Saturday 20 September 2014

Review of The Moon King & interview with the author, Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson lives in Glasgow, Scotland. His short stories can be found in The Ephemera (Infinity Plus Books), with Andrew J Wilson he edited Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction (Mercat Press), and his work has been nominated for British Fantasy, British Science Fiction and World Fantasy awards. 

Neil  is a longstanding member of the notorious school of literary pugilism known as the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, and he has the internal bruising to prove it. 

twitter: @neiljwilliamson

Neil kindly agreed to answer questions about the book. The Bristol Book Blog review is after the interview.

For anyone who has not yet read The Moon King can you tell us a bit about it?

The Moon King is a fantasy novel about a city which has become synchronised with the phases of the moon's wax and wane. The story tells what happens when the machine that keeps the satellite in orbit around the city starts to fail, and features an engineer, an artist and an ex-policeman who become embroiled in the ensuing turmoil as nature starts to re-establish control, while the apparently immortal ruler of the city stops at nothing to prevent that from happening.
Tell us a little about the path to publication
Being my first attempt at a novel, I'm pleasantly surprised that it's published at all! The book was originally written several years ago but my agent was unable to interest the major UK publishers. It looked like we'd exhausted the likely options but then Ian Whates of Newcon Press enquired about it. Ian quickly declared an interest in publishing the novel, but on condition of some fairly extensive revisions - which included rewriting one of the characters and cutting the length of the book by a sixth. None of which I regret, because the work improved the book hugely. It took a while to get there - overall, from first word to publication day was close to nine years - and for me it really demonstrates the key role played by independent presses in today's market.
If you could be a character from the book who would it be and why?

That's genuinely a question I've never considered before. I admire aspects of almost all the characters, but the major protagonists are all deeply flawed people. The ones I've personally got most affinity with are the secondary characters: Mia, the night biographer; Shirley, the cafe owner; and the astronomer, Alice Muir... but, you know, none of them have a pleasant time of it, so I'm not sure I'd volunteer to "be" any of them.
What are you most proud of about the book?

The writing I think. The book went through so many drafts, so many nips tucks and polishes that there are some passages of writing in there that I think came out especially nicely. Everything else I'm varying degrees of happy with, but looking forward to improving with the next book. I'm pleased that people mostly seem to be enjoying it. At the end of the day that's all you can ask as a writer.
 Have you set any other stories in the world of the book? Are you planning to do more?

"A Piece Of The Moon", which was written to be a bonus story in the hardback edition and also included in Newcon's Moonshots series of standalone short stories, was constructed from a cut scene from the novel. The story takes place around the time of the events of the first third of the main novel and offers an additional perspective on the luck monkeys, that feature, but aren't fully explained, in the book.

I never say never with anything when it comes to story ideas, but there are no plans to write any more in the world and time frame of The Moon King.
Memory is a prime theme in the book  - what interests you, as a writer, about the subject? 

Memory forms both a fundamental part of our understanding of who we are and our personal record of the events of our lives. And we take it for granted. I liked the idea if examining the limits of that. To say anything more about how I do that in the story would, I suspect, risk spoilers, but I found it an interesting, and tricky, thing to try and pull off.
Do you have a set writing process? If so what is it?
Not a process, but a routine. I've got a busy day job, as well as a cabaret act, a band and a home life, so I need to fit my writing into the corners of the day. On week days this means an hour before work and an hour at lunch. At the weekends I usually manage somewhere between 2-4 hours cafe time on both Saturday and Sunday. Doing something every day is the only way for me to ensure any kind of progress. I don't have time to waste on picking up the thread of where I was a week ago.

In terms of the mechanics of writing, like most writers I think, I outline a bit and I free-wheel a bit. How much of each depends on the circumstance at the time. You've got to be flexible.

Talking about your short stories for a bit, what do you most enjoy about short stories? Do you prefer the short or long form?

The long form is still pretty new to me, so I'm enjoying the process of learning how to do novel-length plotting, character development, and so on, at the moment. Short stories came first, and I think they naturally suit my idea-span which tends to be tightly focused and detail-oriented. My stories often feature tiny effects that don't involve much action or event, and that's harder to get away with at a longer length. With the novels I'm having to unpack and extrapolate, to plan dramatic arcs, all that: with short stories you can just get down there and sketch out your idea in a couple of scenes, a few pages. And short stories are also useful for exploring daft or out-there ideas, or for just doing something beautiful or poetic that wouldn't require or merit expansion to a longer length.
What are you working on right now? (apart from this interview of course!)
I'm working on a novel called Queen Of Clouds. It's sort of a distant prequel to The Moon King and tells the story of how the more fantastical aspects of nature, as described in the first novel, came to be. It's set in a post-upload humanocentric meritocracy and features wooden people, sentient weather and mind-controlling ink.

And finally in one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?

Finish everything you begin: only then can you properly set about improving it.

Many thanks to Neil for the interesting answers!

Bristol Book Blog Review:

Those of an idle frame of mind could find a place in Glassholm to sit the day long and watch the moon

Let me start with the beautiful cover 

The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Yes, you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it is the reason I picked this up, in an Edinburgh SF bookshop. Which is appropriate since Neil is Scottish I guess. The premise so intrigued me once I'd picked it up that I had to buy it. 

Life under the moon has always been so predictable, day follows night, wax phases to wane and, after the despair of every Darkday, a person's mood soars to euphoria at Full.

A former policeman investigates a series of puzzling murders, an artist is drawn into the politics of revolution and an engineer, jilted on his wedding day, has to fix the machine at the heart of the city. Meanwhile the creatures of the immortal ruler, the Lunane, are acting out of character. There is a cell full of crabs in the police station, the crows are gathering at the Castil and the luck monkeys touch the lives of our protagonists.

The monkey blinked and then reached into its mouth and removed a metal disc that appeared too wide to have possibly fitted in there...

This is a phantasmagoric book that slowly unfolds drawing you ever further into its fantastical world. As more layers are revealed it becomes ever more strange and ever more compelling. Williamson has built a stand out world here, one that is a real pleasure to visit, even as things veer towards madness. For the moon is a prime character in the book, of course. As are cycles, memory, order and duty.

"I spent Dark with friends." It was the first thing that came into his head but he'd had to lie hadn't he. He couldn't tell her that he could not remember a coherent thing after being at the bandstand the previous afternoon.

There is an ebb and flow from chapter to chapter and sometimes scene to scene between the three main characters and later on the book grips you and keeps you turning the pages. 

It's a bit of a slow-burner and the language can sometimes be flowery, but only very occasionally, and these are not even minor niggles, more a matter of taste and mood.

While the moon grows fat, we are happy
While the moon grows thin, we cry

(start of a popular song in Glassholm)

Overall - This is a very accomplished debut that deserves a wide readership. This is very much my sort of thing. Highly recommended.

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