An Interview with Ben Wright conducted 17th January 2012, with the author responding to questions submitted by readers. 

When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?

I was in my mid-twenties when I started writing with the particular purpose of entertaining an audience.  They were film and music reviews and I posted them on the company intranet site.  The feedback I received gave me the confidence to try to create something longer, which is what I felt like doing by after a couple of years.  Thousand-word pieces after a time seemed insufficient.

How long does it take you to write a book?

In theory, the man hours that have gone into writing my books so far would add up to about one year solid.  But that would mean writing about 3-4,000 words a day, every day like a job.  Some people write like that, but I can’t.  I tend to sit down and write once or twice a week, but I completely value the time in between as well.

It gives me the time to reflect on what I’ve put down and work out if it’s good or needs changing.  Once the book is ‘finished’ I then do at least six months editing and rewrites.  The completed novels have taken three and four years respectively.  The third book, if it gets finished this year which is my aim, will then have taken about three years from start to finish.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing?

I tend to sit down once or twice a week and stay at the desk until I’m out of ‘brain power’.  Depending upon how well things are going, it could be anything from five to eight hours.  I get between two and four thousand words down in a session.  I almost always listen to music, mostly soundtracks and some classical.  I don’t listen to anything with lyrics in as it interferes with my inner monologue.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Interesting question!  I’m not sure.  Do I have to have one?  Perhaps it’s my love of chapter titles.  I really love them.  Is that weird?  I work hard on making them resonate with the action to follow and have different meanings during the chapter.  I recently found out from someone who has read all my books and is helping me edit the completed chapters of Book Three that they didn’t take any notice at all of the chapter titles.  I was so horrified…

Where do you get your ideas for your books?

For plots, the ideas evolve from working on the books and asking questions around what’s happening.  If there’s one Verse of Power, could there be another?  How many in total?  What do they represent?  Can you read the Verses differently?  Do they call to each other?  What happens if you put two together? And so on.

With characters, to begin with at least, it’s like throwing a pot.  I have generic elements just to get them going and then the way they evolve is a mixture of what happens to them and their emerging personality.  Are they courageous or shy?  Are they trustworthy or scheming?  Are they biased by their upbringing to behave in a certain way?  I also rely a lot on the readers to form their own opinions of the characters.  I don’t like to fill in all the detail.

Why are your plots so complicated?!

The plots are quite complicated in The Red Book trilogy because firstly, there’s a lot going on, some of which I’ve ‘hidden’ on purpose, which you’ll only pick up in future readings and secondly, I don’t want it to be obvious how the whole thing will end up.  I’m always trying to take the path less obvious – like having four major characters die in the second book - and the feedback I’ve had from readers is that it’s one aspect of my books which they find keeps them reading on because they can’t guess how something is going to get resolved.  As in life, there are no sacred cows in The Red Book. Anyone could be next!

That kind of cryptic element to the plots is also partly a result of the way I plan the books.  That’s one of the strengths of the books.  There really are so many moments where you’re thinking: ‘What is going to happen next?’ and even afterwards: ‘How did that happen?’  The answers are in there, but I take great care to put the onus on you the reader to figure it out.  I think that’s just a more enjoyable way to experience a book.

If your books were made into movies, who would you like to see cast in the main roles? 

I’d love the books to be made into movies, they operate in a strongly visual way and I think they could make good adaptations and interest audiences around the world.  Everyone understands the power of words, battles between good and evil and the special, close friendship you experience in youth.  I have no set idea of who would play whom except for Grodel, who is basically Brian Blessed.

I think there’d be roles for Mark Strong, Lesley Anne Down, Casey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, David Tennant, Jared Harris, Patrick Malahide, Rory Kinnear and Ray Winstone but I’ll leave you to guess who I’d have them portray.

What does your family think of your writing?

They’re very supportive.  I think the first time they read the first book they found it strange because it didn’t ‘sound’ like me.  For some reason, probably because of the genre, my writer’s voice is very different to how I communicate in person.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

That I could enjoy it for so long.  I had never entered into such a sustained creative commitment before and to find that I love it even more today is both a relief and a blessing.

How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?

 I’m nearing the end of writing my third book.  I’m unable to judge them against each other because I’m so close to all of them.  I think I was proud of the first one for just having done it and I really enjoy The Scribe of Blood because I didn’t have to introduce the characters of invent a world – I could have more fun with it.  The third one is something I’m really excited about finishing because it will crown the trilogy.

Do you have any suggestions to help someone on becoming a better writer?

 That you can’t just write for yourself.  When I was writing my first film and music reviews, I spent a lot of time on making the language clever but it didn’t communicate much to a reader who wanted to know whether to see the movie.  It was a useful lesson.  Just get the idea out there clearly and if you can do it with style, great.  Also, just write.  Learn by doing.  I’d also say, don’t self criticise during the composition stage.  Give your creative self a break.  Review things later.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

Some useful feedback I had at a very early stage was that the book was more interesting than the blurb on the back made it out to be.  I was essentially under-selling the contents.  This was from a 14-year-old who’d read the book in three nights and was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever spoken to.  The blurb on the second pressing was different and that was all down to that one kid.

Most of the time it’s ‘When’s the next one coming out?’ which is really gratifying.  Otherwise, it’s where do I think all this stuff up? and how do I find the time?  Many of my readers are at school and on their way to doing GCSEs and A Levels.  They’re set writing tasks and our conversations tend to be about how to go about creating interesting characters and having them develop in a believable way.  Their assignments may be shorter than a novel but the challenge to write creatively is just as pertinent irrespective of length - if you’re writing a tweet or a blog, you can’t be wordy.

Why do you create books for children?

Children can read just as well as adults.  In some ways they make better readers, because they are newer to the world and can react more naturally to what they read.  To my mind, I don’t write my books for children.  I write the best stories I can and write them to the highest literary level of which I‘m capable.  I’ll use obscure words and include dark events, complicated plots and grown-up themes. 

It just so happens that this works great for a young adult, middle grade or children’s readership, because I tell you the worst thing I could do is to try to ‘write down to their level.’  Children are such capable readers from an early age, it’s for many of us a golden age of reading and there’s no boundary I see between books that appeal to adults and children.  If kids don’t know a word, they will look it up and gain something from the new knowledge. 

What do you think makes a good story?

Plot, character and motivation working together seamlessly.  “The man went into the woods and then got chased by a bear,” is tedious.  However, “The dying man, whose final wish it was to take revenge on his father’s killer, the grizzly bear who had savaged his pregnant wife, went into the woods seeking his family’s nemesis and, when he found it, taunted it recklessly until it turned and bounded after him,’ opens up a lot of interest points for the reader.  As long as you create and then satisfy these interests for the reader, you’ll be delivering a good story.

What inspired you to write your first book?

I was six years into my first career, a desk job, just working all hours and had no creative outlet.  I read a self-help book that had me undertake a few little exercises, to get me to write down what I liked and was good at, and what other people told me I was good at.  At the end of my jottings I’d written: ‘Write a novel’.  It stared back at me like an alien instruction.

So, I did.  I made some time and wrote ten pages in a six hour writing session.  I had an image in my mind of a man in a small wooden shack on a dark hillside.  I asked questions.  Who was he?  What was his name?  What did he do for a living?  Where was he?  It just went from there.  This outline character was the original seed for Behvyn and Behleth Hahn, the twin brothers who became main characters in my novels.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I do now.  When I started, I didn’t know my own style, so I was influenced more strongly by that of others.  The Fatal Verse of the Valley was written over three years.  During that period I found my ‘voice’, which I’d describe as being quite immediate, but the early chapters read more distantly, as though a different author had written them.  There was a lot of re-writing of the first three chapters after I’d finished the book to ensure the same style was sustained throughout.  For The Scribe of Blood, it was a much easier birth because I’d found my style.  It flowed so much more easily.  That was a joy to write, as is the third novel.

How did you come up with your titles?

 They were arrived at in hindsight.  It was my choice.  Only until I could read each book from start to finish could I decide.  I have endeavoured to ensure that each of the three books in The Red Book trilogy have some reference to writing in their title.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

There’s a lot about the power of language, which is embodied in the existence of the Verses and I play with it in how characters’ perception of others is affected by their changing status but friendship is the central theme, how it can lead to love, how it can save you – either from danger or from yourself.  I think love operates within friendship.  Think of Holmes and Watson, Frodo and Sam.  Great friendships are almost always more powerful than great love stories.

How much of the book is realistic?

Obviously, the settings are imagined but I take a lot of content from real life.  The characters have to behave in a completely realistic way or else you just won’t bother with them.  I want there to be a significant fantastical element to it to ensure it’s entertaining and fires your imagination and yet, if only works if you can imagine yourself there.  To ensure this, I am very influenced by history.  For example, in The Scribe of Blood, there are strong parallels with Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1812.  Muscle Oaks is a version of my hometown village set in the fifteenth century.  Little bits and bobs are taken from people I know.  My dad’s nickname at school was ‘Half-pint’ apparently, so I stole that for one Grodel’s dogs’ names.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Charles Dickens.  I admire his humanity, his productivity, his endless creativity and the eloquence with which he put his points, many of which resounded effectively with his peers to change the world for the better.  We both grew up within ten miles of the same place in north Kent and there is no great novelist I feel closer to.

That said, I also learn different things from very different writers.  Evelyn Waugh for his devastating accuracy in capturing the people of his own period.  JRR Tolkien is of course an immense influence on the fantasy genre, inescapably so, and sometimes it’s hard to see the real achievement because once upon a time The Lord of the Rings was just a story he’d written, but what a convincing one, so well written and what a great place to visit.  And the historians, Roy Jenkins, Winston Churchill and Edward Gibbon, who were capable of turning the most difficult of ideas or the most convoluted events into the finest phrases.  Their succinctness is much to be admired.

What book are you reading now?

Conrad Black’s ‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’.  I studied the period of FDR’s presidential terms at university and he’s always been a great inspiration to me.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

This might sound unforgivable, but about the newest books I have read were The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas, neither of which I enjoyed.  The latter was trying to be a bit too clever for my liking, and would have worked better in my opinion as a set of short stories instead of a novel, and the former was good to begin with then lost believability and didn’t come through with the goods in the second half, I was so disappointed, especially as a lot of people had recommended it.

What are your current projects?

Top of the list is to finish the trilogy.  That should be the case by the end of the year.  The promotion of the books takes up a lot of my time.  Anything spare I have goes into a side project, which is a stage show – perhaps a BBC Prom or a West End show – about Opera, which is one of my great passions.  It’s an exciting idea and in development at the moment.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

No.  I was really satisfied with The Scribe of Blood.  It sits perfectly in my mind.  I’d love it to be filmed.  It would make such a spectacle.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

I don’t want to give anything away to anyone who hasn’t read the first two books as it might end up spoiling things.  Book Three isn’t more of the same, though.  It’s the final reckoning for everyone.  It’s very tense and everyone’s a lot more aggressive and the ending is huge.  If you enjoyed the first two books, you’re in for a real treat.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

I’m tempted once the trilogy is finished to try a different genre.  In writing the fantasy novels, I’ve learned a lot of tricks and picked up a great many techniques, but this personal development has finally started to flatten out.  I think that, after eight years, changing to a different genre might be a reasonably logical step and perhaps provide me with a fresh set of challenges that I could learn to master.

Who designed the covers?

My sister, Helen, designed the covers for me.  She is a graphic designer and it’s great that we are able to help each other.  My readers get some exceptional, eye-catching, attention-grabbing covers to enjoy and she gets the experience and exposure and something for her portfolio to attract new clients.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Sticking with it.  I can’t believe people expect authors to charge nothing for books.  It’s years of unpaid hard work, for crying out loud.  It takes an unimaginable amount of time and effort and completely dominates you even when you’re not sitting at a writing desk.  You have to be patient and break the challenge down.  You look after the sentences, the books look after themselves, but it’s sometimes the most brain-fagging work.  It can turn you into a zombie.


Do you have any advice for other writers?

I think everyone writes to some degree, even if it’s just an email.  There are some truly great work emails I’ve seen in my time!  All writing requires some creativity and skill and I hold the ability to write a good journalistic piece, or a meaningful letter to a family member, or TV show in the same regard as creating a good novel.  If you intend to ‘be a writer’ you have to hone your work for a particular audience.  The writers that do it best are those that realise most clearly who they’re writing for.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

I do it for you, guys.

What do you do when you are not writing?

I like photography – portraits, event photography.  I used to do wedding photography and would still if anyone asked me to.  I am really interested in theatre, and how it all works, and my wife sings in a very good choir that’s often on TV and performing at celebrated venues in London, so I support her in that.  

Do you have a day job as well?

I work as a Turnaround specialist helping organisations get out of financial difficulty.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

If I’ve been busy and haven’t written for weeks it’s dreadful getting back into it.  I can sit there for eight hours and every minute is hell.  But I force myself to sit there and I know from experience something will come.  To help things, I take a lot of the pressure off by not worrying whether it’s good or bad at this stage.  Just get the ideas down.

A technique I’ve found that works, if it’s not happening, is to read through what you’ve written before and start tweaking that.  Your mind will then be re-engaging with the subject and you’ll find it’s easier to progress from where you left off the next time you write.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I tend to have the next bits of action or character moments jotted as sentences below where I’m writing.  They keep me focused on the immediate or next section to write.  If an idea comes as to what can happen afterwards, I add that to the notes section then get back to the narrative.

Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?

I’ve made both completed novels available as eBooks on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and WHSmiths and I have sent submissions to the (few) literary agents specialising in fantasy novels.  So, I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket, I’m not denying readers the chance to experience my books today and either route to success is fine by me.

How do you market your work? What avenues have you found work best for your genre?

Having a website is key, because you can fill it with content and then link to it.  I also use a Twitter account and blog regularly.  I have put a lot of effort into getting the pitch right on Amazon as they’re leading the market on self-published eBooks in my opinion.

Have you written a book you love that you have not been able to get published?

No, and I don’t think that could ever be the case for anyone ever again now you can get it out there yourself.  These are very exciting times for both writers and readers.  Readers now have a much bigger say in choosing what they read.  Something like Unbound books, for example, where readers can choose what gets written in the first place.

The publishing industry that exists between reader and writer has still got enormous influence, especially for printed books, and it’s not going to disappear just because eBooks and self-publishing has arrived.  For many of us, it remains the most reliable way of ensuring a quality read, and for providing writers the success they crave.  However, it needs to work with the new technologies and compliment the experience shift this has resulted in for the reader.  For a start, charging more for eBooks than for the physical item is crazy and has to stop.

What was your favourite chapter (or part) to write and why?

I quite enjoyed writing Tangle’s ‘mad scene’ sequence in The Scribe of Blood.  She’s unhinged by pregnancy, fear over the impending death of her lover and in this strange, almost concussed state, totally unable to fathom what’s going on around her so she just becomes ‘pure Tangle’, a collage of impetuous, selfish, instinctive reactions and thoughts.  It was fascinating to try to put the reader into her head at that point in time and I’m excited to know what people make of it.

Are there certain characters you would like to go back to, or is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?

I think Mandle, Grodel’s put-up kitchen maid, gets rather a raw deal.  All the other characters are utterly unsympathetic to her and then, given events, she’s probably killed by the first eruption of the Cloud Mount when the catastrophic destruction of the Shale Valley finally happens.  In a way, I keep her memory alive with Tig’s regal alter-ego, but I have been rather inconsiderate to her overall.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

You can do it, so get on with it.  If you’ve already done it, get it out there!