A. M. Dean is a bit of a mystery. Whilst his book has been published in over a dozen languages, his name has been kept secret. I have only found out that A. was male through the ‘About The Author’ part of his website. Throughout our discussions, I got the distinct impression that it was to remain thay way until it was meant to come out. A riddle within a riddle I suppose.
This is a bit of an exclusive as A. does not do web interviews but, as his email stated, he was in a good mood. Thank you A. for that. So, find below my exclusive interview with a writer that has taken the world by storm.
Author interview with A.M. Dean, author of The Lost Library (Pan Macmillan, 2012) and The Gnostic Key (forthcoming from Pan Macmillan, 2013).
A few background notes:
- The Lost Library was launched in August 2012 in 16 territories worldwide (published by Pan Macmillan). It’s been in the Top 20 at WH Smith travel in the UK and in FNAC in France, and no. 1 in the Netherlands.
- The second book in the series, The Gnostic Key, is due out in 2013.
- A.M. Dean is a fairly reclusive author, who, apart from being active on twitter (@AMDeanUK), does not do much in the way of promotional appearances. Readers can find out more at www.amdean-books.com
- This is the first author interview with A.M. Dean since the publication of The Lost Library.
Where do your ideas come from?
I think that I am like most people: my ideas come from my curiosity. I’m a naturally curious person, and when that’s combined with a love of history, which is filled with so many curious and mysterious things, it’s fertile territory for creativity. I write about the bits and pieces of history that intrigue me — especially those where what we know raises as many questions as it answers. The Lost Library started with just that: the big ‘what if?’ questions about one of the greatest historical institutions of all time. We know quite a lot about the library’s history, but for every detail we know, there are two or three we do not, including the ultimate ‘detail’: what came of it in the end? So it’s something of a storyteller’s dream, really.
Do you have a standard formula for plots, or do stories come to you as a whole construct?
No. The plot really has to be shaped around the questions and curiosities. I do have something of a developed set of tools for the storytelling: I like to write with short, punchy chapters that weave together a number of seemingly un-connected storylines, driven by dialogue and action and allowing the reader to get to know the characters more by their words and actions than long sections of back-story narrative. For this genre, it’s a way of telling the story that works well — and it’s the type I most enjoy reading myself.
But as to the plot, that’s something that’s different from one story to the next. It has to be, or why pick up a second book? This will be very clear to readers when The Gnostic Key comes out next year. It’s a second book in the Emily Wess series, so there will be some familiar characters and backgrounds, and obviously a jaunt into the world of mysterious, secretive history — but the plot is something totally different, with a different type of action, focus, the whole lot.
Do you have characters running around in your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?
Absolutely! In my head, and on my lips. I try to spend a lot of time ‘getting to know’ my characters. A favourite habit is going on long walks, trying to spend the morning ‘as’ a character in my writing: muttering to myself about my past, about my emotions, about my history, my plans for the future, etc. I must look a total loony to anyone who sees me in the park, one morning muttering comments about my designs to overthrow the government as a D.C. businessman, the next morning muttering about the frustrations of my life as an ambitious college teacher. But it’s how I develop a strong feel for who these people are, how they speak, and so on. Then, when it comes time to write, I can just ‘let them talk’ on the page, since I already have a pretty strong familiarity with who they are, their mannerisms, etc.
When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?
I usually develop a title fairly early on in the process of determining the story — generally within the first few days. Particularly with the global conspiracy thriller genre, the title sets a strong tone for everything that comes, so it’s good to have a sense of that overarching, haunting mystery that will first get the reader to pick up the book off the shelf.
Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact do they have on the story?
I have a very, very small number of readers whom I involve as I’m writing. One of them is my agent, Thomas, who is a superb editor in his own right and whom I’m sure one day will write a book far better than any of mine — but for the time being I’m quite happy to have him ‘on my side,’ as they say. Another is the ‘E.F.’ whom I mention in the acknowledgments, who is a fantastic author, poet and writer I’ve known for the better part of three decades, and whose frank, often pointed comments always make fair ideas better and good ideas excellent. These are people I’ve learned to trust.
Apart from these, I might show a manuscript to one or two others, rather later in the writing process, to get a bit of additional feedback and comment; but I try not to involve too many people. Good stories come from a storyteller, not from a committee — so I try to take advice early on from people I know can help me be a better storyteller, then just tell the story. It’s up to the reader to judge whether this works!
Do you read other people’s writing?
Of course. Every day, in just about every genre. I know there are some writers who put themselves into a kind of self-imposed isolation and don’t read anything while they write, and I’m happy that works for them. But was given a bit of advice early on that’s always stuck with me: ‘If you want to be a writer, read.’ So, I do. I really can’t imagine a day that doesn’t involve some time spent in a good book.
Do you prefer to read established or debut authors?
I like to read both. As far as I’m concerned, there are two real joys for all of us as readers: the first is picking up a new book by a familiar, established name whose books we’ve loved before, and feeling as if we’re returning to an old, familiar friend whose kindly agreed to tell us a new story and whisk us away once more.
The second is picking up a book by someone we’ve never heard of, and finding ourselves totally captivated. I had this experience recently with the Scottish police procedural novel, Blood Tears, by Michael J. Malone. Was pointed to the title by a friend, had never heard of the author, and found myself totally hooked. Even set down a top ten bestseller I was 75% through, to read it instead. A real treat, when that sort of thing happens.
At the end of the day, it’s the story that matters. Established, debut, famous, maligned … what we’re all looking for is a story that grips us. The author is interesting for precisely the thirty seconds it takes to read his or her bio on the back page; it’s the story we’re there to read.
What genre would you like to write a book in, that you haven’t yet?
For a while now I’ve rather fancied writing a serial killer novel, which project may or may not actually already be in the works…
And on a totally different track, I’ve been writing poetry for about 20 years now, and at some stage I’d like to publish some of it into a collection. We’ll see. They joy of writing is that there are entirely different genres, worlds, possibilities, all right before us. Seems a pity not to explore as many of them as we can.
Finally, do you see eBooks threatening traditional publishing?
That’s a loaded question! And it depends on what you mean by ‘threatening.’ As far as I’m concerned, storytelling has always been willing to engage with the newest and most creative ways of sharing a story. We used to sit around campfires; then came books. Books were once the elitist territory of the rich, and we heard stories only as they were read to us; but then paperbacks and cheap printing meant we could all actually have our own. Paperbacks used to be fed to us by book-buyers in shops, which were our only point of access; but then on-line shopping meant we could pick from a far wider range of titles, from anywhere in the world. Now eBooks give us new territory to play in — so why wouldn’t we embrace it and use this new creative tool?
Are eBooks changing publishing? Yes, obviously. Done, dusted, and still more to come. But the ‘tradition’ in the best of ‘traditional publishing’ has always been to give writers and readers the best environments to share stories; so I don’t see this change as a threat, but as the latest development of this venerable, old tradition.
I love my Kindle and my iPad, but I also love that wonderful sensation of opening up a new paperback for the first time, smelling the paper and ink and feeling the substance of the words. We live at a wonderful point in publishing history right now, where we’ve got the best of all worlds. All very exciting!