I interviewed Mike Shevdon, a very successful author whom I was lucky enough to talk to.
For anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to read any of your books, what are they about?
It’s probably easiest to say that they are ‘urban fantasy’; they’re fantasy that is set in the real world .
Where did you get your inspiration from?
I got my inspiration from English folklore. There are loads of stories about Irish and American folklore, but very few write about English. On researching fairy magic, the thing that kept coming up was iron, known for being antithetical to magic. I came across a ritual which is performed in the Royal Court of Justice every year, known as the Quit Rents Ceremony. It goes back to the year 1211, and it is a rent for a piece of land, the payment being two knives; one blunt and one sharp. The blunt one must dent but not cut a rod of hazel wood, and the sharp one must cut clean through. Another rent is for a blacksmith’s forge, near where The Strand now is in London. The rent for that is six horseshoes and sixty-one nails, and that is where I got the title for my book: Sixty-One Nails. It made me wonder why they are still doing this strange ritual. After 800 years of civil wars, unrest, dismissing and reappointing kings, they are still doing it.
When you start writing a book, what stimulus do you start with?
I generally start with an incident, because it is the incident that really drives the story. I like to explore the consequences of things that seem quite innocent but are actually quite important. My first book, for instance, starts with a man who has a heart attack on the London Underground. He’s saved by an old lady who tells him that the only reason that he’s still alive is because he’s not entirely human; somewhere in his family tree there is something else.
Many authors struggle to get their work published; what was your publication experience?
I did an awful lot of research into agents and publishers. I made sure that I showed it to the right people, so I ended up only actually showing it to about four people, but I was quite lucky. It’s very hard to get published until you’ve written a huge amount, and writing novels is a completely different magnitude to writing short stories. Most short stories are around 5,000 words. My first novel was 154,000 words.
What’s your favourite book?
My favourite book is called ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov. He wrote books that are kind of fantasy, but are also critiques of the political system. He’s a very interesting writer.
Oh! So sort of like what Shakespeare did with the tempest? He was criticising the English monarch, but he set it on a desert island.
Exactly! He couldn’t write explicitly about them, or he’d have his head chopped off! Often books and plays are about context. You have to understand the context of the story, at the time it was written.
What first got you interested in writing?
A friend of mine, called Juliet, wrote a novel, and I would read her drafts before they went to publication and make comments in the margin, and I began to understand how the writing process worked, so I thought: “This doesn’t look very hard, I’ll have a go myself,” however I soon realised just how hard it is! It’s far more difficult than it looks, but it is worthwhile. It’s great to get emails from people who have read your books and like them. For me, that’s a reward in itself.
Do you prefer reading from a book or from a Kindle?
I prefer reading from a book; maybe just because I’m old- fashioned! Though there are lots of things you can do on a Kindle that you can’t on a book, like search for a particular word. It’s good for holidays, too. My wife and I used to take a whole suitcase full of books with us, now we just load them onto the Kindle! It’s also good for reading a series when you’re commuting, because when you finish a book you don’t have to wait until you get home to read the next one; it’s already on the Kindle for you.
For you, what’s the most important aspect of a book?
The most important aspect is what you draw from it. What insights has it given you, is it relatable, how is it going to alter the way you think about things? It always amazes me that people can draw things from my books that I didn’t even know were there. The best books are the ones that you can read, then read again ten years later and it will give you a new set of insights, almost as if you’re reading a different book. Of course, it isn’t the book that’s changed, it’s you. You’ve had new experiences, and as a result the way you see things has changed.
Shevdon, the name you write under, isn’t your real name. Why did you pick this pseudonym?
I decided to use a different name because my son was young at the time, and I didn’t want him to be affected if I made a mistake, or my books offended anyone. It was a good way of separating my professional life from my writing life. I chose the name Shevdon because it wasn’t a common name. When I first Googled it, it only came up with 30 entries, but if you Google it now, it comes up with more than 20,000 entries, and they’re all me! It’s great to be able to see your internet presence growing.
Did you have to do a lot of research when you were writing your books?
An awful lot! It’s like a thread, as you keep pulling and pulling you discover more and more about the way things work, and you can then put all that information into the book. It gives the book a level of reality, it makes the book believable. In my first book, there was a scene where some police officers were searching a flat, and they were tip-toeing around so no one heard them. I then showed it to some friends of mine who are police officers and they told me that the police would never do that, they would make as much noise as possible; stamping their feet and shouting so everyone in that flat knew they were there. You don’t want to surprise someone who has a gun! So I had to go back and re-draft the whole scene!
How long did it take you to write your books?
The first one took seven years, but the second one only took two. The second one was a lot easier to write because I’d improved my skills, but also it followed on from the first, meaning the world and all the characters were already made.
Is the layout of the words important too?
To me, it’s very important. Things look different if you break them up differently. Some people might just see the text, but for me, the structure has to be realistic. People don’t talk in a continuous loop; they pause to think about their response, they say things like, “What do you mean?” These pauses are just as important as the words, because without them it’s just a melange of words on the page.
Melange is a good word! What’s your favourite word?
Ooh, there are far too many! It’s hard when you’re writing, because you tend to get stuck on certain words, and use them over and over again, and that’s enough to bump the reader out of the story. It makes them aware that they are reading. When people read my books, I want the words to be invisible, I want them to be absorbed into the story.