Steve Hollyman Talks the Writing Life

Who would ever want to be a writer? It’s a poorly paid profession, near-impossible to get your foot in the door, and has been known to drive would-be Hemingways to drink and despair – including, sadly, the man himself. But rather than squirreling away to your local coffee shop to bleed all over your typewriter, why not simply enjoy the writing of it all? Experiment, challenge yourself, hone your craft. Abandon it too early and it’ll draw you back in.

Once you’ve got a completed manuscript on your hands, however, that’s the difficult part over. Then, it’s on to the second difficult part. Raising eyebrows. Today, writer Steve Hollyman talks routines, the writing instinct, mis-attributed quotes, what to expect from his upcoming novels, and how to make a living as a writer.

How has your writing changed since your first novel?

It’s often the case that a writer’s first published novel is not actually the first novel they’ve written. In my case, though, the first book I ever finished is Lairies, which is being published next year by Influx Press. So, when I was working on it, I was very much finding my feet as a writer. I was figuring stuff out as I went along. There were various points at which I thought it was finished, but I always ended up going back to it. I’m still working on it now, with my editor. There’s some truth in the old adage that novels are never finished, they are only ever abandoned. The trick is to know when to abandon it, and for me that point comes when I love it for its flaws and not in spite of them.

Nowadays, when I write, I’m always trying to see the bigger picture. I’m always trying to think of the novel as a piece of machinery in which every word, every sentence, every paragraph, is actively doing something, in the same way that every screw and cog in a machine is there to serve a specific purpose. It’s not enough to put something in just because I like it, or because I think it’s funny, or whatever. So I’ve become much more ruthless in my self-editing.

In terms of the actual style of my writing, it’s always been quite visceral and, in some cases, extreme, and I don’t think that has really changed. It’s not something I ever really thought much about until other people picked up on it. So the themes and topics I’m writing about are different, but I think the writing itself – in terms of the rhythms, the syntax, the tone, and the fact it’s driven primarily by instinct – is pretty similar.

What can we expect from your second and third novels, ‘Esc&Ctrl’ and ‘Universe City’?

Esc&Ctrl was really good fun to write because it’s very experimental both in terms of form and content. I wanted to mess about with the idea of what text can do on a page. So I played around with footnotes and typography, and included multiple narrative strands and frames. I built in an interactive transmedia element where three of the characters used social media to interact with real readers, and these interactions helped shape the plot in real time. I was just trying to push myself and try something that interested me. It’s not a long novel – it’s only about 60,000 words – but it’s quite a complex one.

In terms of Universe City, it’s too early to say, really, because I’m still figuring it out. What I can say is that it’s more literary than Lairies, and more conventional than Esc&Ctrl. It’s a psychological thriller, set on a university campus. I think it might end up being quite a long book – I never used to have the patience for long novels but I’ve been enjoying them a lot lately. I want to be able to explore multiple sub-plots and delve into the characters’ back stories a bit. Aside from that, I don’t really know!

Is it true what Hemingway said about drinking and editing?

I believe you’re referring to the (apparently misattributed) quote ‘write drunk, edit sober’…? Well, I’m very much an all-or-nothing type of person. I always used to write with a gin and tonic to hand, which means I’d write drunk and edit drunk. Then I quit drinking three years ago, and so now I write sober and edit sober. I don’t think there has really been any effect on my writing, though. I do think I’m a better writer now than I used to be, but I don’t think that has anything to do with not drinking anymore. I think it’s just because you get better as you practice, and also as you read more. I’m still a really long way from where I want to be, though. Pretty much every week I’ll read something that’s just so well-crafted, and so perfectly put together with no broken edges, that it makes me think, ‘No matter how long I do this, I’ll never come close to being able to write like that…’ You just have to keep on trying, I suppose!

Do you have any peculiar writing rituals?

I used to write in the pub, now I write at home, but there aren’t really any ‘rituals’ as such. When I sit down to write, I’m aiming for at least 1000 words in a session, and that’s always been the same. I write very quickly because for me it’s all about getting the idea out and then editing it afterwards. So it’s quite rare that I’ll sit for twenty minutes and try to construct a perfect sentence. When I get a significant chunk of words – say, 20,000 words or so – I go back over it and start refining it – try to link bits together and pick apart the threads.

Thoughts on day jobs for would-be writers? How difficult is it to make a living?

My opinion is that it’s probably difficult to make a living from being a novelist with no other source of income, but it’s not too hard at all to make a living by constructing your own ‘portfolio career’ out of the various bits and pieces that come under the umbrella of creative writing. So aside from writing novels, I teach creative writing to university students, which I’ve been doing since 2011. I absolutely love that job, and I learn a lot from my students just as they, I would hope, learn a lot from me! I’ve also worked as a copywriter, and a magazine editor, and a feature writer for a newspaper, and as a corporate communications executive. So there are certainly creative writing jobs out there, if you know where to look. I’ve found it to be a really rewarding and enjoyable way of life and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will affect print publishing?

Well, anything that causes bookshops to close, and prevents events like the London Book Fair, or readings, signings and other author events from happening, is bound to have an impact on the world of print publishing. But having said that, I know that lots of publishers, especially indie publishers, are doing really cool stuff to keep things ticking over during these challenging times. My own publisher, Influx Press, has launched an eBook subscription service and every Thursday they’re posting a series of online chats – called the Lockdown Discussions – to YouTube. I also read recently that there has been a surge in online book sales since the lockdown – I guess people have more time to read at the moment. I’d urge everyone to support publishers wherever possible – especially independent ones. The same goes for independent bookshops who are also having to weather this unprecedented storm.

Check out Steve’s Facebook page for more info on his work:

Written by Steve Hollyman and Michael Conroy.

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