Interview: Mike Gerrard

Mike Gerrard is a travel writer who is now turning to fiction. He’s doing some self-publishing, and I know a lot you out there will relate to the things he says. What’s more, I really liked this answer when I asked about writer’s block: You don’t get plumber’s block or even musicians block or artists block, so why should writers be allowed to have a block?

LOL! I think this is an interview you’ll really enjoy.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I grew up in St Helens, an industrial town in the north of England. I still feel very connected to it, even though it’s not the prettiest place on earth. It has character, though. I now live part of the year in Cambridgeshire in England, and the rest in Green Valley, in Arizona – which is a bit of a contrast. I knew I wanted to be a writer from about the age of 7 or 8, when I loved being allowed to use my dad’s typewriter. He wrote in his spare time, a weekly humour column for the local paper, and he was a very good Lancashire dialect poet, with many of his poems recorded and broadcast. I just never imagined I’d end up as a travel writer.

Tell us about your latest book. What do you hope readers take away from it?

I’ve recently self-published a selection of my travel writing called Snakes Alive: and Other Travel Writing. Some of the pieces won awards, and it seemed a shame that they only now lurked on my hard drive as they were done mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s, when publications didn’t have websites. That’s the reason I still had the right to publish them. These days newspapers and magazines expect you to hand over all rights to them, so they can exploit your work everywhere, without paying you a penny extra for it. So in a way I’m getting my own back. It’s nice that the book simply exists, and I hope readers might be inspired to travel to some of the places I write about – like Jamaica, Guatemala, Armenia, the Cook Islands. The world is full of wonderful places and experiences.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

Next is to self-publish my first crime novel, Strip till Dead. That’s a bit scary. I know I can write travel pieces and guidebooks, but once you know you can do something, maybe it’s time to challenge yourself and try writing something different. I’ve been submitting the novel, or outlines of it, to agents for a while, but have really grown tired of the lengthy waits you have to endure. I can take rejection – you shouldn’t be a writer if you can’t take rejection. What I can’t take is waiting 4-5 months, even longer, and still not hearing back from people at all, even if you send them polite reminders. And most publishers won’t even look at a novel if it doesn’t come through an agent. It’s not as if I’m a novice, and on top of my published writing which, as I say, has won awards, I also used to work for a literary agent in London before I became a freelance writer, so I have been around a bit. If I carry on submitting I could die from old age before I even get through the first half of the potential agents in the Writer’s Market. So I decided I would rather get it out there, and hope to find at least a few readers who might enjoy the book. Fortunately the opportunity to self-publish through services like Createspace, Kindle, and Smashwords has come along just as my frustration with the existing publishing world had reached bursting point.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

My word, that’s a question that will need some thought. It might be Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, which i read after seeing the film of it. I loved the film so much I went back to the cinema and watched it again the next night. That introduced me to her work, and from seeing the film I went on to read everything she ever wrote. I think it’s interesting when you come across something that is powerful and mysterious. You can’t put your finger on exactly what the story is ‘about’. It just is, and makes you think about many different things.

Favorite authors?

Flannery O’Connor, obviously, and before her John Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men when I was a teenager, and it moved me enormously. It was so simple that even a teenager in an industrial town in the north of England could enjoy it, and also connect with it even though the world it described was so far removed from my own experiences. I think some of Steinbeck’s short novels like The Red Pony and the Pearl are among his finest works, but of course The Grapes of Wrath is magnificent. I don’t read a lot of travel writing but Paul Theroux is probably my favourite contemporary travel writer, and Norman Lewis an all-time great.

Book you’re currently reading?

Well, I just finished Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, which was amazingly good – managing to be both ‘literary’ and hilariously funny, which is not a common combination. And I’m now a few pages into George V Higgins’s Kennedy for the Defense. I read a lot of crime and tend to alternate a crime novel with a non-fiction book or a literary novel. I’m loving what I’ve read of the Higgins book so far. I enjoy crime writing that also makes me laugh, like Elmore Leonard (the genius) and Carl Hiassen.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

I don’t right now as I’m juggling so many things. The difficulty with self-publishing is that you have to switch from being a writer to being a publisher, and all that business and promotion side of it takes a lot of time. But when I embark on a long project – and I am ready to start a 2nd crime novel – then for me it’s a case of getting up early, like 6am or so, and spending an hour or two on the creative writing. That’s when I write my best, early morning. If I can get a few hours in like that, I can then ease off a little and switch to other projects, or re-reading, or plotting where the book’s going to go.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Reading, number one. I now spend so much time working that it’s hard to find time to read, like I used to as a teenager. I remember reading the Old Man and the Sea in one sitting one Saturday night, and you can’t beat being able to immerse yourself in a book like that for several hours. But we did take time off over Christmas and New Year and spent a few hours reading, and it was wonderful. I also love music, like Lucinda Williams and Tom Russell, I enjoy cooking and eating and wine, and watching the birds in our garden. We discovered yesterday that we have a pair of hummingbirds living in our pyracantha, and hopefully going to be nesting. That gives me so much pleasure, my heart soars when I see something like that.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

I’ve never had it and don’t believe in it. You don’t get plumber’s block or even musicians block or artists block, so why should writers be allowed to have a block? When you have a deadline, and you won’t get paid till you finish the piece, you can’t afford to have a block. Sit down and write it.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

Someone who writes what they want to write, and makes a decent living from it.

Advice for other writers?

You could write a book about that, but was it Norman Mailer who was asked what the secret was, and he said ‘show up’. I think it was PG Wodehouse who said the secret was ‘apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’. And Philip Larkin said that there’s one sure way to get published and that’s to write something very good. I can’t do better than what those three very different writers said, and all basically saying the same thing.

Where can we learn more about you?

My travel writing side is covered on my website, www.mikegerrard.com, and I think you’ll learn more of who I am as a person if you read my collection of travel writing, Snakes Alive. That obviously sounds like a plug but it’s also true – you can find out what someone is like by seeing how they react to very different situations, and what they enjoy about the world that we live in.

Anything else you’d like to add?

People often write to me and ask how they can become travel writers. I used to reply in some detail till I realised no-one ever, once, wrote back and said ‘thank you’. So now I keep the answer simple, but it says all you need to know – travel a lot, write a lot, and send your work to as many editors as possible.

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