An interview with Rod Duncan

This week’s blog is slightly dfferent. I have an exclusive interview with me old mucker, Rod duncan. I’ve known Rod for a year or 45 and have always been admiring of his work. Rod established himself with his “Riot Trilogy”, each of which examine the same riot, on one day in Leicester, from the experience of a different character.

Rod has now moved into the mystical world of Steampunk. His first novel ‘The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter’ was nominated for the prestigious (2014) Philip K Dick award. ‘The Custodian of Marvels’, is the third book in the ‘Gas-lit empire’ series,’ and will be released in February.

Writing is a very personal process and there is no set path for achieving your creation. I asked Rod how he prepared and wrote his novels and this is our conversation below:

Where do your ideas come from?

I’m a curious person. Some people might call me nosy. But that’s probably not any different from most novelists. When I see things that interest me, I investigate. And then – after a period of time – an idea will pop into my head. I might not at first be able to tell where it came from. It’s like a dream, in that way. I have to really think about it before I realise what the spark was. It might have been something I saw a month ago. A year ago. Sometimes the inspiration goes right back to my childhood.

If I had to give one moment of inspiration for the novels of the Gas-Lit Empire, it would be a small street in Leicester where the road surface had been broken up by the frost. The Tarmac had come away, giving a glimpse of the cobbled road surface below. That started me thinking about the Victorian world and the contemporary world both being present at the same time. And that gave rise to the idea behind the alternate history that underpins the novels.

How do you plan the novel?

I come up with an idea for the main beats of the story – a starting point, a couple of the main transitions and an ending point. On that basis, I start to write. My hope is that I discover a few new things about the story each time I sit down to write. But I don’t have a detailed idea of what is going to happen. Not until I’m almost at the end.

How do you carry out your research?

Since this is a fantastical alternate history, I am at liberty to make stuff up. Having said that, all this is based on things that happened and historical processes, so I do need to read as well. But the story will come from knowledge I’ve acquired over the years. I tend to do research to fill in gaps or to get a more sensory experience of the thing that I’m describing.

A lot of that is on the Internet these days. But there’s nothing to beat direct experience. The characters in my latest novel, The Custodian of Marvels, were picking locks. So I had to go at it myself.

Do you visit places or read about them?

It’s surprisingly how much you can do without visiting a place. Google Street View is a wonderful tool. So is Google’s image search. But they won’t give you the sounds and smells and textures. So visiting the place is always the best thing to do if you can.

Do you write in a linear way (ie start to finish) or do you write some pieces stand alone?

I like to write in a linear way. But later on in a series of books, plotting can become quite complicated. You end up with a lot of different story threads to work with. And The Custodian of Marvels is built around a heist story. That is a technical challenge in itself. So with this novel I did end up writing some things out of sequence.

Do you think your characters have traits based on real people?

I’m not aware of giving my characters that traits of people I know. But the subconscious mind is a strange thing, so who knows? There might be a little bit of you in there somewhere. And certainly a little bit of me.

Have you ever taken an event from your life and adapted it?

Yes. But the relationship with the real event is always very tenuous. Reality provides the spark. The imagination burns where it will.

What is your editing process?

I edit as I go along. I wouldn’t advise other people to do this. If I could break the habit, I would. It makes my writing very slow. And I on occasion written a chapter and spent time polishing it, only later to discover that it didn’t have a place in the novel.

When I’m editing, I read everything aloud to myself many times, listening for how it sounds. I would certainly recommend that approach.

How do you judge success?

That’s a very good question. An insightful question. The first criteria of success is my own judgement. Do I think that I’ve written a better book than my last one? The second is the reaction of other writers, who I share my work with at an early stage. If they like it, I feel successful. And then, of course, there is the judgement of the wider world. Publication, reviews and maybe shortlisting for an award or two.

But it’s wise not to get too focused on all that glitter. A couple of weeks ago a reader who I’d never met emailed to thank me for writing one of my novels, saying it had been significant to her in a particular way. For me, that is the highest standard of success – to touch someone’s life in a positive way.

What advice would you give to new novelists?

If you have the urge to write, don’t hold back. Writing a novel is an extraordinary process. It will change you. Through it, you will learn to see the world with greater intensity. You’ll learn about yourself and about other people. Perhaps you’ll make it big and get into the bestseller lists. But if that becomes your focus, it will always feel like a struggle. Even when you are bestseller. So, focus instead on being a little bit better at it each day. And enjoy the ride.

Will we see more books about the Gas-lit empire?

With the Custodian of Marvels, the first series is complete. But yes, there will be more to come in the Gas Lit Empire. And you will see more of Elizabeth, the protagonist.

By Geraint Roberts

Stuck in a limbo and desperate to do something meaningful, what to do? That is where writing began for me. A creative way of expressing myself and a chance to harness my wondering imagination. I close my eyes and I'm there. Wish I'd picked 'there' as a warm sunny day on a sandy beach, with the waves gently lapping on the shore...but I have to let the story load in my mind, then watch it unfold, wherever it may be. Currently I'm on a windy bridge, or a Devon beach, or a Cornish ti mine, or a submarine, or looking towards a Hebridean port...

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