Interview with Andrew J. Wilson

Posted by Tom Moore

Andrew J. Wilson is a local writer and editor known for his spirited spoken word performances. He’s considered part of the furniture of Illicit Ink (in a good way – not in an ‘oh why won’t you throw out that old chair’ way), and so an interview was long overdue…

What does the J initial stand for?

The J is for James, which is my father’s first name, as it was his father’s before him.

There are a lot of Andrew Wilsons out there, and because some of them are writers, I thought I should single myself out.  One was a foreign correspondent for The Observer back in the day.  That Andrew Wilson also wrote an excellent book about his experiences as a flame-thrower tank troop commander in World War II.  It was called Flame Thrower, oddly enough, and I’ve actually got a copy.  A. N. Wilson, the well-known author of many novels and non-fiction books, is another one of us, of course.  I would like to think of myself as T. H. E. Wilson, but I’m not.  Still, if you search for “Andrew J. Wilson” on Wikipedia (with the quotes), both hits are me, and I don’t even have a page of my own…  The same trick also earns me the first three hits in a Google search.

Your works tend towards the weird, wonderful and strange. Why is that?

It’s because the world is undoubtedly a very odd place indeed, and often stranger than most folk probably think.  To quote Ken MacLeod from his guest appearance in my story “Under the Bright and Hollow Sky”:

“Hans Moravec has speculated that the great minds to come may wish to give the odd passing thought to their human creators or ancestors…  He points out that, because there can be only one original, real world and – in the long future of the universe – countless simulations of it, the odds are overwhelming that we’re living in one of them.  As Charles Platt put it more pithily, we’re all dead and in Sim City already.”

If, as Ken suggests, Moravec is right, then the world is very far from what it seems to be on the basis of the reflections shimmering in its soap-bubble surface.  And who am I to argue with one of the best science-fiction writers in Scotland or an adjunct faculty member at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University?  I’m just going with the flow.

If you had to give new performers one tip, what would you tell them?

Never fight a land war in Asia.  Oh, wait a minute, you’re asking about performing, aren’t you?

OK, cut your work to the bone, or in the words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “murder your darlings”.  Remember, the audience are on your side – they wouldn’t be present if they didn’t want to hear people read their work – but don’t test their patience.  They can put a printed story down while they make a cup of tea, eat a snack or go to bed – believe it or not, they can even skip a few pages if they want to – but that isn’t an option at a performance.  Read clearly at a measured pace and give the people what they need to hear, which is the story.  Focus on what your characters say and what they do.  Show, don’t tell!  You might think that page-long description of the prevailing weather conditions is the best 250 words you’ve ever written, but nobody else gives a damn.  Do us all a favour and cut to the chase because less is definitely more.

Do you think that the short story as a medium is in trouble?

Yes.  And no.  From my experience, people have an undiminished appetite for good, original short stories.  The thing is, sadly, they don’t expect short stories to be either good or original anymore.

Until the end of the 1960s, short stories were found everywhere – in best-selling books, in evening newspapers and on the radio, even in magazines that didn’t specifically focus on fiction.  For a number of reasons – not least the demands of advertisers, who are against features that aren’t responsive to reader feedback – we’ve seen a decline in outlets.

I also see a peculiar emphasis on the moment of psychological truth in a lot of contemporary writing.  Now don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite short stories are of this kind:  James Joyce’s “The Dead” is a stellar example of dramatic epiphany.  But there’s more to the form than this, and a lot of modern short story writers bore their readership to death with forensically dissecting the inner lives of charmless characters.  Could we have a little more jeopardy, please?  Is a good laugh out of the question?

Nevertheless, I think new media may give the form a shot in the arm.  There are interesting things afoot.  People have written very short stories for Twitter.  Here’s one of mine:

Boss, Saucy Jack wont vex you no more. He was chasin the ladies agane tonite, but me and my ax found him first. Yours truly, Jill the Ripper

Photography didn’t make painting redundant.  Cinema didn’t destroy the theatre.  Television didn’t kill cinema.  The short story will survive.

I was once at a panel where a famous writer said, “Who’d want to be an editor?” How do you respond to that?

Where do I begin?  This is like the “When did you stop beating your wife?” question, isn’t it?

I earn most of my living by editing.  Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes it’s frustrating, but that’s what jobs are like.  It’s a craft and you go through all the hassle to produce a quality final product.  Co-editing Nova Scotia:  New Scottish Speculative Fiction with my friend Neil Williamson was one of the best experiences of my professional life.  It helped that we worked very well together and had a wonderful group of contributors, of course.  There is tremendous satisfaction to be had in finding great stories and then collaborating with the authors to make these as good as they can be.

In one case, the author knew that the first scene of his story was redundant, but didn’t know how it should really begin.  I did – because he had written the perfect opening and tucked it away in the middle of the piece.  We were sitting at his kitchen table and his eyes lit up when I suggested how he should cut and shuffle things around.  That story went on to be reprinted in both the US year’s best science fiction anthologies.

I actually came up with the title for another tale in the anthology.  The author had blocked on this – and only this – and asked me for suggestions.  I e-mailed him one that had him laughing his head off in his workplace, much to the puzzlement of his colleagues…  That was the title he decided to choose.

Who’d want to be an editor?  Me, that’s who!

(And I wonder if this nameless famous author might be in dire need of my professional services…)

What do you think of the new trend of writers bypassing publishers and editors, going straight into self-publishing online?

Here be dragons!

I say, go for it – if your work has been professionally edited, typeset and laid out.  Oh, and while I remember, make sure you have a dynamite marketing campaign.  You could make millions…

Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, you generally have to tick the “None of the Above” box with this kind of approach.  All of which means that people put in a huge amount of effort (although not enough) and see Sweet Fanny Adams in return.  It’s commercial and artistic suicide, and what’s worse, it’s allowing people like Rupert Murdoch to exploit writers even further…

The Sunday Times Magazine is currently open for submissions to its short story section:  “Every week we publish a story on our award-winning website and iPad app.  Stories cover a wide range of topics and ideally will not have been published elsewhere.  We look for work by big name authors and rising stars.”  Unfortunately, as The Guardian has pointed out, there’s no payment, only “broad promotional opportunities available to the author”.  As The Grauniad also observed, “The paywall, it appears, only works in one direction.”  So it seems that you’re damned if you do and you’re doomed if you don’t, but don’t believe everything you read:  you can still sell your work if it’s good enough.

And last but not least: how did you get so tall?

I’m not tall at all – everything else just shrank in the wash!

Andrew J. Wilson lives in Edinburgh. His short stories, non-fiction and poetry have appeared all over the world, sometimes in the most unlikely places. With Neil Williamson, he co-edited the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated anthology Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction.

You can get a taste of Andrew’s work in Split Screen, a poetry anthology by Red Squirrel Press, a poetry anthology published by Red Squirrel Press. Be sure catch him performing at the Science Festival with spoken-word collective Writers’ Bloc.

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