A couple of months ago, I put out on my social media channels that I’d love to chat to some authors about publishing, writing a book, struggles with being an author and so much more.
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I received a heck of a lot of responses so narrowed it down and sent off some questions and awaited some responses.
This week I interview AJ West in what is one of the most honest interviews to date. He talks about his book The Spirit Engineer, what inspired it and the dark times he suffered after being a Big Brother finalist.
What is your book/book series?
My book is called The Spirit Engineer. It’s set in Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism, attending séances in the hope they might reach their departed loved ones. William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him – seemingly from beyond the veil – placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far? Based on the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunted, twisted tale of power, paranoia, and one ultimate, inescapable truth…
What made you want to write a book in the first place?
I’ve read and written stories since early childhood when I found it difficult to make friends. I was quite a lonely boy, so the characters in my stories kept me company. It felt warm and safe to disappear into the woods with Kenneth Grahame, or to a witches’ convention with Roald Dahl. I’ve never lost that feeling, and in my darkest times as an adult, I’ve found happy solitude in my writing. I never expected, as a comprehensive school kid, that I would one day have my own novel on the shelves of bookshops across the country, but I did secretly fantasize about it.
What got you into writing?
I first read a story aloud when I was seven years old. I remember the day vividly: the teacher asked me to stand in front of the class and read my story in my loudest voice. She told my classmates that I had used lovely words. Well, I was terrified of course, and I remember shaking and wanting to run to the toilets to hide, but everyone enjoyed it and, even though I was painfully shy, I walked home that day feeling like I’d done something right for once. After that day, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
What was the biggest struggle when writing your book?
I was going through a tough time while writing The Spirit Engineer. I’d left BBC Northern Ireland in a big row and then ended up on the Big Brother TV show, becoming a pretty exhausted, though relatively popular, finalist. After the show, I was left homeless, jobless, single and in a very strange new world where people treated each other very badly and it was impossible to know who to trust. I was losing grip of who I was, making bad choices, and self-destructing. I didn’t have a redundancy payout, wealthy parents, or a partner to pay the bills, so life was very stressful and frightening for a long time. Ultimately, I was saved by my novel. I didn’t expect or need anyone to publish it, really. It was just somewhere safe to go, and I realised, quite late in the process, that William’s story was much like my own. He became a warning to me, and I found in his tragedy, inspiration to rebuild my life in a positive way, focusing on what made me happy.
What was the publishing process like?
I knew my book needed to be published traditionally, because of the subject matter. It just isn’t the sort of story – or the style of writing – that takes off in self-publishing. I self-publish other writing on Amazon Kindle under a different name, and I’m enjoying the freedom and creative control it gives me, but The Spirit Engineer was a strange beast, and it was impossible to sell to an agent. I got nothing but rejections and not a single manuscript request, which wasn’t surprising when you look at most of the books being published at the moment. So, I took opportunities where I could find them, networked via Twitter and eventually found Matt Casbourne at Duckworth Books, who loved the story and brought the novel to print as a brilliant editor. Being published without an agent was difficult at times, but I take great pride in the fact that I achieved my dream with hard work, determination and, I hope, some talent.
What’s been your favourite thing about being a published author?
Being able to call myself a novelist. That’s it really. I’ve had a varied and exciting career, but when I sit down to write, it gives me a huge sense of satisfaction to know that I’m doing what I love.
If you could give advice to someone looking to write a book what would it be?
The main advice I would give to aspiring authors is to connect with book bloggers on social media. Not just follow them and hope they’ll read your book one day, but join the community and muck in. Respect and appreciate readers, even if you’re shy. Some authors are too shy to talk to bloggers and readers online, but if I hadn’t become friends with Victoria at Instabooktours, I simply wouldn’t be where I am today. I will always be indebted to bloggers for encouraging me every day. I write for them now, and will always.
Where you can find AJ: