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Interview: Ken Preston

Hardline: When did you first realize your passion for writing?
I can’t remember to be honest. As a child I remember writing stories in my spare time, and of course my favourite lesson at school was when we got the chance to write a story.
I still have 2 junior school magazines with my stories in. My first published work!
I do think that everyone who writes (especially fiction) is also a voracious reader, and I can still remember my Dad teaching me to read.

I was a very slow learner at junior school and was labelled ‘slow’ by one of my teachers, who sat me at the back of the class and forgot about me. Realising that I was bringing the same reading book home every night my Dad took me to the library and got out some of his favourites as a child – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Famous Five, The Biggles books – and he basically taught me to read at home, and fostered my love of books. (He also went to the school and complained!!)

I first became serious about writing 11 years ago. I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel for many years, but kept starting and then abandoning them. Then I read an article by Lawrence Block about Harry Crews, and how he learned how to write by taking his favourite book, The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene, and studying it, reducing it to facts and figures, until his copy was falling apart. Then, using what he had learned from Greene’s book, he wrote his own.
I did the same, only the book I studied and took apart was On the Beach, by Neville Shute. My finished novel, The End of Time, was pretty bad, but I learned a hell of a lot, and that was the most important thing.
Since then I haven’t looked back!

Hardline: Can you tell us a little about the genesis of your character, Caxton Tempest?
Tempest was originally a character in another of my novels, a very serious, high minded book about the early explorers of Africa, and the discovery of Timbuktu. I based Tempest on a real explorer, Major Dixon Denham, who was quite a character from what I’ve read. Ultimately my novel failed to be written, as I was aiming a little too high for my talent, but I kept all my notes (I always do, I keep everything) and when I started thinking about my supernatural Victorian adventure, Tempest sprang to mind as the obvious choice for the lead.

I made a few changes to him, but I kept the African explorer bit, and one of Major Denham’s real adventures will feature in the 3rd Tempest book, Caxton Tempest in the Village of Insects.

Hardline: Why does the Victorian era feature so much in your writing?
I’m not sure it does really!! LOL!
But it does seem that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
I’ve written two novels set in the present day, one in an alternative world inhabited by dinosaurs, and my next book, The Devil and Edward Teach, is a pirate story set in the early 1700s. But as I only have one published book so far, Caxton Tempest at the End of the World, which is set in Victorian times, and my short story Mrs De Runtzen’s Jewels which everyone seems to love, then I suppose it does seem as though I write nothing but Victorian set adventures.
There is something very atmospheric about the Victorian era; Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Charles Dickens, foggy, gas lit streets, workhouses, hansom cabs, it’s all a bit too irresistible really, isn’t it?

Hardline: Can you tell us how ‘Caxton Tempest at the end of the World’ came to be published?
When I started writing Tempest I felt white hot. I was writing fast, and I had showed the first 3 chapters to my wife who promptly banished me to the cellar (that’s where I do my writing!) and told me not to come out until I finished it, she was so eager to know what happened next. (Those of you who have read the book know that in the end she only managed to get to chapter 8 before stopping reading because she was too scared!)
So, even though the book was only just started (and a first draft at that) I sent of a plot synopsis and the first 3 chapters to a literary agent.
Hmmm…Pride before a fall and all that, I can hear you say.

Anyway, being new, innocent, eager and generally wet behind the ears in every way I kept up a litany of phone calls to them, asking for progress on my book. Imagine my delight after it had been with them for two months and they told me it had passed the first reader, and was so up to the next level.

Unfortunately they kept my manuscript for six months, by which time I had grown incredibly impatient. I finally emailed them and said ‘could you please either accept my manuscript or send it back to me, but please make a decision!’
So guess what?
Yep, they sent it back to me.
I did get a nice email off them though, telling me how much they liked it. They called it ‘Gripping and enjoyably grisly’ and said that I deserved to be published. Hmm, not quite sure why they rejected it really.

And if I hadn’t been so darned impatient…well, who knows?

After sending it to lots more agents and in the main getting stock rejections, (although I did have two more nice replies with encouraging comments) I began to think about self publishing. I believed in my book, despite all the rejection. The few encouraging replies I had had from literary agents bolstered that belief, along with positive comments from a fiction based website I had posted the whole novel on!

Self publishing is not for the faint of heart, or the shallow of pocket, it has to be said. I tried to cut down costs by doing most of the work myself, or cajoling others into working for me for free. But some costs couldn’t be avoided and, as of this moment in time, I am still waiting to see a profit from Caxton Tempest.

Hardline: Tell us about your next novel.
The Devil and Edward Teach is a pirate adventure, with supernatural elements. It also has as a subplot a romantic triangle (actually no, a quadrangle!) and starts with a genuine newspaper account of Blackbeard’s death at the hands of his pursuer Lt. Robert Maynard. The most remarkable element of this story is what happened after the fight. Maynard severed Blackbeard’s head from his shoulders to take back with him to Charleston as a trophy of his victory, and then threw his decapitated body over the side of his ship. The headless corpse then resurfaced and swam three times around Maynard’s sloop before sinking from view again!

Many of Blackbeard’s crew believed their captain to have struck a bargain with the devil, and this is what my novel explores.

I’ve just had the manuscript back from a copy editor and I am now working my way through the edits. After that I need to design a cover, typeset the manuscript, write a back cover blurb, start promoting it…

That’s the main problem with self publishing, you’re writing time disappears out of the window!

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