Today on the the blog we have David M.Barnett on the blog talking about his writing, David Bowie and his new book, Calling Major Tom.
You began your writing career as a journalist; did shifting from writing fact to fiction change the way you write? How?
I still write a lot of journalism; it’s the bulk of my working day, to be honest. And I wrote fiction for a long time while I had a full-time newspaper job, so the two have always gone hand in hand. I think, for me, it’s just different sides of the same coin. Journalism is about telling stories as much as fiction writing is, it just goes about it in a slightly different way. It’s like using different muscle groups; if you want to run a marathon, which is like writing a novel, then you train by doing a lot of running. If you want to, I dunno, punch through a wall, which sometimes journalism can feel like, then you work on those arm muscles! The best journalism is about people, as are the best novels, so the basic toolkit that allows you to get under the skin of people, be they characters you’re inventing or real people you’re writing about, comes from the same source, I think. And even when you’re writing fiction, no matter how fantastical it is, it has to be true and real and honest and logical, or it just won’t work for the reader.
David Bowie is clearly a big influence in Calling Major Tom; why did you decide to have him so connected to this story or did it just happen naturally?
It kind of happened naturally. The big kick-starter for Calling Major Tom was a news item at Christmas 2015 when the astronaut Tim Peake dialled a wrong number from the International Space Station and spoke to a grandmother in the UK by accident. But two weeks later Bowie died, and those two things kind of crashed together in my head and became entwined, so it made sense to me that the character of Thomas, who is very grumpy and curmudgeonly, would take solace in music, and it would make sense he’d be a Bowie fan, and the fact of Bowie’s death would inform one of the crucial moments in the story that leads him going off into space.
Which is your favourite Bowie album and why?
That would be “The Best of David Bowie”, ha ha, sorry, just having an Alan Partridge moment there. No, I think I’d have to point to his early stuff… Hunky-Dory or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, because that’s the stuff I grew up with and it resonates a lot with my childhood. I found Bowie a bit scary but fascinating as a child, and the chameleon aspect of his character coupled with the fact he did a lot of weird and spacey stuff really stuck with me.
What kind of research did you have to do to make Calling Major Tom a believable space-set story?
Ah, man, like you wouldn’t believe. For about two days I was the world’s leading expert on Extra-Vehicular Activity — or spacewalks to you and me — and I sat there reading all these intensely unfathomable Nasa technical manuals just so I could roughly get something right for a sequence that lasts maybe two pages or so. That’s another thing that comes from journalism; you get to be an instant expert for something for a very short space of time and then your brain just shoves all this unnecessary information out once you’ve made use of it. The danger is that once you’ve absorbed all this stuff you get tempted to info-dump it all over the book, and the last thing a reader wants is pages and pages of technical stuff that has no real bearing on the plot or character development. For me, I just want to kind of look as though I know what I’m talking about just enough that any actual astronauts or Nasa technicians reading aren’t going to get furious about mistakes. By the same token, once you’ve got all this info ready, another journalistic adage often comes into play: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story (though I’ve never heard a journalist actually say that and mean it. We’re a very diligent bunch!)
Are there any other books or authors that have influenced you and that you’d recommend to others?
I tend to not be influenced by books, and I made a point of not reading anything remotely spacey while I was writing Calling Major Tom, but I am always in awe of great writing. I’ve been reading a lot from my Trapeze stablemates this year, and can heartily recommend Isabel Ashdown’s Little Sister, Tattletale by Sarah J Naughton, and The Devil’s Claw by Lara Dearman, all of which are fantastic thrillers. I’m currently reading a load of Robert Aickman’s short fiction… extremely weird and sometimes spooky but not overtly horror or supernatural. I heartily recommend digging out the four recent collections from Faber. I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman, and Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, and I have an absolute stack of books I’m dying to get into this summer… Rowan Coleman’s The Summer of Impossible Things, Julie Cohen’s Together just two I can see on the top of the teetering pile from here.
If you accidentally got a call from Major Tom, what would you want to talk about?
Good question! We’d talk about music, of course, and being 40-something men, and what makes us grumpy. I’d perhaps tell him that he needs to give people more of a chance… though it would probably be too late for that, as he’s already gone off into space!
What advice would you give to authors-in-waiting?
Finish. The. Book. If you want to get published, show that you can do the work, that’s what agents and editors want to see. We all see these stories about people who get signed up to book deals after writing two chapters, but those sort of things are rarer than hen’s teeth. Finish the book, put it away, go and do some real life, get it out, read it, revise it, and send it off. And publishing moves very slowly, so while you’re waiting for a response start another novel. That way, when the agent or editor comes back to you they can see that you’re serious about this writing malarkey and not going to be a one-trick pony.
What’s your next upcoming projects?
Well, I’m currently writing the follow-up to Calling Major Tom for Trapeze, which will be out in summer 2018 and is called The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, and is set in a quirky old folks’ retirement home on the Lancashire coast. I also have a comics project coming up, which I can’t talk about yet (I know! I hate it when people do that!) and also a lot of journalism work… you can generally find my stuff in the Guardian and Independent, among others. You can always find me on Twitter at @davidmbarnett and my website at davidmbarnett.co.uk where I intermittently post the latest news and links…
Many thanks to David for taking the time and answering my questions. Keep an eye on his social media and website (links in the last question) for more news on David’s new project and look out for Calling Major Tom in bookshops now.