I was born in Huddersfield, in Yorkshire, England. My mother had worked in the public service through the war, and later trained as a teacher. My father also worked in the public service, then became an election agent for the Liberal MP for North Devon, Jeremy Thorpe (before he became infamous). We moved from Huddersfield to Devon, then I stayed with an aunt in North London for a year. After my father died, my mother settled back in Hadleigh, Suffolk, which is where she’d grown up, and where almost all her side of family still lived.
Hadleigh is a small town in ‘Constable country’, very cute, very pretty. (Apparently, John Betjeman called it his favourite town in the whole of England.) I went to grammar school in nearby Sudbury (birthplace of another famous painter, Thomas Gainsborough).
I think my ambition to be a writer formed when I was about twelve. I had a cousin who lived just down the road in Hadleigh, and behind his house was an area called ‘the chicken run’. Every kind of junk was collected there: old baths, rubber tyres, bricks, planks of wood – you name it, we had it. We used the junk to build all kinds of things – castles, airplanes, submarines, all big enough to live in. Then we invented adventures that sometimes ran for days, defending the castle, going on a mission in the submarine, etc. etc.
One time when it wouldn’t stop raining, we wrote down some of our adventures as stories. Then we made copies and hawked them around the school playground at recess. We didn’t get money for them, only lollies, swaps and stuff! But that was when I first discovered the thrill of having someone come up to you and say ‘Hey, that was great, have you got another one?’ From that day on, I had the urge to be a writer.
Not the ability, though. When I was about fifteen, I won some significant prize for a short story – which was really just a pastiche of all the avant-garde techniques I’d discovered in the literary books I’d been reading. Very impressive – and very superficial when I did it! I forgot all about my early instinct for telling stories and strove to become the sort of writer I thought I ought to be. Bad mistake! The more I tried to write, the less I managed to finish.
After finishing high school, I spent a term teaching in a Secondary Modern (don’t ask me how that happened – I guess they didn’t bother so much about formal qualifications then). Teaching Maths of all things – my least favourite subject! Then I went over to Europe, imagining I could get a teaching job in France, and ended up selling the New York Herald Tribune to tourists on the streets of Paris. Then I hitchhiked around Europe for a couple of months, ended up getting conned out of all my money in Italy and finally made it back home to England.
The next three years I spent at Cambridge, living in rooms at Gonville and Caius College (abbreviated and pronounced as ‘keys’!). I studied English Literature (nothing but) – and failed to finish long and overly ambitious essays the same way I failed to finish would-be short stories and novels. Luckily, assessment was entirely by exam.
After uni, I had a theoretical book I really wanted to write, a theory of language and poetic style. I wanted someone to pay me to do it as a Ph.D, and the only place that offered me a scholarship was Newcastle, Australia. So I came to Australia, never expecting to stay. It took me about four weeks to decide that this was my favourite place in the world, and the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
It wasn’t only novels I couldn’t finish – I couldn’t finish my theory of language/poetic style either. So I geared down to a smaller MA thesis. Then I moved to Glebe to do another impossibly ambitious Ph.D. thesis on narrative at Sydney University. Same result – I bogged down again. The only writings I could finish were poems and short prose pieces. They were almost all published in high profile literary journals, but there weren’t very many of them.
After six years, I dropped out of the Sydney Uni thesis and hit the pits. Bummed around in Sydney and the Blue Mountains . . . part-time work here and there . . . break-up of a long-term relationship. The only good thing in my life was writing songs (sort of folk-rock mix) and performing them at venues around the city.
Somehow I snuck back into tutoring at the Uni of NSW. There I started writing an article which turned into a thesis on Structuralism, then coming into fashion. The last fifth of the thesis was actually the (non-Structuralist) theory of language I’d tried to write ages ago! And this time I could finish it!
(I can’t explain the separate halves of my mind. There’s one very abstract half which thinks – or used to think – very logically and theoretically, and the other storytelling half which imagines very vividly and visually. I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve been told my novels read like movies. But I’m jumping ahead …).
So now I had a huge slice of luck. I had two overseas markers for the thesis, Jonathan Culler and Terence Hawkes, who were really big names in the field. They wrote glowing reports … and my third Australian marker, who didn’t like it, passed it reluctantly. Better still, Jonathan Culler said he’d get it published, and it appeared as Superstructuralism (without the rather separate final fifth) in the New Accents series of critical theory books from Methuen in the UK – for which Terence Hawkes just happened to be general editor!
With a very impressive publication as well as a Ph.D, I waltzed into a lectureship in the English Department of the University of Wollongong. Also – things going up and up! – I met Aileen, the love of my life. We married in 1983, and have lived in Figtree, near Wollongong, ever since. No children of our own, but two lovely stepchildren from Aileen’s previous marriage.
I lectured at Wollongong for ten years, and truly enjoyed my job, especially when I managed to introduce courses on fantasy and speculative fiction! I expanded the last fifth of my Ph.D. into the theoretical book on language that I’d been sort of working towards ever since Cambridge. It came out from Routledge in the UK as Beyond Superstructuralism: The Syntagmatic Side of Language. I guess you could say it attempts to explain how language can manage to create and convey content that never previously existed … the theorising never impacted on the fantasy fiction I was trying to write, but I suppose the fantasy fiction was always in my mind as something that the theorising needed to explain. Although I did write one more academic book (on the history of literary theory) Beyond Superstructuralism was the book I needed to write.
While Beyond Superstructuralism was going through the processes of publication, I went back to a gothic-bizarre-grotesque novel I’d already started and stuck on many times over. But this time I finished it! The Vicar of Morbing Vyle was my very first novel, coming out from a small press when I was in my mid-forties. Talk about a late starter …
Then came the second huge slice of luck in my life. Not only did the book receive great reviews, but one reviewer said that, if I had another MS ready, he’d see if he could get it published by a mainstream publisher. Well, OK, I’ve already told that story on my Author page. It’s like an echo of the Jonathan Culler story!
I’ll skip that story, and the story of my novels – all of that’s on the Author page. My most successful book to date would have to be my steampunk novel, Worldshaker. I only mention it now so I can throw in a photo of myself in steampunk costume …
So here I am, years later, still writing, writing, writing. I feel so fortunate finally being able to do what I always wanted to do – I think I appreciate it all the more after having spent a big chunk of my life not being able to do it! I write every day of the year except birthdays and Xmas Day, from straight after breakfast through to late lunch at 1.30. Then extra planning and ‘pre-filming’ in the afternoon – only slightly interrupted by taking Yogi the Labrador for a walk. (I call it pre-filming when I read through my notes for the episode I’ll be writing tomorrow and imagine how it’ll play out, how it’ll look – like a movie. Then next day, after sleeping on it, it’s there in my head as if it really happened, and I only have to put it into words.)
I think I must be a very lucky guy. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but everything I wanted finally came true! Now all I need is another bounce of success for next book, Ferren and the Angel …