One of the beauties of being part of the Shotgun Honey team, of the internet in general, is having had the privilege of “rubbing” shoulders with writers from around the world, and a true gentleman like Nigel Bird.
I first “met” Nigel when he caught one of my first stories online and did the darnedest thing — he invited me to participate in in his Dancing With Myself series of self-interviews. I was nobody, but Nigel said, and I paraphrase, it’s not what you’ve written or read, but that you love the genre. It was something like that and I was gobsmacked.
Since then, Nigel has released three outstanding short story collections, edited and/or contributed to a half-a-dozen anthologies, not to mention been part of a fantastic British Invasion we’ve had going on here at Shotgun Honey.
How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?
My first gun was a ray gun. Built to shoot aliens. It came in the back of a tricycle that Santa left for me one year, next to my astronaut suit. It gave me big dreams. And saved the world.
The attraction to crime-fiction grew from a love of old black-and-white films – gangsters, westerns and private detectives. It was probably the heroic aspect and the power of the male leads that drew me in. That and the adventure. And there was always a power-play between justice and injustice that had my emotions doing cartwheels and the contradiction of the most powerful characters being utterly flawed.
TV played a big part, too. Kojak, Hill Street Blues, Hawaii 5-0, Bluey Hills, The Sweeney and the like were the best things on the box.
The draw to books took a while. Because of the way my eyes scan, reading’s not the easiest of pleasures and because I felt I had to keep up with my mates who were all reading serious literature, the marriage wasn’t immediately harmonious. At college I studied Social Science. I took the Sociology of Film and the Sociology of Literature as options because I wanted to spend time on things I really cared for. The issue with the literature class was that, though I read many brilliant books, there were a fair few that were dry as a bone. I found Raymond Chandler and Junky and Maigret, all introduced by the same mates who read every spare second they god, and that was what entertained me on the bus to those literature seminars. I loved them. Still do.
My reading continues to have something of a mix to it, but since my writing has become crime and noir based, I’ve concentrated mainly upon Crime Fiction for the last couple of years.
Did you have an early interest in writing? Or were your studies in Film and Literature born from other desires?
Something in school put me off writing. My presentation was untidy and my spelling not up to scratch. I spelled my name Bid once when I was about 8 or 9. Teach did his line in wit and managed to make me feel completely useless. So I think I came to hate it.
Film was all about pleasure. Going home after a hard day at school and finding relief in the form of Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton who were always on at about tea time. Pure escapism would have been my motivation, the thrills of being the hero or the villain or the man who ended up with the girl.
Literature was also escapism, but only when it was read to me and I’m another on the list who can cite special teachers who made all the difference in that respect.
My life wasn’t awful or anything. Escapism wasn’t born out of unhappiness in general, but it did stem from my general ineptitude socially and from my being painfully shy – other worlds were far more straightforward than real people.
You’ve seem to have managed your way through that awkward stage, becoming a growing voice online in crime fiction. What inspired the Dancing With Myself interview series on your blog Sea Minor?
There were a couple of things.
The first was an event at the Hay-On-Wye book festival.
I went along to see an interview with Lawrence Block and Ian Rankin as guests. It should have been brilliant. Thing was, the interviewer was so determined to show off as he asked his questions, he took more time speaking than his guests and managed to completely ruin something I’d really been looking forward to. I did get to grab Mr Block outside afterwards though, giving him a copy of the poetry/story zine I was producing with my brother at the time. ‘Something for the plane’, I said as he took it – and you know, he was a real gentleman about it and said he’d take a look.
The second idea came from the launch of Allan Guthrie’s first novel ‘Two Way Split’. I’d like to be able to say that my finger was so very much on the pulse that I knew what I was in for. Sadly, it wasn’t the case and it had more to do with the name and the book cover (I didn’t like the cover, but it didn’t half shout out at me). Anyway, he read for a while and then went on to interview himself with the questions he’d anticipated. It was so refreshing to get the answers we wanted to hear instead of the usual obvious type things and it cut out the need for any ‘smug bastard’ type questions that seem to come up every time a mic is passed around. Me being there was a lucky break for me – it started a ball rolling in my mind that hasn’t really come to rest since.
In both cases, I had the feeling that a writer might be the best positioned to ask interesting questions of themselves. Hence the idea.
And it meant I didn’t have to do lots of research (sorry).
The Dancing with Myself series seems like a great way for writers to break out, be themselves. Nice nod to Allan there. Inspiration is everywhere. 2011 was a bit of a break out year for you, releasing 3 short story anthologies and being included in at least a handful more. What changed in 2011? Stars align? Deal with the devil?
You’re right to say that 2011 was a great year. A break out year.
Like many things, the part observers got to see was the tip of an iceberg, one that’s been floating around for many years.
I can’t put it down to any one factor.
First of all hard work. I’ve been slogging away at different aspects of writing for over half my life. Along the way I’ve had a number of break outs. Perhaps I could describe each movement as being a passage from one waiting room to the next. There’s the effort involved in locating a door before any knocking can start and then there’s a whole lot of knocking. The door opens a crack and you have to push as hard as you can for as long as you can until it opens enough to pass through. Instead of finding wide-open spaces and the heaven of your choosing, you find another door – bigger than the first. Heavier. More robust. Higher up and harder to reach the knocker. I imagine the sequence could go on forever. Which is beginning to sound like a fairytale – I’m thinking of the soldier going down into the ground to steal things for the witch. Anyway, last year I entered through a lovely door, kind of realised that I liked it there and decided to stick around for a while before looking further ahead.
Luck. I did get lucky. Lucky that the web made the world smaller for me and that I found myself within a rather splendid community.
The backs of others. I hitched some rides along the way. Places where people work hard to support writers and fiction in general – magazines, blogs and publishers. There have been so many, but I can illustrate by picking Spintetingler as an example, putting up a ‘Conversation With The Bookless’ with me, selecting me for a ‘Best Story On The Web’ then later inviting me into the Snubnose debut, ‘Speedloader’, picking ‘Smoke’ for their ‘Best Novella’ lineup. All of those pieces helped me to put together a bigger puzzle, a more focused picture.
Confidence – each success brought the confidence to write the next piece and to produce work without compromise. It’s no accident that after a break where my muse had vanished that the return to work comes just after being chosen among this year’s Spinetingler nominations.
Progress – getting better at the craft of writing.
The break of e-books and getting in early enough to be noticed. It was the next wave of the revolution and I happened to catch it and manage to stay on my feet for a while.
Friends. The support of others has been incredible. People writing reviews and offering interviews; those who’ve taken part in the ‘Dancing With Myself’ series; the Woofers and Tweeters; those on hand with kind words during tougher times. They’ve been one of the biggest factors. (Thanks all).
‘Pulp Ink’ sums a lot of it up, really. Working alongside Chris Rhatigan was a real treat. I learned a lot from him as we went about our business as editors. It brought together a group of writers of the highest quality. We tapped into the knowledge, experience and talent of Needle Publishing and we had ups and downs along the way that we managed to even out. The result is terrific and a testament to the coming together of so many factors.
It’s not all been plain sailing either.
My best friend went and died on me last year. I spent a great weekend with him on his houseboat in London, said goodbye and got on the train home to hear the news that he’d gone while I was on my way. It did mess me up pretty good and writing just hit the skids.
And ‘Smoke’, the novella that was almost an accident that seemed to be very highly regarded had to be pulled from sales after the implosion of the publisher. That cloud does at least have a silver lining in that it will be published after some hard edits by Blasted Heath.
And my novel ‘In Loco Parentis’ hasn’t made the cut yet, so who knows what will happen there.
Yes, it was a great year. I hope it can carry on in such a way and that I can find the stamina to stick with the ride.
Much of your success, and following accolades stem from your decision to venture into e-pubbing. What made you venture out into those unsteady waters and what advice do you have for those contemplating e-pubbing?
The decision was an easy one given the material I was writing. Short stories haven’t been flavour of the month with traditional publishers for many years, so the opportunity of putting out Dirty Old Town was difficult for me to resist.
To give a little perspective, I’d written a novel and had been given enough rejections to fill a folder. Stemming from that were some positives in terms of feedback on my style, but it didn’t fit the market.
I didn’t have the confidence to put that novel out and left it while the clarity of vision about what I wanted to write improved in its focus.
Dirty Old Town (and other stories) seemed like the step I needed to take. I knew I had strong material, that there was enough in my production from the year prior to its release to make a very good collection so it was all systems go. I am a little impetuous, to be honest, so as soon as I had the idea I was going to do it regardless.
I didn’t know what I was doing. The cover design was a learning curve, I had no ideas about formatting and I wasn’t sure how to sell the thing .
To start off, sales were a nightmare, but I got to a happier place eventually.
The rest followed.
Two more collections have seen the light since then, as well as work in anthologies and with publishers. It’s all part of the curve.
I even put out that novel of mine, too; it’s under a pen -name, so it won’t be found, but I’m glad I’ve let the characters in the story out of the box. Sales are barely a trickle, though on that one it’s not the point. When ‘In Loco Parentis’ hits the streets (and it will), I’ll still see it as my first novel .
Advice is difficult to give.
There’s nothing wrong with putting out work as self-published, not at all. It’s something I’d like to encourage. I would suggest that it should be part of a rising curve rather than the start of one. Build up some kind of platform before just launching into things. Edit well. Keep it to the best of your ability. Don’t throw things up there with the idea that more books will equate to more sales (more books of lesser quality shouldn’t). Don’t give up the day job. If you feel you have something really good on your hands, approach a publisher – tree or e – and wait for some feedback. Don’t take any of it personally (I’ve made that mistake more than once), whether it be a harsh comment, malice, no sales for a couple of days, or whatever form the adversities take; it really isn’t something to get hurt feelings about and if you aren’t able to rise above things you may well go crazy. A good cover always helps. A good title is cool. If you can get some quotes under your belt, so much the better. Don’t be too hyped on the forum boards and try to understand the rules of self-promotion wherever you are. Leave the trolls to share the poison between themselves. Keep pushing and asking and begging and prostituting until you can’t take it any more. Try and break out of the obvious circles when seeking publicity. Be patient. Don’t stop writing because you’re trying to sell something you worked on a couple of years before. When your book leaps in the Amazon charts, don’t take it as a sign that you’re the new Hemingway or Atkinson, because a day or so after you might be lurking in the hundred-thousands. Listen to advice, especially about your work. Try and improve. Write to the best of your ability. And don’t give up the day job (I know I said that already) no matter how quickly it seems to be killing you. Enjoy it.
IN LOCO PARENTIS sounds like your next big project, can you give us the pitch?
We have a youngish male teacher working with Reception class children. He’s a bit mixed up, particularly when it comes to women and in relation to being overly protective of his charges.
Not only does he gets mixed up with a rather sexy parent from the school, he’s half-in half-out of a relationship with his step-sister.
When a drug-addicted parent deals out a little too much discipline to his son,the teacher makes sure that it won’t happen again and when a colleague slaps a child round the head it leads to some pretty unpleasant results.
It’s a novel where the protagonist unravels and where the heart and the head of the reader might well end up in conflict, or at least I hope it is.
I haven’t read ‘The Slap’, but I’m guessing it could be ‘the hard slap’ or ‘the slap with teeth’.
I haven’t read ‘The Slap’ either, but this sounds a little close to home, at least with the protagonist being a teacher. What has being a teacher brought to the table as a writer?
For that particular piece, one hell of a lot.
In general terms, it’s difficult to say exactly.
I do get to experience aspects of the world that I’d rather not have to see. There are situations that I become fairly closely involved with that shine a light on what poverty and substance abuse and the like can really do.
Perhaps what comes through the most frequently in my work relates to the fact that no matter how tough things get for a child, family or community, there always needs to be someone around trying to ignite or maintain a flicker of hope. Without the hope, everyone would most likely give up. Maybe that’s why my tales seem to have that angle.
And where things go badly wrong and hope is useless, I guess it comes out in my stories in the good I try to find or the reasons (for that some may read liberal excuses, but I can’t change that outlook any more than I can completely transform a child’s actions in a situation when it’s all they’ve ever known).
What does 2012 and beyond have in store for Nigel Bird? More collections, anthologies?
I’ve just started something new.
It’s not the novel I was anticipating at all, but the idea came and I’m rolling with it in my usual organic way. It started with the desire to write about someone with ‘locked in syndrome’ and has evolved from there.
Pulp Ink 2 is well on its way now. We’ve had a great response and some brilliant stories. Chris and I are hoping to roll up our sleeves a little more in terms of the editing this time round. I’m a little more in the back seat this time; it’s not the way we set out, it’s just the way of the flow.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had a story accepted for Lost Children’s follow up and I have a couple of juicy invites that I hope I can live up to.
If I were to pick a five year path, I guess it would be to write and have published a couple of high quality novels of novellas and that I have enough material for another collection.
I’m also rather enjoying reviewing books these days. I’d like to hone some of the skills required for that and to spread the word for the writers I’m reading.
Do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?
Mainly thanks. Thanks to you for this interview here. Thanks to all those who’ve helped in so many ways. I have shocking organisational skills, but do have a good memory for kindnesses done and will do my best to make sure they’re paid back in some small way – you can hold me to that , too; a little nudge might help if anyone feels the need.
And wisdom? My favourite quote comes from Wittgenstein, – ‘All I have to offer is my own confusion’. I can’t tell you anything else he said, but that one phrase has become my excuse.
One more thing. If you read something of mine and don’t rate it, see a mistake, an incongruity or room for improvement I’d be delighted to hear about it. Just drop me a line.