The world’s full of easy reads, with a multitude added to the ranks each day. Stuart Aken refuses to be part of that army of writers. He accepts his books, multilayered and often dealing with topics many people would prefer to ignore, aren’t easy to read. I asked him about his approach to writing.
JBS: Do you have a favourite genre in which you write?
SA: Genre: a double-edged sword. It provides clues for readers to help them decide which books they might like to read, of course. But it labels writers, constrains them and, especially if published by the bigger houses, forces them to turn out barely disguised copies of the same book under different titles for the term of their contract.
I find the story chooses the genre, and most of my work doesn’t fit neatly into any one recognised slot. I’ve written work classified as romantic thriller, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and speculative fiction, but all these are really cross-genre books.
Fortunately, my publisher’s willing to accept my work as it is. Dan Grubb doesn’t insist on me re-writing the last book under a different title. And, let’s face it, a publisher willing to risk a 600k fantasy trilogy, aimed at an adult readership, from an obscure author, doesn’t come along every day. Fantastic Books Publishing is a true partner for my writing and I’m grateful for the support.
Also, genre has a habit of pushing readers onto a shelf where all the volumes are more or less the same. Some readers seem never to step outside their self-constructed safe zones and spend entire lives reading about zombies, alpha male romance, ghosts, crime, or any one of a number of narrow subjects. It’s a self-imposed restriction that clearly suits some people. I try to write for those open to risk, willing to try something different (I won’t say ‘new’, since there’s nothing new in writing, apart from the unique quality of an author’s voice, perhaps).
JBS: You’ve published quite a lot of novels, and had work included in a number of anthologies. What’s your latest book?
SA: A couple of years ago, I was visited in the middle of the night by an idea for a story that begged to be written. It began a science fiction style of trilogy called Generation Mars. The first book, Blood Red Dust, was written through the eyes and viewpoint of a university student producing a dissertation from multiple reports made by various characters involved in the story. Aimed at the genre aficionados, it presents facts and assumes a certain amount of knowledge as standard, so isn’t an easy read for the general reader. Set on Mars around 2074, it details the exploits of a small group of pioneering geniuses sent to Mars to build a colony there and to protect the human race from the chaotic extinction taking place on Earth at the time.
The latest book, War Over Dust, is written in a more accessible style – a standard narrative – and looks at conflicts of culture, commercialism, the dangers inherent in religious faith, and the way custom and tradition force people to act in certain ways. This book is set a further 500 years into the future, but manages to use many of the characters from the first book due to biological advances over that time. Two cultures with vastly different priorities are forced into a conflict that might end one or both. A potential romance between two people from opposite sides provides a bridge that may exacerbate or resolve the possibility of all out war.
JBS: Who are your writing heroes?
SA: The temptation is to reply ‘none’, as I have a built-in resistance to hero-worship. I exhausted the children’s library in my hometown at the age of eleven and was allowed to take adult books from then, even though they were normally available only to those aged fourteen or older. I also read my way through the entire stock of the camp library at one of the Royal Air force stations I was assigned to in my late teens. So I’ve read a lot of books over my 69 years; I estimate the number at around 10,000. I’ve forgotten most of them, of course, but they will all have planted influence and information in the grey matter. Some undoubtedly impacted on my thinking, educated me, and taught me much about writing and about life.
Among the names that float to the surface are Ray Bradbury, Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, Graham Greene, Nikki French, Stephen King, and William Golding. But that’s to neglect hundreds of others.
I was fortunate some decades ago to come across Dorothea Brande’s excellent book, ‘Becoming a Writer’. I now advise anyone who asks me how to start writing to read her book, do the exercises and follow her advice. It’s a great way to determine whether you’re fitted for the writer’s life.
These days, I don’t read as much as I used to. From three to four books a day, I’ve reduced to little more than one a week. My eyes tire after lengthy sessions at the keyboard and screen, and I’m often too weary at the end of the day to read a lot. But I still review almost every book I read.
JBS: A lot of your work’s quite dark, and your science fiction is dystopian. What drives you to that side of story-telling?
SA: There’s a rising voice against dystopian fiction; I suspect that’s because we live in a world ruled largely by despotic lunatics, and people are generally scared enough without having terror brought to them in the pages of books.
Science Fiction, in its many guises, is often a way for a writer to express perceived outcomes. I’m actually very optimistic about the future. Human beings are an extraordinary bunch: creative, kind, sharing, funny, and often wise. Of course, we hear more about the few bad apples, since good news doesn’t sell newspapers. My fiction, however, allows me to serve warning on humanity about the follies and indifference that may overtake us if we fail to address the many problems we’ve created for ourselves, and the rest of the living world. The planet will exist until the natural course of events causes our wonderful, reliable sun to swallow it up in its final death throes. But our cavalier attitude to pollution, over-population, environment, and the development of weapons of mass destruction, along with the newly-created potential monster that is AI, poses a very real danger to our continued existence.
Once aware of these potential barriers to the very existence of our species, it seems irresponsible to ignore it in my writing. In common with most writers, I have a message to spread. But I write stories first and foremost, generally throwing in some hope along the dystopian route I follow in those tales. The general idea is to entertain readers but plant seeds of doubt that might generate concern about the world we’re creating for our children.
JBS: Your website is quite minimalist in style, and I see no overt promotion of your books. What’s your attitude to marketing and promotion?
SA: Ah, you noticed? There are two reasons I fail miserably at marketing my work.
Firstly, experience has shown me the creative mind is a delicate and suggestible state. It’s easily influenced by mood, environment, conflicting activity, and priorities. I write in a sort of semi-conscious state, creating story ‘off the top of my head’ rather than following a plot or recognisable structure. I create characters, have a theme (or more than one), envisage the world my players inhabit, provide a central problem for them to solve, and then allow them to deal with the barriers and issues I place in their way. That’s how my stories develop.
I’ve found that working on promotional aspects of the craft is an entirely different activity, using a different mind-set, which interferes quite strongly with the creative mode. Since I prefer the creative aspect of writing, I’ve tended to neglect the marketing side as a result.
Secondly, until I retired from employment a few years ago, I worked in a number of different areas, some of them involving selling and marketing. Almost without exception, I found these jobs required dishonesty and sometimes downright lies if the individual was to succeed in the way the managers/owners of the companies required. I built up a deep dislike and distrust of all sales work as a result, but was obliged to do the work in most cases simply to support my family. I wrote a short post on that aspect recently, which you can find here, should you want to know more: https://stuartaken.net/2017/07/26/why-im-pretty-crap-at-marketing/
JBS: You say you write for adults; to what extent does that influence your storytelling and subject matter?
SA: I write for an adult readership, so there’s almost always sexual content. For my science fiction trilogy, I’m working with a sophisticated society based on pragmatism and scientific principles, so there’s an acceptance that sex is an appetite that requires acknowledgement rather than restrictive laws. In my fantasy trilogy, there are several different social groupings or tribes with differing attitudes to sex and to nakedness, as we find in the world around us. I think ignoring sexual activity in the narrative would be to cheat the reader of a very real part of normal human life. In my romantic thriller, the entire story revolves around the burgeoning relationship between an innocent, but very bright, young woman and the man-of-the-world photographer for whom she goes to work to escape the control of her distinctly unpleasant father. Sex is an integral part of the lives she engages with in this new world and to exclude it would be to chop the heart out of the story.
In spite of many advances in many areas, the modern world still often looks on sex as something threatening, even unpleasant. We’re animals, with a strong inbuilt biological imperative to breed. Part of that survival programme includes a very rewarding experience in our coupling; our brains and hormonal systems ensure that sex, when undertaken by consenting adults, is probably the most pleasurable activity we know of. To exclude it from fiction seems to me bizarre, and a denial of the reality of what it means to be human.
JBS: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
SA: Many thanks for giving me the chance, Joan. In common with most writers, I can never get enough opportunities to express myself in words. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this experience. Thank you.
For Blood Red Dust:
Amazon universal link – http://getBook.at/BloodRed
Link to Publisher’s site – https://www.fantasticbooksstore.com/blood-red-dust-all-formats.html
For War Over Dust:
Amazon universal link – http://myBook.to/WarOverDust
Link to Publisher’s site – https://www.fantasticbooksstore.com/war-over-dust.html
For my other books:
Link to the page on my website – https://stuartaken.net/my-published-work/
My website – http://stuartaken.net/
Twitter link – http://twitter.com/@stuartaken
LinkedIn link – http://www.linkedin.com/pub/stuart-aken/22/1b6/aaa
Facebook Page link – http://www.facebook.com/StuartAken