One day…
Tell me more about the man behind the books…
I worked in IT for 30+ years, most of that time in middle- and senior- management positions. I found myself frustrated by the politics, ambition, game-playing, bureaucracy and inefficiency of almost every place I worked. You should’ve tried the Australian Public Service. Makes even jail look appealing. I was also unable to keep my opinions to myself and this usually ended up with me being fired, made redundant or enduring some other form of involuntary departure from a job. Better out than in – opinions, I mean. Don’t you think? Eventually, aged 53, I was made redundant one last time and decided enough was enough. I had been bored and frustrated in my job for a number of years and wanted something which would excite, challenge and stretch me… so I decided I would try to write a book! I wasn’t actually convinced I could do it until I had almost finished it, but once I had, I immediately set about plotting book #2. The idea of being someone who writes and makes a living from it really attracts me. Also. And if nobody pays me, I’m going to damn well write anyway!
I have difficulty describing my books and usually settle for crime comedy or crime farce (although I am never sure if there is enough crime in them to justify this description). My aim was to emulate the likes of Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and others who write lunatic tales of incompetent and amoral losers and villains in Florida. I wanted to do a similar thing but in Scotland (and am fortunate that at least one Amazon reviewer has referred to me as a Tartan Hiaasen which is hugely flattering and delightful) and realised that, whereas Florida is larger-than-life, neon, dayglo, American brashness, Scotland would be more muted, sarcastic, down-at-heel, pastel-shaded British understatement. So I think this pretty much sums up my books. I do get a lot of US readers and this surprises me because I think the language, settings and humour are all very British. But then Top Gear has a huge international following and I think a typical Top Gear viewer is probably someone who would really like my books. Yes. Only they might want more cars in them.
I am logical, systematic and believe the devil is in the detail. All my books are plotted out, in Excel, before I write a word (even though the plots will change during the writing process). This gives me confidence that there is a 90,000 word novel there before I start and allows me to write the scenes out of order so that I minimise writer’s block – if I am in a grumpy mood I can pick a scene from the book which suits; if I’m feeling playful I can pick a light scene and scatter sarcasm and witticisms all over it. One of the main things coming late to writing has taught me is patience and faith. Being able to achieve a large goal by the slow accumulation of small steps. This was something I didn’t personally possess in my younger days and I think it took my first book to show me that it would actually work like that. It does!
I am essentially retired now, so am able to devote as much of my time to writing as I like. I look forward to the day when I can say to someone “I am a writer.” It might seem strange, given that I have already written 3 books and am finishing a fourth, that I feel uncomfortable being described as that, but I do – if someone is introduced to me at a party with “This is Mark, he’s a writer” I tend to say “Well, I suppose so. Kind of.” My personal definition of a successful writer (or, at least, a professional writer) is someone who is able to support themselves on the income they make from writing – something I can’t yet do. But that is my goal and I plan to get there at some point. I guess an interim stage is to make a net profit from writing (even if it is insufficient to support me) and once I have achieved that (which, again, I have yet to do: I make less money from writing than it costs me to get covers done, advertise, etc) maybe THEN I would be comfortable in describing myself as a writer. But I won’t consider myself successful until I am earning my keep. I tell everyone I’m a writer, in case they think I’m a cleaner. Which would be understandable, as I’m usually vacuuming their floors at the time.
I will keep plugging away for another few years but, if I don’t make it, there will obviously come a point where my savings have dwindled such that I have to get a proper job and abandon (or at least, dilute) the focus I am currently giving to writing. So, fingers crossed, and ask me again in 2020!
I’ve always felt like being a writer is core to being me – my reason for being, if you like. How do you feel about being a writer, and what are you writing FOR?
I increasingly think of myself as a writer, though, even when I am uncomfortable saying that “out loud”. If I was forbidden to write I’m not sure what I would do – I dabble in music (playing piano and guitar), go hill-walking, play boardgames and love cooking so I have plenty to occupy myself if I was unable to write. But I would certainly miss it.
Ultimately, I see my books as entertainment. I want to write books that people enjoy and are happy to pay a few quid for. I focus on story – creating an intricate plot, telling it well, trying to make it funny, interesting and immersive. If I can do that, I have succeeded in my aim.
And what’s your main challenge as an indie?
Oh boy. Self-promotion. Oh yes. We ALL hate it. Anyone who doesn’t hate it should be in marketing, not writing. Without doubt. I suck at it, hate doing it and resent the fact that it even needs to be done. In my ideal world, books would be successful on their own merit and having to advertise, network and promote would only be required if your books were no good. Alas, that is not the world we live in.
When I finished my first book I sent it out to agents and so on only to receive (naturally) lots of rejections. I have avoided doing this since but will consider doing it again next year if I am still struggling to break through. I may be one of the few who feel that paying someone 15-20% of my earnings to take all that stuff away from me is totally worth it. The irony would be that, perhaps by the time I reached the point where an agent would take me on, I might have broken through on my own anyway!
But honestly, if anyone had told me that, after the long gestation, persistence, self-doubt and grinding slog of writing a book I would then find that the writing was the easy bit, I think I would never have started. My take: The hardest bit about promotion is getting people to take you seriously. Hands up everyone who when they download an ‘indie’ book almost EXPECT it to be bad, or at best, amateurish? And then, if it’s actually good…well, the use of the word ‘actually’ says it all, really.
Who is your audience?
Identifying my audience is a big problem for me, and always has been. I don’t feel my stuff fits neatly into any genre and as I mentioned earlier, I struggle to describe my books to others in a few words. And I think it is mostly down to the fact that I am trying to be funny. Humorous fiction is a useless, wide-ranging genre which frankly doesn’t help someone like me find readers. I don’t think anyone goes to Amazon and types in “funny book” and if they did they’d come up with those non-fiction things about 101 ways to use a dead cat. And if I try and pitch my books as crime novels – well, they’re not gritty or down-to-earth enough, I think…crime novels are usually dark with an image of a shadowy figure down an alleyway, or a knife glinting with blood on it. These sorts of images just don’t mesh with my stuff, so I have created a rod for my own back really. So, right now, the only way I have of finding an audience is to advertise on Amazon for people who search for books by other authors in a similar vein (Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, Christopher Brookmyre, etc) and cross my fingers! Won’t work for me – I search for Funny Books!
But I have had to learn so much, do so many things, become so capable across so many disciplines, develop my own brand. The writing soon looks like a smaller and smaller part of the job – which is compounded when you read books much inferior to your own which are much more successful than yours (bastards!) – and I do wonder sometimes why I keep on with it. Because your stuff is seriously good…and laugh out loud funny. And the answer is, I suppose, stubbornness. And hope. Hope that one day I will make it. But it’s the hope that kills you. You gotta do that thing, you know? Every time I get on a plane I tell myself I’m going to die today. Then when I don’t, it’s an unexpected gift! Likewise with fame, fortune and gazillions of fawning fans hanging on your every word…
You can pick up a copy of Mark Farrer’s Dirty Barry for free here, or you can win a paperback of A Fistful of Collars (along with 8 other witty books) here. And here’s an audio of Mark talking about his next book, The Good, The Bad and The Rugby (as a passionate football non-enthusiast, I LIKE this title)