21 May, 2012

An Interview With... Andy Stewart

To mark the start of my occasional series of blog interviews, allow me to introduce you to Andy Stewart.

Andy's work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Big Bridge, with work forthcoming in ZYZZYVA. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop in 2011 and earned his MFA degree in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. He lives in Davis, California with his wife, a PhD candidate at the University of Davis, California. He works as an online Literature and Creative Writing Instructor and freelance editor, and also writes short and long fiction. He has accepted representation from Jason Yarn with the Paradigm Agency for his novel All the Night a Song.

Here, he tells us how success came knocking - but only after hard work, rejection and marrying the right woman...

Let's start at the beginning. How long have you been writing?

I wrote my first "book" aged 13, which was about 60 pages double-spaced. It dealt with psychic children, a paranormal investigator, secret organizations hell-bent on destroying the world--ya know, that old chestnut. Then I ducked out of writing for years in favour of piano and drama. It wasn't until the last few years of my undergrad that I came back to writing.

So when did you first know that you wanted to make writing your career?

Ask me in a year. Seriously, I would love it if my writing was able to bring in enough money to make ends meet, but I'm not counting on that right now. At the moment it's teaching, writing and being a freelance editor that pays the bills. And that's a good thing. When I was attending the Clarion Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers' workshop last summer, John Scalzi gave a great bit of advice: Don't quit your day job so that you never "need" the money and you can afford to say no to people. You can wait for better opportunities to come around.


How did you reach that first dream milestone of getting yourself a agent?

Just because I really want to brag a bit, I can say that I landed the very first agent I queried for ATNAS. But this isn't entirely true, because I spent the last two years beating the streets with another book. The number of rejections I got for that novel was about 70. But from them, I got partial or full manuscript requests from 14 agents. One of those agents was Jason Yarn, who took the time to respond to my manuscript in quite a bit of detail. He was the most specific, and the most excited about my writing. That's why, six months later, I sent him an exclusive query letter. Three days later, he requested a full.I got an email from him saying that he was greatly enjoying the book, and hoped to get back to me soon. And I was like--"What the hell does that mean?"  I had to endure about 4 days of nervous fretting and pacing before getting The Call offering me representation.

 For a while I questioned whether it was a bad idea to not have queried other agents, just to give myself options. But those doubts didn't linger. Sure, I could have tried  one of the top dog agencies, but have you taken a look at their client list?  Wow. I'd be one of a list of about 30 or more clients. As a new author, I'd have probably been swallowed up. Not to say that my agent doesn't have a healthy client list himself--but he handles lots of non-fiction, which doesn't take up as much time as fiction. But, most importantly, Jason loves the book. He's excited about it, and thinks that it will do very well out in the world, and I don't think I can ask anything more of an agent.

What was your reaction when Jason made that call?

I didn't actually go nuts initially. I acted like a pro (or tried to) and tried to keep one very key bit of advice in mind: "He is courting YOU! It is YOU, Mr. Writer, who will be his client, and it is his job to look after you." 

So, I didn't say 'yes' right away. He sent me the sample retainer, and I had my lawyer friend give it a look. Also, I asked to have a 'face-to-face' with him via Skype a few days later. After our video chat, I gave him the 'official' yes, and then we took a few more days ironing out the details in the retainer.

I was excited but I was also nervous about the next steps, and what it all meant for our life (my wife and I). An exciting, but tense time. I'm finally settling into it.  

OK, so tell us a bit about this novel of yours. What inspired it? 

ATNAS started as a novella idea-- a girl and her eunuch friend seek out to kill a giant in the desert. And then that world really blew up on me. It wasn't until October 2010 that the rest of the story began to come together. I had just had my wisdom teeth out, and had to take really strong meds for a week. While riding the Percocet wave, the full scope of this invented world came to me. My wife and I lived just beside a  canyon in San Diego at the time, and a big church sat at the opposite end of the canyon. During the afternoons, the music director of that church would work with an Opera singer. So, this slightly disjointed, ethereal music drifted in through our windows. Put all that together, and bam: you have a strange new world, interesting characters, and unusual goings on.  *Just as a note, I don't condone the recreational use of drugs to induce creativity. Other than caffeine, anyhow. 

In the last few months you've taken a definite step from amateur to professional. What was the most important factor in that journey?

I consider the successes I've enjoyed over the past few months to have come from years of actively pursuing a writing career. I spent 3 years getting an MFA degree. My wife and I decided that I would have about 2 years after graduating for me to work piecemeal jobs in which I would put the writing first, and she would be the major breadwinner. And in that time, I wrote my ass off. I picked sci-fi/fantasy as an entre into the publishing world and I geared myself toward selling to those markets. We spent a great deal of money for me to attend the 6 week long, immersive Clarion Sci-fi Writers' Workshop--that was an investment that really paid off. It's no coincidence that I started selling once I finished that program. That was probably the most important step, but all that other stuff had to happen for me to be ready for that experience.   

How have your nearest and dearest taken the news?

General love and excitement all around. Anyone who is close to me knows how long and hard I've worked toward this goal. I have a wonderfully supportive family and friend base (and an amazing wife!), and they helped me to get past the nervousness and really celebrate this win. Especially my wife.

I've been trying to think of a way to describe your style, but I can't! How would you describe it?

Speculative fiction in which emotional authenticity and relationships trump plot?

What would be your top piece of advice for other writers going through the sometimes disheartening submission process with stories or books?

Find someone who's better than you at writing and write with them. Do your research, find out what the different mags/journals/agents want, and find the best fit. That's all you can do other than being professional and courteous. And when I get a rejection, I send that story right back out, on the very same day in most instances.  Yes, rejections still sting, but there's a bit of fun in sending it right back out there, playing the field once more. If the story is good enough, if it fits what the editors are looking for at that time, if, if, if. Sometimes you strike out and sometimes you win big.

Which book do you wish you'd written?

A toss up between Lois Lowrey's The Giver or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  And a close runner-up is Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl. 

Tell us something about you that not many people know, so we can be smug when you're famous.

I considered myself a musician for a few years in my undergrad days. I wrote my own songs--played piano and sang. I took it really seriously for a long time, but then decided I probably couldn't hack or. I recorded a few of my songs, and sometimes listen to them, cringing all the while.   

Now for that obligatory, end of interview question... What do you wish I'd asked you in this interview?

Hm. Good question. Guess it would be something dealing with the role music plays in my creative process. I am very selective about what I listen to when I write, as my writing is pretty informed by what I'm hearing. For ATNAS, I listened to a good deal of Bjork, Sigur Ros, and Joanna Newsom. I'm not sure if you would ever be able to identify what or how they were influential when reading the book, but I can . And that's important.


Thank-you to Andy for answering these questions. If you have any more for him, pop them in the comments and maybe we can bully him into answering them. Better still, if you get a chance to check out any of his work, grab it - I thoroughly reccommend it!

6 comments:

  1. Great interview - I'm a massive fan of listening to Joanna Newsom whilst writing too - she has such a way with words and creating new worlds out of them.

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    1. Paul loves Joanna Newsom too. I hadn't heard of her before we got married and was like, "Who on earth is this?!". Crazy. But sort of brilliant. Paul also loves Bjork and Sigur Ros so Andy and Paul are a musical match made in heaven. I have to have silence when I write.

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  2. Joanna Newsom, but no Kate Bush - how can this be?! It's always good to get inside another writer's head and understand their journey from wishing to writing to publication. Thanks for sharing this with us, Chloe, and all the best for the future, Andy.

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    1. Showing your age... :)

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    2. True :o) Although Anne has some JN and a whole lot of Bjork. I still listen to Hazel O'Connor's Breaking Glass sometimes...

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  3. Chloe,

    Thanks for this awesome feature! Honored to be included here. Also, exciting that so many people like Joanna Newsom! More soon,

    Andy

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