Interview with David Neilson
Of course, the first question is always…what inspired you to start writing fiction?
Prior to Sophie my record was patchy: I’d always written, and had small things published, but nothing of scale, no long fiction projects. In the mid-nineties, while I was turning out reams of promotional copy for work, I could sense something different building up inside. It felt like a noirish text, some kind of PI story, but I couldn’t get any focus, any feeling of something distinctive. In those days, though living in Scotland, I might find myself in Central Europe three or four times a year, and this must have inspired my setting, the world of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia. The moment I fixed on that, literally the instant, Sophie appeared out of nowhere. With her — a widowed, Rococo, pistol for hire — I felt immediately at home, and didn’t encounter the familiar old blocks.
Serene is the third book in your Sophie Rathenau series — did you think you’d be writing a series when you began the first book?
The Prussian Dispatch took up all of my energies at the time. Within weeks of finishing the first draft, I was in talks with a very desirable publisher (a species of polar bird) who introduced me to the notion of the two-book deal. All of this went horribly wrong, and although I completed a second book, it was the best part of two decades before I thought of returning to the series.
Do you know where the series is going and what are some of the ideas you are going to explore?
Sophie, I now know, is headed from the extreme isolation of her opening paragraphs (something more painful than she acknowledges) to a settled if not quite comfortable place in society, with responsibilities more personal than to her clients. She’s going to have to confront her heart about the unwilling violence she’s been involved in, and the emotion she’s been inclined to dodge will surely catch up with her.
How much time have you put into the research for the series, and how difficult has it been to keep the information authentic?
I wouldn’t expect any reader to view the tone and proposition of the stories as authentic: the homage to noir is so strong that it wouldn’t surprise me to find Sophie on surveillance with coffee and a bag of German doughnuts. (Which are called Berliner and don’t have holes in them.)
On the other hand, paying close attention to eighteenth-century daily life, I’d be ashamed to commit a serious faux pas in that department. However, I prefer turning up unexpected items (like the pistol adapted to sparking off fires and candles, or the pinball machine from the Berlin Historical Museum) to cloning the staples of the historical novel. I love the texture and pace that arises from unfamiliar objects of the time. Novels of the period can’t be mined for useful background, since eighteenth-century writers don’t have our interest in telling you what their world looks like: they suppose you know already. Travel memoirs, with their instinct for surprise, are much more promising: they’re packed with things you’d never foresee, like the reluctant chimney-sweep goose with a rope around its leg.
What excites you about the past and the possibilities of writing stories set in the past?
Unconsciously (as I now think) I turned to the past in defence, avoiding conflicts experienced by women today, which are matters on which no one needs my two-cents’ worth. More positively, however, I’m powerfully drawn to Mitteleuropa, the Central Europe in which I now live, and would like to give readers a stronger insight into the great and sophisticated society which once existed here. The idea that a German/Austrian setting must imply World Wars I or II, or the Cold War thereafter, is something I conspire to undermine. It’s fun, too, to write stories of intrigue in which cars, cell phones and computers play no part. Above and beyond all that, there’s the possibility of writing a novel which is more than a historical re-enactment. My inspiration isn’t the novel at all, but something like Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, which, though constantly making reference to a past it adores, enjoys the idiom of its own day.
Has there been any point where you’ve been stuck in the mystery side of the novels, and what techniques did you use to get the story flowing again?
The action sequences occur as logical story outcomes (I hope) but they have a tendency to bog me down, and I can find myself sketching and mapping Sophie’s battlefields. I flatter myself that the books betray a lively visual imagination, but tracking three-dimensional movement inside my head is another question, so for example I had to model the overturned carriage in The Prussian Dispatch just to find out where the new top side was.
I also needed a chart to remind me where the eponymous dispatch got to day by day. Diagramming, plotting, revisiting motive, hunting out more plausible reactions in characters, figuring out the likely results of some explosive event, are all ways of keeping the story moving. My worry, however, will usually be how I can turn some rigmarole of a scene into something fresh and unusual, rather than where the mystery’s going: my very unfortunate reaction to most murder mysteries is not to give a hoot who did it.
What prompted the decision to begin self-publishing?
Sophie’s a tough sell: painful to admit, but true. She’s pretty inward; the books are, shall we say, more richly textured than the market requires; and agents and publishers, by and large, lacked confidence that they’d shift enough copies. Self-publishing offers a way of realizing a series which is more important to me than any market-orientated work I could devise. It won’t make me rich or famous, but as things are, as long as someone claps for Tinkerbell every so often, she stays alive. That’s the main thing for me.
What is your process for self-publishing? And what are the tools and services you prefer to use to get to the finished product?
The texts are critted chapter by chapter on the writers’ site Scribophile.com, and editing and proofing are meticulous: much re-reading, running text through style analysis programs for those foolish snags that evade every human eye, and having the computer read to me while I scan the text with pencil in hand. I’ve been blessed both on the editing and on the production fronts through the work of Sharon K Miller, author of The Clay Series. Not only has Sharon preserved me from my wilder linguistic whimsies; she’s also turned out what seem to me pretty attractive volumes.
Your cover art is always extraordinary — was that your own design?
Essentially. The titling’s by a graphic artist who bailed out halfway through the production of The Prussian Dispatch. It’s so beautifully clear that I wanted to keep it. Otherwise, I enjoy getting out my toybox and putting together a tableau of related effects. I’m sure it was wisest to avoid any representation of Sophie on the covers.
How much time does the marketing and promotion of the books take?
An enormous amount. The truth is, I don’t know how any normal person goes to work, runs a home, writes, self-publishes, and promotes adequately. If I were to attempt to do all that I’d spend sixteen hours a day at a desk, so in my sane phases I realise that I don’t truly want to be a writing success. It’s worth noting that traditional publication makes similar demands of authors: if there’s one thing that agents and publishers like, it’s a huge following for your blog or Twitter account before your book comes out. I have a database crammed with good ideas for promotion, and I really do mean to look at it again and take its advice. Sometime soon.
Do you have any recommendations for authors who are self-publishing in relation to marketing?
The most important recommendation, I’m sure, is to be clear about what you want from the book or series, and to understand your product. That’s the essential, the most basic, marketing stance. If the sole thing preserving you from living in your car is sales from writing, then you mustn’t do what I do, which is to write what’s engraved on my heart. Once every fifty million times, like an unlooked-for lottery win, that’ll work; but mostly that approach won’t sell, however hard you push it. If your need for cash is urgent, or if fame is your prize, then for goodness sake find out what’s stamped on everyone else’s heart and write that instead.
Can you give us a few details of what happens next for Sophie?
In the fourth book, Kobold, set in Silesia, she’s pursuing family secrets, and in the fifth she’s in Ottoman Constantinople. Thereafter the criminal background of her Vienna will shift, dragging her into crises exactly as her personal life gets more complicated. A character from chapter 3 of The Prussian Dispatch, whom no one noticed at the time and who shows up briefly in Serene, will turn Sophie’s life upside down. Before book 7, the last of the series, is over, her deepest convictions will be challenged.