Wednesday 2 March 2011

Roderick Gordon - Author Profile

Roderick Gordon, one of the co-authors of the amazing Tunnels Series of books he currently resides in North Norfolk with his wife and two sons. This former corporate financier turned author has taken some time to answer some questions for us here at Book Reviews and More.

1. For all intents and purposes, writing has been a major career change for you. So how did you end up writing fiction?

That's an extremely good question, and I'm still not entirely sure how it happened. I studied biology at university, then sort of fell into a job doing corporate finance in London's Square Mile until I was made redundant in late 2001. Total dedication to the job was the norm, which meant very long hours and working through weekends if a deal went live. My role involved raising money for private businesses, and although I believed I was doing some good - creating jobs and securing the future of the businesses I was helping - I knew all the time that it just wasn't me.

When I was sacked I didn't see it coming, and felt angry and betrayed. I felt the company had had so much from me; I'd missed out on a large part of my two sons' early life, and I have to admit I barely knew my youngest son, Frankie, who was three at the time.

So I found myself at home with time on my hands. I did try halfheartedly to find another job in corporate finance, but the truth was I couldn't face going back into it. Instead I hooked up with an old friend, Brian Williams, who had studied art at the same university I'd attended back in 1980. We'd kept in touch during the intervening three decades, and had often talked about writing something together. In 2003 we finally sat down and wrote a screenplay for a thriller, and it was so much fun we thought that we'd collaborate on another project.

My wife, Sophie, suggested a book for younger readers, and Brian and I began to put some ideas down, but I must say neither of us took it very seriously at the time. Then, suddenly, it became deadly serious. Brian would cycle over to my house every day to progress the story, and I did nothing else but work on my computer.

When I look back now, it makes me shiver. I have no idea what I thought I was doing. My sons' education and a massive mortgage were eating into what little I had in the way of savings. As if that wasn't bad enough, my wife's business was drifting badly and we had to pump money into it. I would wake up in the early hours of the morning in a cold sweat, feeling that I was driving straight for a brick wall at high speed.

But Brian and I finished the book, which was called The Highfield Mole, and I sold a property I had in the country so that I could self-publish it. I had 2,000 paperbacks and 500 hardbacks printed, and the only ambition I had at the time was that if I made enough back on the books I might be able to self-publish the second volume in the series. It never entered my head that I'd make any sort of living from writing, so when Barry Cunningham called up and said he was interested, it came as a complete surprise. Barry had signed JK Rowling for her first two Harry Potter books while he was at Bloomsbury, and then went on to set up his own children's publishing company, Chicken House, which is now owned by Scholastic.

Anyway, after nearly two years, he published The Highfield Mole, which had been renamed Tunnels, and it just took off. Publishers all around the world wanted it, and we sold the movie rights to Relativity Media, who say they are going to begin filming later this year.

So in answer to your question, my writing career wasn't planned at all - it just happened. And I don't really regard it as a "career" or a "job" - I had a job I hated for far too long, and this is something else all together, something far more important.

2. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?

I still consider myself to be at the start of my writing career because I haven't been doing it for very long. I'm still learning and, I hope, developing. But a couple of years ago, the writer Hanif Kureishi, whose work I love, really helped me. He was working a short story called Decline of the West in which the main character had lost his job in the City, and we met up because my recent history was relevant. I remember I was complaining to Hanif how difficult I was finding the third Tunnels book, and that after two books I couldn't understand why the writing process wasn't getting any easier. He turned to me and said "Why would you want it to be easy?" He was right. If it's easy, then you're not giving it all you should. His advice helped me through that third book, and it still comes back to me in those dark moments when I feel I can't go on.

3. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?

My first published work was a short story in a school magazine when I was eleven, and I suppose I thought about being a writer then. Over the years I tried my hand at short stories and books, but they never went anywhere. I turned fifty last year, so it's taken me most of my life to finally find something I really want to do. Maybe I just wasn't ready when I was younger.

4. All of the books you have published have been co-written by Brian Williams, do you see yourself writing any books solo? Do you have any projects underway?

When Tunnels was first published, we'd be asked how the division of labor was split, and we'd each say that we regarded the book entirely as our own. It makes me smile when I read that people say they can spot the difference of styles in Tunnels. It wasn't the case that one of us wrote a chapter, then the other did the next. The book wouldn't have had hung together if we'd worked like that. The story evolved as we swapped drafts between us, and we usually can't remember who thought of what. And when the first draft of The Highfield Mole was completed, I took it away and spent a good six months reworking it to make sure the style was consistent throughout.

Brian has always regarded writing as "just another tool in the box" in his career as an artist, and has continued with his filming, photography and installations - he's working on an installation in Liverpool right now. So I don't know if he has any immediate plans with regard to further writing projects.

I started a new story last year, but had to put it aside when I began work on the fifth book in the Tunnels series, which is to be called Spiral. So, yes, including that unfinished book, I have another three or four books I intend to write when I have the time.

5. What authors or books most influenced your writing style and format?

William Golding for his prose, which is so clean and uncluttered, and has always inspired me. Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy) for his ability to create a world I didn't want to leave. And DH Lawrence for his short stories, many of which leave me breathless.

6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

It probably looks very messy and disorganized from the outside. I always start with a handful of big ideas, often without a clue quite how these are going to fit together. Then I just sit at the computer and begin knitting or weaving or whatever you want to call it, and the little ideas began to turn up. I think writing is about finding these little ideas - plucking them from the ether - and it takes time, which is why I need around a year for each book. I wish I could do it faster, but I can't.

I've never had writer's block, but quite the opposite - I'm sometimes so spoilt for options that I'm frozen into inactivity. And there's always the fear that I'll take the wrong route and find myself in a dead end, having wasted months. But it hasn't happened yet.

The most painful part is putting the story down on paper for the first time - sometimes it feels as if I'm tearing chunks out of myself. And once the first draft is finished, I begin the interminable editing. It's very different from the first stage of coming up with the story, because at least you know you've got something that sort of works. But I spend months going through the prose and tinkering with it and experimenting with different structures and ideas. I could never work longhand - I need to be able to cut and paste and move the words around quickly on the computer screen to see what it looks like.

And Barry Cunningham isn't just my publisher, but my editor too, and we have a wonderful working relationship. I love that he always gets what I'm trying to do, even if it isn't absolutely right on the page. Writing is such a personal thing, and he's very good at making gentle suggestions as to how I might improve the book. What's annoying is that he's sometimes right!

7. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?

I spend more time with Will, Chester, Elliott and the other characters in my books than I do with real people. They're never far from my thoughts. What's been interesting is at the beginning, when you first create characters, you infuse them with some of your own personality and emotions to give them life. Then something happens. Suddenly they're standing on their own two feet, and they know what to say and do. You can tell that a character is really working when the tables turn and their emotions begin to flow back and affect you - when they begin to make you angry or sad. During Freefall, the third Tunnels book, Dr Burrows really began to infuriate me, to the point that I was shouting at him as I worked on his scenes.

8. Your Tunnels series of books is available in over 40 countries. Did you expect to achieve such widespread distribution when you first self published it?

It never entered my mind. The only thing I focused on was to write the very best book I could. It was never never about money or fame. They're the wrong motivations for writing.

9. Speaking of the original version of Tunnels, published as The Highfield Mole, I read that it was renamed because of substantial reworking. Is the text or story significantly different enough to make it worth tracking down for fans of the series to read? To see the progression of the story?

I'm not sure precisely what percentage of The Highfield Mole was changed during the period of editing with Chicken House, but it's really not that different. I wrote several additional scenes for Tunnels, but the main change was that there wasn't enough description about what Will Burrows was feeling or thinking, so I put that right. And in places the dialogue was a little too succinct and boiled down, so I fleshed it out for Tunnels.

10. There has been a three part graphic novel version of Tunnels, released in Japan. Are there plans to do a graphic novel version for the UK or US markets?

Both Scholastic in the US and Chicken House in the UK have mentioned the possibility, but I haven't heard any more on it recently. It's probably very likely if the Tunnels movie gets made.

11. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?

I have music on all the time I write, and it drives my wife crazy! I listen to a lot of new stuff when I'm putting the story down for the first time, but when I progress to the editing phase it's always my Nick Drake and Smashing Pumpkins playlists. I suppose it's because I know these playlists so well that they don't distract me from the process.

12. A few of your books are available in electronic formats (though not in English) but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?

I think it's incredibly unfair because it's hard enough trying to stay afloat as it is if you write for a living. And if someone is stealing your work, it just makes matters worse.

13. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?

I couldn't agree more with your professor. The same argument is applied to learning Latin - sure, one can say it's a "dead" language, but it teaches one to think logically. And in the same way, my nineteen years in corporate finance has probably helped me to write. I used to compile business plans and financial models, and each of these was really a work of fiction that had to be entirely credible for the company to raise funding!

14. What were your favorite books and authors to read as a youth?

As I was growing up my parents had a room in our house they referred to as "the library" - it was really a dumping ground for books from relatives and family friends who had passed away, so there was a real mix of genres in it. I'd read quite a few 1950s pulp thrillers before I was ten, and many of the classics like Treasure Island. That room was my little haven, where I could discover the secrets that all these dusty volumes held. In my late teens I had a major science fiction phase - Clifford D. Simak, Samuel R. Delany etc. - before I moved on to all the great Russian authors.

I have to admit that I watched a heap of American television programs when I was growing up. Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Star Trek, Get Smart, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Land of the Giants, The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Man From Uncle - you name it from the sixties or the seventies, and the chances are I've probably seen it. And I don't regard any of this time as wasted, because it taught me all about plotlines and story composition.

15. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?

I have many favourites from different stages of my life - Mervyn Peake, Hemingway, James Joyce, and so on, but I don't think it would be wise to go back re-read them. I'd rather just remember how important they were to me at the time. Currently I don't read enough, and when I try I generally just drift off into a reverie and find that I'm thinking about whatever Tunnels book I'm meant to be working on. I read JG Farrell's Troubles recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. And my literary agent gave me Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I found fascinating. I also read a load of Neil Gaimen's books on holiday last year. It would be great to meet him one day - when we were touring in Chicago last year there was a vague possibility that it was going happen, but in the end it didn't. And talking of Chicago, I also really enjoy Audrey Niffenegger's work.

16. What are your favorite books to read with your children?

Charles Dickens, and Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books. My sons really read by themselves these days, and my youngest has devoured everything he could get hold of by Michael Morpurgo. My eldest is now reading the books I suggest to him, such as Orwell's 1984.

17. Are there plans for more books in the Tunnels series after the 5th book Spiral comes out?

They're should be one more after Spiral to wrap up the series.

18. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?

There's the book I mentioned before, which I'm going to try to finish this year. It was shaping up well but I have to finish Spiral before I dare to allow myself to think about it again. And I've got a couple of other stories that are at concept stage, and I'm determined to write them!

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

I really don't know. Lord of the Rings, probably, because I could lose myself in it again. Maybe the Bible, because I'd have the time to read it all the way through! Some Shakespeare too, because I don't feel I know it well enough. Oh, and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, because I've never managed to finish it.

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

I you really want to write, just write. Don't let anyone put you off - if I'd listened to a couple of people close to me when I began The Highfield Mole, I wouldn't be answering these questions right now. Don't think about who you're writing for - write it for yourself. And don't think that the whole story will somehow miraculously turn up - if you get stuck then just keep thinking about the plot and the characters, and a solution will suggest itself. It's like solving a crossword puzzle - your brain will be working away on the problem even if you're not aware of it. And don't be afraid of experimenting with your writing. Often the accidents are the best parts. Steven, thank you for those great questions and for interviewing me! Roderick Gordon

Roderick Gordon, thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer out questions. I know that many eagerly await the remaining books in the Tunnels series, and your future offerings.

Books in the Tunnels Series:
Spiral (2012)

(Photo courtesy and copyright Frankie Gordon, with much thanks.)


juniorwho said...

Very nice interview, Roderick is such a wonderful person, I wish I could meet him one day, I'd ask so many things, LOL!

Franco said...

Hi, Im Franco from Argentina, im 16 and i was wondering...How could such a wonderfull interview have so few comments! I have found the interviw so interesting. The answerds so intelligent. I thimk Roderick is a nice person and writer.. And YES! i hope i colud meet him some day..My email is