Thursday 2 June 2011

The Speculative Spotlight | A Word With Elspeth Cooper (Part 2)

Day before yesterday, I sat down (in spirit) for a tête à tête with the lovely Elspeth Cooper, author of the novel that's been called "the best fantasy debut of 2011." You can catch up on the first half of our discussion here, and while you're at it, if you haven't already, I just posted my review of Elspeth's novel. That's here - or of course you could just look down a couple of inches.

Go on, now. Due diligence and all that.

So we're all on the same page, right? Songs of the Earth is a fantasy "as fresh as flour from the mill, and as rich in power, and possibility," meanwhile Ms. Cooper "gives every indication of being a speculative star on a vertical trajectory, worthy of mention in the same breath as the likes of Brandon Sanderson and - yes! - Patrick Rothfuss."

When her first novel comes out two weeks from today, you should totally read it. :)

Anyway, last time on The Speculative Spotlight, after a good bit of bantering about social media, great expectations and the journey from keyboard to bookshelves, Elspeth and I had finally touched on the reason for the season: the release, a few short days from now, of Songs of the Earth. And we're going to pick up the conversation right where we left off...


How have you found the ramp-up towards D-day, Elspeth? In terms of marketing, I mean, and getting the good word out there; particularly in terms of what seems now an entry requirement for debut authors such as yourself, which is to say socialising with your core audience, whether by blogging, Tweeting, or poking people on... what is it? Facespace? 

Did the community welcome you with open arms, then, or more of a we’ll-wait-and-see attitude? Have we become half as insular and impenetrable to outsiders and newcomers as I often fear? 

And in the end, do you think it matters a whit? Do you expect this extra burden you and every other new writer to have come along in the last few years have been made to take on will translate into sales success... or are you after something else, perhaps? 

Anyone who's been part of the unpublished writers' community is aware of this notion that we all have to "build a platform" for ourselves, or we won't be taken seriously by the industry. From what I've seen, this idea is hammered home particularly hard in the US - certainly I saw it most on American agents' blogs and on American writers' sites. Here in the UK, the industry seems to be far less concerned about a new author coming to them with a ready-made audience of 3,000 blog followers and a 4-page marketing plan, and more interested in whether they can actually write a decent story... but anyway.

To me, it seemed like common sense to have a web presence. I'd had a personal site for years, so once my editor and I had settled on my pen name (my real name doesn't balance nearly so well on a cover) I registered, ported my blog over and built a site to get the Google machine grinding. Then I added an Elspeth Cooper page to my Facebook profile, and joined Twitter. I'm a natural chatterbox so communicating comes easily to me and I enjoy it - it just takes up so much bloody time! There's a load of fantasy fiction forums I'd like to browse and get involved with because I'm a reader as well as a writer, and I'd like to blog more frequently, but there's only so many hours in the day, so I have to ration myself. Twitter in particular can be a dreadful time-suck, and I have books to deliver.

In terms of how the fantasy community's welcomed me, so far it's been pleasantly warm, with enthusiastic spells and scattered showers of scepticism. From the chatter on some of the forums there appears to be a hard core of readers who are deeply suspicious of hype, and very difficult to impress. To be fair to them, the last few years have seen some truly outstanding debuts, so when another best-thing-since-sliced-bread comes along even the most dedicated reader can be forgiven for feeling a little jaded. Maybe I'll win them over, or maybe my book's just not their cup of tea. Although they won't know until they try!

Of course, the publicity machine has only just started rolling. It takes a while to mash through the gears and build up some momentum, get beyond the book bloggers and the web forums to the folks out there in reader-land. I'm trying to do my bit on the social media side, more just to keep my name out there in the collective consciousness than relentlessly plugging, which I find a bit distasteful to be honest. Whether it will result in sales, I don't know. I don't want to be perceived as some remote entity that spits out a book every year or two; I'd rather be seen as a human being: an approachable, enthusiastic, occasionally funny writer person, someone you can actually talk to. Maybe engaging with people on that level will make them more inclined to try one of my books. That'd be a win all round. 

Here’s to a resounding victory along exactly those lines!

But speaking of spitting out a book a year, on the last page of SONGS OF THE EARTH – the ARC, again – there is the promise that Gair’s story will continue in TRINITY MOON, which is to say book two of THE WILD HUNT. 

So how goes the grander narrative? How far ahead of us are you, exactly? And I suppose I should ask, because it really seems to matter to some folks, do you expect to be publishing on an annual schedule? In fact, let’s make a meaningful question of that last and append the following: do you feel any pressure to deliver on such a timetable? 

Well, I was supposed to deliver TRINITY MOON in the autumn of 2010, but a run of illness and hospital admissions (culminating in surgery in October) delayed things a bit, and the manuscript I turned in was complete but not to my satisfaction. It's currently undergoing revisions, which obviously are impacting on book three. Publication of TRINITY is slated for next spring, and I'm confident we'll still hit that. I don't have a date for the final volume yet.

Pressure? Well, I'm on the company dime, as it were, but by far the greatest pressure I'm feeling is what I'm applying to myself. I certainly don't feel as if Gollancz are leaning on me at all. They are happy to give me some room to breathe. Of course, if the books take off and I have fans congregating under my office window day and night chanting "Why are we waiting?" that might change... 

Well thank you for being so frank with me, Elspeth. I think you’ve good and sold us on yourself. But let’s change gears a little, and talk about why we’re talking in the first place: the book. For anyone who’s still sitting on the fence as regards SONGS OF THE EARTH, could you paint a pretty picture? 

Oh God, I'm hopeless at summing up my books in one or two sentences!

It's about a young man called Gair who has an unusual gift: he can hear music in the world around him, and work magic with it. Sometimes. He doesn't know how to control it, and the only people who could teach him have been persecuted almost to extinction by the Church - who've put a price on Gair's head as well. So he's on the run, trying to get to grips with his abilities and stay one step ahead of the witchfinder on his tail, and just when he thinks he's found a measure of safety, he discovers he's in the middle of a much bigger battle, with much higher stakes. Then he has to decide whether he's going to keep running, or stand and fight.

There's a few big-ticket items like the difference between religion and faith, the many shapes of courage and why crusades of any sort are rarely a good idea, but mostly it's an adventure. Contains 100% of your guideline daily amount of magic, intrigue, a bit of romance, a smattering of self-discovery/coming-of-age, trace nudity, perilous things-from-the-Other-Side, and swords. Everything a growing boy (or girl) needs.

So what set off the voices in your head anyway? The magic - for it's a lovely thing, the Song is - or the magician? In other words, what came first for you, in conceiving The Wild Hunt: the chicken, or the egg? :) 

Have you ever sat in the garden on a still summer morning, dew on the grass and the sun only just up, and you could have sworn you could hear the plants growing? Or stood in a deep forest and felt sure that right at the limit of your perception, you could hear the trees breathe? No? Oh. Must just be me, then. I've been doing it for years. This could explain a lot.

Anyway, that's where the Song came from. As for the singer, he came later. The voices have always been there - I was never lonely as a child ;o) - but what triggered this particular book was rage. Incandescent, boiling-up-in-your-chest fury, the kind that you have to express somehow or you'll explode. The kind that makes you worry that if you do let it off its leash, you might do something worse than just smash up the crockery.

That gave me Gair, wrestling with his magic alone in the dark in the opening scene of the book. As for what made me connect that vague, nebulous concept for the Song with the magic he was fighting, I really have no clue at all. I often do things instinctively when I'm on a creative roll that if I sat down and tried to reason it out, would never occur to me. 

This rage, motivated I assume by the nasty break-up you mentioned before... do you still have it? Or is that a demon the process of writing Gair helped you exorcise? Because as of the end of SONGS OF THE EARTH, and not to give anything away, I... I get the sense that your man’s got a whole lot of rage ahead of him. 

Correct, it was. I channelled those negative emotions into writing - partly as therapy, partly as a safety valve: I couldn't sleep, so I wrote through the night for a week - and then the story itself took hold of me. I put the rage away a long time ago, and locked the door, but let's just say I know where the key is...

Without offering any spoilers, I can confirm that Gair's about to find himself sorely tested, torn between his personal desires and the greater good, and facing some hard, hard choices. 

Now a moment ago you wrote that you often do things instinctively when you're on a creative roll. I'd be very interested to hear of those turns SONGS OF THE EARTH took during the writing process that most surprised you. 

Tanith's conversation with her father. That scene came straight out of my subconscious and practically wrote itself, solving about three different problems at once. Gair's recurring nightmare is another one. I wrote that and it was only when I went back to edit it that I realised it is rich with symbolism and foreshadowing. I looked at it and thought "I don't remember being aware of any of that, but it bloody works..." 

How much of what did happen - as opposed to what you'd imagined would - went according to plan? 

You said the P-word - wash your mouth out, young man!

I'm not a big planner. I don't write character profiles, or cover a pin-board with chapter summaries on index cards - I've tried, and I write more fluidly without it. SONGS was seat of the pants, all the way, though I had the luxury of time to pull it together and prune it into shape.

I've had to be much more disciplined with TRINITY MOON. For that I actually had a synopsis to work to; my agent asked for one when he was selling SONGS, so having laid the groundwork in the first book it was just a case of decanting my brain onto paper from the end of Act I through to the natural conclusion of Act II. Now that has gone to plan - bar one thing - although there's a fair bit of meat in it which was never described in the synopsis, that just evolved on its own out of the characters and the situation I'd put them in. My instincts were more on target in the second book - I'd had more practice by then, I suppose, or else I just trusted them more. 

“Decanting my brain onto paper” - what a wonderfully disturbing picture. I like it! :) 

With that in mind, can you see yourself decanting anything else in the foreseeable, Elspeth, other than THE WILD HUNT? A couple short stories, perhaps; or even - God above! - a standalone novel? What other voices might you be tamping back, the better to tell Gair’s tale? 

I've never mastered short-form fiction - and never been particularly interested in it, to be honest. Those two facts are probably related. I'm most comfortable with novels, where I've got room to flail around a bit - I guess you could call me a literary claustrophobic!

So my next project will be a standalone novel, I think, but set in the same universe. I fell utterly in love with the White Havens: the high society of the Kingswater with its grand salons and glittering parties, and the grimy underbelly of Haven-port. The city was almost a character in its own right - part New Orleans, part Regency London, part Venice at the time of the Borgias - and I desperately want to explore it further.

There's also an annoying young lad wandering around my brain who I might have to do something about. All he's got is a name and a grin that's either going to get him into trouble or get him out of it, but he's in no hurry to leave, the little git. 

Is it a frustration at all, that now you’ve started down this road you can’t very well take the time to enjoy the sights? By which I mean to say, is beginning a fantasy saga as you have done not something of a deal with the devil, in that you’re practically obliged to see it through before you can devote your attentions elsewhere? 

Sometimes it's frustrating, yes. With SONGS I had no deadlines, and I could dawdle, pick daisies and chase butterflies as much as I wanted. Now there's a timetable, and other people counting on me to finish this thing. I always knew I would finish it, publication or no publication, but now I'm expected to do so, and in a reasonable time, so there is a little voice in the back of my head now telling me chop-chop, you haven't got all day you know.

The corollary to this is that there is so much... *searches for the words*... stuff in my head to do with THE WILD HUNT that I worry I'll lose something if I allow my focus to shift too far away from it before it's done. There again I've been living with these ideas for so long that I probably couldn't lose anything even if I tried, but still. I'm a bit of a worrit. 

Can you see yourself writing outside the genre, going forward? Or do you feel you’ve found your place in fantasy? 

Fantasy's always been my first love, but I confess, I've not been entirely faithful to it. I have ideas on the back burner for some what do they call it, contemporary women's fiction, which if they ever come to fruition will no doubt appear under yet another pen-name, but despite the occasional flirtation I think that I'll always keep coming back to fantasy. It feels like coming home. 

And home is where the heart is. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer note to wrap things up on than that. 

But I’m all about outstaying my welcome, so: one last quick hit before I let you get back to the writing cave. It’s practically a tradition, this question. To wit, if Songs of the Earth were edible, what kind of food would it be? 

Ooh, now that's a poser. I've been told that SONGS is more like an adventure than fantasy, and even non-fantasy-readers have enjoyed it. So it tastes like... something that's more delicious than it sounds, but is so enjoyable that you keep going back for just one more piece... Montezuma dark chocolate with chilli in it.

With which, I’d like to say thank you, Elspeth, for taking the time, and sharing so many of your words with me. They’re your stock-in-trade now, and I really appreciate you being so free with them. 

Needless to say, it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you. We should do this again sometime! But for the very moment, let me wish you all the best with the launch of SONGS OF THE EARTH in June. Here’s hoping the stars align come the day. 

The pleasure has been all mine, Niall. Thank you for letting me clutter the place up for a bit.


And that's a wrap! It's been fun though, hasn't it?

Now, go pre-order Elspeth's book, follow her on Twitter, and bookmark her blog.

And stay tuned to hear how you could win a signed and personalised hardcover copy of Songs of the Earth, direct from the lovely lady herself!


  1. I've been wondering about this book Nial... To try or not to try ;)

  2. Pretty please? With sprinkles on top?

  3. Can't ask for a nicer invitation than that, Sven!

  4. Haha, indeed! lol.. Now I kinda have to try it don't I? Hi! from Belgium!

  5. I guess I'll be adding it to my to-order list then ;) When I get around to reading it - you know...tbr pile and all... - I'll let you know what I thought of it.

  6. Hi Sven! At this rate, I may have to put Niall on some kind of commission...