Sunday, December 6, 2015

0 Alexander Gordon Smith, author of THE DEVIL'S ENGINE: HELLRAISERS, on writing giving you power and control

We're thrilled to have Alexander Gordon Smith here to tell us about his latest novel THE DEVIL'S ENGINE: HELLRAISERS.

Alexander, what was your inspiration for writing THE DEVIL'S ENGINE: HELLRAISERS?

There were a number of things that inspired this series, but I think the most important one was not being able to breathe. I've been asthmatic since I was a kid, and although I don't have it so bad now I vividly remember the horror of having an attack. It feels like drowning out of water. When I was a kid I think I would have done anything to find a cure for my asthma, especially as it meant sitting out on so many of the things I loved. Looking back now, I think it was sitting on the sidelines that made me turn to writing – when you can't do the things you love for real, you start to do them in your imagination. So I'm grateful to it, in a weird way!

So yeah, the asthma led to the creation of the main character, Marlow Green, who is also severely asthmatic. Like me (as a teenager, not now!), he's also a bit of a hellraiser – I was always getting into trouble at school. And like me, Marlow would do anything to get rid of his asthma. I wondered what would happen if there was a machine that could grant him his wish. That was the heart of the story right there. I've always loved the legend of Faust, the idea that you can sell your soul to the devil for anything you like. This is my modern take on that classic story, complete with all the other things I love in stories: demons, monsters, gunfights, explosions, chases, twists and turns, monsters, terrifying bad guys, kick-ass characters, oh, and monsters. I wasn't sure if I mentioned the monsters.

What scene was really hard for you to write and why, and is that the one of which you are most proud? Or is there another scene you particularly love?

There is a scene in the second book, which I have just finished writing, that was incredibly hard to write. But I can't talk about that because of spoilers!! One of the toughest scenes to write was Marlow's first asthma attack, because it meant delving back into those memories of not being able to breathe. I did actually stop myself taking my inhaler a few times while exercising, until I was breathless, just to put myself in Marlow's shoes. It was just as terrifying as I remembered.

The book is non-stop action, and those are the scenes I absolutely love to write. But it's actually a scene later in the book, a rare quiet moment, that I love most. It's a chapter where Marlow and the other main character, Pan, share a moment of calm before the storm, and you can see how both those characters are starting to change. That's what I love in fiction, the ways that characters evolve, the way they grow. That's what books are all about, isn't it? Those moments where they – and we – learn who we really are.

Oh, and there is a little bit of romance in this book, although probably not what you might expect! Those scenes are hard for me to write, because romance is scarier than most monsters…

What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or visa versa?

I guess the easiest way to answer this is by talking about my favourite authors – The Devil's Engine is basically the kind of book I love to read, non-stop action with plenty of horror. I am inspired by so many other authors, and there are a million books out there that I think would resonate with people who enjoy this one. Stephen King was a huge influence on me when I was a young writer, Clive Barker too. Anyone who likes Darren Shan and Jonathan Maberry should enjoy this, they are two writers I always love. This series is a real mix of styles and genres, though. There are elements of comic books in here, the banter and comedy you see in series like The Avengers, mixed with the demonic terror of books like Hellblazer, The Exorcist and, of course, Faust, mixed again with the peril of series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. It's a little bit of everything, really, but at its heart it's just a wild, edge of your seat thrill ride. Hopefully you'll enjoy it!

How long did you work on THE DEVIL'S ENGINE: HELLRAISERS?

Like all my books, it was a long incubation, then an explosive birth! I tend to spend a long time trying to get inside the world of a story. I never plan – I always find that if you know what's going to happen then so do your characters, and it changes the way they behave – but I do try to immerse myself in the world, in the characters. Often that's just a case of going for long walks and letting the characters speak to me, and letting their story unwind. I ask them questions, all kinds of things. It's one of the best ways of getting into their heads. If you know everything there is to know about them – home life, family, favourite food, worst nightmare, most treasured possession, worst habit – then they come to life in your imagination, it's like they're really there. And when that happens the characters begin reacting to events realistically, rather than just doing what you tell them to. That's what a good plot is, that natural response to the story. So I spent a good few months thinking about the story, then sat down and wrote it in maybe six weeks.

What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?

Every book teaches you something about writing, and something about yourself. Writing is an incredibly powerful form of therapy, it's one of the reasons I'm always recommending it to people. Writing horror, especially, is a remarkable way of confronting your own fears. Writing about something you're afraid of takes that fear out of the dark recesses of your mind and makes it concrete – or paper, anyway. Once it's down there, in ink, it doesn't seem so bad. You can tear it up or burn it if you want to. Writing gives you power, it gives you control. Every time I write a book I overcome a fear, or an anxiety. When you create characters and put them through hell, when they come out the other side, it can't help but make you a stronger person too. I guess if I had to pick something that this book taught me, it was that I was wrong to give myself such a hard time when I was a teenager. I used to beat myself up all the time because of my asthma, thinking that I was weaker than everyone else. Going through it all again in Marlow's shoes made me feel a lot kinder towards the younger me.

Speaking about the writing itself, it just taught me to enjoy it. There are a million books you could write, but only one you should: the book you really, really want to read. I think that's so important. You write for your readers, yes, and for the fans (because I love you guys so much!!), but first and foremost you write for yourself. The Devil's Engine is the series I really, really wanted to read, the one I knew I would enjoy. So I wrote it!

How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?

I've been writing since I was about six years old, I can't remember ever wanting to be anything else (apart from maybe a truck driver). I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, a horror novel for adults set, weirdly, in a prison called Furnace Penitentiary (it was a completely different plot to my YA series, I just stole the name). Being the arrogant teenager I was, I thought this novel was going to make me a millionaire. So I sent it to three publishers and waited for the cash to roll in. Of course it was rejected by all three, and I was so devastated I actually stopped writing for seven years!! It was so ridiculous, and I was lucky to find my way back into it in my mid twenties. I was fortunate in that the first book I wrote after this, The Inventors (co-authored by my nine-year-old brother) got published almost immediately. We entered it into a competition, and although it didn't win it was shortlisted, and published on the back of it.

In total, I've had eight novels published, but I have written dozens more. I must have started a hundred novels, and finished maybe a fifth of these. Some will live on my computer forever, others have been rejected by my publisher for various reasons. None are a waste of time, though, because every time you write something you become a better writer. Going off topic for a moment, that's what I would tell my teenage self if I could go back in time: that not everything you write has to get published. I used to get so frustrated that my writing wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, and that nobody would publish me. But I didn't realise that the writing I did then was the foundation of the writing I do now. Those stories were so important. If I hadn't written then, I wouldn't be writing now. If there are writers reading this just remember that – every single story you create is important, even if nobody else ever reads it. Forget about getting published (easier said than done, I know!), just write the very best books you can and make yourself better and better at your craft. If you keep writing, if you never give up, it will happen.

Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?

I think my AHA! moment was simply what I was talking about before, that realisation that the only person I should be writing for is me. When I was younger I was always kind of conscious about what a publisher wanted in a novel, about what was popular at the time, and I guess I kind of tried to write to that market. But unless you're enjoying a story, unless your heart is really in it, then you're never going to be writing your best stuff. I have a weird mental exercise I do before I start writing a new book. I imagine walking into a bookstore, the biggest bookstore in the world. And right there, on a plinth, is the book I really, really want to read – the kind of book that leaves you breathless with excitement with just the thought of reading it. And that book is the one I will start writing. Every single one of my books is something that I simply wanted to read.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?

Ritual?! I wish I did have one! The truth is, with two kids (and another on the way), plus dogs, cats, video games, books, and a chronic lack of willpower, I'm lucky if I get any work done in a day at all! I used to be quite disciplined, writing for several hours every morning, but it's really hard now to find a regular time of day to do some writing. Working from home is really tough when there are kids about. I'm thinking about getting a garden office, or an office in town, just so I can escape! I love hanging out with them, though, so it's hard to say no. One of the good things is that in order to drown out the noise I have started listening to music when I'm writing – I used to listen when I was planning a book, but never the writing itself because I found it too distracting. Now, though, I just fire up some Hans Zimmer and it really gets me into the mood. There's something about hiding away and blasting movie soundtracks into your ears that pulls you out of the real world, it lets you travel right to the heart of the story.

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

This is always such a difficult question to answer, because I feel I'm still at such an early stage of my writing career, and that I still have so much to learn. The piece of advice that has been useful for me is to get to know your characters as well as you can before you start writing. I mean learn everything about them – favourite food, worst habit, how they'd like to die. If you do this, if you make your characters real inside your own head, then instead of them just being pawns that do what you need them to to get through the story, they become living, breathing people who respond to events around them in a way that is believable for them. They live. This can be really annoying when you're trying to move the story in a direction that you want it to go and they won't do what you tell them to, but the twists and turns that those characters will lead you on are what will bring the story to life. Seeing that moment when the characters start making decisions for themselves is always one of the most amazing parts of a story.

Other than that, I guess it's just simply a case of just writing. It's like playing the piano, the more you do it, the better you get. And never, ever give up. Writing can be a strange job, and there are countless times you feel like you're not getting anywhere. Like I said, I gave up writing for seven years when my first book was rejected, and they could have been seven good years of writing. Giving up is the one guaranteed way of never knowing what could happen. Anyone can be a successful author, just keep writing, keep reading, keep dreaming and never, ever give up.

What are you working on now?

I've always got a few things on the go! I've just finished the second part of the Devil's Engine, and am gearing up to start writing the third book. I also wrote an adult horror / thriller earlier this year, which is out with publishers now, and I'd love to start writing another one. I write the same way I read – I'll start a few things and just see which one really appeals to me, then I'll blast through it. Daughter number three is due at the end of December, though, so I have a feeling it's going to be a while before I get the next project finished… :-)


The Devil's Engine: Hellraisers by Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Released 12/1/2015

From the author of the Escape from Furnace series, an explosive new horror trilogy about an ordinary American kid caught up in an invisible war against the very worst enemy imaginable.

There is a machine from the darkest parts of history, concealed in an impossible location, that can make any wish come true, and the only price you have to pay is your soul. Known as the Devil’s Engine, this device powers a brutal war between good and evil that will decide the fate of every living thing on Earth. When a 16-year-old asthmatic kid named Marlow Green unwittingly rescues an ass-kicking secret soldier from a demonic attack in the middle of his Staten Island neighborhood, he finds himself following her into a centuries-old conflict between a group of mysterious protectors and the legions of the Devil himself. Faced with superpowers, monsters, machine guns, and a lot worse, Marlow knows it's going to be a breathless ride—and not just because he’s lost his inhaler along the way.

Purchase The Devil's Engine: Hellraisers at Amazon
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View The Devil's Engine: Hellraisers on Goodreads


Alexander Gordon Smith is the author of the Escape from Furnace series of young adult novels, including Lockdown and Solitary. Born in 1979 in Norwich, England, he always wanted to be a writer. After experimenting in the service and retail trades for a few years, Smith decided to go to University. He studied English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia, and it was here that he first explored his love of publishing. Along with poet Luke Wright, he founded Egg Box Publishing, a groundbreaking magazine and press that promotes talented new authors. He also started writing literally hundreds of articles, short stories and books ranging from Scooby Doo comic strips to world atlases, Midsomer Murders to X-Files. The endless research for these projects led to countless book ideas germinating in his head. His first book, The Inventors, written with his nine-year-old brother Jamie, was published in the U.K. in 2007. He lives in England.


Have you had a chance to read THE DEVIL'S ENGINE: HELLRAISERS yet? Do you write the books you want to read? Do you get to know your characters as well as you can before you start writing?

Happy reading,

Jocelyn, Shelly, Martina, Erin, Lisa, Susan, Sam, Lindsey, Sandra, Kristin, and Anisaa

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