Interview with Andrew Pyper: bestselling author of five novels, including Lost Girls, The Killing Circle and, most recently, The Guardians.
Interview by Sharif Khan.
SK: Most people who’ve reached a certain degree of success in their field have not done it alone. They’ve had teachers and mentors along the way. Who are some literary mentor-figures who’ve helped guide you? Also, can you share any books, workshops, writing groups that you’ve found especially helpful in your learning and development as a writer?
AP: I may be an exception to a sound rule, but I’ve never attended a writing workshop, class or group. It hasn’t been a conscious avoidance, it’s just how it worked out. (I should add that I’ve conducted writing classes here and there, and I’ve envied my students’ relationship to one another, the comradeship and even the conflicts.) Similarly, I’ve never really had a writing mentor. And similarly, some part of me is jealous of those who have.
SK: It is important to note here that you received a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from McGill University, which provided a structured learning environment under the tutelage of qualified teachers providing feedback, instruction and guidance to help develop your writing and literary skills.
AP: The primary use of degrees in English Literature for me was that they allowed me time to read. Nothing (or more or less nothing) but read. I had some great teachers, sure. But it was the sustained, intense reading that really taught me things.
SK: The research and planning phase of a novel is one of your favourite topics. Can you share some advice in this area that has worked for you?
AP: The amount of research one has to do prior to outlining depends on the story. A novel set in 17th Century Florence is more likely to require a few weeks in the library (if not in Florence) than a remembrance of personal things past. But once that’s done – that is, once you feel ready to move on from an accumulation of the “facts” to considering the shape of the story – it’s time to outline. I’m big on outlines. Sometimes, people assume that’s because my work involves plotting and suspense, and therefore, if your novel doesn’t, you don’t need an outline to the same degree. This assumption is wrong. Outlines aren’t necessarily linear, aren’t necessarily some bullet-point version of plot turns. Outlines are records of consideration. They require the enormously helpful period of pre-writing questions and the entertainment of various answers. In my experience, the longer you spend thinking about a book before writing it, the better the book.
SK: I read your novels, The Killing Circle, and The Guardians, and was really impressed by the realism you brought to these works. Can you share a story or a challenge that you encountered when it came to researching either of these books?
AP: Both The Killing Circle and The Guardians are based in fictional versions of homes for me: Toronto (my home now) and Stratford (my home growing up). In both cases, the “realism” of those settings is distorted by a prism-turn of the imagination, the slight distortion of a real place recollected in a dream. What I like doing in my work is taking real people – or real places – and altering the conditions underlying either/both, so that just when you think a certain reality can be depended on, the floor gives way under your feet.
SK: E.B. White once said, “The best writing is rewriting,” and yet so many writers dread this stage. Can you provide any tips to make this process go smoother? How many drafts do you typically go through? What does the process look like when working with your editor?
AP: I go through multiple drafts, based both on my own editorial inclinations and in response to early readers’ notes. Typically, I seek out quite a number of these readers, as I feel that the thoughts of an intelligent person are always going to give you something. That “something”, by the way, needn’t be a problem – or the suggestion of its solution – but often something surprising, requiring discovery. In general, however, if more than one reader is bumping on a certain character or event, you know you’ve got something to fix.
AP: As for a self-editing tip, reading the manuscript aloud to yourself is amazingly helpful. There’s something about hearing the words in your own voice that alerts you to problems that re-reading the same words twenty times on the page or screen never will.
SK: What writers do you feel a special kinship to who’ve helped influence your work?
AP: There’s so many writers I love. My promiscuity has likely resulted in my being without a special writerly kinship. However, having said that, among my first loves: Conrad, James, Greene, King, Munro.
SK: What about other influences? (Other personalities or art forms?) I believe Don DeLillo once said, “I think more than writers, the major influences on me have been European movies, jazz, and Abstract Expressionism.”
AP: I love movies almost as much as books. And I suppose this love finds its way into my work (as do all my loves). I think – and I’m honestly only thinking about this this very second – there’s some of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in The Killing Circle, for instance. Some of Kubrick’s The Shining in The Guardians. A dash of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in the novel I’m working on now. It’s not so much the stories or set-ups of those movies I return to, it’s the mood, the feel, the particular alterations to your blood temperature during your time in the cinema’s dark.
SK: I believe most of your books are in film development, which is quite rare for the average novelist. Can you please share some tips you’ve picked up along the way for adapting a book to film and writing for the screen?
AP: I’m only adapting one of my novels myself, and while it’s been a long and sometimes discouraging process, I’ve learned an enormous amount. What have I learned? As much about how to manage the priorities and wishes and intentions of the people collaborating with me as “how to write a screenplay.” If I had to distill it to one point, however, it would be something like: No matter how dumb someone’s note might sound at first, there’s always something useful and true in it if you dig deep enough.
AP: As for the movie business generally, it’s fascinating, but mostly insane. The best you can do if the movie world comes knocking on the novelist’s door is partner with those who love the book the most. Not because they’ll necessarily end up making the movie that’s most respectful to your work, or even the movie that’s good. Go with the people who love it because, when the hard times hit (and they will), it will require mad love to move on and keep trying.
SK: Publishing is a business. What business and marketing lessons have you learned as a multi-published author?
AP: I haven’t learned much on this front, I have to admit. I’m not trying to avoid the question when I say the biggest factor in increasing your chances for success is in writing a good book. Sending a might-have-been-good book out too early is probably the most frequent explanation for failure.
SK: Making the book circuit rounds, the book tours and lectures, etc., can be quite intimidating for some authors. What has that road journey been like for you? Can you share any lessons learned along the way?
AP: I love getting out and meeting readers, fellow authors, bookstore people. It’s not terribly romantic most of the time, nor glamourous. But it’s fun, and always rewarding (often when you least expect it). Also, I work at home, so the small adventure of getting out into the world and meeting a couple dozen new people is exciting and, I hope, keeps me sane.
SK: What’s next for you? Any upcoming project/s you’d like to share?
AP: I’ve just finished a new novel that’s scheduled to be published later this fall in some places and early the following year in others.
SK: Any parting advice, words of wisdom or encouragement you’d like to give aspiring authors?
AP: Don’t let the bastards get you down.
To learn more about Andrew Pyper, visit his website: www.andrewpyper.com
About the Interviewer: Sharif Khan is a writer-for-hire/communications professional and author of the inspirational book, Psychology of the Hero Soul. He is based in Toronto where he is working on his first novel. For more info, visit: www.sharifkhan.com