Interview with John Martyn Wilson – Author of King’s Ransom

From Amazon.com:

“James King is a fairly ordinary man doing a fairly ordinary job, fairly well.

Then he’s fired and without exactly looking for trouble he finds himself embroiled in drug smuggling, industrial espionage, and armed insurrection.

In the process, he’s shouted at, bullied, pushed around, beaten up, thumped, kicked, shot at, and – in his own words – ‘smacked about the head and shoulders with enough blunt instruments to last a lifetime.’

He can’t quite work out how it all happened, or how to get out of the situation he’s in. He just knows that nothing is what it seems, nothing makes sense, and no-one can be trusted – apart from a 13-year-old computer prodigy and a sad, lonely and rather beautiful woman.”

King's Ransom

The Interview:

Tell me about your book:

King’s Ransom was self-published on Amazon Kindle on 14 April 2013. It’s an action/adventure novel – holiday reading, if you like. As my sister-in-law said, “It’s not literature”. Comments from early readers have all been very positive.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always written stuff, even as a kid. I was fascinated by books, by words, and by the way in which words could be used to re-create emotions and communicate feelings. I wrote a lot at school – my specialisms were history, geography and English – and I went to University to read History. However, I only lasted a year before I was thrown out. I was a 19yo with the emotional maturity of a 13yo, and I spent too much time drinking and having fun. Fortunately for me, the only job I could find was as a publicity assistant with an engineering company. That is when I started to write professionally, and I have been writing marketing communications ever since.

How long did it take you to write King’s Ransom?

It’s a bit complicated. I wrote the original draft in the early 1990s (I think 1994) after reading a really awful paperback on holiday: badly written, badly plotted, just dreadful. And I thought I had to be able to do better than that: I guess that’s the curse of the professional copywriter. So I had a go: I wrote a plot outline while I was on holiday, and when we got back home I wrote the original draft of King’s Ransom in my spare time. I seem to recall it took about two or three months. I revised it a few times over the following year, but after getting a load of rejection slips from publishers and agents, the book went into the bottom drawer until the middle of 2012. In May of that year, my son (who had read the original when he was at medical school) sent me a link to the Kindle self-publishing guide and suggested I have a go at revising/updating and publishing it. Cut a long story short, that’s what I did.

What was your favorite part of the book to write? Why?

There’s a Prologue, which I think is quite exciting and intriguing, and a Postscript, which I really like – it still makes me smile when I read it. And there’s also a love story, and I enjoyed developing that, because it seemed to take on a natural life of its own. A friend who read one of the drafts said that one love scene made him cry, which is very satisfying.

How did you decide on the title, King’s Ransom?

The hero/main character/narrator is James King; a man who finds himself backed into a corner by a combination of events and is effectively blackmailed. The “ransom” is the way he gets out of this fix. Can’t tell you any more without blowing the plot.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

As I said, I have been a professional writer for over 40 years, and if I have work to do, I like to start early – I am quite often at my desk at 6:00am. I always walk my dog at around 8:00/9:00: Barney is a big blond Labrador, and because he has arthritic front knees/elbows, he needs to walk between 5km and 8km a day. I live in southern France, so we walk through the vineyards and along the Canal du Midi to the next village to have coffee. Walking helps me think, and quite often when I get back home, I can sit down and churn out words without stopping.

What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

A friend of mine said that one interesting aspect of the novel is the way that the narrator, James King, talks to the reader almost on a one-to-one basis. For example, when King decides to drive to an interview: “I pulled the car out into a stream of slow-moving traffic, feeling guilty for adding to the local pollution problems. The recruitment guy was a short drive away and I could have walked there. But I told myself that I needed to look my best, and it might rain. No, I know it wouldn’t.” My friend said that last short phrase is very “post-modern”, which he meant as a compliment. I do that quite a lot in the novel, and it was a deliberate ploy – trying to involve the reader, getting him/her on King’s side, and therefore feeling some of the pain.

How did you choose your writing genre?

As I said, King’s Ransom came about because of an awful action/adventure paperback that I read. But I don’t think I will stick to one genre: as with my career as a marketing writer, I’ll do anything if someone will buy it.

Where did you get your information or ideas for King’s Ransom?

When I wrote the first draft of King’s Ransom, the Soviet Union had recently disintegrated, and at the same time there was an intelligence scandal in the UK involving a company called Matrix Churchill, two of whose executives were tried for illegal arms sales. It came out at the trial that Matrix Churchill’s CEO had been an unpaid intelligence agent for about 15 years, and they were found not guilty. Alan Clark, from the UK Ministry of Defence, said in a radio interview at the time that it was commonplace for British companies to work in the national interest even if their employees did so unwittingly. Elements of all of these came into the plotting of the novel.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Not really. I’ve learned over the years that if the words won’t come, I need to stop and do something else. There’s no point in forcing it, so if I have a block, I will go and work in the garden, read a book, write a few emails, or take Barney the big blond Labrador for another walk. I find that if I do that, the writing becomes much easier. The point about creative writing is there’s always something bubbling beneath the surface, and it will pop out when you least expect it. I once wrote a series of award-winning ads while feeding ducks in the park: all came into my head, and I simply wrote them out when I got back to the office.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I enjoy gardening, cooking, walking, and reading. I also follow Leicester City Football Club, which is usually not enjoyable – although there are occasional days (like Saturday 4 May 2013) which we LCFC fans will remember forever. I wrote about it in my non-author blog.

What does your family think of your writing?

My wife, son and daughter have been very supportive of me. I think my wife would love for me to be able to write fiction full time, because she says I become more alive when I do that. My son says he cannot understand how I can change one word in a sentence, put in a comma, and make it read better, and my daughter said recently “You’re amazing, paps”, when I wrote a bit of copy for her. All of which is lovely.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating King’s Ransom?

One interesting thing was the way in which the characters took on lives of their own. I mentioned the love story taking unplanned twists, and it happened like that with a couple of the characters. I’ve heard more experienced authors say this, but I was still surprised that, as I wrote, things happened in an almost unforeseen manner. It needed some discipline on my part to stop things going off at a tangent, but there are still little touches that I like and which seemed to come to me out of nowhere.

Have you written any other books?

King’s Ransom is the only novel I have published, though I have a couple of others at various drafting stages. Depending on how much success I have, I might finish them.

Do you hear from your readers often? What kinds of things do they say?

Since I published I’ve had several good reviews, as well as private emails from people saying very positive things. I’ve not had any unpleasant comments yet, but there is time.

What do you think makes a good story?

I’d say it is a story that engages the reader and makes them want to find out what happens next. That’s really the same with any kind of writing: if the reader isn’t engaged, they will simply switch off.

How do you choose your topics?

People, politics, and ideas fascinate me. I have lots of reference books, and I have a fevered imagination. Quite often, a single incident or some happenstance will trigger a thought and off I go.

Do you think most authors understand the importance of marketing their own work?

That’s an interesting question, because you would have expected that I – as a marketing professional – would do the job properly. And I really didn’t do a good job. With my marketing clients, I emphasise to them the importance of planning, and specifically that it is crucial to have product-specific marketing programs in place BEFORE the launch. But apart from a few email lists, I didn’t have anything in place. Fortunately, it’s not too late, and in my author’s blog I am going to talk about how I think authors should pre-plan their marketing – in other words, do as I say, and definitely not as I did.

What are some of your methods for self-promotion? What has worked, what hasn’t?

I will tell you later, when I have done it.

Is it necessary to travel much when promoting King’s Ransom?

Not yet.

Who would you say has been a major influence in your life? (Writing or otherwise)

My wife, Kate.

Do you ever use friends, family members or acquaintances as character models?

Not consciously, although I suppose it is inevitable that one uses one’s experience of other people in creating characters. But I can honestly say that I didn’t have a mental picture of anyone I know when I was writing about James King or any of the other characters in King’s Ransom.

How do you deal with criticism?

I welcome it, if it is constructive. After I revised King’s Ransom, I gave it to two people who I knew would give me an honest evaluation, and they both picked holes in aspects of the plot and the characters. I accepted about 90 percent of what they said, and changed things accordingly. To quote one of my marketing clients, “Every complaint is a free gift that leads to product improvement.” The same should apply to writers.

We often hear the term, Write What You Know. Do you think this is always true?

Not really. Most novels have an element of fantasy, and King’s Ransom is no exception. For one thing, there is a detailed description about the geography, history, culture and economic potential of Khanestan, a fictional former Soviet republic in Asia. I have never been further east than Malta.

How much time did you spend researching information for King’s Ransom?

I wrote the original version before the development of the internet, so it involved delving into lots of reference books. Fortunately, I have to do research for the day job – see next answer – so I am quite quick at it, particularly knowing what to keep and what to ditch.

Do you write other types of content? (Articles, Web content, etc.)

As I mentioned in a previous answer, I’ve spent my whole life writing marketing material, and I still write blogs, websites, press articles and marketing collateral for various companies. It’s what I do, I’m good at it and I enjoy it.

You’ve mentioned that you have a couple of blogs. Do you think they’ve been helpful marketing tool?

I’ve had my blog on my marketing website for over a year, in which I blogged – among other things – about the development and revision of King’s Ransom before I knew I was actually going to publish it. I have now transferred all of those posts to my separate author blog, which I started after my book was published. I think it will be useful, if only as an adjunct to my other marketing and promotional activity. I suppose the proof will be if I start to get comments – rude or otherwise.

Are you active on social media sites? If yes, which sites? Have they been effective marketing tools?

I use LinkedIn, Twitter, Goodreads and the Kindle Users Forum. I am going to develop a Facebook page as well, although I am not a fan. I will hold judgement on whether they are effective marketing tools until I have a few more months of experience.

What is your opinion on using a pseudonym when writing?

It did occur to call myself “Johnny Martyn” or something like that, but John Martyn Wilson – which is my full name – seemed distinctive enough.

Has any book (or movie) influenced your life?

Not really, although there are a few which I enjoy reading/watching again. Catch 22, The World According to Garp, and The Manchurian Candidate are all novels that I have read three or four times, for different reasons. Non-fiction books I have read more than once include The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, and Christopher Hitchens’ peerless polemic God is not great. My favourite movies are Monty Python’s Life of Brian – which is hilarious – and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is wonderful but chilling.

Who are some of your favorite authors? Why?

I like so many. Some fiction writers I enjoy include Richard Condon, for his magnificent plots and great dialogue. John Irving for his humour and sensitivity. John D McDonald, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy for their terse style and tightly drawn characters. John Steinbeck for his sympathy and sense of engagement and Nick Hornby, who creates great characters of both sexes, and writes well from both perspectives – which is a real skill. Particular non-fiction favourites are Christopher Hitchens, Simon Winchester and Jon Ronson. But I have a couple of thousand books, and almost all of them are worth reading.

Are you working on anything new now?

Not at the moment: if King’s Ransom is a success, I want to develop a “rom-com” road novel for which I have the plot outline. I also have ideas for a couple of other thrillers, and two humorous non-fiction books. It might be a battle between writing them and the onset of senility.

What would be your best word of advice to aspiring writers and authors?

I guess the most important thing is not to be afraid of trying and failing. Outline the plot, and start writing. If it doesn’t work out, try again. And once you’ve finished, self-critically read what you’ve written and be brutal about deleting things that don’t work. And then get two or more people you really trust to read what you have written and to give you an honest evaluation.

*You can view the King’s Ransom Video Book Trailer Here

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