Q. You’re best known as an artist, what motivated you to want to make the transition to writer?
A. I guess I’ve always written things, but only in my head. My entire life, I’ve had multiple things going in in my head, even when I’m watching a film, or reading, on holiday, supposedly relaxing, I’m thinking of other things, planning stuff, creating. And some ideas stick around, develop, and I need to get them down on paper, so to speak. In the past, I’ve usually done that through art. I have a stack of pages of ideas in a box on my studio that I’ve never done anything with. The main reason though is that when you and I collaborated on the Randomers comic project (see images below) and found that we couldn’t do justice to it in the spare time we had, I couldn’t see any other way to continue with the project unless we changed our approach. Which meant cutting out the most time-consuming element, the art. So, that’s why a project that was originally an artistic one for me became a written one. Also, I really enjoy reading. So, why not have a go at writing myself?
Q. How is writing a book different to painting a comic cover?
A. There are similarities. The thumbnail sketch can be likened to the synopsis. The reference shots are akin to the research for the book. The prelim is the first draft. The finished painting, the final draft. Then the painting/draft needs to get past the editor. However, with a book, instead of visualising the entire thing like the artist does with a painting, there’s still a lot of the imagery that is left out, that stays in the writer’s imagination. It’s up to the reader to input their own imagery, their own setting and stage, a fair chunk of the elements into the story. The writer can only do so much, make suggestions, to try and guide the reader. They have to create themselves, which I think makes for a more fulfilling experience. And a reason why I think many films that are based on books fail to live up to expectations.
Q. Can you see this book adapting into a movie or series?
A. I think it’d work best as a tv series. I don’t think it’s a book you can speed read and the plot is probably too complicated to do justice to in a movie. Perhaps a screenwriter could prove me wrong.
Q. Your book has had a long journey to fruition, it started as a DC comic, then an independent comic, then a collaborative novel, and now.. well how would you describe it? Is it still a superhero story? A historical novel?
A. Heh, it began as a few pages for an Inferior Five proposal that we pitched to DC Comics. It had zero chance of being developed. Still, we had a lot of fun working together on it. It was still a parody, a satire of superheroes, at that point. (maybe show a couple of cool pages)
Now…you know how I struggle to describe the book. It certainly begins as a historical fiction novel, and you could say that applies to the entire book. I did extensive research to ensure the settings were realistic and authentic. I think it holds up historically. Even the chapters set in the 1980s could be classed as historical fiction as it takes place in the last century, during a decade that’s had a profound and direct on the times we live in. I could draw on my own memories for those chapters, but I also did extensive research on the era, which I’m still doing. However, without spoilers, it’s much more than a historical novel. So, having validated the authenticity of the settings, the conclusion is that it’s a fantasy, sci-fi novel.
Q. It’s been several years in the making, why do you think the book took so long to write?
A. We both know the main reason for that. We started writing the book together in late 2014. When I went to the Baltimore Comic convention a year later, you’d written 25 pages. I’ll leave that sentence hanging…And the editing process took a couple of years after I wasted a year trying to do it myself. So, the actual creative process didn’t take that long. Book two has taken me about 18 months to write. In total. And it’s a lot longer. The clear answer is that the first book took so long because of one man. And it wasn’t me. Did you ever finish your chapters?
Q. It's a work in progress. I'll have a first draft any day now..... but you're already on Book Two. Is this a direct sequel to The Generation: Origins, what's it called? And is it finished yet?
A. As I’ve previously mentioned elsewhere, I’ve already written book two and sent it off to my editor. It’s a very different book from the first one. It deals more with the relationships between the characters and how they deal with what happens at the end of book one. Some of what happens in the book left me feeling uncomfortable. It’s been a more complicated book to write with ten different characters having chapters from their perspective and it’s a lot longer too. I can’t say any more about it because of the fact that everything that takes place in the book is a spoiler, if you haven’t read the first book. I’m going to wait for the initial feedback from Rob, my editor and you, before I commit to it being the final version.
Q. I know from trying to write a book with you that you are your own worst critic. Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?
A. Heh. I think there’s an element of that in my personality. However, I can be pragmatic when deadlines are involved. And I don’t think there’s any point in doing something if you don’t try your best to make it as good as possible.
Q. Growing up, what books did you read, and what books do you read now? What was the last book you read?
A. I’ll talk about some of my favourite books instead. Not a comprehensive list.
In the historical fiction section, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The Shardlake novels by CJ Sansom, also, Dominion was great (set in an alternate reality where the Nazis won the war after Churchill never came to power). Rory Clements’ John Shakespeare novels. Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian series. That was the trilogy that got me hooked on the genre.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is still great. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell is a book I’ve read many times. LOTR, Tolkien. He created so much more than a fantasy world.
I also read a lot of non-fiction books about history, Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell was a great book about Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife. No Such Thing as Society by Andy McSmith, a great introduction to the politics and culture of the 1980s. The Beatles: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn. I’ve read a lot of books on the Beatles and this is by far the best. The wait for the next volume is rather frustrating but will certainly be worth the extra time spent on it by Lewisohn. If there’s an extended edition of the next volume, I’ll be buying it.
Biographies: The Masked Man by Tom Wilson is great as an audiobook as Tom reads it himself, so you get the impressions and songs as part of the story too. Ball Four by Jim Bouton, a controversial book when it was written which resulted in Bouton being banned from baseball. Staying on the baseball theme, The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn is a classic. Also, The Last Boy by Jane Leavy is possibly my favourite biography, an impeccably researched and insightful look at the complicated life of Mickey Mantle. And the awesome Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden, about the Philadelphia Eagles team of the late 80s/early 90s.
The books I’m reading right now are: Sweet Dreams by Dylan Jones. I’ve read it twice already, but it’s that good. It’s a year by year look at the New Romantics and the wider world around that scene. George Lucas, A Life, by Brian J Jones. Thanks for that, by the way, it’s a good read so far. Dune, by Frank Herbert.
Q. Which of these most influence your writing now?
A. All of them. A good book stays with you, no matter the genre or subject.
Q. That's true. You grew up a big comic reader, what comics would you say have influenced your writing? Which comic writers do you admire?
A. This is a question I’ve never been asked before. Usually, for obvious reasons, it’s the artists I get asked about. As for influencing me, I think comic books as a whole influenced me growing up. In hindsight, I was pretty odd, insular and naïve and I learned a lot about life from comic books. Yeah, sounds weird, but it’s true. So, I’ll move onto which writers I admire. Paul Levitz’s work on the Legion of Superheroes, he was masterful at running multiple plotlines simultaneously while handling, not only a large cast of characters, but an entire universe. Keith Giffen was his collaborator and deserves to be included in my comment about Paul. The same could be said for Marv Wolfman and George Perez on the New Teen Titans and Chris Claremont and John Byrne on the X-Men. Alan Moore on Miracleman and Watchmen. Two series that still resonate today. The aforementioned writer/artist teams are why I said that comics influenced me with writing as opposed to writers themselves. Would any of those books be as accomplished without bother creators on them? No. James Robinson’s Starman series…Darwyn Cooke on anything he ever did. Mark Waid’s Flash, which rekindled my interest in comics during the mid 90s…
Q. What drew you to choose Tudor England as a setting for the start of the book?
A. It’s such an interesting era. There was so much political, societal, religious and artistic change during the 16thcentury. And the major figures were so much larger than life. There’s a reason writers keep going back to that era, keep looking to present their own vision or version of the time. I chose to set the story during a less well-known monarch’s, Edward VI’s, reign. The reason for this wasn’t to be different, but because I had the sweating sickness as a major part of the plot. And, despite many folk believing it was an almost yearly occurrence during Tudor times, it only appeared in a select few years. And 1551 was the last time. Unless a possible outbreak in the 1570s is considered an outbreak. However, as far as I found, there’s wasn’t overwhelming evidence for it. So I consider it open to interpretation.
Q. The character Charles Locke is particularly fascinating, where did he come from?
A. Locke is you. I introduced him as a character as a coping method when our collaboration was at the zenith of its spite and hate. Writing about Locke made it easier to deal with your obtuseness and refusal to be edited.
Q. Hah! Thanks. I'm so glad I could help inspire you. He's easily the best character in the book. Are any of the characters based on you?
A. Yes. The rest of the characters, outside of Charles Locke, I’ve not based on anyone. Although I do have specific voices in mind when I write some of the characters.
Q. Some of the novel is set in the area you grew up in, what made you choose that as a setting?
A. Partly it was because I was going to be writing about teenagers, and as I was a teenager in the 1980s, I could draw from my own experiences. That whole part is semi-autobiographical. Or, at least, has an origin that’s based on my experiences. And Blackpool was a great place to live in for a kid back then. For example, you could wander around the Pleasure Beach back then, pay to go on a couple of rides if you fancied it, or just hang out in the arcades, or spend the day in the Fun House. Now you need to spend a fortune to even enter the place and then make sure you go on all the rides to try and make it worth the money. There were so many things to do in the town that we didn’t appreciate at the time, the roller discos, Professor Peabody’s, all the arcades, Derby baths with the tube slides and diving boards. Of course, there were a lot more fields and places to explore too. Which all makes for a better setting for an adventure than what Blackpool is today. It was a great era to grow up in. Also, look at the tape on the book cover. That’s an integral part of the plot. No-one listens to tapes anymore. We did back in the 80s.
Q. Derby Baths features in your book, a lot of Blackpool locals will remember it fondly, what made you choose that as a setting?
A. It was a place I spent a lot of time at when I was a teenager. It was a great pool with the diving boards and 5-metre-deep end. And a lot of locals will remember Splashland too, which consisted of two tube slides they added to the right side of the building in the early 80s. A lot of what I wrote in the book is from experience. Although none of the characters in the book are based on people I used to know back then. I used to swim at Derby Baths before school each morning and on a Monday night too (other nights and Saturday morning, training was at Norbreck Castle hotel). Even when I wasn’t training, I used to go to Derby Baths with friends pretty regularly, especially on a Sunday morning, which would usually end with us being kicked out for messing about on the tube slides (I only came out of the bottom of the slides naked once, but once they instigated the one person at a time rule, the guards used to kick off when we came out in a heap). So, when looking for a place to base an integral part of the adventure around, Derby Baths was an obvious choice. Part of the reason I quit swimming at the end of 1987 was because the council decided to close the baths down. It had concrete rot, but I’m sure they could’ve done something about it. I rode past where it used to be the other day and I’m still irked.
Q. Yeah, me too, it's a crime. Do you do a lot of research to get the historical setting right? What kind of research did you do?
A. I read a lot of history books. For writing the book, Chris Skidmore’s book on Edward VI was especially useful. I also bought a map that showed London in the 1520s. Sure, it’s a few years out, time wise, but it gave me a factual basis for the layout of the city and street names and places. Which helped me ground the story in reality. The books I read covered the entire century, so I could understand the bigger picture, how the century developed. Conversely, the Smash Hits yearbooks were very helpful too. It was interesting studying the 80s as an adult. Sure, I had memories, but they were very insular. Looking at how my experience fit into the greater picture was fascinating. Reading autobiographies from musicians such as John Taylor and Gary Kemp was helpful too. I also watched as many documentaries on both the 16th century and the 1980s (covering both left and right leaning opinions on the 80s) as possible. Checking out Hans Holbein’s art, even for only a few minutes at closing time, in the flesh, was awesome. He was an incredible artist. Even going to the Grapes pub was research, sitting on the balcony overlooking the Thames visualising it filled with wherries.
Q. What was the hardest part of the story to write?
A. Writing the entire book in the first person. In hindsight, I made a lot of problems for myself as it was up to the character to describe what they were seeing. Maybe it wouldn’t have been any easier writing in the third person though. Ironically, the person who first suggested I write the book in the first person didn’t enjoy it.
Q. When writing historical characters, and there’s quite a few in your book, Henry VIII, Lord Cecil, do you feel an ethical responsibility to be absolutely accurate, or are these your versions of these people?
A. Having read a lot of books about the historical characters. And, I don’t think anyone can say for certain what they were truly like. For example, many historians think of Thomas Cromwell as a Machiavellian figure, a manipulator, a dishonest man. Yet Hilary Mantel writes him as a sympathetic character. And it works. And more recent biographies and writings on the man do depict him in a more sympathetic light, or at least as an ambiguous figure instead of a villain. The same can be said of William Cecil. Whether he was a hero or villain depends on the particular author, writer, or director, in the case of his depiction in tv and film. He seems to me to have been a man who was serious about religious reform, had the best interests of England and Elizabeth at heart and yet, was a man who took bribes and wasn’t that honest in monetary affairs. Look at Ann Boleyn too. Did she do what she was accused of - the adultery, the incest etc - or was she a chaste woman who was an innocent victim. And was Cromwell the instigator or simply following the orders of Henry? It depends on which books you read or documentaries you watch. You also have to take into consideration the different values and standards of Tudor times when compared with today’s societal norms and morals. In summation, I don’t think you can be absolutely accurate when writing these characters. A lot of it is speculation, or an educated opinion. Which again, makes it a great era to draw inspiration from. So, if there’s any ethical responsibility, I think it’s to research the characters before figuring out the path you take them on.
Q. Have you written this book for you, or with an audience in mind?
A. I’d like other people to enjoy reading it. However, it is a book I’d enjoy reading myself. Then again, I’m under no illusions that everyone will enjoy the book. Some people simply don’t enjoy fantasy, or sci-fi, or historical fiction. So, writing for an audience is...not ideal, in my opinion. You can compromise the story you want to tell too much. I felt compelled to finish the book after our collaboration ended. I thought the story was worth telling.
Q. You’re 50 now, this is your first novel. Do you wish you’d started writing earlier?
A. I do. And I should have.
Q. If you could give a teenage version of yourself this book to read, would they enjoy it?
A. They should do, they’re in it.
Q. Did you enjoy writing as much as you do painting/drawing?
A. I actually enjoy it as much. Occasionally more. I very rarely have the opportunity to draw what I’d like to draw in the way I’d like to draw it anymore. That’s the nature of being a commercial artist, most of the time you have to do what the client wants and that was one of my frustrations when I worked in the comic industry. When I write, I can do what I want. Well, that isn’t always true because occasionally, certain characters lead me down a path that I hadn’t intended. Occasionally I resist. Book two has certainly taken me places I never imagined going when I set out writing, which is pretty interesting.
Q. Do you see yourself as an artist or a writer now?
A. My day job is art. My hobby is writing. The books are a world I can immerse myself in, escape for an hour a day, slip on my headphones and travel to a place where fiction and reality merge. I live somewhere on the edge of both worlds.
Q. Do you have any plans to write novels not from the Generation series? What are you working on right now?
A. Not currently. I can see the Generation series being at least six books long, as things stand. I’m too involved with it to even consider writing another set of characters right now.
The cover to book two is the next job, if we’re talking about the writing side of things. I’ve designed it, but I’m still in the reference gathering phase. I’ve also been developing a series of prints, or images, spoiler free ones, for book one, something I can sell at comic cons or use to advertise the book. I’ve pretty much settled on three different ideas. I simply don’t have the time to paint them in oil, so I’m thinking I may give gouache a go, try and come up with something in the vein of Angus McBride.
I’ve already written a synopsis for book three and outlined, in a paragraph or so, what takes place in each chapter. I already know that I’ll deviate from that soon after I begin writing, but I think it’s important to have some order in place before beginning to write.
Artistically, I’m trying to catch up on some smaller jobs that’ve been on my commission list for far too long. After that, I’ll be working on an oversized oil painting of the 1970s DC villains. Which I can’t complain about. It’s pretty cool.
It is! So is the book, I genuinely enjoyed reading it and I'm looking forward to reading Book Two. I'd heartily recommend anyone reading this gives book one a read, if only for the exceptionally engaging character of Charles Locke.
This interview originally appeared on Russ' blog http://russpayne.blogspot.com December 2021