Friday, February 27, 2015

Go East Young Man: William Burton McCormick

A two-time Derringer Award finalist, William Burton McCormick's fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and others. William has lived in seven countries including more than two years spent in Latvia, the setting of  Blue Amber. His first novel, Lenin's Harem, about the birth and death of the first Latvian independence, was recently deemed historically accurate enough to included in Latvia's War Museum's permanent library in Riga, a rare honor for a foreign writer of historical fiction. 

He is a member of the Crime Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society, and International Thriller Writers. He earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester, studied Russian language and history at Moscow State University and was elected a Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland in 2013. He was also Highly Commended for the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2010.

Welcome, Bill!
Thank you for having me, Jean. Great to be here.

 How did a boy from Maryland end up in Latvia? There has to be a story! Oh, yes, there's a story. In fact several.  But the shortest and simplest one is that I was living in Washington D.C., and planning on writing a thriller set in Eastern Europe. I didn't yet have a specific country as a setting for the novel, so I went to the Latvian Museum in RockvilleMaryland and bought some books on Latvia and its history. I was surprised at what I learned, fascinated and terrified about what had happened there and in the other Baltic States.  Later, after getting accepted in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Manchester, I managed to visit Latvia. At that point, I knew I'd have to live there if I was going to do any serious research for writing purposes.  So, I moved to Riga, fell in love with the city, and the rest is history.

What is it about Eastern Europe that inspires your writing? Many things. The cultural differences, the amazing history, the shadow of Soviets and the various politics of the individual governments, the tension between East and West, beautiful landscapes, beautiful architecture, ugly Soviet architecture, fascinating twists of history, the mix of societies within Eastern Europe (Ukrainian culture is very different than, say, Georgian culture), the changes in a post-Soviet world (if Mr. Putin will allow it), the continuing of religious faith underground during Soviet times, wonderful little nooks and crannies of places I discover walking around everyday.    On that last point, Mark Twain said real places are never on maps. He was right. Go there, see the details.

Your short stories have been  very successful: published in top mystery magazines and you’re a Derringer Award finalist, twice.  Are short stories your favourite genre? I certainly love short stories. Poe is one of my influences, and he believed the short story was a greater art form than the novel because intense emotion can only be maintained in a reader for a very short time.  When this is achieved, Poe thought, the story must end as soon as possible. That said, I love novels, and how a longer narrative evolves chapter to chapter.  I enjoy the intricate plotting of a novel.  So, I'd say they're about equal with me.

Which elements do you think makes the ideal short story? I don't think you can say there are universal and necessary elements to a short story, because as soon as you set those rules someone will break them in a brilliant way.  Obviously, as a general guideline, a short story should start as much as possible 'in the action" because of its necessary brevity.  Though that rule could be applied to novels as well, couldn't it? Most novels are too long by half.

Do you stick to the rule that there must be a twist at the end?I love twist endings but they're challenging to do. More times than not the reader can see it coming, and, if so, then the twist isn't really a twist is it? There are lots of beautiful short stories without a twist, especially literary ones. How many twist endings does say James Joyce have?  That said, especially in the mystery or thriller genres, a twist ending is usually expected. I sometimes start with the twist and build backwards from there.

What are the greatest challenges in working within a limited word-count? I imagine every word must do exactly that - count!Having a limited word count is indeed challenging, but in a way it really tightens up your writing. You don't have the luxury of going on and on. It is why I increasingly find myself drawn to flash fiction. Trying to tell a whole story in less than 1000 or 500 words is really a great exercise for writers. You agonize over every adjective, restructure your sentences for brevity, and eliminate anything remotely extraneous.     You find out how to imply things you'd otherwise waste space explaining.  I think writing three or four flash fiction pieces is a good warm up for a longer short-story or even for writing the chapters of your novel. Less is more. In fact, of all the fiction I've written, my parents' favorite seems to be a 300 word short-short for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It's a complete story with intro, plot, twist and resolution in space only about twice as long as this question and answer.

Does the method of developing character differ? Do you stick to a small cast?
You certainly don't have the space to develop characters, so, for me, I absolutely have to stick to a small cast. It's also so difficult in a short story to switch points of view. I've done it, others do it, but a lot of creative writing types will tell you that it's better to keep the view to one character in a short story.

Have you ever started writing a short story and thought, this has the potential to be a novel?
No. In fact, I've often had the opposite experience where I decide while writing a novel that the plot would be better served as a short story or novella.

Let’s talk about your new book, the novella Blue Amber. By the way, I love the jacket ;) and it’s an intriguing title. Why did you choose Blue Amber?
Yes, that jacket is just brilliant, isn't it? Clearly made by a simply fabulous artist who will probably wish to remain humbly nameless despite her stunning talent? Or does she? ;) Blushing and moving on quickly
    As for Blue Amber, well, without giving away the plot, I wanted the character of Fricis to find something very valuable on that beach, and a rare form of amber seemed logical. Originally I considered "red amber", as I liked how "red" hinted at the revolutionary connection in the story, but as many types of amber have a reddish hue they aren't too valuable. Blue amber is extremely rare in the Baltic Sea (it is more common in South America), and I liked how "blue" connected with water or sea, which plays a big part in the story, so I settled on that.

How would you describe the main character? He's a man who has been unlawfully imprisoned, who is going to be executed for his views, and simply wants to survive to help his people and his wife. I think that even with the historical and relatively exotic setting of Latvia, every reader can engage with such a character. He's universal. At least, I hope so.

The story had me hooked and every detail feels real. Was it based on real events?
Sort of. The character of Fricis is based upon a real revolutionary, and he did escape from prison.  No one knows how, so I had creative license to do what I wanted. Also, the murder of revolutionaries during fabricated escape attempts was a real thing.

Was it your intention to write a story with a message or a moral? No. But if it was my intention to include a moral I wouldn't tell you! J I believe authors should remain silent and let the readers take what they wish from any story.

Your work shows an insider’s knowledge of eastern European politics. Do you have a clear allegiance yourself? Are you concerned about being controversial in your books and attracting unwanted attention? Well, I only owe allegiance to my homeland, the good ole USA (and maybe the Fallowfield part of Manchester), but I have fallen in love with Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine. And what is happening in Ukraine now tears me up.    As for controversy or attention, I couldn't care less.  I write what I write.

How did you come to be a writer? I've always been a storyteller. At some point, I just decided to start setting all these stories down. Nothing more sophisticated than that, really.Who gave you your first encouragement as a writer? When I applied to the MA Program at the University of Manchester, I was required to have a telephone interview with novelist Suzannah Dunn, who was then the course's director.  She had read three chapters of a novel I'd submitted with the application. In those three chapters I alternated first and second person points of view between two characters, apparently a risky move. She told me she thought this style was really interesting and really bold, and let me into the program. Such encouragement from a very successful historical novelist was a huge boon to my confidence as a writer.

If you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say? People tell me my writing style is "cinematic," whatever that means in practice.    I'd say my writing is usually historical fiction, usually set in Eastern Europe, either with a lot of humor, mystery, action,  or politics, though there are a lot of exceptions to all of these.

Do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes within your writing and, if so, are you any closer to finding an answer? 
No answers. I'm not so intellectual. My crusade against "theme-ism" is about as successful as Don Quixote's crusade against windmills.  

I would love to read your novel Lenin’s Harem but it’s out of print at the moment. Can you give us an update on when it might be available?
Lenin's Harem sold very well, but went out of print only because of a dispute with the original publisher, Knox Robinson Publishing. The good news is we have just been awarded a default judgment against them for nonpayment on an advance for the translations rights sale.  In my opinion, Knox Robinson Publishing has not been cooperative or in anyway helpful in resolving this issue.
    The good news is I am very close to signing another agreement with a new publisher to put Lenin's Harem back in print. I would expect it by mid-summer.

What do you think is the greatest advantage of self-publishing? Well, Blue Amber is the first story I've self-published, so I'm a novice at this. But, I'd say, that compete creative control is the obvious answer.  The artist can give the world his or her vision unaltered or unimpeded by any publisher, producer, editor or agent. That's not always a good thing, but it is the most honest one.

Is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? Well, though it somewhat counters what I just said, a strong editor.  Some self-published work, though by no means all of it, could use a good pruning.    Obviously, also the promotion or distribution a traditional publisher provides would help, though in fairness few publishers do much of the former unless you're a proven seller.

What are you working on at the moment? I've got a lot of irons in the fire. Two thrillers, one set in modern Riga, another set in 19th century Odessa (and a full-length sequel to my Derringer-nominated story The Antiquary's Wife).     Also, I am editing a war novel I wrote set in Russia, Latvia and the East End of London.  The opening of it was commended for the Yeovil Literary Prize a few years ago, I just need the time to edit it and polish up the narrative.  I've been saying that for years, though.Some authors have one particular person in mind when they write. Do you have a muse – or perhaps an imaginary ideal reader? I have a friend in Ukraine, who is my muse! She is certainly an influence on my writing.  But, speaking generally, I try not to have an imaginary reader in mind when writing something. I do try to play the audience ("like violin" as Hitchcock would say), and imagine what they're thinking. You have to do this if you're going to guide them through your story. But a specific imaginary reader or demographic is a fool's game I think. Yes, I'm aware of the "know your audience" rule, but I think if you write for everyone, you end up writing for no one.  I trust my instincts. If I like what I've written, I'm pretty sure there are other misfits out there like me who will enjoy it too.It's kind of like the song "Little Room" by the White Stripes.  I've never heard the creative process and its aftermath summed up so succinctly and accurately.  If you don't know it, have a listen.  I'll wait. No, that’s new to me - nice choice!

Have you ever found that a book you were reading was influencing your writing style? I've never consciously noticed this when I've been reading a book for pleasure. I'm sure my literary influences are all mixed in there when I write, and I can sometimes see them, but not so much with a new book I'm reading at the time I'm writing something else.   It takes awhile to filter down, I guess.   I have, at times, decided to write a specific scene or in a specific style and gone back and referenced how others have done it. For example, when I was going to show a large party scene on a Baltic-German manor, I referenced how Margaret Mitchell depicted the American South's equivalent at the opening of Gone with the Wind.  When, I wanted subtle horror in my story, I read a host of M.R. James stories to see how it was done.

Some writers need silence, others like the buzz of a coffee shop, the rumble of a train or their favourite music. Which type are you? I work best at a library. (For example, I'm typing up this answer at the Latvian NationalLibrary in Riga, a simply stunning place, have a look)
    When I'm in foreign countries, I like to get out, and I often write in coffee shops too, but only as long as nobody close to me is speaking English. If I can't understand the language, then it just becomes ambient noise, and I can get work done. But if a few people having an English language conversation sit down, it pulls my attention to them and I have to move.  I'm sure I've flashed a lot of dirty looks to my countrymen over the years for killing my creativity around the world.  Sorry guys.    In America or Britain, I don't have this problem since the English language doesn't stick out from the background noise. There I can write nearly anyplace. I've finished short stories in some astonishingly loud places, including concert halls and casino sports-books. Music doesn't bother me as long as I like the songs.    The one thing I can't do is to write while on something moving.  Planes, trains, and buses are a no go. And I have to get far away from the internet or television, I'm an addict.

What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
First person (and second person) are much easier, but often you've got to do it in third person for the needs of the plot/style/twist/conflict, etc.

Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day? I think all authors have scraps sitting around. But I've got two complete novels’ worth of material, some of it quite good on a few hard drives. It always amounts to how to use your time. And, unfortunately, editing and sifting through old stuff is not as fun for me as writing new stories.  I guess it comes down to my being a storyteller more than a writer. Once I've set the story down, I want to be on to the next thing.

What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? My favorite is the sheer creativity. Lying in bed half awake with new ideas floating into your mind, then getting up and making those things a reality, something you can share with others. And when you get that perfectly balance story, it’s a wonderful thing.    My least favorite aspect would be crashing hard drives. Tell me about it!

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Do it because you love writing, storytelling or the beauty of prose on the page/screen. Or perhaps because you have something to say about the world in which we live.    Don't do it for money, fame or because a guy who looks like Salman Rushdie got to date supermodels.

As a reader, which writers or books are your favourites? Is there a genre you are drawn towards? In terms of full-length literary fiction Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is still the greatest novel I've ever read (even though he completely contrasts all I said about "less-is-more" in a book.) John Steinbeck is close behind. Of Mice and MenGrapes of Wrath, East of Eden, the list goes on.    For full-length genre fiction, I would say that Alistair MacLean's Guns of Navarone and its sequel Force Ten from Navarone got me writing as a kid and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles returned me to writing as an adult. I also like James Ellroy, particularly Black Dahila and L.A. Confidential, (really the whole L.A. Quartet is excellent), and Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, Ian Fleming, Brian Dailey and Alan Dean Foster.For short stories, as I mentioned Poe is a favorite, as well as Steinbeck, Melville, and Conan Doyle (all again), Anton Chekhov, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Doug Allyn, Bill Byson, Jack London and Mark Twain.    I was an Ancient Studies major as an undergraduate and fell in love with the classics particularly Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides.  I sometimes listen to the Iliad (Robert Fagles translation) on audio-book when I do household chores.    And I read a lot of nonfiction of all eras and locales.  In fact, my nonfiction reading probably inspires my writing much more than other fiction authors do. I certainly read it more often. Killer Angels, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A Brief History of Time, Ken Burn's The Civil WarHitler and Stalin Parallel LivesThe Rise of Teddy RooseveltWith Dance Shoes in the Siberian Snows, the list of good nonfiction books is near endless for me.  So many books to read, so little time.    I guess the genres are obvious from the list above, but I'd say literary, horror, and detective/thriller, with the occasional science-fiction and war thrown in. And, of course, again: nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction.

Are there any authors whose work you champion?
There are a lot of fantastic authors whose work I'd recommend: Karen Charlton, Jenny Milchman, B.A.Morton, John Floyd, Sarah Schofield, Shirley Bozic, Erik Amaya, Ken Pelham, Frances Kay, CMT Stibbe, J.G. Harlond, Kristin Gleeson, Karen Maitland, Ray Philpott, Jon Land, Lucretia Grindle, Bill Bowen, Ronald Sharp, Martyn Bedford, Michael Sears, the excellent authors of the Prometheus Saga and of course (saving the best for last) Jean Gill. Flattery gets you everywhere :)

What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies? I like to go places, often on foot, and see the world. Then I get back on the internet and read about what I've just seen. This usually inspires writing or going to see even more places. It's a cycle of sorts.    I'm also a huge classic film buff (Hitchcock and Kurosawa especially). Other hobbies include rambling incessantly about music, astronomy, or history, museums, storyteller's theater, whitewater rafting and swimming (often suddenly and surprisingly swimming during the whitewater rafting).    I'm a big fan of the Miami Dolphins and San Antonio Spurs.Really useful tips for writers, Bill, and thank you so much for joining me. Let me know when Lenin’s Harem is in print again. I should warn readers, this is a political thriller not concerned with hundreds of women in skimpy clothing…

My Review of Blue Amber

Exceptional thriller: a precision-cut gemFrom the moment the sleigh stops in frozen wasteland, the suspense never lets up as Latvian political prisoner Fricis tries to cheat the death coming for him via Russian guards. If I hadn't been caught up in the sheer adrenalin of the escape bid, I'd have lingered over the quality of the writing. Instead, I was gripped by the story, wanting Fricis to come out alive but never knowing what the outcome would be. I've read plenty of thrillers and adventure stories but few which are so convincing.    William Burton McCormick took me to the Baltic Sea, its politics and its savage beauty, where `if the tides were right, with a bit of swimming here and there, a man could walk near five miles out to sea with little difficulty, never getting his beard wet, often with his knees above the lapping waves.' I came out of the adventure a little dazed but so pleased to have discovered an author to add to my must-read list. This short story packed a much bigger punch than its word count and I can't wait to see whether the quality is sustained over a full-length novel.