Our very own Edinburgh-based and award winning writer Justin Lee Anderson joins us in Interview Corner to talk about writing, DC comic superheroes and the writers who have influenced him - and why he's definitely a wizard in D&D!
Justin was a professional writer and editor for 15 years before his debut novel, Carpet Diem, was published in 2015. He wrote restaurant and theatre reviews, edited magazines about football and trucks, published books about fishing and golf, wrote business articles and animation scripts, and spent four years as the writer, editor and photographer for an Edinburgh guide book.
Justin now writes full-time and is a partner in his own publishing company. He also writes scripts with his wife Juliet, who he met through the BBC Last Laugh scriptwriting competition.
1: Tell us what you’re working on at the moment.
I was writing the sequel to Carpet Diem (you can read Phil's review of Carpet Diem here) until a few weeks ago when I had to accept that I can’t write comedy under the stress I’m feeling at the moment (and I’m sure everyone else is too!), so I’ve switched to writing the second book in the Eidyn trilogy instead, which is going much better.
2: How long have you been writing? What got you started in the first place?
Well, I guess that depends on what you define as starting! I remember writing a short story at school when I was 9 and that was probably the first time I really felt the thrill of it. We were told to write a page of A4 and I was the only one who took that to mean both sides! I did it again in my teens - we had an assignment to write a new chapter for the end of a book we’d just read in English, and my teacher had me read it out to the class because he liked it so much. At university I tried writing a comic book with an artist friend, but nothing came of it. I was in my late twenties, I think, around 2002 when I started writing Carpet Diem, but then I got distracted by doing well in a scriptwriting competition in 2005 and spent a lot of years focusing more on that. It wasn’t until about 2010, after a business I was a partner in, failed thanks to the global financial crash, that I started focusing on writing CD again. I finished it sometime in 2011/12 and started submitting it to agents. We then unexpectedly moved from France back to Scotland, and it wasn’t until 2015 that it was picked up by a small indie publisher. So either 9 or late twenties, I suppose, depending on where you count from!
What got me started? I just wanted to do it. I wanted to tell stories. I grew up the son of a professional football player and I think, from that, I always had the desire to do something I enjoyed for a living if at all possible. I tried acting for a bit, and it didn’t take, but it took me years to realise writing might actually be an option.
3: Tell us about a book you’ve read recently that you really enjoyed.
I read a fair bit of grimdark fantasy, but I need to read the right genre for what I’m writing, so until I switched the book I was writing, I was reading comedy. As soon as I switched to straight fantasy, I picked up two books I’d been gagging to read since they came out, Bloodchild by Anna Stephens and A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie. Both are brilliant, brutal, bloody masterpieces, with a huge, sweeping scope and a wonderful array of characters. However, if either author is new to you, go back and start at the beginning, don’t dive in here! Start with Godblind for Anna Stephens and The Blade Itself for Joe Abercrombie.
4: Do you treat your characters well or do they suffer as they move through their adventures? To what extent do they suffer? Are you really mean to them? A sadist even?
I don’t think I’m a sadist, but I definitely want a sense of danger. People are going to die. Nobody is safe. I think it’s important you establish that in a fantasy novel like mine, so that the threats actually mean something. If you know the characters are all safe, then the emotional impact is massively reduced. So yes, they will suffer. In Carpet Diem, the comedy element means suffering is less essential, but I think killing someone’s entire family in the prologue probably counts as suffering…
5: Which of your characters do you connect with best? Is that because you can empathise with them or because they’re there to do your bidding?
In The Lost War, Aranok, the main character, is based on a character I roleplayed for years, so definitely him, on the whole, but there are necessarily aspects of me in all the characters, I suppose. In CD, I think I’m split between Simon and Harriet. Simon embodies an almost childish inner sense of justice and fairness, whereas Harriet is the bitter, angry drunk side who says exactly what’s on her mind and fuck the consequences. Writing Harriet is wonderful, because I get to say all the things that I would never get away with in real life - and imagine some new things, too!
6: Plotter or Pantser?
Somewhere in the middle. I pantsed most of CD. In fact, I dreamt a huge part of the middle section of the book. The Lost War, however, I would never have been able to pants. It’s too complex. I came up with the concept, which defines the ending, and then worked backwards from there, adding in plot points I wanted to hit and a few twists and turns, and then I wrote between them. I definitely don’t plot out scenes and stuff the way I know some people do. I kind of know where my next waystation is and I see what happens en route.
7: Tell us what really (really!) matters when you’re world building. What features, in other words, are you likely to obsess about?
Distance and travel. Logic and internal consistency. My friend who is also our GM made me up a map, and I sat and talked him through the overall plot and when people would go where, and only then did I realise I needed a major change because the timing didn’t work at all! He then gave me a version with a 5-mile hex, I researched how far people can travel on horse and on foot, and I started working out how long journeys would take. Then I got an excel spreadsheet and used it to keep track of where everyone was on what day in order to make sure timings made sense. I did not want anyone teleporting around the country ‘because plot’.
8: If you got the chance, what film or TV franchise would you write for? What would happen in it if you were in charge?
The DC movie universe. Specifically Batman. I grew up on DC comics. Ben Affleck was brilliant as Bruce, but the films were a mess, mostly, in my opinion, due to studio interference and asking too much, for example, of Batman v Superman in a rush to catch up with the excellent MCU. But I still think Affleck and Cavill are the best Bruce and Clark we’ve ever had onscreen, and I love Gal Gadot as Diana, too. The tone of the Aquaman film was wrong, though, and Justice League was a jumbled mess. Shazam was fun, though! All that said, I still think it could be saved by learning from the MCU and focusing on individual movies for several years, getting the right directors and writers (including me, obvs) in and working from there. The MCU created a brilliant blueprint for a comics universe but WB were too greedy to follow it, and their shortcuts made for some really flawed movies. That said, the BvS extended edition was a much better movie than the cinematic release, and I also think Man of Steel and BvS had the most comics-accurate representation of Clark and Lois, as well as the most realistic Superman fight we’ve ever had onscreen. I’d love to see the Snyder cut of Justice League.
As you may be able to tell, I’ve thought about this.
9: Your novel ‘Carpet Diem’ won awards and helped establish you as An Author. You’re now professional, a goal for lots of writers. What got you there? What made a difference?
Blind luck! Honestly, I’m in a ridiculously fortunate position and I’m grateful for it every day. Essentially, I was struggling to write for years after CD was published for a number of life reasons. But a friend approached me, who rated Carpet Diem as one of his favourite books of all time, and asked if he could help me to write full time. So, essentially, we went into business together, with him funding our own company and paying me to write books for us to publish. Not everyone has a wealthy friend who believes in supporting artists, so this is not a route that will work for many people, I’m afraid. I guess writing a good first book opened the door, but the rest really was down to good luck and good intentions. He considers it a long-term investment and I consider myself very fortunate.
10: What role suits you best in Dungeons and Dragons?
Wizard. I’m always a magic user of some sort. I like to take a wide, strategic view of any fight and being able to throw things around the place is always fun!
11: Following on from the previous question; Justin the Warrior. What’s he like? What weapons would he use?
Ooh. Depends on the setting, but with my recently acquired addiction to Beat Saber, I’m going to say dual-wielding swords is my way to go - whether they’re light sabers or short swords! Having said that, I’ve always liked archers, like Allandria in The Lost War or The Dogman in Joe Abercrombie’s books. So maybe I should be an archer who is also handy with swords. Which, actually, is also Allandria.
12: Does being Scottish have any influence on your as a writer? In terms of the national culture, its literary traditions or the way of life generally?
I suppose it must do. Edinburgh is certainly my default setting for most things. The country of Eidyn is based on the history, mythology and etymology of Edinburgh. I was conscious of wanting to write a Scottish fantasy with Eidyn, so yes, I suppose it’s a big influence. But I also grew up in America for eleven years, and I think that more international perspective also affects me. I tend to see the world as a whole instead of from a parochial perspective, I think, and I guess that affects the way I think about everything from history and politics to culture and society.
13: Who have been the writers who have influenced you? Any specific books?
Oh, lots. From a comedy perspective, Tom Holt and Jasper Fforde probably strongest. It’s funny, CD gets compared with Pratchett and Adams the most, and I get that, but I’ve actually read very little of them. Only maybe 4/5 Pratchett books and HHGTTG. I’m much more influenced by Holt and Fforde.
Outside comedy, Neil Gaiman has been a huge influence on me, from Sandman to American Gods. Piers Anthony got me into fantasy as a kid and Joe Abercrombie got me back into it as an adult. Patrick Rothfuss, Anna Stephens and Ed McDonald have been my other favourite fantasy authors since I started reading it again and all have influenced me. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s work is phenomenally beautiful and I also like a bit of Scandi noir like Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo. They’ve all fed into my style and my process of learning to be a better writer.
14: Social media is a thing that writers need to understand and commit to it. Do you? What purpose does it serve?
Yes. I’m pretty active on Facebook and Twitter and less so on Instagram. Firstly, Facebook ads are the lifeblood of my sales. I can literally track Facebook ad click trends against sales. So it’s crucial. But it’s also important for building a community and getting to know people. I use Facebook for building rapport and relationships with readers, whereas Twitter is more about building relationships with the community of writers and bloggers. Five years ago I didn’t understand how getting to know other authors would help my career, and now I realise it’s been the bedrock of my career. The SFFH community on Twitter in particular is so welcoming, open and helpful, with everyone buoying each other up. I’m so glad I found my way into it.
The most important advice I would give anyone getting into social media is this: do not go into it thinking of new ways to say “buy my book” every day. Be yourself, engage with people and get into conversations. Be genuine. Once you establish yourself, you can punt your books every now and again, but genuine engagement is the way to use social media. If you’re lucky, you’ll also make some good friends out of it.
15: You probably get asked this a lot, but we have some people in this community who are just starting out – what advice have you got to anyone who wants a writing career?
Read a lot. Read the genre you want to write in. Think about what you’re reading and what you like, and why you like it. Do the same with TV and movies. Analyse them as you watch them. Learn the elements of good storytelling and how to use them. Write in your own voice and tell your own story, don’t try to be someone else or fit into a hole. Write for the story and the characters, not for the market. Think about what you want to say with your story. Find something real and put it on the page. Repeat.
16: Where can people find you on the internet? Give us some links.
Thanks for letting us interview you, Justin! Good luck with your continued writing! And if our readers are interested? That amazing profile picture is a Victorian glass plate taken by Justin's friend Gregg McNeill at Darkbox Images.