Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: Ray P. Norris

1) Describe your journey as an author/writer.


When I was at high school in England, I had two passions. One was physics, and the other was literature. I regularly came top in both at school, but the English educational system requires you to focus on one thing. So I chose physics. I am now living in beautiful Australia, enjoying a wonderful career as an astrophysicist, spending my working days at the edge of the Universe, trying to figure out how galaxies form and evolve. But a few years ago I started wondering... what if? Suppose I had chosen literature? Can I still make that choice? So I took a year off work to start two projects. One was to understand the astronomy of Aboriginal Australians, and the other was to write my first novel.

Writing the novel Graven Images took the best part of that year  - spending a few hours each day just sitting in my study and writing. I loved it! The wall was covered with flow charts to help me keep track of the various threads of the storyline. Setting it in England gave me the excuse to indulge in personal nostalgia, visiting my childhood haunts, such as the ancient timeless moors of Dartmoor. Setting it in the year, 2005, in which it was written allowed me to weave events like the London tube bombings into the narrative.

I joined a writing group under the discerning tutelage of writer Natalie Scott, who destroyed my overblown writer's ego by showing me the many ways in which my writing sucked! I owe an enormous debt to her, as she painstakingly encouraged me to remove adjectives, tighten up the prose, and remove the long swooning passages about Dartmoor that made me misty-eyed but bored the pants off everyone else.

And then I spent the next five years polishing and tweaking it, learning from readers and writers. You can do this forever, and even now there are bits I'd like to change. But at some point you have to stop and say, "Dammit. I'm going to publish it." And that's where I am now.

2)      Do you specialize in any particular genre(s)?


I've published hundreds of scientific research papers and popular articles, if you can call that a genre. But that genre teaches you almost nothing about creative writing. In Graven Images, I had to forget everything I'd learned about writing scientific papers, which I found enormously liberating. Suddenly the other side of my brain, which had been atrophied since my teens, was able to sprout wings and fly.

People who knew me as a scientist often asked if I was writing science fiction. Why should I? It's too close to home. So in Graven Images, I tried to stay away from science, and stick to real contemporary human situations. I was only partially successful, as we write best about the environments with which we are familiar. The protagonist, Owen, is a scientist, and the entire book is from his point of view, although sometimes his understanding of what's happening is wrong, just like real life. But Owen is a biologist, not a physicist, and although there may be bits of me in Owen, I am really not Owen. And it's definitely not science fiction.

3)      Who are your favorite authors? How do they inspire your work?


I am a very eclectic reader. As a child I read everything by HG Wells and Ray Bradbury, and even now I consider Bradbury's Dandelion Wine to have had an enormous effect on my writing, and also triggered me to take up wine-making. In my teens I had a passion for Tolstoy, and have a nasty tendency to emulate his half-page sentences. I think I then moved on to John Steinbeck and Graham Greene. I was attracted to Anthony Burgess by Clockwork Orange, but then became an avid Burgess fan, and through him discovered James Joyce. I boast of being one of the few people who has finished Finnegan's Wake, which was more of an intellectual marathon than a cozy read! But it taught me much about using words unconventionally, informing the reader by osmosis rather than facts. I adore John le Carre, and wish I could convey as much as he does by leaving so much unsaid. And of course no one has the sheer story-telling ability of Stephen King. Currently, the Australian Richard Flanagan is the writer I most admire, and I think he's influenced my use of metaphor in Graven Images.

4)      Tell us about your most current project.


Graven Images is my first novel. It's set in the world of neo-pagan beliefs such as Wicca, but it's also contemporary, counterpointing these ancient beliefs with the web and the fear of terrorism. Personally, I'm an atheist, but I can place the moment when Wicca grabbed my attention. I took my daughter, an avid Wiccan at the time, on a vacation to England, the country in which I had grown up and where I had studied the astronomy of Bronze-age stone circles. But now, accompanied by my Wiccan daughter, I found recent offerings of flowers and money in the stone circles that I had studied so carefully. How had I never noticed these offerings before? So part of the book is about people seeing only what they expect to see. During that vacation, we visited the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, where the current owner, Graham King, was kind enough to show us the rare books in his collection. And here's the moment that started it all: he placed in my hands a real medieval Grimoire. Some witch, hundreds of years ago, had carefully written her spells in this book. I had grown up thinking witches were make-believe, and suddenly I had this thirteenth century spell-book in my hands.

So that's the backdrop, but the real action centres on Owen's quest to find his archaeologist girlfriend’s killers. To do so, he penetrates a sinister pagan cabal, but to gain their acceptance he uses his science skills to help them find a legendary Wiccan bible - the Book of One. He cannot resist the lure of hunting down this book, and the resulting quest almost eclipses his real quest to find Sarah's killers. And meanwhile his life, already shattered by his girlfriend’s death, disintegrates until he's on the run from the police.

5)      How did you choose your publisher? Describe that process.

My wife and I had self-published a non-fiction book on Australian Aboriginal Astronomy, Emu Dreaming, which has been very successful, pretty well selling itself with no real marketing. So rather than running the gauntlet of publishers and agents, I thought I'd try self-publishing my novel. I discovered that publishing fiction is much harder than non-fiction, and now I know why people use professional publishers and agents. Graven Images has had great reviews, but the sales have just not taken off. We probably need to do some serious marketing which is hard when it's your hobby!

6)      How do you promote your work? What strategies have been the most successful?

It's too early to say. I formally published the book in April 2011, but didn’t start promoting it until December 2011. With hindsight, this was an enormous mistake. People expect a book either to take off within a couple of months of publication, or not at all. So when you confess that you published a book a few months ago and it hasn’t yet started selling, many people write it off as a non-starter. Next time I won't publish it until I'm ready to promote it!

7)      What else have you written/published?

Ignoring the 250-odd papers on astrophysics, which are incomprehensible to anyone outside the field, the only other book of popular interest is the book Emu Dreaming that my wife and I wrote on Aboriginal Astronomy. I started researching the astronomy of the Aboriginal Australians in 2005, and have been amazed at the depth and complexity of their cultures, and by how little this is appreciated by non-Aboriginal people. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, some guy sitting out in the bush, some Aboriginal Einstein, figured out how eclipses work, and how the tides are linked to the phases of the Moon, while in Europe Galileo was saying, incorrectly, that the Moon has nothing to do with the tides. Our little book has been amazingly popular in Australia, and I hope has helped some non-Aboriginal people to understand that there's much more to Aboriginal culture than didgeridoos and bark paintings. This study has also taken my wife and me to Aboriginal communities hundreds of miles from the nearest road, and we have made some wonderful friends. My Aboriginal friend Bill Yidumduma Harney and I have even played in a stage show "The First Astronomers" in arts festivals across Australia. Way outside my astrophysicist comfort zone, and wonderful fun!

8)      What do you plan to accomplish in 2012?

I can't wait to write a sequel! I have it all mapped out, but my day-job keeps getting in the way!

9)      What advice would you give to budding writers?

Write! Have fun!

10)   What is your definition of success as a writer?

I've sold a few hundred copies, so I'm not yet Stephen King, and I'm not going to give up my day-job anytime soon. But the whole experience has been enormous fun. And I have to say that I'm now addicted. So I think I would say that success as a writer means that you're enjoying the process, you're enjoying the act of writing, and you're enjoying the fact that people enjoy reading the book. Commercial success would also be nice, but you don't need that to count your writing as successful.

Author Bio

Graven Images is the first novel from Ray Norris, a British and Australian astrophysicist whose day-job is to find out how the Universe evolved from the Big Bang to the present day. He also researches Australian Aboriginal astronomy, and the astronomy of British Bronze-age stone circles. An atheist himself, but fascinated by other people's beliefs, he was amazed to find how ancient pagan religions are still deeply but secretly engrained across the strata of modern society. As well as over 250 professional publications, Ray frequently appears on radio and TV, and performs in a stage show called "The First Astronomers". For relaxation, he walks the moors of Dartmoor and the Australian bush, and writes.

Twitter: @RayPNorris

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RayPNorris

Book website: http://www.gravenimages.com.au

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