If it wasn’t for Cam Rogers, I probably wouldn’t be here.
I don’t mean that he stormed the trenches to rescue me from the Nazis or anything. But without his influence and support I doubt I’d have moved to Melbourne, or be writing this blog right now.
I knew Cam slightly from waaaay back in the day in Brisbane, where we had friends in common in the early-mid 90s goth scene up there. It was a remarkably big scene, though, so we never really got to know each other. Eventually he moved south to Melbourne, as is the norm for creative types in Brisbane, and I left the goth scene in favour of hip-hop and professional wrestling.
Then, years later, his novel The Music of Razors was mentioned in the bibliography of Demon: the Fallen, a White Wolf game I’d worked on, and it spurred me to get back in touch with him. That was, hmmm.. 2003? Yeah, sounds about right. In any case, Cam and I became reacquainted. When he and his then-partner encouraged me to come down to Melbourne for a holiday, I decided it sounded like fun; two weeks later I got back and told everyone in Brisbane I was moving to Melbourne within six months. Which I did.
So Melbourne, you have Cam to thank for that.
Cam’s best known for his dark urban fantasy novel The Music of Razors, which was a moving yet fast-paced story about angels, monsters, innocence and corruption. He’s also dipped his toe into children’s fiction with Nicholas and the Chronoporter, written under the wonderful pen-name of Rowley Monkfish. His follow-up adult novel, Fateless, ended up being shelved for a number of reasons, and recently he’s been focusing on the romantic tragedy Falling, his blog Wait Here For Further Instructions, a new YA project and fingers in a bunch of other pies.
He’s a good friend and a terrific writer, and as a welcome change from me going on and on about editing and narrative and all that sort of clobber, I thought it would be fun to sit down with Cam for a Q&A session.
Let’s start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative area like theatre – or, hell, instead of plumbing, which pays better?
Doing anything other than this feels like failure. It doesn’t make me especially viable as a long-term, team-oriented go-getter with a passion for providing a lifetime of quality customer service. After a while I begin to resent the time any other work takes away from getting a book finished. I imagine all the scenes and chapters that will never be written because I wasn’t at the keyboard. It becomes ‘That’s great. Hi, I’m Cam and you’re murdering my children. How can I help you today?’
I don’t have a choice but to make this work if I really want to be happy. Or bearable to be around.
Are you working on creative projects other than writing?
I’ve got a short stop-motion film in very early pre-production with a friend. It’s only six minutes or so, and we like the concept quite a lot. I’m looking forward to working more on that. Also my agent’s asked that I start submitting film treatments to be shopped around LA, so you never know. I treat this whole thing like a lottery.
Is there something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?
Mainly I want to tell a really good story. If that story can also change somebody’s life, that’s gravy. Books and movies helped me get through my childhood, changed who I am. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to make something that good.
I often think of a lecturer I had at university who would read Samuel Beckett whenever he was feeling down. Beckett is not happy material, but Michael read Beckett because Beckett’s work told him that someone else at some point had felt exactly as he was feeling now. I think that’s part of what art is for: to remind us that we’re not all of us, thankfully, that unique. Sometimes good art is a hug, other times it’s a tough-love slap in the face. Other times it’s a message in a bottle that says ‘I’m one of your tribe.’ There’s a reason we’ve been doing this for as long as there’s been people. When I get emails from people who’ve really taken The Music of Razors to heart, for example, it makes my freaking month.
Are there themes you like to revisit in your work?
I think most writers have themes they’re unconsciously drawn back to. I’ve certainly found a few in my own work, long after it’s seen print, and now I try to pull away from those themes and situations if I see them forming up again. I don’t want to make a habit of repeating myself.
A recurring element I see in your work is that you often focus on the emotions of your characters, not just what they’re feeling but why and how. Is emotion a place you write from or towards?
Well, I think people read stories for people. Not for set-pieces, not for action, not for historical verisimilitude. All that stuff’s great, but what keeps people engaged in a story is truth about other people. And what people feel is a truer hook for me than what they think they’re thinking. Emotion is a condition closer to music. It has that power, that route straight to a person’s core. It’s elemental, it’s spiritual, it’s poetic. It’s also quicker, more powerful and just makes more sense to have a character act from some form of emotional charge than from an A-plus-B-equals-C internal monologue. I mean, they can be intelligent about whatever action they’re taking, but if it means something to them then it’ll mean something to us.
You’re one of the most focused and hard-working writers I know; you keep pushing at your work over and over until it’s done. Can you say something about your work ethic and your process?
I very much learn from people who’ve done it better than me. Knowing where to go next saves so much goddamn time I cannot begin to tell you. By that I mean knowing what’s needed structurally.
Practically, if I’m working a day job then I reserve one day a week where I don’t write at all. That’s my release valve. I go to a gallery, a flick, hang out with friends. A full weekend in one day. The other day is sacrosanct writing time. Wake early, write in bursts, allow regular breaks, stay fresh. When I do take day jobs I try to ensure I get Wednesdays off. That way I never work more than two days at a time, which means I’m not crackling with frustration by Friday which will in turn eat my entire weekend. I also try to get four hours sleep when I get home from work so I can then do two hours writing with a clear head. I also allow myself one day of not doing that for every two or three depending on how I’m feeling energy-wise.
It’s all about keeping fuelled and keen. I learned the hard way that grinding myself relentlessly was far, far less productive than taking regular breaks, allowing for time off, and being a little more relaxed in my approach.
You redraft and rewrite a lot, certainly a lot more than me. What’s your approach to a first draft, and where do you go from there?
I try to get at least a thousand words down per day on a first draft, more on days off, and I allow for the fact that the first draft is clay. It’ll be crap. But it’ll be crap I can work with. That’s the really important part: not allowing my internal editor to prevent me from getting that vital first draft. I’m allowed to write things that contradict everything that’s gone before – I’ll just leave a bracketed note to deal with it in the edit. I’ll realise that a scene needs a setup or payoff or even a whole character that I haven’t written. Note it and move on. Clackety-clack.
Getting that first draft slammed out while I’m still in the honeymoon phase with an idea is absolutely vital. Once I’m out of the woods with a craptacular first draft I’m in much better shape than the person ten miles behind who’s still getting it ‘just right’. The first ideas are a pencil sketch, the first draft is a charcoal sketch, the second is my deciding on colours and composition, and the third is when it all gets committed the whole thing to oils. The first two drafts are sketches, not my memorial. I have to keep reminding myself of that.
You’ve written on your blog about the experience of walking away from your second novel, Fateless, which was consuming your life. How did you come to that decision? Can you ever see yourself going back to that book?
Fateless was my highschool sweetheart; we got married early and divorced after eighteen years.
In the end it was meant to be the quick follow-up to The Music of Razors, as it was pretty much done when Razors was released. For reasons I explain in an article on my blog, however, finishing Fateless was downright Sisyphean. I’d worked on it for so long, the complexity of it always staying one length ahead of my developing technical ability making the whole thing interminable, but Sunk Cost Fallacy making sure I didn’t quit – because to quit would be to lose all the time I’d put into that albatross to begin with. It was hell. In the end I had to accept that it would take less time to write something new than to finish that thing. I was lashed to a dead lover and she was dragging me beneath the waves. Had no choice.
And yes, I can see myself going back to it. Like some horrible running gag. But only with a few provisos: 1) I get a huge amount of distance between what was Fateless and the reboot it could be; 2) I ruthlessly apply a simpler vision to it; 3) I structure it classically, excellently and cleanly before I write a word; 4) I slam out this newer, younger draft as fast as I can so that I have something to work with, not something I spend twelve months ‘getting right’.
But if that happens it’s a long way off. I’m still way too close to it.
You’ve written adult fiction and children’s fiction, and now you’re working on a young-adult book. Obviously there are differences in language and subject matter, but are there other differences in the way you approach work for different ages? Have any differences surprised you?
Not really. The idea comes first. Once I have that I tweak it to fit the age group. Kids know when they’re being spoken down to, so I write for them the same way I’d write for anyone else: I try to tell a good story about characters they can identify with and care about. That’s the most important thing. I also try to say a few things along the way, play with ideas, but it’s got to be a good read first and foremost.
For any ‘adult’ element I might have included in a regular novel there’s an age-appropriate equivalent as well, so nobody gets short-changed or condescended to. Murder becomes a punch-up, sex becomes holding hands. That said, though, you can actually have death (even murder if you approach it in a kind of 1940s shadow-on-the-wall off-camera way.) This particular project is the most action-oriented thing I’ve ever written and I’m having a great time with it. Language aside, I’m hoping that by the time I’m done with it it’ll be able to hold its head up alongside more adult material.
What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m finishing the first of what we hope will be a six-book series for middle readers. I’m working on that with Dmetri Kakmi (Mother Land), who’s a fantastic novelist. Which is all I can say about it at this point. I’ve got a novel in second draft stage that I’ll finish once I’m done with the YA book. After that I’m polishing the final draft of the short film script. Then I’m working on film treatments for existing properties that I’ve got and maybe writing something totally new as well. And I’ve got feelers out with a view to possibly getting a graphic novel off the ground, but I’m not certain now’s a good time for it.
After that I’ve got material I’m working up for a third novel, and after that I may (may) finish Fateless once and for all. Maybe. Big maybe.