Selene -Thank you for taking the time out for our interview. First, tell us a bit about yourself.
I.E. Lester – I am a science fiction and horror nut. That’s probably the best place to start. I’ve been an avid reader for more than forty years, since a washed out family holiday in England (is there any other kind) when I sheltered from one of the many storms in a shop that sold books. On a whim and purely because I liked the cover I bought a collection of Isaac Asimov short stories. I spent the rest of the holiday reading the book and, as the rain gave me plenty of time to do so, had finished before we returned home. I bought my second soon afterwards and it started a lifelong obsession.
Outside of my addiction to books I work in IT, in database development, a field which is every bit as boring as you imagine it to be; probably more so. I’m also a music fanatic, although have finally reconciled myself with the world being a happier place if I never again try to force tunes out of a guitar.
One quick fact; I’m tall. I mean it; there are shorter trees. And I probably should mention a fondness for semi-colons; and Oxford commas.
Selene – When, why, and how did you start writing?
I.E. Lester – I resisted this for years. My wife and many of my friends kept suggesting I should write; usually because I have a habit of breaking down bad movies and come up with (in my opinion) better plots. I gave it a shot when I turned forty. It seemed cheaper and safer than having my midlife crisis lead to buying a sports car; more comfortable too – I did mention being tall, I don’t fit in sports cars.
I wrote maybe 50 or 60 non-fiction articles, hundreds of book and film reviews and a couple of dozen short stories which I managed to sell to various magazines both in the UK and US as well as for a variety of websites. And then I stopped. My hiatus lasted about five or six years while I ran my own pop culture memorabilia and collectables business and when I sold up and thought of giving writing another go the only ideas I was getting were novel length. So, since then, I’ve been writing novels.
Selene – You have a brand new novel out (October 31, 2017), The Stairs Lead Down. What’s it about, and how has it been received so far? How do you pronounce “Ashby de la Zouch,” anyway? (In my head it rhymes with “couch” and I know that’s wrong!)
I.E. Lester – The Stairs Lead Down is a ghost story in which the two lead characters, fraternal twins Noah and Lizzie, who due to the unusual circumstance of their births, one shortly before midnight on October 31st and one just after midnight on November 1st, have the power to cross from the real world into the ghost realms. And it’s a power that others want to take from them.
I’ve had some good feedback from a few people. So far no one has been negative towards it. The publisher seems happy with it and has ordered a sequel so it’s been a good experience thus far.
Okay, the pronunciation; hmm. I tried to think of a common word to say it rhymes with… Only I have to admit I couldn’t come up with one; other than in French which is probably not a great surprise as that part of the name is from Norman French. Ashby was an Anglo-Saxon village that was given to the La Zouche family after the Norman Conquest, resulting in the de la Zouch addition to the name. The Zouch part rhymes with Amuse-bouche. If you’re not a French speaker try saying Zoo – sh.
Selene – From what I’ve gathered, you write more sci-fi and fantasy, where world-building is crucial to the story. Yet The Stairs Lead Down is what I’d consider a “contemporary” setting, with modern gadgets mentioned in the story. How do you approach world-building with a “realistic” setting, as opposed to a “fantastic” one?
I.E. Lester – Realistic settings are in some ways harder than fantastic settings. It might seem a little counter-intuitive to say that as the real world allows for a lot of the reader filling in the blanks meaning you can lessen the need for texture to the backdrop but the problem is you get something wrong and it’s so obvious. You have to be accurate if you’re talking about a road someone can walk down or you get the dates wrong. Technology and popular culture move so quickly it’s far too easy to get things slightly out of sync and, trust me, people will notice. Try setting a story in 2005 and have one of the characters use an iPhone. Unless you have a solid reason (e.g. time travel) it will annoy some people.
In a fantasy world as long as you are consistent to the rules of your world you can do what you like. And even here there’s a lot you can take for granted as any person who reads a story set on a space station on the border between two warring empires, or in a Viking style village being harassed by a dragon, will have a pretty good idea what to expect there. As long as you don’t suddenly break these rules it can be easier.
And then there’s then fun part; well, fun if you’re like me. I enjoy finding out new bits of information. I always have. So if my fantasy story requires a journey of some hundreds of miles and I have roughly fifth century tech, how long would it take if I have
- a cart pulled by donkeys – what are the roads like condition-wise
- a ship – the two places are handily both on the coast
- a boat, canoe or raft – a river runs between them
- just the two feet on the ends of my legs – how far can people walk day after day, especially if they are carrying heavy packs?
The only thing you have to be careful of in these cases is not putting too much of the research into the story. I’m writing a short passage with the intention of getting my characters from A to B, not a Haynes Manual on how to maintain a four wheeled cart.
Selene – More on the “realistic” setting, you live in Ashby yourself, if I’m reading correctly. How true is the old chestnut “Write what you know”?
I.E. Lester – The advantage I have with setting this story in Ashby is if I want to see how two locations join or whether you can see a particular building or road junction if you’re standing at point X I can walk there and look. It makes things a lot simpler. And then there’s the fact that the feel of the place has had years to seep into my bones. I might not be an Ashby native but I have lived here for fourteen years and explored much of the town and its immediate surroundings.
Ashby has a long and fascinating history and much of it is there is you just look beyond the shiny shop fronts advertising the various franchises that fill the modern high street. Many of the buildings date back to Tudor times and if you know where to look you can see the evidence. One of the thoughts that led to The Stairs Lead Down was sitting in a pub and wondering about all the people who had walked through the entrance doors in the more than four hundred years the pub has existed.
Selene – Your characters are 13 years old. I’ve only read the three-chapter sample so far, and they seem like typical teenagers. Let’s talk about how you develop characters in your work.
I.E. Lester – One of the problems I find with characters in some novels, films and TV shows is they are over-emphasised in certain ways. How many characters can you think of that are hyper-geniuses or have super-human strength or some other unrealistic characteristic? I try to make my characters more normal even if, like the two lead characters in The Stairs Lead Down, they have supernatural abilities. If I am putting my characters into peril I want them to take the reader with them. There has to be a feeling they could lose. I don’t find a great deal of suspense in a superhero movie or comic (much as I love both).
Add to this characters need to be more than just their role in a story; lead characters anyway. I will concede supporting characters don’t need to be as fully fleshed out. It would be bad if you had to wade through eight pages of backstory about the man who served the food in a restaurant the lead characters happened to go to. I wouldn’t want to keep reading a book that did that. But the lead characters need to have more to them. They need hobbies and interests that are not connected to the plot. They have to have flaws. They have to have virtues; preferably more of these than the flaws, I do want the reader to like these people. They have to be some you could imagine working with, sitting next to on a train, talking to at a party, or living next door to.
So I think of all the people I’ve known in the fifty years I’ve lived on this planet and what made them whole and then I pick bits of all these people and build up my own montages of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. And then I hand the draft over to one or two people I trust and ask them to read it and comment on the characters – do they work, yes/no?
Selene – Would you consider The Stairs Lead Down a YA novel? How does writing YA differ from writing for adults?
I.E. Lester – I think it is a novel suitable for young adults and upwards. When the idea coalesced (or congealed, maybe that’s a more suitable word) around having two teenagers as the main character it seemed reasonable to try to write it from that perspective. And YA, the best YA in my opinion anyway, shouldn’t be that different from fiction aimed purely at an adult readership. I wouldn’t write explicit sex scenes into a YA story but I wouldn’t write these into any of my fiction without a specific reason crucial to the plot as I generally find these get in the way of the story. If I wanted to have sex scenes I’d buy pornography not a fantasy or horror novel.
I also might not be quite as violent on the page as in my other fiction but I wouldn’t remove it altogether. A horror novel needs to have scares and threat to make it a horror novel. Also the language in terms of cursing might be toned down but it shouldn’t be in terms of vocabulary otherwise. Writing young adult fiction but trying to exclude all the long words to me is patronising.
Selene – The Stairs Lead Down is a ghost story. What are some of your favourite ghost stories?
I.E. Lester – When I read this question one film jumped out at me immediately – Beetlejuice. I love that movie. Two more that came to mind were Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and the play based on it, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – both wonderful stories. Then I had to think a little harder and although I could recall a few dozen ghost tales, in print and on screen, I found it difficult to think of any that I’d call favourites; odd given that I’ve written ghost stories.
Selene – Where do you get your ideas?
I.E. Lester – Everywhere and anywhere is the simplistic answer. I’m a bit of a polymath. I like reading and researching all manner of topics. I can be reading a book on Swedish Kings (yes I have one) and something just intrigues me and it gets filed away somewhere. Later a totally different topic might interest me, say particle physics, and for some reason my brain will put two things together and invent a third thing that bears no relation to the first two. So I write it down in a notebook; I keep notebooks everywhere I go.
Or I can watch a bad movie and start thinking how that plot could have been better; or how those characters could have been better constructed. And I write it all down. After a while several of these ideas seem to fit together and a plot begins to appear that makes sense of it all. So I start building a framework and when it seems self-consistent and interesting to me I might start writing it. Or I might not. Something else even more shiny may have distracted me by then.
Selene – I noticed, from your blog, that you participated in NaNoWriMo this year. How did that go? Why do you think some writers enjoy the challenge, and others think it’s a waste of time?
I.E. Lester – I tried using the NaNoWriMo target during November to increase the pace of my writing which has been slower than I would like of late although I will admit I didn’t formally register in the end. I wanted it for me and not to compete against anyone or try to achieve some kind of electronic button badge. I’m not denigrating anyone who did. I think it’s a good idea to set such targets. It’s just I didn’t want the only goal to be hitting the fifty thousand mark.
I did register a couple of years back and do it officially and worked hard for a month resulting in forty eight thousand words. I fell two thousand short. I was happy with that. Helped me get the draft of that novel finished. That book was called No Man’s Land. It was one of my weirder projects; a kind of mashup of different genres. I describe it as a bawdy science fiction noir space opera detective story. As yet it’s unpublished and if I’m honest I’ve not submitted anywhere in two years so unless I get a little more pro-active with it, it’s likely to stay that way.
This year my attempt didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. It was doomed from the outset really as I had a fair bit of publicity to do for The Stairs Lead Down, which had only been released for one day when NaNoWriMo started. I just checked the writing diary (yes I’m sad enough to maintain one) and the whole month saw a meagre 14,151 of fiction written; a pitiful showing really.
Selene – What does a typical “writing day” look like for you? How do you get motivated to write, when there’s so much distraction?
I.E. Lester – There is no such thing as a typical day. For one thing having the time to write is not guaranteed on any given day. I have to pay the mortgage so I have a full time job alongside writing. I’m also married (25 years too – now that’s scary) and I want to stay that way so spending all my non-day job time on the keyboard writing is not going to happen. I try to write when my wife is out playing gigs or rehearsing (she’s a professional saxophonist).
Motivation is hard. There are days when you just do not feel like writing – there are for me anyway. These are usually the times I look hard at the story I’m writing and ask do I actually want to be writing this? At least at this moment. Trying to force it doesn’t work. The writing has to be something I need to do. The characters have to draw me back to the computer, especially after a day at work. This has resulted in about three dozen partly written novels clogging up my hard drive – mostly at the fifteen to twenty thousand words level, although one did stall at fifty-five thousand words. These may get revisited at some point. Then again they may not. I should probably point out that I have managed to finish writing eleven novels. I don’t abandon everything.
As for distraction, there is only one way – music. I write with music playing and with the office door closed and the blind down. I can see nothing of the outside world. I can hear nothing except the music playing. That way I can concentrate on what I’m doing. And then for me, it’s about short bursts. I like writing in short scenes, usually around the five hundred word mark, although some can be a lot longer depending on the action. That way if I have a few minutes I can at least add a scene to the story. If I was waiting until I had enough time to write an entire chapter I might never start.
Selene – What advice would you give a new writer?
I.E. Lester – The main piece of advice is keep writing until you write those two words “The End”. There is no way you can sell a novel unless you finish writing it. Then find people you trust to be honest and get them to read it – and then listen to what they say. You might not agree with it. You don’t need to do anything about it if you don’t but you need to get another opinion; preferably many other opinions. And you need to not have thin skin when you do listen. All that matter is making your fiction as good as it can be. If all you want is someone to pat you on the back and tell you you’ve done really well then you shouldn’t be writing.
Also, you should read more and more widely than you might otherwise. I don’t think you can ever have read enough if you want to be an author. You can try reading these how to write a novel books but I think you get far more by just reading lots of novels and figuring out what you like in them.
And one last piece of advice – write the book you want to read. Never try to write a story because you think it suits a particular moment. Hunting the zeitgeist will only lead to bad books. If you don’t love the book you’re writing who can anyone reading it love it? You cannot write a book that isn’t part of you. I have ideas for two conspiracy theory type thrillers. I think they could make good books. I just don’t think I could write them. I tried but they quickly joined the ranks of the stalled books I mentioned before.
Selene – All writers are, of course, readers. Who are some of your favourite authors, and why?
I.E. Lester – Isaac Asimov for hard sf ideas and easy to read prose.
Zoran Živković for fabulously surreal stories of a European flavour
Magnus Mills for fabulously surreal stories of a uniquely British flavour
Julian May for exquisite world building – read the Saga of the Exiles / Intervention / Galactic Milieu Trilogy linked series
Stephen King for wonderful characters
Robert Charles Wilson for imaginative stories
Selene – While we’re on the subject of upcoming projects, there’s a sequel in the works for The Stairs Lead Down. Do you find the writing is at all different, and how might it be the same? What’s in store for the sequel?
I.E. Lester – The sequel picks up the action a few months after the end of book one and finds the characters trying to deal with the ongoing fallout from book one when a new much more coordinated attack against them happens. The bug bads are going to treat Noah and Lizzie a lot more seriously after the events in book one.
Writing a sequel is odd. In some ways it’s easier as you don’t have to invent the characters; they already exist. But they now have baggage. Even if you survive a horror story it’s going to have an effect on you. This is probably the hardest thing to write and in the draft I’m working on I know it’s not right yet. I need to beef up the emotional load the twins have – they are teenagers after all. They shouldn’t just be able to shrug this off. And it’s not just about the two of them. Other people are involved and they will pay the price for aiding Noah and Lizzie. How would teenagers cope with seeing other people suffer for them?
I’m also trying to write this as a kind of warning against complacency. Just because you succeed at something on the first attempt doesn’t mean it will be as easy to do it again. So I’m increasing the peril and hopefully bringing the characters to the point of how do they get out of that. And then seeing what they would sacrifice to win.
Selene – If you weren’t writing, what do you think would you be doing?
I.E. Lester – Reading.
Selene – What’s next for you, and is there anything else you’d like to talk about here? Thanks for taking some time to answer my questions!
I.E. Lester – Right at this second I have no idea what’s next. In some ways, it might be a choice made for me. I have a publisher currently reviewing a rewrite I did of a fantasy novel. If they like the changes enough I might have to immediately start book two of that series. That would keep me busy for a while as the whole story is plotted over five novels. Of course, I have to sell the book one first so I’m not going to get ahead of myself.
Other than that I have a comedic story about quasi-religious cults I’d like to tell. I just have to work the plot so it doesn’t sound too much like the wonderful Pratchett/Gaiman book Good Omens. If I’m not careful it could stray too close. Just have to keep pushing it towards Tom Sharpe territory and I’ll be safe I think. I’ve written the first three chapters of this to see if I liked the feel and I do want to get back to it.
Thanks for the opportunity to be part of the Horror Tree community.
If you would like to find out more about I.E. Lester, check out the following links:
The blog https://ielester.blogspot.co.uk/
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