Long and Short Reviews welcomes Simon Spurrier, whose latest release is A Serpent Uncoiled. Simon first came to my attention with his YouTube video:
I enjoyed it so much I had to invite him to come and visit with us.
"How many books have you written?" I asked. "Which is your favorite?"
"I think I'm up to," he stares at the ceiling, his lips moving, "six novels now, with a bunch of short stories, articles and assorted bits-and-bobs in various collected forms. And that’s not even counting the comics/graphic-novel half of Planet Spurrier, which is… well, complicated. Let’s stick to the novels for now. Even saying 'six' is a bit of a cheat. See, I got my break writing prose in a really weird way. I’d been doing some syndicated comics for Games Workshop, tying-in to their tabletop wargame hobby stuff, when they announced they were launching a line of prose novels. So I spent a few years writing that sort of thing – work-for-hire stuff for their 'Black Library' imprint, all grim gothic sci-fi, then did the same for a couple of other publishers. So that accounts for four of the six. But all the while, in my spare time, I was working-up towards writing Contract as my first 'proper' novel. People can have weirdly different attitudes to all that work-for-hire genre stuff that came before – like, there’s a funny suspicion it somehow 'taints' the reputation of an otherwise respectable writer – but I found completely the opposite: as a result of my work-for-hire novels agents and publishers knew to take me seriously. I’d proved I had the staying power to actually complete books, to craft plots, build characters, etc – and so when I showed them the first chapters of Contract they took it far more seriously than they otherwise might. It didn’t matter that I was trying to publish in a completely different genre than the one I’d trained in: it was my entry-ticket to their interest and attention. As for which is my favourite – I’m going to have to fall back on a naff old cliché, whose hoariness doesn’t diminish its truth: a writer’s favourite piece of work is always always always the next one."
Simon flirted with writing as a hobby for a long time. By the time he was fourteen or fifteen, he was regularly "noodling-about" with prose ("dreadful overblown sci-fi, mostly," he admitted, "dripping with unconsciously pubescent euphemisms"); at nineteen he had his first paying gig in the world of comics, with the first work-for-hire prose novel coming about when he was 23.
"I think I was about 24 when I decided I’d accrued enough confidence – or possibly arrogant optimism – to 'go pro'. I quit the day job, installed myself at a desk in my poky little bedroom, and have been slowly fusing with the furniture ever since."
" What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?" I asked.
"Oof. That’s such a delicate little question for such a big subject. Frankly, the answer isn’t only dependent on the person being asked but also on their current project. If you’d asked me this when I was writing Contract I would’ve said it’s all about verve, fuck-you-I-won’t-do-it-the-traditional-way swagger, rhythm and style and above all ideas. If you’d asked me during A Serpent Uncoiled I would’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of setting parameters, defining your characters’ experience and world (so that the reader can empathize with their moments of extremity and terror); I would’ve said a sense of pace is critical, a deep familiarity with the world you’re describing and the people inside it, and an agonising servitude to the gentle delivery of tension. But then I probably also would’ve put 'sex', 'drugs' and 'weirdo creepy spine-tingling events' up at the top of the list too, so take from that what you will."
He did tell me that if he were to try to find some sort of overarching element that would be at the top of every writer's "must have list" he'd say taking time to gather knowledge.
" In this context 'knowledge' takes a hundred different forms – maybe it’s months spent in libraries doing research; maybe it’s a lifetime of accruing anecdotes, maybe it’s spending a week living as your main character so you can understand his/her thoughts, maybe it’s just horrific endless brain-bleeding hours plotting your twisty-turny mystery with neurotic precision," he told me. "The important thing is that this all happens before you write a word. So that when you sit down to start hammering keys, the thing which is going to make your book come alive – whether it’s truth or plot or character or perspective or all of the above – is so deeply embedded in your brain that the words will fall out of your body like linguistic vomit. Short version: Know Thy Shit."
When it comes to his work, most often he starts with an idea—something nebulous and vague—which will serve as the seed for both plot and characters. They are so closely intertwined for him that's it's impossible to say which technically comes first.
"I’m somebody who feels most comfortable when I’ve plotted a story with insane precision – I terrify my writer-friends with dense little box-tables and intricately faceted diagrams of structure and action," he said. "I’d be unable to make one of my manic little plot-charts without having to constantly address and re-address the character’s behaviour throughout, and I’d be incapable of restraining the character from running amok if I didn’t broadly know what I wanted him to do and when. Even then, it’s a messy process full of trial-and-error. While planning A Serpent Uncoiled I had such a clear sense of plot that when I injected the main character into it – Dan Shaper; a broken-minded ex-junkie working as an investigator and fixer for people on the wrong side of the law – it was like watching Godzilla bogling in a china-shop. Shaper didn’t want to go in the directions I’d laid out for him, so I was constantly obliged to revise and redraft: tearing-up the plot to give him some autonomy; clipping his wings wherever his contrary independence went too far."
I asked Simon to share with us something about A Serpent Uncoiled that wasn't in the blurb.
"n classic private eye novels, the first chapter is often the writer’s opportunity to introduce the central character in his natural environment: a little look at his 'status quo' before things kick-off and plunge him into new challenges and new threats. To give you some flavour of A Serpent Uncoiled, that all-important opening-chunk sees our hero, Dan Shaper, attempting to solve a theft from a brothel in London’s East End. A very specialised brothel, in fact, dealing exclusively with elderly customers who have, shall we say, 'performance issues'… These randy old sods have found salvation in the form of some highly expensive 'Eastern medicine' – powdered tiger penis, no less – which someone has been ingeniously stealing from under their noses. By way of introducing our hero, Shaper’s means of solving the mystery is even sneakier than the crime itself."
When it comes to his own reading, Simon is nothing if not eclectic (he added, "possibly schizophrenic") in his TBR pile. He's recently finished The Count of Monte Cristo--("deliciously rip-roaring," he said. "Ain't no revenge like a Dumas revenge.") He is expecting to go to a Sebastian Faulks lecture this month, so he planned on rereading Birdsong, then he wants to read The Sisters Brothers.
"Booker-shortlist plus Wild West is about as perfect a combination as I can imagine," he explained. "If I’m in a lazy mood I’ll tend to gravitate to adventury, rompy, classic stuff, but I try to force 'literary' titles down my psychic throat too, even if they’re not titles I’d naturally go for. A lot of my favourite books (To Kill A Mockingbird, for instance) come from that 'try-it-you-might-like-it' school of self-discipline."
"What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your books?" I asked.
"That my bladder has a far higher capacity than I suspected," he quipped. "Actually, the research I had to do for Contract and A Serpent Uncoiled threw up some really weird, unexpected factoids. I’m a sucker for trivia, so a lot of it found its way into the prose. For instance, in Contract, the central character – a contract killer – has this little trick where he hollows-out the tips of his bullets, fills them with poison, then seals them with wax. The idea being that if he fails to kill his target with one shot, the poison will do its work. So far so obvious… Buuuut in the act of researching all this, it rapidly became clear that the whole notion of “poison” is problematic – toxins are rarely as reliable as you might think, are often impossible to get hold of, and leave a forensic trace as wide as a freeway. So, as a necessity created by these obstacles, I had the idea that if he filled his bullets with a liquid solution of uncut heroin it’d O.D. his victims instantaneously. A little more research – some of it of a highly shady, late-at-night character – established that this method would be a helluva lot cheaper, a lot faster, and far more reliable than any 'exotic' poison. Buuuut yet again the research threw up another problem: heroin only dissolves in water when it’s heated up… which is obviously a no-no when it comes to bullets. Another three hours of panicky research – worried that I’d have to go back to the drawing board and surrender my fun idea – and finally the answer emerged: some enterprising junkie in Australia had discovered that heroin dissolves in lemon juice while at room temperature. So there you go: Contract’s central character uses lemony skag to kill his victims; all thanks to a tumbling research-chain of idea, obstacle, solution."
About the Author: Simon Spurrier was born in 1981.
Working as an art director for the BBC, he took an unscripted tangent into the murky depths of wordism and has since become an award winning author and graphic novelist. His first novel – a horror-laced beatnik crime thriller titled Contract – was called a “tour de force” by The Times. It was succeeded by A Serpent Uncoiled: a modern twist on the P.I. murder-mystery which won huge critical acclaim, described by Warren Ellis as “an elaborately-tooled razor of a book”.
He lives in a state of perpetual quantum flux somewhere in the armpit of London, and can be isolated on Twitter through @sispurrier.
You can find Simon online at:
A missing mobster. A bizarre spiritualist society. And three deaths, linked by a chilling forensic detail.
Working as an enforcer in London's criminal underworld brought Dan Shaper to the edge of a breakdown. Now he's a private investigator, kept perilously afloat by a growing cocktail of drugs. He needs to straighten-up and rebuild his life, but instead gets the attention of his old gangland masters and a job-offer from Mr George Glass. The elderly eccentric claims to be a New Age Messiah, but now needs a saviour of his own. He's been marked for murder.
Adrift amidst liars and thugs, Shaper must push his capsizing mind to its limits: stalked not only by a unique and terrifying killer, but by the ghosts of his own brutal past.