Books - The Alec McQuay Interview

Steve Taylor-Bryant and Emily Nation author Alec McQuay share a scone or two (jam first) with their pints and catch up on what's been happening in the McQuay universe...

STB - I’m trying to remember back in the mists of time but I think my first online experience of you was when Fox Spirit sent me a review copy of Spares. That book was incredible but we’ll get to that, how do you find the online experience? Is it difficult riding that line between author who needs sales and human being that wants to shout at the world?

AMcQ - I think you’re right there – I seem to remember a pretty stark difference of opinion over Spares! And thank you – like any early work there’s a lot I’d now change, but I’m proud of it. There’s some cool stuff between those pages.

The online stuff is a bit of a mixed bag. Especially at the moment. You really need to have an online presence of some sort, but it’s quite difficult at times to get a good balance between engaging with current events and flying off on an endless, angry tangent that puts people off. If you go at it too hard you can alienate an audience already sick of the world’s misery, while to be silent is to be complicit. I like to think that my terrible jokes more than make up for occasionally calling someone from UKIP a bellend.

You’ve always come across as a smart guy when we’ve talked. Quite well balanced emotionally, happily married, holding down an important job which you explain well to us normal folk when we have questions. I guess my question is where in all that is holy does the darkness and violence and bad language in your books come from?

I don’t do well with compliments – I always suspect that someone needs a sofa moving. But thank you.

I grew up on Mortal Kombat, Streets of Rage, Predator and Alien movies and weirder stuff like Tank Girl, Police Academy, Carry On movies… I guess I ended up with a weirdly eclectic taste in things and decided to mash them all together and see what happens. A bit like a Large Hadron Collider full of bollocks.

I don’t try to hide that alongside the silliness and seriousness I’m a very angry person, so it’s a bit of a relief when that’s a surprise to someone. I’m trying to make it productive, and there’s a touch of the artistic cliché where you use your work to channel your negative energies into something tangible. There’s a lot to be angry about in the world and I think you can either do something with it, or if you’re like me and have a disorder that goes hand in hand with it, it can consume you. I can’t deal with all the petty, nasty little gits in the world, but I can put them in a book where they get what they deserve. Whether that’s a life lesson or a poke in the eye with a sniper’s bullet depends on the situation.

As for the swearing, well… If someone punched me I’d swear and few would blame me, but we often show the punch and not the profanity. I’ve never understood why films can show violence to a young audience, but bad language and the actual consequences of violence are taboo. Before Logan came to cinemas, Wolverine managed to use his Super Stabby Knife Hands to carve his way through hundreds of people without spilling a drop of blood… Neat trick if you can do it. Save endlessly re-carpeting Xavier’s house, I suppose.

Emily Nation was great. I was a bit scared going into it because I like you and reviewing the work of nice people is hard but the press it received in advance was leaning heavily into Steampunk territory which is not my favourite genre at all. I was pleased to read a fucked up dystopian action film in word form that made Cornwall unrecognisable. It’s a book that rode roughshod through many genres which meant if liked a particular one there was something in it for you, if you just liked badass women you’d like it, and to be fair it’s a great tool for reaching youngsters who need help swearing. Was this an approach you set out for or just happy accident? I’m not a fan of genre pigeonholing things and the fact your book sort of made itself impossible to label was quite appealing.

I think I’m just a cheat. Emily Nation is post-apocalyptic so her world’s a bit of a blank slate, and depending on what knowledge or technology a given person or town has recovered, each new encounter could be very different. It’s a world where one guy has a musket, another has a ray gun. The difference is, the guy with the musket probably has a fair idea of how it works. When the ray gun runs out of batteries, it’s a paperweight. The world being a bit of a mess is a big part of the fun, and a bigger part of the plot. Who the hell knows what they could dig up next?

Essentially whatever felt coolest at the time was what I put, and I made a world that a lazy bugger can continually remake. It made it a lot of fun to write and apparently also to read.

What lessons did you learn writing the first book that you took into your process for this sequel that’s coming and was the journey easier this time around?

Oh so many lessons about planning, about being meticulous and thoroughly anal about detail and research. The kicker is that the sequel was written to a much tighter plan, with a much more rigidly defined idea of where it was all going and what it had to achieve, but it took many times longer to write. The first was mostly written in a month, the rest done in the following two, plus edits. This one has taken three years and was easier technically, but harder personally. I’ve had a pretty hellish few years with my brain being a bit of a dick, one of my oldest friends passing away… The draft I first handed in was 130,000 words. All told, with false starts, redrafts, do-overs… I’ve written well over 300K to get this novel. Dan’s death led to a much more serious analysis of Emily’s issues and a greater understanding that parts of the story weren’t right, and needed fixing to do them justice. I hope I have, but we’ll see! I am so fortunate to have an understanding and CARING publisher in Fox Spirit. I had my reasons, but no-one could blame a publisher for saying “enough’s enough” when another deadline goes flying past. I just hope the wait was worth it.

You’ve now written the manuscript and I guess it’s out with Beta readers? What happens now? Beta to edit? Or do you get it back for polishing before the publisher takes it out of your control?

It is with a beta reader at the moment and also with Adele herself. The publisher, not the singer. It has been through two rounds of edits with me and while it needs a polish, I was at the point where I needed it out of my head for a bit while fresh eyes took a look. There are a few little bits to add that I’m aware of but that’s not a huge amount of work – I’m just hoping I haven’t dropped any major clangers. Once we’re through fixing any bits they spot it’s over to the actual editor for a spit-shine and polish, and then we’re done.

What can we expect from Emily in this second part of the saga? Hopefully more inventive swearing but maybe something bigger in scope this time around?

The scope is a fair bit larger this time around and the implications of what happens are comparatively enormous. It’s also being a little more personal, digging further into who some of my main characters are and why they are the way they are. The swearing is thoroughly intact and hopefully it’s as much fun as it was in Emily, but the subject matter is darker, some of the violence more horrendous than ever, and there’s this one scene…

The plan has always been to go bigger, and answer some of the questions raised by the first book. We’ll touch on some of those, and if they’ll have me, set up some even bigger ones for the future.

Once you’re done, there’s no more rewrites to do, it’s off to the publisher, what’s your process? Do you take time off or throw yourself into the next thing? I notice on social media things like - “Story idea - a poor family is thrust into a world of glitz and fortune when the tooth fairy accidentally leaves twenty pence under a rich kid's pillow and their kid wakes up to a share certificate from Exxon Mobil.” Are these just fun things to put out there or you flexing the creative muscle again?

Most of that is just me goofing about. Usually something silly pops into my head at work and I share it on Twitter to get a laugh, a bit of healthy attention, hopefully gain a bit of interest in my feed from retweets and all that. My actual ideas are fairly well guarded, mostly so I don’t jinx myself and have someone point to a story where a better author already did it. I did have a zombie apocalypse idea based around a bunch of people getting sick with a zombie virus and attempt to quarantine themselves, only for the department of work and pensions to declare them fit for work. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to write it, so it’ll just be a funny story I tell myself, and giggle sadly at how truly it rings.

Between projects I read, play games, build and paint toy soldiers, and generally fart-ass about until I have a good enough idea to start something new. I recharge, I guess. So far, it’s worked pretty well.

Going back to Spares for a moment, what are the plans going forward? Full novel? Something within the Spares universe?

A novel drawing on Spares as source material is on the way, hopefully next year. I haven’t plunged back into firm horror territory in a long while so I’ll be starting over. In a way it’s a shame to move on from Spares and not finish that story, but it was a while ago now and wasn’t widely read at the time. Rather than be held to decisions I made when I was new, I think I’ll be a lot freer to come up with a new, interesting story by ridding myself of any obligation to it. I’m being inspired more by the worlds of Hellraiser, The Crow, Preacher, The Thing etc than your torture porn kind of horror. It won’t just be my usual writing with dimmed lights, but if I can I’ll inject a little humour when I can. It’s strange, but sometimes things and people are at their funniest when times are at their worst. Horror without humour always feels like it’s missing something.

Now I’ve got the Spares stuff out of my system, how can a big muscly fighty sweary man plan a children’s book? How did that come about? I’ll be honest and say I was very surprised that a children’s book was on the cards but I only know you from your online persona. What can my kids expect from an Alec McQuay children’s book?

Hopefully much the same as an adult would get from my Emily Nation stories, only with the violence and sexiness turned down / off. I’ve been accused of being reasonably funny and it’ll be fun to see if I can still do that without swearing, or making a crude sight gag.

Writers like Daniel Handler, Pratchett, Rowling have done amazing work where they’ve spoken to children instead of down to them, and I hope to be something like they are. I’m constantly amazed by both the wide-eyed innocence and the fiendishly keen minds of my two sons, both under ten. If the book’s no good they’ll be the first to tell me.

Due to the nature of my current oeuvre, and not wanting any angry calls from parents whose little darling have just yelled CLUNGE MONKEY at the postman, I will be writing under a pen name.

I remember reviewing a great little project you were involved in that was more comic/graphic novel in style than the written word. Whatever happened to that? Any more plans to do something less wordy?

Outliers… That was a bit of a sad tale in the end. It was very much a new venture for us all and we had tremendous, bigly plans for it, but in the end the interest just wasn’t there. We did what we thought was the right thing and wrote a freebie primer to the universe, gave that away, had a Facebook group that we engaged with and had a long list of people who fed back that they loved what we were doing and would absolutely buy the first instalment when it was released. Unfortunately, its release didn’t come out to a fanfare so much as the sound of someone farting in an empty skip. The sales didn’t materialise, people who said they would review it didn’t, the enthusiasm turned to silence, and the people in the group had left the oven on and slipped away, never to return.

It was a bit of a sobering moment for us all as things looked very positive, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Nobody owes you a damn thing and all you can do is lick your wounds and get on with the next thing. We’ve all slid away into other projects and commitments now. Thunderbird Studios is still going and they’re slush reading for an anthology as we speak, so we can still hope for big things for them and their work.

On the other hand, the rights to my characters and aspects of the Outliers universe have reverted back to me, so Luke might appear down the road in some guise or other. Another character from that saga, one Adrian Hansard, is mooted for a detective serial once I get my Patreon up and running. Looking forward to that!

So we await Emily 2, Spares may happen, children are going to corrupted by you, is there anything else left for you to try? Anything you’d like to accomplish?

I will go in search of The Brown Tweet. Legend has it that there’s a musical note whose frequency can make a person shit their pants, and if I can find a Twitter equivalent, I will rule the world…

I’d also like to write a screenplay, and to write for comics… I’m pretty much open to anything, given the opportunity. If I live long enough I’d like to try them all, and one day perhaps write up Emily Nation as a script and pitch it to Netflix. Or my horror novel as a movie script, but I’d better write the damn thing first.

Follow Alec on Twitter @IronWrites

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