An Interview with Ewan Lawrie, Author of Gibbous House
Posted by Luke Neima on Mon, 15 Sep 2014
Ewan Lawrie, a long-time editor on ABCtales, is two-thirds of the way to publishing his historical novel Gibbous House on Unbound. If you haven't already, have a look at the short movie and the excerpt of the book on his Unbound page.
Gibbous House was written in serial form on ABCtales - and influenced by many of you. Ewan talked to us about that process, about intertextuality and the identity of the mysterious Moffat.
'Moffat is an imposter, a good one, for everyone takes him at face value ... We never know, really, who he is. A man living a lie may be telling us many in the course of his narrative.'
Why do you write?
It started as a way of killing time. I used to fly in the rear of a large aircraft monitoring communications in various languages - like many military endeavours this involved long periods of boredom punctuated by sharp intense periods of excitement.
When I first started the computers were very rudimentary and there was plenty of paper available. When we unloaded, if the paper stocks had diminished the crew would know I had been writing. Some of it was awful, some of it was funny - at least that's what they told me.
Do you plan your work out in advance, or do you just take it as it comes?
In the old days I just took my pen for a walk. To a certain extent I still do. If I've got a large-scale work on the go I'll make a few notes about key plot points after the event, but more as a continuity thing rather than a plotting technique. I don't generally do much editing - I'm more inclined to redraft. I can't actually do outlines. If I try, it starts off okay and suddenly I find myself writing a narrative.
What was it like writing the novel and serialising it on ABC at the same time?
Serialising Gibbous House in its initial draft was great, great fun. In some ways, it made for a very episodic storyline, which isn't too drastic but it's something to bear in mind at a redrafting/re-editing stage. But the main effect of having readers input on the novel was that instead of having Moffat murder Ellen Pardoner, I made her into his romantic interest.
There is a lot of architecture and art in Gibbous House - where does all this come from? What inspires you?
When I was young I was taken on a visit to Abbotsford - the home of Sir Walter Scott (a guided tour is still available as a pledge reward on Unbound). It is a Scottish (mock) Baronial extravagance. Incidentally, the Duke's Grammar School in Alnwick, which I attended in the 1970s, also had a main building in the mock Baronial style.
Gormenghast was a favourite at about this age, and I enjoyed the way Peake created a house that was clearly impossible. I do like over the top buildings. I've visited Versailles, Neuschwanstein (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and a number of Puzzle and Calendar Houses. Regarding Neuschwanstein in Bavaria - Ludwig's life-story is wilder than Fleming's children's tale any day of the week.
Do you work with a lot of historical references?
I've used an old copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica for years. Usually I'm just checking for facts. Nowadays I use on-line resources (and sources): primary and secondary sources are best. The book which I found most useful when writing Gibbous House was Mayhew's London Characters and Crooks.
Gibbous House is very intertextual - how did writers like Dickens and Poe influence your writing?
For me Dickens has been much maligned over the last 70 years. Taking writers out of their historical context is not always fair to them. The best of Dickens is worthy of all the praise and fame he enjoyed while alive, the worst, well, that kind of prodigious output is bound to prove erratic in quality at times. But I always enjoy the complexity of Dickens's sentences, which are almost like Latin periods.
Poe is an interesting figure for me, too; the inventor – some say – of the detective story, a writer of truly macabre fiction and a strangely arresting poet. I've tried for some of the macabre feel in parts of Gibbous House.
I know some writers, readers and editors who cannot abide intertextuality. They hate it, they believe that no writing should refer to anything outside itself. For me this is denying the writer's own culture. I do believe that the writing should stand on its own - the work must be readable for its own sake - intertextuality is something extra to look forward to.
Your protagonist Moffat is such an odd, duplicitous character - what inspired him?
Moffat is an imposter, a good one, for everyone takes him at face value. Just writing that sentence makes me think about the meaning of the words themselves. We never know, really, who Moffat is. A man living a lie may be telling us many in the course of his narrative. I sometimes wonder if he forgets who he is himself. What I like most about him is that he's not half so clever as he thinks he is (maybe I am writing what I know here).
There are many examples of the imposter in fiction, from the Count of Monte Cristo via the Prince and the Pauper to Don Draper. It's an interesting device. Jedediah Maccabi's appearance seems in direct contradiction to his Jewishness, but does this make him any less a Jew? Or do fine clothes and decent manners make Moffat any less a murderer? I could go on, but you get the idea.
What got you writing in a historical mode? What's the purpose of it?
Well it's a great excuse for some florid description, isn't it? I like the idea of creating a different world using words. I like to think I can write terse, Brautiganian prose with the best of them, but the truth is almost nobody can. However, I do keep my hand in writing material with a modern setting. Perhaps people would recognise my 'voice' in an anonymous piece, I don't know.
Purpose? Well, I'd be pleased to hear my book described as an entertainment. Historical fiction is a different way of looking at the past. However hard we try, we'll be looking through the prism of present attitudes and mores. I like the idea of fixing the time - in this case the Victorian era - through the language, dress and customs, but writing as if the writers had been a little less restricted by the moral climate of the time.
The world of publishing is changing. Where do you think writing - and reading - is going?
It may be a controversial way of looking at it, but some things appear to be going full circle. Dickens and Mark Twain's (amongst many others') book sales were often by subscription. Is this so very different from what Print On Demand or even Unbound and ABCTales are trying to achieve?
The electronic market is a huge market, although people are rightly worried about the flood of self-published, poorly proofed work. The P-word is on everybody's lips. Is it likely that what happened to the audio CD will happen to books? I don't think so, but nobody actually knows, do they?
I have some short stories with a publisher called Ether Books: they produce short fiction for mobile phones, something unheard of only a couple of years ago. This is just one example of how the market is changing. Embrace the change, it's coming whether we like it or not.
Gibbous House is well on its way to being funded on Unbound - but as a special incentive Ewan would like to offer the person who takes Gibbous House to 100% a free (or extra) invitation to the launch party - where you'll get to hob-nob with the man himself and receive his personal thanks. If you haven't already pre-ordered your copy of the novel, embrace the change and pledge now.