Damien is one of the founder members of Indie Novella, and the author of hit novel and Indie Novella exclusive, Joined Up. Damien hails from Stoke Newington, London and is also one of the tutors on our writing course. He was recently interviewed by Indie Novella's Paola Mingione. Here's what he had to say
Damien, could you briefly explain to a potential reader what Joined Up is about?
Joined Up is my take at a lighthearted look at life after depression. When I started writing Joined Up, I wanted to write a novel about depression, but more about life when coming out of it. The rebuilding process and how long it takes to get back to normal even when you feel a bit more yourself. It’s about my character Scott who went through the mill for almost a year but kept it secret from his family and friends. And now he’s essentially starting again, newly self-employed in a failing gardening business, living with a flatmate who he knows hates him, and trying to reconnect with a sister who has resented him her whole life. Scott and Ellie, said sister, then realise that they are the only family each other have and have to unite as their mother, who walked out of them twenty years ago, has just inherited their family home. Joined Up is about essentially trying to cope with the everyday after you’ve let your life and relationships slide for a very long time.
Where did the idea for your book came from?
I was on a short writing course by Curtis Brown and we had to do an exercise that took a character we were working on and put them in a particular situation. The one I chose was Being Stood Up. Basically, the week before, I was having a rough time in new job and was having a one-month probation meeting with my boss who I wasn’t gelling with. But to show they had a personable side instead of doing it in the office they took me to a local café to have the chat there. They were quite rules-based and went through this review form in minor detail providing criticism on every single thing I had done over the last four weeks. After about twenty minutes I felt my heart sink and my face just went. They asked if I was okay and then suddenly I erupted in tears. They looked at me completely alarmed and I just had to leave the café and go straight home. A week later I turned this experience into a story of a brother being stood up when he’s trying to clear the air with his sister and that became my first chapter of Joined Up.
Can you tell us about your experience writing your novel?
I started writing Joined Up four years but I don’t think it was until two years ago that I found my flow. I remember spending a whole month writing the same scene over and over, finally abandoning it and then spending the rest of the year getting bogged down in what my plot was. I ended up taking a two month break to write a zombie related screenplay it was going that badly!
But then I found a new flow. I put away my laptop and got out a pen and notebook and just started writing and not worrying about plot etc. I went back to my characters and just wrote from their perspectives and kept putting pen to paper, without looking at screen or having a delete button. And then, when I was done, I had to type the thing up! But this helped me with the editing process as I eventually had a feel of what Joined Up was.
What made you start writing or want to write a novel?
I wasn’t a big reader when I was younger. I grew up with dyslexia so reading was a slow, painful process and something I avoided. But then, when I was thirty, I quit my job and went volunteering in Uganda and stayed in this really quiet town for three months. I took a load of books with me and suddenly I found without the distractions I absolutely fell in love with literature. I started reading the classics and amazing contemporary fiction at the time like Gillian Flynn and Julian Barnes and, aged thirty-one, I wrote my first short story. I then began waking up every day at six a.m. just to write. It’s what I love.
What is the biggest challenge you've faced as a writer?
Definitely writer’s block. And delusions of grandeur when I first started writing. Every time I wrote a scene, I thought I would get nominated for the Booker Prize, and when I look back I now cringe at my writing. I think what has helped with both is not to take myself as seriously as a writer and just enjoy the process of waking up in the morning and doing it because I enjoy it. I now know what I’ve done is not earth-shattering literary fiction, but I feel I’m at the stage when I can be a bit more impartial and know when it at least works technically and if the story is something I myself would like to read. I’ve been enjoying myself a lot more as a writer since I started doing that.
What do you think of the publishing industry and its processes?
So tough and I have so much respect for authors published by the big houses. There are a lot of writers who refer to agents as gate keepers, but I once read that Curtis Brown Literary Agency gets over 13,000 submissions a year! How can you possibly read all those manuscripts? So I think there is a place out there to change how we publish and how we find more, diverse stories from new writers, so we don’t get novels which are essentially the same story over and over with just a “fresh take”. Writing is fun! Why can’t publishing a novel be fun too?
Why have you chosen Indie Novella?
I’m completely biased here, as I’m one of the founders, but Indie Novella is here to bring forward these interesting, diverse stories, and also support authors who want to improve as writers. Writing courses teach us so much, but not everyone can afford them. So the real way to level the playing field and bring about true diversity is to remove all the cost barriers. Indie Novella providing its writing courses for free is so that new writers can learn the skills and tips to become published authors. Indie is there so not only the middle class understand what literary agents are looking for or what makes a novel flow smoother from start to finish. Plus, Indie Novella is such a fun team of volunteers who all give their time at no cost, which create a real community spirit.
What do you think of diversity and inclusion when it comes to novel writing and publishing? Is there more we can do to encourage new writers from different backgrounds?
This really follows on from the above. What I’ve seen in the publishing community is that because it is so challenging to ‘hook’ an agent, and because agents’ inboxes are overflowing with submissions, this has paved the way for Literary Consultancies and Editorial Consultancies to do some, frankly, quite sketchy practices. I’ve seen some consultancies advertise themselves as ‘scouts’ for literary agents, and others claiming agents prioritise submissions from them. All you have to do is pay the fifteen hundred to three thousand pounds to get your manuscript reviewed… How is that fair? Like I’ve said, so many people from diverse backgrounds cannot afford to do this so we really need eliminate the practice and do what Indie Novella is doing by create free, inclusive courses where writers from any background can come together, learn and share their experiences.
What advice would you give new writers?
First, try the Indie Novella writing course! Joking aside, I think there are some great courses and books out there which teach you so much – I just think they should all be free 😊
The other piece of advice is read. They use the term, read as a writer. Every time you read something good, notice what the writer is doing, like how does Gillian Flynn make Gone Girl so, so gripping from start to finish? What is it about the start of a novel that makes it so difficult to put down? Then you can start to use the phrase, write as a reader, and start writing something you would like to read yourself.