F. G. Cottam shares advice for aspiring writers, his favourite character from The Colony, and his inspirations:
Tell us a little bit about your new book?
My new book is a follow-up to my 2011 novel The Colony. The principle surviving characters from that story are compelled to return to the Outer Hebrides and New Hope Island much against their better judgment.
Who is your favourite character, and why?
My favourite character is Ruthie Gillespie, a 33-year-old writer with Goth tendencies she’s in denial about. She’s from Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and she’s gorgeous, frankly. She also has some bad habits that make her charmingly fallible. I think she’s the most sympathetic character I’ve ever created and I’ve liked a lot of the women in my books, so that’s saying something.
What was the inspiration for your books?
The premise in The Colony was a Marie Celeste-like vanishing on land and on a bigger scale. So the mystery of what happened to the crew of the Marie Celeste was my inspiration. The new book starts with Ruthie being interviewed by a detective from The Western Isles Area Command. She was booked to go on a writers’ retreat to New Hope and didn’t. The retreaters who did go have disappeared.
Is location important to the book? Why?
Location is crucial to me because my stories rely much more heavily on atmosphere than they do on gore. New Hope Island – remote, uninhabited, storm-ravaged and haunted by its own secret past – is a landscape of my own imagination and a place I love describing. Brightstone Forest is essential to the mood of much of The House of Lost Souls and my imaginary coastal village Brodmaw Bay is the pagan Cornish settlement of nightmares.
How would you describe your writing style?
I’d describe my writing style as pictorial. It’s sometimes been described as cinematic. It’s very simple, if I can’t see the scene in every detail visually, I don’t feel qualified to describe it. Consequently I’ll sometimes get comments such as, ‘This writer is obsessed with the weather,’ which amuse me because they’re probably true.
Which writers inspire you?
I have huge admiration for Peter Straub, Stephen King and early Clive Barker. I think Phil Rickman is absolutely first-rate. The Magus of Hay was the best novel I read last year bar none. I love M.R. James; but the writers who first made me want to write fiction were read when I was an adolescent and they were Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
What’s your writing routine?
I write best in the morning. I get up earlier and earlier to write the nearer I am to the novel’s conclusion. By the final third I’ll be getting up at 4.am and doing between 4, 000 and 5, 000 words a day. When I was writing 100, 000 word-plus novels they’d take about three months to complete. The Colony follow-ups are shorter at 64, 000 words each. I wrote both between the beginning of July and the beginning of October this year. Regular runs between Hampton Court and Kingston bridges are when knotty plot problems are picked over and untied.
Do you find it easy to write?
I do find it easy to write because I’m writing stories I would in other circumstances like to read. So I’m keeping myself entertained and happily, the ideas keep coming (he said touching wood).
What first got you into writing fiction? What do you enjoy most about it?
What first got me into writing fiction was the frustrating constraints and compromises of editing magazines. What I enjoy most about it is the freedom.
What is the hardest part of writing for you? Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
The hardest challenge technically is continuity. You have to keep track of who knows what about what’s going on and what day it is … mundane but important details. What I learned writing my Colony trilogy was it’s easier writing about characters you already know and that you can recap without pages of stodgy exposition.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The advice I’d give to an aspiring writer is to believe in your ability, persist despite discouragement and don’t procrastinate. It doesn’t matter how any brilliant plots, characters, scenarios and lines of dialogue you have if they exist only in your head. Novels don’t write themselves.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing your latest book to life? What were the pleasures?
The biggest challenge with the two Colony follow-ups came because the original novel has been re-edited ready for re-publication with the first of he sequels and is as a consequence a far tighter and more powerful read. It was essential to me that the rest of the trilogy had the same energy, originality, page-turning quality and mood of impending dread. The pleasure was in achieving all that (though the readers will be the ultimate judges of whether I have).