Interview with Peter Newman
You know that a book deserves your attention when Mark Lawrence says that it’s “the best thing he’s read in quite a while.” You know that you have to read said book when it wins the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Newcomer. The book in question is none other than The Vagrant, and today we have here the author, Peter Newman. Let’s see what he has to say.
Hey, Peter. Thanks for agreeing to do this with me. I started both Mark’s and Nicholas‘ interviews with easy questions, so let’s start yours with a weird one: if any one of your fellow authors could be your slave for a day, who would it be and what would they have to do?
Tricky. I’d probably want them to give me a massage, cook me steak, and feed me ice-cream, so whichever author is best at massage and steak. Actually, if you could find that out for me, I’d be grateful.
Leave it with me. It’s not like it’s a weird question to ask other authors at conventions or anything. Speaking of weird . . . your first book, The Vagrant, stood out for its mute protagonist and its eccentric and distinguished style. In the second book, The Malice, you ditched the first but kept the second. What should we expect from the third and final installment, The Seven?
Thanks! The third book is a bit of an ‘Avengers Assemble’ type of book, in that the protagonists that are introduced in the previous books are now sharing the stage. It’s a book about what can happen (aka go wrong) when you try and change the world. The writing style remains the same.
Good to know! I just said that your trilogy stood out for its distinguished style, but that’s only my opinion. What’s yours? What do you think was the deciding factor that brought such acclaim to your work?
I think distinguished is a lovely way to describe it, I’d certainly say it’s unusual. When I was submitting the book, some agents asked me to name other writers that I was similar to and I really struggled to answer.
An interesting effect of this is that it tends to divide people. The people that love it really love it, just as those that don’t tend to really hate it. It’s a bit of a marmite thing.
As to a deciding factor, I have no idea. I suspect it’s a combination of many things, not least of which is that Jaime Jones did my covers. I’d hope the setting and the treatment of demons (and goats!) helped too.
A lot of readers do seem to have a soft spot for the goat! And Jaime Jones’ covers certainly are fantastic. But going back to what’s between those covers – what’s your greatest writing strength, and your greatest weakness?
I think that’s constantly evolving. About five or six years ago, my greatest strength was dialogue but I was relying on it too much and so it was also a weakness. It was like my characters were having these very dramatic conversations in a series of featureless, interchangeable environments. One of the reasons I stated writing The Vagrant was to take away my dialogue crutch.
Then, as my ability to describe place and atmosphere improved, I started to notice other weaknesses in my style, and set to work on those. That cycle continues from book to book.
Spoken like a pro! Peter, it sounds like your approach is very self-aware, though I imagine it’s only natural for an author to improve his work with the passage of time. How was your writing evolved while staying true to your own personal and distinguished style?
I’d like to think that my work has gotten a little easier to follow and the style slightly smoother as time’s gone on. I’ve also been working on endings, this felt especially important with the third book in the trilogy, where the last notes of the story can have such a strong impact on the reader’s overall feelings about the series.
And how about the hurdles you’ve encountered on your way to reaching that ending? In other words: while you’re writing, what questions do you ask yourself; and when you do, what challenges do you run into?
When I’m busy putting down the words I don’t ask myself any questions at all, that tends to come after. When I’m checking over my work, I’m generally asking if it feels right. This a fairly nebulous thing but essentially comes down to balancing ease of understanding with the rhythm and general sexiness of the sentences. The other question I tend to ask is whether anything has developed in the scene. I always want to give the reader something tangible, whether that’s new plot, character development or even just a laugh or an eyebrow raise.
This can be challenging because sometimes the need to push forward and the need to get the right feel can come into conflict. For example, it might be that I’ve done all the interesting things I can while the characters move from A to B, and that the expedient thing to do is to cut to their arrival. However, sometimes we can lose the feel of them being on a long journey if we simply have them cross a thousand miles in a single paragraph break. So I might interject another travel scene or cut to other characters while they plod on so that there is some translation of distance on the page.
I’m sure plenty of our readers are taking notes for their own stories! On the subject of other writers . . . your wife, Emma, is an acclaimed author herself. Have you influenced each other’s work?
When I started out I used to worry that my writing would turn out to be a diet version of hers but actually our styles are sufficiently different that it’s never been a problem.
That said, Emma and I play a huge part in each other’s writing process, and for that I’m incredibly lucky. We often act as sounding boards for the other’s ideas, we help each other if we get stuck, as well as acting as first readers. There is a lot of book talk in our house.
It sounds perfect. Back to book talk, then: what are you working on now, and will you ever get back to the world of The Vagrant?
I’ve just finished the first draft of the book 1 of my new trilogy, THE DEATHLESS. It is both exciting and terrifying to go off in a new direction with new characters. It makes me appreciate how comfortable I’d gotten with the old ones. Again, I hope I’m evolving. I don’t want to keep retelling the same story nor do I want to write every book the same way. With this series I’m aiming to get the reader much closer to the protagonists.
I have no plans to go back to the cast of THE VAGRANT at the moment, though I suppose a really amazing story idea or a huge truck of money might change my mind. I often see TV shows where the first three seasons or so are excellent but by season 5 (or 18!) the characters have been mined to death, and the only way to sustain tension is to break or betray what you’ve done before. I’d much rather tell a good story and leave people wanting more, than tell a long story and have people begging for it to end.
On that note, Peter, here’s my penultimate question: In all the interviews/AMAs/Q&As you have done so far, what question do you think you should have been asked by now, but haven’t?
Nobody has asked me to play in their new epic 5e D&D campaign this year, which is a shame.
Well, that’s just rude. I hope that changes soon! And finally, to close this interview, what’s a piece of advice that you would give to aspiring authors that are inspired from your work?
I remember following all the advice very carefully about submissions to agents and publishers, and for those going that route, I’d strongly advise doing the same. I didn’t really follow much writing advice myself, beyond making sure words appeared on the page on a regular basis. So I suppose I’d advise people to find their own path and make sure time spent working is at least equal to or greater than time getting writing advice.
Having said that, one thing that helped me in the early days was joining a weekly flash fiction group. We wrote a 1000 word story a week, and it was a good way to write to a deadline, try out ideas, and get connected with other writers, some of whom became good friends. If you‘re London based, I recently did a talk with a very cool fantasy writers group called SPECTRUM, and I‘d recommend looking them up.
Peter Newman co-writes the Hugo nominated and Alfie Award winning Tea and Jeopardy podcast and is also the voice of the butler, Latimer. He writes for Fantasy MMO Albion Online, including the tie-in novel: LANDFALL. His debut novel, THE VAGRANT, was published by Harper Voyager and won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for best newcomer in 2016. Book two, THE MALICE, was out in 2016, with book three, THE SEVEN due on April 20th 2017.