I’m pleased with how many of my colleagues have taken the plunge back into the kitchen. Today, we welcome Ian Clements, the chef behind Terror Beyond Measure, back to have a chat about his cooking. Let’s take a look at the mind behind Norton Pumblesmythe!
Please introduce yourself to my literary foodies!
The name’s Ian Clements and I’ve been writing since I was sixteen, so that’s, hmm, twenty one years now. I had ambitions of being a serious, literary author, but thankfully realised in the past few years that I’m a fundamentally silly man; and I should embrace that. What that meant for me was sidelining my ponderous sci-fi efforts, and focusing on a character I created as a joke (after one too many Dickens novels) in College. The Norton Pumblesmythe series was born, and is a curious mix of adventure/farce/horror and fantasy (an advarceortasy, if you will), blending stretches of serious, fact based writing with outright lunacy.
Do you do any work outside of the writing kitchen? Any non-work interests?
Right now, not so much, as being ill for the past two years means I’ve become very familiar with my flat. Before that, I was learning Escrima (Filipino martial art), and enjoyed visiting antique markets. Plus the usual suspects of video games and movies, of course. Also, an irrational urge to drive a Segway. I blame Arrested Development for that one.
What is your latest dish to be served up? Are there any past pieces of literary cuisine you think we should take a bite out of?
So far I have just one story out, an introductory piece to the Pumblesmythe series called ‘Terror Beyond Measure.’ I had originally intended for this series to be comprised entirely of short stories, but the more I wrote the more I felt that Pumblesmythe deserved more space to really flourish (with the small market for short stories influencing me in no way, shape, or form. No Sir.) What this means is trying to learn the art of the novella, and that’s held things up, but I think it’s the right decision.
What made you want to put on the chef’s hat and whip up your own books?
I’d written short stories when I was a lot younger, and always responded enthusiastically to them as homework, but only became serious about it as a teenager. I have a very clear memory of enjoying Stephen King’s story “The Mist” and thinking ‘How hard can it be?’ The hilarious naivety of that question still tickles me even now. What followed were some truly dreadful short stories and three aborted novels. The internet wasn’t as ubiquitous back then, with the e-book revolution a long way off, and I thank god for both as I would’ve almost certainly self-published and gone down in flames. For the next few years I showed my work to friends and family, occasionally put it online for unbiased feedback, and read books on the craft (such as Dorothea Brande’s excellent “Becoming a Writer”), as well as continuing to devour books for pleasure. Something about the latter past time had changed, though, and I found myself analysing books for technique as much as enjoying them as stories. A very useful practice and simultaneously an enormous pain, as you feel like everyone else is lost in the movie while you’re noting each time a boom mic bobs into view.
Much of my twenties was spent trying to focus on a reliable career, but I never stopped writing entirely and wasn’t as good at anything else. Only in the past three years, after a diagnosis of Adult ADHD relieved me of an enormous burden by answering why I could never finish anything, did I start completing work.
Do you have a genre of specialty or do you dabble? Why?
For a long time I was exclusively a science-fiction writer, or rather everything I wrote seemed to land in that genre. I like some of those stories, but they were grim and serious efforts that caused way too much stress. It wasn’t until I mentioned the character of Norton Pumblesmythe at a writers’ group, and was encouraged to give him a new story, that I remembered writing could be fun. I don’t begrudge those years of writing in the “wrong” genre, as it was all helping my craft and gave me the experience to turn a 2D pun into a real person. Pumblesmythe was originally free wheeling mayhem, a man of pure ID who could do anything at any time. I kept that energy but added proper research, finding to my delight that the Victorian era was far more demented than anything I could conjure. The result is a sort of comedy/drama adventure, with the drama both placating my serious writer side and providing the reader with an occasional palate cleanser for any facetious antics.
I’ve also adjusted my view that writing comedy would be an easy way out. I no longer obsess over whether my stories will be timeless classics or warrant a Cliff Notes edition, but the pressure is still there. Only now I fear the “Dad in a nightclub” scenario: thinking I’m being cool, funny and hip while the world looks on in horror.
Style! Every literary chef aspires to have their own unique one! What do you think sets yours apart and why?
I’ve always been a verbose writer. Corny though this may sound, I just love words and so I use way too many. I think one of the things that I love about Pumblesmythe is that it inverts that weakness. When you watch shows like Deadwood, even the profanity comes out as poetry, and Victorian times were no different. To reflect that, I’ve really tried to marry funny, exciting situations with a very careful and deliberate description. Just as a good deal of any Pumblesmythe story may be historical fact, and the remainder outright fabrication. I think the Victorian era is still so prominent in our minds because we feel a certain longing for it. Not the low and lazy patriotism of ‘back in the day we ruled half the bloody world’, but the manners, the decorum, the sense of place and momentum which can be, paradoxically, easier and more difficult to feel in a global village.
It’s that sense of ‘yes, but no’ that fascinates me, the energy of putting opposite elements into your story and finding a way to make it work. Norton’s account of Victorian life may be unreliable, but it’s no more unreliable than our rose-tinted spectacles.
I also love similies, I love similies like…well, you get the idea.
Even the best of us find inspiration is the dishes of others. Do you have any literary inspirations, heroes, and influences?
I’ve sometimes felt a little odd that I don’t have a favourite author. Certainly there are authors I really enjoy, but nobody I’ve followed religiously. I love Raymond Chandler’s stories for their sense of rhythm and style; Richard Matheson for making the fantastic feel believable; Antony Beevor for showing that history can be as compelling as fiction. Authors like Joseph Conrad for his sense of place in “The Secret Agent” and his battle with depression. John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”; a work that’s incredibly evocative but also so incredibly dense that I’ve been wading my way through it for over a year! H.P Lovecraft for his ability to describe the vaguest outline of ancient evil and have it stick in your mind like a splinter. Charlie Brooker for being the funniest man I’ve ever read in print.
Let’s get into the meat and potatoes: the art and craft of writing itself! Do you have a preference of points-of-view when you write?
Second person perspective, so it sounds like one of those “Choose your own Adventure” books from the 1990s (weren’t they great?) Only joking. Actually, I write the majority of my stuff in first person perspective, which can be a divisive choice between writers. FPP (let’s abbreviate it for reasons of sanity; yours and mine) gets a bad rap because it’s very often the choice of a beginner. People start writing because they feel they have something to say, some emotion or issue that drives them, so the “I” of FPP is a natural choice when a lot of first works are semi auto-biographical.
Third person perspective is fantastic for broad plots with lots of different characters, but FPP provides an intimacy that I find really compelling. It’s one thing to have a silly character make an outrageous statement, but it’s another to see the mangled thought processes that led to that statement. When FPP is done well it can feel like spending time with an old friend, and even if very little happens you enjoy just hearing their thoughts. Also, given the blend of horror and comedy in the Pumblesmythe series, I’d say that FPP is helpful because it’s an easier transition between the two. I hope so, anyway!
Sparse or wordy, how do you like your descriptions served up? Are you a Hemmingway man or do you like some saucy adjectives with your nouns?
I can waffle with the best of them. Just look at how many adjectives I’ve already used in this Q&A. I try to trim the worst excesses of it in my work, as very often a small, singular detail can be more effective than pages of minute description; but I’ll always be a verbose writer. I do admire the terse style of authors like Hemmingway, as they create a world in the space between the words ( rather than using them as props to keep the ceiling up ), but I delight in the kind of indulgent description that makes you feel like you’ve just eaten a dessert.
Picking off the menu of base literary conflicts, what’s your favorite and why?
Probably the struggle to know who you are. Were you always going to be this person? To what extent do family and friends shape you? On first glimpse, Norton Pumblesmythe seems to have a very clear idea of who he is. His sense of spontaneity and entitlement give you little reason to doubt it. But a growing obsession with an ancestral ghost story shows there may be another side to his anti-social antics – that of someone drawing sparks in the hope of kindling a fire. He wants the world to react, violently if necessary, and impart something that’s hiding beneath the morals and manners of his time. I see it like the awkward kid who uses jokes to fit in, and then that becomes their identity; but the problem they became a comedian to escape was never addressed, and is only getting worse.
Blimey, that sounded a bit heavy, didn’t it? He does lots of funny stuff, too. Honest.
What do you think is more important to your recipes, plot or characterization? Why?
Definitely characterisation. If a character is strong enough then I can drop them into the most threadbare scenario and they create the plot. I’m the kind of writer that works best with a vague outline and a few definite scenes, or even scraps of dialogue, that I use as goalposts to work towards. What happens in the space between those goalposts is largely up to my character, and it’s wonderful to be able to say that. In the past I’ve felt like someone trying to breathe life into a puppet, but working with Norton is more akin to watching an ant farm – I just drop him in and things start happening. Sometimes I do wish I had more of a rigid timetable of events. There’s always that worry that you’re stepping out onto nothing, like the leap of faith sequence from Indiana Jones, but I think every writer suffers from it; even those of us with meticulous outlines.
I can’t remember who it was that said ‘Plot should bend to character, and not vice versa,’ but I’ve always found it to be sound advice. If your character isn’t interesting enough to create a plot, then are they someone we really want to be hearing from?
We all know that the first taste means the most! What do you do to get that first bite hook with your readers?
I usually begin in media res, or “In the midst of things.” This technique also has a bad rap as it’s a beginner’s favourite, and is easy to misuse. Too many think it means beginning with an explosion, or a Mexican standoff, but an amusing conversation is just as effective in hooking the reader’s attention. Pumblesmythe’s dynamism means I do sometimes start with a ridiculous and over the top situation, but try to avoid using them too often. It can create a sense of momentum that’s near impossible to sustain. Look at how many popular thrillers have tiny chapters, ending on perpetual cliffhangers, with revelations popping up like daisies on a lawn.
As I mentioned before, about FPP being like listening to an old friend, I try to follow that reasoning in my first words to the reader. If you’re sitting with a friend, sharing an easy silence, then they’re likely to break it with an amusing comment or interesting/odd observation. A segment that intrigues just enough. Think about when you can only hear stray words in a conversation, like a couple arguing in the flat above, and it drives you crazy because you don’t quite have enough to be able to dismiss it as routine or unimportant. Your logical brain knows it’s just a spat, but logic is no good because you’re already invested, you’re hooked.
The most important of questions: Cake or pie?
I like to think I’m a pie man, stocking my shelves with beard stroking and cerebral tomes, but the truth is I’m just as partial to cake. It’s certainly easy to eat too much cake, read too many fluffy page-turners, but our lives would be much poorer without them. But you know, when you have a steak and ale pie, it’s important to know that…I really have no idea where I’m going with this.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary chefs out there, what would it be?
Do not ever think you are above criticism. Actively seek it out whenever possible. There is no “ultimate level” that a writer can reach upon which they are free to disregard ideas for change and improvement. I know criticism is hard at first, especially if you’re just starting out because there’s so damn much of it, but don’t respond emotionally. You will always have that immediate, affronted sense of ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ on reading a critique, so you need to step away and come back to it once your knee-jerk egotism has abated. In time you’ll be able to tell good advice from bad, and what is more of a reader’s personal preference, but thinking you can do all that from the off will kill your growth as a writer.
I used to bemoan only receiving form rejections from publications, and so was astonished when I learned that most editors don’t say more because their reward for doing so is often a stream of abuse. Imagine that for a second. You’re desperate, starving, for unbiased and professional feedback, but you are also very much in the minority. Nobody wants the pain of criticism, and most aspiring writers don’t see why they should endure it. Even a great deal of famous authors, once they rise above aggressive editors and gather a cushion of forgiving fans, lose the edge that made them great. Best Star Wars film? Empire Strikes Back. Why? George Lucas brought his old USC teacher, Irvin Kershner, on board. He was assisted by a man he respected, and in turn Kershner wasn’t intimidated by Lucas’ success; he kept his worst excesses under control. Finding that kind of critique partner, who never lets you slide, even if they love your work, is so essential for a writer.
Oh, and you’re probably doing this one already, but read. Read as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to dip into different genres. An author who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t eat. You may never want to write a romance, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out how they’re written.