Thursday, November 15, 2012

Islanders - John Barlow

 Author Interview: John Barlow

How would you describe ISLANDERS?
A YA adventure set in a post-war dystopia. It’s a boy’s quest to find his farther, and it also deals with themes of ecology, the misuse of power, and germ warfare. But it’s not excessively dark, considering those themes. Essentially it’s an adventure, with lots of humor and action. And mutant pigs, obvs...

You write adult fiction. Why switch to YA?
I started ISLANDERS over five years ago. All sorts of writers were having a go at books for the YA market. It just took me longer to finish than most!

What are the main differences between YA and adult fiction?
For the writer? Almost none, in my case. The more I stopped thinking about who I was writing for, the better the novel got. If I was going to write a dystopian adventure for adults, it would turn out pretty much like ISLANDERS. What was particularly pleasing was that, when the novel was finished, I showed it to a number of adults, and they all loved it.

Did you enjoy writing it?
Yes! Especially the characters who accompany Ben on the quest to find his dad. I think they form a pretty good group, the kind of people you’d want to have around when things get tough.

Will there be more YA fiction from John Barlow?
Yes. ISLANDERS is the first book in a trilogy; books two and three will explore more distant parts of the mainland, as Ben goes in search of a safe place to live and to try and understand more about the war.

What kind of writers do you enjoy reading?
I have no firm preferences. At the moment I’m reading Krista D Ball’s What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, which is brilliant. I enjoy crime writing, which is a genre I also write in, but I read widely in all genres. Probably, over the course of my reading life, I have enjoyed 20th century American fiction more than anything. I used to devour John Irving, but, y’know, everything comes to an end...
Favorite books?
All time? Don Quixote by Cervantes; the Rabbit novels by John Updike; James Ellroy in his prime; Ray Carver.

How did you become a writer?
I have always written, but I was quite late in trying to get published. The first thing I had published was a novella in the Paris Review, and that led to an agent and deal with HarperCollins. At that point I decided to quit my job (as a university teacher) and move from the UK to Spain. Since then I’ve worked as a writer.

Do you do anything other than write?
Yes. I also work as a ghostwriter, which is great fun because you can get immersed in a project without it taking over you. Apart from that I write for a good magazine, and sometimes I do translations.

If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have liked to be?
When I was young I wanted to be a chef. When I left (high)school I became a musician for a while, a career path I may well have followed after university, if the economy at the time hadn’t been so bad. However, there was just no work for musicians in the UK at the time, so I went to live in Spain for a while instead. And now I’m back!

What interests you apart from books?
I very much like food! OK, so I’m greedy. But I also like learning more about food, how it is produced and prepared. I write articles for a food magazine, which essentially means I get paid to travel around and eat. What could be better? Other than that I like travel, and I’m interested in ecological issues (ISLANDERS is partly about the ecological damage done to a country and its society).

Some writers use music to help them work. What about you?
No. I can’t work with music playing at all. I have a condition called ‘musical hallucinations’, which means that I constantly hear music in my head, a ‘playtrack’ that my brain refuses to put on pause. For some people this can be irritating, but I don’t mind. If I’m really, really concentrating on something, the tune currently playing in my head might drift off into the background; but it’ll still be there, and as soon as I relax it comes back. The nice thing is that I have fairly wide musical tastes, and all sorts of things appear on the ‘playlist’ in my head!

What is the main premise of this book?
Ben Brewer, a 13 year-old buy, has grown up on an island. A community of people went there to escape a devastating war back on the mainland, and he’s been on the island all his life. He has never met his father, a war hero who disappeared 13 years ago during the war, presumed dead. When a message arrives that his dad might still be alive, Ben decides to go look for him. But that means going to the mainland, a chaotic world ravaged by the effects of germ warfare, social collapse and environmental degradation. One man yields absolute power there, the man who is said to have killed Ben’s dad. Ben finally realizes that he must confront this man if he wants to learn the truth about his dad.

Who’s your favorite character in it?
There are two twins (nicknames Bad and Worse) in the group that travels with Ben. They are war orphans and nobody on the island likes them because they’re violent, rude and malicious. But as the story develops, they turn out to be tough and loyal, and good fun to have around. There’s quite a bit of violence in the book (fist fights mainly, no guns) and it’s mostly Bad and Worse who are guilty.

Where and when do you prefer to do your writing?
Mornings. But I live in Spain, where ‘morning’ stretches halfway into the afternoon. I borrow an office from a friend. It’s right across the road from our apartment, and there’s a coffee shop directly below. I couldn’t have it much better, really.

When reading, do you prefer eBook or paperback?
Increasingly I read ebooks. There are a few minor disadvantages, like not being able to fold the corner of a page down or make a quick note in the margin with a pencil. But the advantages far outweigh these.

What or who is Storm Books?
Storm Books is a micro-publisher run by Sam Bridges, a friend of mine. At the moment it only publishes my work, so it’s really a form of indirect self-publishing. It’s an experiment. I didn’t want to find myself left out of the self-publishing revolution, but neither did I want to spend all day being a publisher. We’re going to see how things go, then consider whether we might publish other writers as well.

How do you see the ebook revolution? Is it empowering independent writers, or destroying the publishing industry?
I think that long-term it’s positive for everyone. Writers get the chance to find a readership directly. If they succeed, they can decide whether to continue as indies or look for a publisher. Meanwhile, publishers can look at the self-publishing market as a testing ground, cherry picking books that have already proved themselves. The process also increases flexibility and diversity. I self-published a book that I was sure had an audience. It hasn’t found that audience yet, but because ebooks are forever, it’s still there, selling a couple of dozen copies a month. Nobody loses.

What's your favorite gadget?
No contest. My Wi-Fi radio. I can listen to almost any radio station in the world. You want Chinese hip-hop? Peruvian chat shows? Tasmanian jazz? You got it.

What projects are you currently working on?
I’m finishing off an adult crime thriller (‘finishing off’ is a relative term; probably another six months on that...). Then there’s ISLANDERS 2 to start. Meanwhile, next week I have two articles to research for a food magazine, one on honey the other on cheese.

Who designed  this cover?
Start Bache. He does the latest editions of Stephen King’s books in the UK. I think he’s the best designer around.

Do you like to cook?
I love to cook. I’m not terrifically good at it, but I can keep a family of four alive if I have to. I’m pretty inventive if there’s not much in the cupboard, but don’t ask me to do anything fancy. I’ll just mess it up.

What’s your dream vacation?
Driving across the US in a big, air-conditioned car and eating in diners three times a day, every day, for a month.

Where to buy:
Amazon UK

Where can your readers stalk you?
Goodreads author page:
Twitter: @John_Barlow_LS9

John Barlow was born in the north of England in 1967. After high school he worked as a musician, playing piano and keyboards in bars and cabaret, before studying English Literature at Cambridge University. He also holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Hull. He taught English in a number of English universities before moving to Spain to become a writer in 2004. His first published work, the novella Eating Mammals, won the Paris Review Discovery (Plimpton) Prize, and he has since published fiction and non-fiction with HarperCollins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Fourth Estate, as well as with a variety of publishers in Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. He is also a feature writer for food magazine SpainGourmetour, and works as a ghostwriter, most notably on the HEADLESS project of Swedish artists Goldin+Senneby. He currently lives in A Coruña, Spain, and is married with two boys.


Eating Mammals (3 novellas)
Intoxicated (novel)
Everything but the Squeal (food/travel)
What Ever Happened to Jerry Picco? (crime novel)
Hope Road (crime novel)
Islanders (YA novel)

Stay turned for a guest post from John tomorrow...


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