Novel Experience Podcast Transcripts - S1 Ep2 AJ West
Novel Experience is a weekly podcast for writers and readers where authors chat candidly about writing and books. Full of writing advice, reading recommendations and reflections on the experiences that lead authors, to through and beyond publication.
Series 1 Episode 2: author AJ West (THE SPIRIT ENGINEER) chats to author and podcast host Kate Sawyer (THE STRANDING, THIS FAMILY) about the experiences that led to him writing his bestselling historical fiction novel, being published, researching real life characters, the fall out of his time on Big Brother and how his time as a journalist for the BBC influenced his writing process.
Kate Sawyer [00:00:05] My guest author is AJ West. AJ’s debut novel, THE SPIRIT ENGINEER, was published in 2021 and was brilliantly received. It is a retelling of the true story of William Jackson Crawford. One of the first performance spiritualists, as you might expect of a book about a spiritualist. There are ghosts and silences, but it is also gloriously funny, with a surprising antihero as its narrator. I love this book. Partly because it was what I was expecting, partly because it was a real page turner and partly because the historical details and atmosphere is perfect. I'm looking forward to talking to AJ about this engineer and what he is writing next, but I'm also keen to know how his career as a broadcaster and award winning BBC journalist and Big Brother contestant led to him transitioning to racing. Hello, A.J..
AJ West [00:01:59] Hello. It's so nice to hear your voice. How are you?
Kate Sawyer [00:02:02] I'm all right. You know, I’ve got a cold, everybody's got a cold. I've got a toddler, so I'm just going to have a cold for the next, you know, five years.
AJ West [00:02:11] I have heard that's the deal that you've made, yes.
Kate Sawyer [00:02:14] So, I'm really excited to have you on NOVEL EXPERIENCE. Thank you very much for being a guest.
AJ West [00:02:21] I'm delighted and thank you for such a wonderful intro. It's one of those moments in, you know, this is - we were both debut novelists in the same year last year where - and yet I'm still kind of getting used to it, I suppose.
Kate Sawyer [00:02:34] Yeah. It's one of those things where, like, someone introduced you by all of the good things and doesn't mention any of the bad, and you're like, “Yeah, guess that's true.”
AJ West [00:02:43] I'm going to basically take a recording of what you just said and send it to all of my exes and say: “this is now this is what you have to say about me from now on.”
Kate Sawyer [00:02:49] That's I think that's a really good idea. We still do that. It's a perk.
AJ West [00:02:54] Yeah.
Kate Sawyer [00:02:54] So I suppose what I'd like to start with is the beginning. Have you always written or wanted to write?
AJ West [00:03:05] I have always written creatively and drawn creatively and existed creatively. Really. I was definitely a little boy that my relatives raised their eyebrows and looked at each other as if to say” “Hmm, do you think he's…? Do you think he might grow up to be…they were in the eighties, what kind of terminology they would use? But, you know, it's like a performance, I think, a performing child. Yes. Yes. I think it was quite likely that I was going to grow up to be very creative. And to be honest, it made me very lonely. When I was a little boy at school, I really didn't fit in. I had friends who were the girls in my class, and before we reached an age, when we realised that actually that kind of wasn't allowed and we were then pretty much kind of split up, I suppose, and I lost the friends that I had. And then found myself really isolated and lonely as a little boy and trying to fit in with the lads. Yeah. And I remember even when I was six years old, that feeling, you know, and being totally distanced from the kids who I felt I fitted in with best. And I found sanctuary in my books. So Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton and lots of those authors that we're probably not supposed to like so much anymore, actually, for me gave me an escape. And I remember, you know, if I was feeling very sad after a day at school, I would go home and I would go under the covers with the torch and do that thing, you know, and read THE FAMOUS FIVE or whatever it was and just kind of go somewhere else. I loved THE ANIMALS OF FARTHING WOOD actually, yeah.
Kate Sawyer [00:04:47] I did too, but it's actually a really bloody tale. I saw on Twitter - a few years ago - a thread about the deaths in THE ANIMALS OF FARTHING WOOD. And I was just like, oh yeah…it was quite dark!
AJ West [00:04:58] I find, you know, when I write, I sometimes right before I was published, actually as a novelist, I was writing children's stories for the children with my friends and some people who asked me to commission me to write books specifically for their kids. And because I wasn't going through a publisher, all that kind of filtering checks and balances system, I could make them as disgusting and actually as scary as I wanted. And they loved them. They said.!
Kate Sawyer [00:05:24] Did you start writing when you were a bit older?
AJ West [00:05:27] Still a child, yeah. My earliest story was based on my obsession with history, which I still have. And we were learning about the ancient Egyptians and Tutankhamen, which is probably the 1992 way of pronouncing that name. But yes, Howard Carter's discovery of that tomb. And I remember just being just spellbound by the story of that discovery. And I was definitely one of the kids who liked burying treasure in the back garden and things, you know, digging this treasure up, you know, finding this long deceased body. And I wrote a little story about it just as a part of a class exercise. And I remember my teacher, Mrs. Mayor, she was called, she came to my book launch, which was lovely.
Kate Sawyer [00:06:15] Oh, that is lovely.
AJ West [00:06:16] Yeah, she called me up to the front of the class and asked me to read my story aloud because she said it was a good use of, I think, metaphor and simile I think we were looking at. And she said: “I remember as a little boy”. She said I was very lonely and very insulated and really from my peers in my class, I was shaking and quite liable to wet myself - which was one of my many issues that I had at school. And I stood there. My hands were shaking as soon as I started reading. And I found a confidence that I didn't knew I had. And I got a big round of applause. And I remember that playtime. People were patting me on the back and wanting to play with me and talk to me. And I thought I found something that has value for people because at that point in my life, I hadn't yet worked out what is my value because I wasn't a fast runner or good at football or fighting.
Kate Sawyer [00:07:11] Yeah.
AJ West [00:07:12] But storytelling. So. So that was the very first thing. And I wrote then I, you know, I've always written. I wrote stories rather than my dissertation at university. I wrote stories for friends. I've written two novels that will never be published, before I even thought of trying to get anything published. Just because it was something that…yeah, I think that I did…you know…I just did it.
Kate Sawyer [00:07:34] Your background is in broadcasting. Is that right? Or, would you say journalism?
AJ West [00:07:42] Yeah, well broadcast journalism. I was a radio reporter in various different parts of the country. And then I went to Radio One where I was a reporter and a newsreader. I was very lucky to produce a couple of programmes on Radio Two for four years, including the art show, where I came into contact with lots of novelists and was very envious of them but learnt a little bit of the industry from the inside. But, I hasten to add, no nepotism there! It didn't help me get published, because that was years ago. And then, yes, I did some news reading and reporting. And then, as you mentioned, I obviously ended up on Big Brother.
Kate Sawyer [00:08:17] Yeah. And so this book, I know that it's been something that interested you for a long time. And I know that you're working in the BBC, the BBC in Belfast. So can you tell me where the idea for THE SPIRIT ENGINEER started? Was it a slow burning thing or is it something you've always wanted to write?
AJ West [00:08:39] I've always wanted to write a story based on a forgotten historical truth or someone who's been lost to history. I've always felt that, for me, retelling a story of, I don't know, Henry the Eighth or something, you know, that's already been told by people who are much more learned than me, would not be how I'd find my inspiration. So I was always looking around, you know, kind of snuffling for truffles, trying to find something that piqued my interest. And then, yeah, I was working as a newsreader, as I say, in Northern Ireland, and I was reading A MAGICIAN AMONGST THE SPIRITS, which is Harry Houdini's memoir. And as he travels around the world debunking fake spiritual mediums and just somewhere near the end, I think is page 260 or something of the book. He just mentions, kind of in passing actually, that he met a professor, William Crawford. He's from Belfast and he showed him - William showed Houdini - some of his pictures of ectoplasm. And William then took his own life in strange and mysterious circumstances on pixie rocks in Bangor, Northern Ireland. And it was really, you know, a lightning bolt moment for me because I thought, my God, this is the story. This is what I've been waiting for and it has found me. I do seem to find it. It really did find me. And it took me completely by surprise. And I thought it was a wonderful moment, an ecstatic moment, but also a terrifying moment. I thought if I can't turn this story into a decent novel, then I'm not a novelist, and therefore I have failed in my number one life’s dream. If this story does not turn into a decent-ish novel in my hands, then I cannot be a novelist.
Kate Sawyer [00:10:26] Well, you proved that! You've done it.
AJ West [00:10:28] Well, in the end. I mean, after a good few edits! I know I always feel like, you know, people show off that they passed their driving test, first time. I always feel like with authors there's a little bit of like: “Oh, how many edits did you go through?”. I'm like, Wow. Don't you think?
Kate Sawyer [00:10:42] Well, well, yeah, I suppose. And even maybe in our own heads that's true. But I love editing and I think it's where you find really good stuff. I sort of think that if you don't do very many edits, then maybe you - I don't know - you're not really interrogating it properly? But I don't know, there's probably some, like, geniuses that can do it in one. But I'm not. I'm very much an interrogator, and I so enjoy editing much more than draughting. That's where I'd like to spend the most time, really.
AJ West [00:11:19] Do you like that feeling where you've highlighted a paragraph, say, and you know, that you love the paragraph, but you also know it has to go? Killing your darlings, as they call it. What emotional journey do you go through in that moment when you delete it?
Kate Sawyer [00:11:36] I think I feel so proud of myself when I let go of something.
AJ West [00:11:40] Yeah.
Kate Sawyer [00:11:41] I think it's almost worth it for that. And also, I think something that's quite interesting, the psychology of sitting on it for a day or something like that, where you know it has to go but you're not ready and then you just do it and it feels great.
AJ West [00:11:56] Like, it's like…I mean, anyone listening to this, I'm sure, will have been in this situation. I know I have a number of times. I do think it's a little bit like when you're in a relationship with someone that you just know isn't right and you really love -I don't know - maybe the sex is good or maybe they make you laugh sometimes. Or maybe you just want to keep the dog on the sofa. Whatever it is. There are things that you just love about it, and then it's only once they're gone that you think this is so much better. And I don't miss the things I thought I'd miss. And when I delete stuff - I think because I love, you know, metaphors and similes. It's very purple prose, my writing. And then I think: “Oh, I love the way I describe that goldfish. I can't possibly lose that.” And then as soon as it's gone, I'm so relieved that that piece of writing isn’t there. Because I realise, actually, it was just weighing everything down. The reader was just going to get frustrated with me trying to overwrite something.
Kate Sawyer [00:12:53] So we've answered my editing question. What I was also interested in is how much research you must have done, because as I mentioned in the introduction, there are so many brilliant details about Belfast in the time, but also about visiting London, about Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I mean, so I'm just interested in your process of research.
AJ West [00:13:20] Gosh. Well, it was a labour of love. And it you know, the research was before I'd even started writing, really, because I was in full time work. And it was a bit of a tumultuous time, you know, on and off. There were a good couple of years where if I was going particularly mad, I would take myself off to an archive and bury myself in research. Because I suppose, you know, as when I was little, it felt again like a safe, secure escape really from the real world. And it just I remember sitting in the Cambridge Manuscripts Archive feeling actually quite tearful, going through some photographs of William and Kathleen's joint experiments and and just feeling such a sense of responsibility, but also gratitude to them for living this insane existence so that over 100 years later, some random bloke going through a quasi-nervous breakdown could spend some time with them. And so it meant it meant an awful lot to me to spend time with these characters in this research. It was a little bit like my process as a journalist, really, which was to find out lots of facts and then forget most of them. To be honest, because I was in journalism, that's a very dangerous thing to do. But I think as a novelist it's necessary. If you feel you can be in the place that a novelist is describing, then that's that's so powerful. And people talk a lot about world building. But I think there's something ephemeral. There's something not as literal as describing clothes. And yes, it's about just lots of tiny, tiny little details that maybe you don't even realise. Yeah. Including in your writing, to build a whole atmosphere and a vision that then immerses the reader in the story you're telling. And I think the temptation often is to, to describe the types of bowls and plates and to describe the exact type of colour coats and things.
Kate Sawyer [00:15:13] THE SPIRIT ENGINEER: t's historical fiction and it's got a great plot, but it is a character piece, really. And so that's what I would like to ask you about next. William is the narrator and the protagonist and is very much a man of his era. And in a way he's a victim of that. That gives a lot of humour. But it's also quite tragic both for William and the people around him. And is there a reason that you wanted to portray toxic masculinity in this way? It was…it felt…really relevant. Yeah, I'm just interested in that because it is a sympathetic portrayal, but it also feels a bit like you're poking fun at him and his outdated beliefs, in a way.
AJ West [00:16:06] Yeah. It's lovely that you've read William with that kind of awareness. Of course that sounds really condescending, but with that sensitivity. And I say that only because, you know, not not everyone feels sympathy for William when they read him. In fact, some people find him downright infuriating. And he's been called some rather mean names by people who enjoyed the book. But I understand William. But I absolutely think he's a man of his time. And I see him as a perpetrator, but also as a victim, as you say. Because, you know, when I was writing it, I'd carried out my research. William did come across to me as quite an obnoxious fellow. And but having spent my life knowing and being at times an obnoxious fellow, I also know how flawed and deeply insecure they are. Stroke, we are. And so I personally felt the more I got to know him through his essays and his various letters and things, I felt overcome by a sense of embarrassment on his behalf and deep sympathy for him, as a man who clearly was struggling mentally, and emotionally with, you know, I think a realisation that he'd been bamboozled. But the whole conversation we're having these days about toxic masculinity: I think why are the men behaving in this, this unlikeable, often dishonourable, morally questionable way? Why? And then for me, I thought: actually, maybe I'm someone who can burrow down into that. And maybe, from my own point of view, answer some of those questions. And for me, with William as a fictional character, he is deeply insecure about himself sexually and his ability to pleasure his wife and about his manhood and his masculinity generally. He's clearly someone who as a boy suffered trauma. He is patronised by more powerful, richer, more successful men at work. He's mocked by the women in his life. He feels inadequate as a father to his children. He's worried he can't provide for his family because he's not got enough money and he's not actually good at handling money. All of these pressures and these expectations, these boxes that men were, then particularly and to a certain extent still, expected to check, he simply was not able to check them. And over a period of time, what I wanted to do in the book was tell a story of how that can monster and deform a person's personality and how that can then lead on to harming those around them.
Kate Sawyer [00:18:58] There is an echo of Mary Shelley in your work, and I suppose that’s something I enjoyed as well because it does feel…in the same way that, you know, that 17 year old girl's book still feels relevant, that the story of of someone from the early 20th century still feels relevant, like you say, because there are still people whose personalities are based on ideas those outdated ideas.
AJ West [00:19:28] Well, it yes. I mean, I'm a fan. You mentioned Shelley. I would also say, you know, Oscar Wilde, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY. I would say, you know, we talk about Jekyll and Hyde. We talk, I think, we explore, well, okay, this person is monstrous or this person is someone we find very difficult to spend time with. But let's work out how they got there and what what are their motivations. For me…I anyway, find that really, really interesting. And you know, at the same time, it was a very personal thing, Kate, because, you know, at that time…I wasn't behaving the way William was, but at that time, I was very, very quickly losing grip on my own sense of who I was as a man and what my boundaries were, what my principles were. You know, after leaving the BBC and going on Big Brother and things, I found myself in a world that was very frightening, where morality seemed to be warped and I was doing and being pushed to do things in desperation because I had no money and nowhere to live. And it was in a very difficult position I was finding myself in. I was in a desperate situation. And so I was able to empathise with William because I thought, would you normally do this thing? Let's be honest. I chose to go on the reality TV show and you take some responsibility for that. But I think the one thing you just cannot explain when you're in a position where you are putting yourself out there to strangers en masse, is that it's a very, very dangerous thing to do. And you can become addicted to the attention. You can find yourself losing credibility. And so your only way of actually surviving is to carry on doing what you're doing in all sorts of different ways. It can infect and destroy people. And I've been lucky in my life to have people around who love me and have been able to just about keep me on the straight and narrow. But just like William went down some very, very questionable paths. You know, just as he pursued his investigation of Kathleen Gallagher. And I you know, I had people pushing me down the tabloid path, I was booked for television programmes to say things that I'm not entirely sure I really even meant. And then they would edit what I'd said and they tweeted out and they put a headline on top, and it was nothing that I'd intended to say. And before I know it, I'm sitting at home in tears with my head in my hands, going like: “What's happening to me?” And I do think that the process that William went through was something akin to that.
Kate Sawyer [00:21:59] We've still got the same brain chemistry. It’s still the same hit of dopamine you get. When he had a full theatre, it’s the same as when you get - I don't know how many likes is a lot of likes really - but, you know, a million likes on Instagram?
AJ West [00:22:12] Wow.
Kate Sawyer [00:22:13] That shows you how connected to that world I am! But I think it's really interesting. But the story called to be told. My next question is really about your experience of getting an agent, a publishing deal. And what I'm interested in is, I know that yours wasn't the sort of traditional way of writing out letters to agents with your manuscript, or maybe it was, but I know it didn't come in that order necessarily. So can you tell us a bit about that side of things?
AJ West [00:22:43] Yeah, I…I don't know whether you'd say I had a flounce or what it was really, but I tried to get an agent and they weren't interested. And I suppose if I had emailed every single agent in the world, one of them might have been interested. But I contacted a few and I didn't get I didn't get asked for a single full manuscript. Like I just got either ignored or a form response, a ‘no thanks’ from every single person I contacted. And I was actually trying to be quite discerning about who I contacted to be my agent. I didn't just want anyone, so I would do my research and I would make sure it was clear to them, I think you'd be a good agent for me and I think I'd be a good author for you because yeah, it was quite time consuming. And as anyone will know, it's, it was emotionally difficult. You know, I really, I couldn't help but take it to heart with each rejection. So I really struggled with that. So I stopped, quite quickly, looking for an agent and submitted directly to someone who I knew was an editor at an independent publisher called Duckworth Books. And I didn't know Matt. He was the editor there, but he followed me on Twitter. I found my husband via Twitter, and I ended up finding my editor and on Twitter! Because I'd sent some tweet that he agreed with and I sent him a direct message saying: “Hi, I'm sure you get this all the time. Must be very annoying. But I actually have written a fully finished manuscript for a novel and I'd really love to send it to you.” And so he said: “Well, here's a submission form. Send it over.” And so after a long time of being rejected by agents, it was, you know, within two days I had an email saying: ‘We love it, we'd like to buy it.” And oh, so it didn't go to auction or whatever they call it. It was, you know, it was really, you know, Duckworth liked it and they’d found an author who was just absolutely desperate for the book to reach an audience. So it was a really happy marriage and it was a huge relief when that happened.
Kate Sawyer [00:24:54] Because you now have an agent, isn't that right, since you've been published or just before you were published?
AJ West [00:25:00] That's right, yeah. So I was all the way up to maybe - I don't know, a month before being published?- I walked past a statue of Agatha Christie. In Soho in London. And then as I walked further and further away from the statue, I thought, I love Agatha Christie. I've never seen that statue before. I want a picture with it. And something was telling me to go back anyway. I took a picture with it. Long story short, for whatever reason, with the Twitter algorithm, Patricia Cornwell, worldwide megastar, author like, you know, basically invented modern crime drama. Liked the tweet, then followed me, then ordered my book, and we ended up DMing. And I was sitting in a pub with a pint, just kind of shaking, physically shaking. I couldn’t believe it. You know, Patricia Cornwell has ordered my book and I sent a message to my agent, and my now agent, David Headley. He wasn't my agent at the time. And I said: “David, I'm not going to ask you to be my agent. I don't want to be that guy. But could you please give me 10 minutes of your time? Because I just have some questions.” Because I felt completely and utterly overwhelmed by stuff that was going on. I didn't understand the industry. I had no idea what was happening. I was completely at sea and he agreed to talk to me for 10 minutes. And we actually did have the Zoom. And at the end he said: “Are you actually asking me to be your agent?” So I was like: “Oh my Lord, okay. Do you think would you consider it?” And and he said: “Yes.” So it was a very backwards way of getting an agent! But in a way, I suppose it worked out really, really well because it meant that I had an agent who understood how determined I was and how hard I was going to work and had already read the book and had ordered the book, in fact, in the end. So he ordered some books for his shop. So it was, it was, it was perfect, really, the way it worked. But my gosh, I shed a lot of tears on the way.
Kate Sawyer [00:27:01] I mean, I'm sure that David would not want people DMing him, but sometimes odd things happen and I like little stories like that that remind you that it's not always a straight line.
AJ West [00:27:14] I think the important thing is to understand as a novelist that it's about the manuscript, but it can also be about more than that. So these days, more than ever, if you find yourself in a situation like I was in, where no one's frankly showing any interest, then that's not the end of the road.
Kate Sawyer [00:27:36] I think it's so it depends on the author and the agent. It's about chemistry in general, it needs to be a connection between the two of you because you're hoping it will be long term. And yeah, it's a business arrangement as well, of course, but that needs to be a personal element to it too. And it's slightly different as well from my experience of working with acting agents, and partly because acting agents don't help you edit your performance. Whereas literary agents do help with getting your manuscript ready for submission to publishers or manage future deals with publishers. So it's a very different relationship to many other agent and client relationships, I think.
AJ West [00:28:32] Yeah, that's interesting. I've had a voice agent and a presenting agent or whatever you call it in the past. And yeah, you're right, it is a different approach. And I think that's partly what wrong-footed me, actually, when I was approaching literary agents, I didn't I didn't fully understand. I found that with presenting agents, it was more of a sense of “I think you have potential, so I'm going to grow your contacts in the industry and the payoff will come later on.” Voice Agent is just: “like your voice. I think we'll get you work.” But with literary agents, I do think the best advice I would give to anyone is, try and go to them with as much of the full package as you can.
Kate Sawyer [00:29:19] Yeah.
AJ West [00:29:20] And that means - it sounds like an obvious thing - but having the manuscript finished, having the synopsis looking professional, making sure it's laid out in the way that people would expect it to be laid out, but also building in some of the other brickwork around it if you can. That doesn't mean you've got to have 100,000 followers on Instagram. Showing that you have some kind of connection with a readership is really valuable. It depends a lot on how we are built as people, I think, and what our psychology is. I think if you're an author or you're someone who's trying to do anything in the creative industries, the way you respond to rejection is so crucial. And I think although in our society, I know anger is meant to be a bad emotion, I would rather fear if someone rejects me for something. So if I got a rejection from an agent, I'd rather feel angry than despondent or sad or harassed or apologetic. I think anger's a useful response. As long as you're not firing off horrible, nasty emails or being horrible to people. If it's a motivating anger. Because you think: “No, because I know I can do this and I know it's going to be good. And why can't you see it?” That can actually be channelled into something really positive and constructive. Determination to carry on going into it and to prove them wrong. And there's nothing wrong with proving people wrong. It doesn't have to be revenge or vendetta. What is the fire that makes you send another submission or makes you write the next book?
Kate Sawyer [00:30:45] Well, I do think that channelling it, I mean, and I actually think it's true for sadness as well. It's finding these emotions. Yeah, some people say they're not useful emotions, but they are emotions so they're valid and then turning it into action, whether that's immediately or taking a breath, having a hot bath, and then getting back on the horse. What was it like being published for you? Did you enjoy it?
AJ West [00:31:12] Oh, crikey. I mean, did I enjoy holding my book in my hands? Yes, absolutely. Just as kind of the closest I'll get to a spiritual experience, I would say. Yeah, that I loved. Did I? My book was published at a time when there were a lot of issues with getting books distributed because there was a fuel crisis. I think with Brexit there was a paper shortage, there was COVID. And so I was fortunate. I was fortunate in the sense that I was not published into a lockdown, but I was published into a logistical hellfire where I took myself off - and I know you did this too. You're an inspiration to me - I took myself off on a tour around the UK, visiting as many bookshops as I could, and for the first two weeks of that I did it, for just over a month, the bookshops were struggling to even get my book. They'd ordered the book, they couldn't actually get it on the shelves. It was a nightmare that people couldn't get my book. It was the most extraordinarily torturous feeling of just absolutely no control and no ability to make things work. And I was just in floods of tears. My poor husband was sitting next to me, rubbing my back. I sound like such a spoiled princess. Just having a book launch day when no one can buy a book. Yeah.
Kate Sawyer [00:32:43] Well, it's one of the reasons that for this series I wanted to talk to authors that were published in 2021, although, I will maybe see if I can get some authors in 2020 as well, because of being published, expecting everything to be open and then everything being closed must have been quite the experience as well. But it was a strange time of some things being open, some things not being open. The, like you say, the fuel crisis, the paper shortage. But I know that you have had amazing times. And is anything ever perfect? Particularly when we look forward to it, maybe our entire lives. I think recognising that it isn't perfect is really important, particularly for people that are currently idolising the idea of it in the future. Because it's not just about managing your expectations, but it's recognising that everybody's experience will be slightly different, I suppose. Currently you're out in hardback, audio and e-book, is that right? And so the paperback I think is coming in July. A new, sort of, more summery cover.
AJ West [00:33:50] Yes, it's out in July 21st. And so the paperback is white with red foil and it's very pretty. I mean, one of the things that I learnt with this book is that people really do judge a book by its cover. And I think there are some people who look at it and really love that dark, rich, red, black, gothic look. But the truth is, you know, I always say you my book is not horror fiction fantasy. It's it's more kind of Sarah Waters affinity, you know, it's more in that vein. So the publisher’s done a brilliant job actually of preparing the summer release paperback with a cover that I think is going to tell that story.
Kate Sawyer [00:34:33] What's next?
AJ West [00:34:34] Well, I'm the worst person in the world for keeping things secret, but I can't go into detail. What I can say is that it's going to be set in an underworld of Georgian London. And I'm really excited to be kind of bringing to life some characters that I've personally never read in historical fiction before. And I call my books my time machines because that's how it feels to me. And I'm loving writing in the library and being transported back into this world.
Kate Sawyer [00:35:11] The London Library, is that right?
AJ West [00:35:13] The London Library, which I didn't even know anything about until the start of this year! It's this grand old building filled with books. I got lost one night. I was looking for the toilet, actually, and I got completely lost up in the rafters of the building, which is really gloomy and spooky and dark and tripped over my own foot, as I so often do, stumbled and almost headbutted this shelf. And when I right myself - I kid you not, I swear on my life, I'm not embellishing, this is the truth - William Jackson Crawford's three books were on the shelf staring directly at me. And this is in a library that has miles upon miles of bookshelves. But I do not believe in paranormal phenomena.
Kate Sawyer [00:36:04] But I'm just not really sure that I believe that, because I think you must believe in ghosts a bit, to write what you write.
AJ West [00:36:12] I would love to but I don't believe in ghosts. But I would absolutely love to see one. Honestly, I would. I know we’re meant to be afraid of them, and they're meant to be frightening. I would just absolutely give anything to see a ghost, because - and I think this might come through a little bit in my book - I have a great fear, an obsession with mortality. Yeah. And it would be a huge relief and reassurance to me if I could think that the people I've lost, who I love, are still there and that I, when I leave, will still be there. It would be just the greatest gift anyone could ever give me. So if any ghosts are listening, particularly William Jackson Crawford, please say hello. I don't mind if people call me a nutcase for the rest of my life. It genuinely would be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.
Kate Sawyer [00:37:08] An interesting way to think of it! So moving on from writing to reading as our time's nearly up. Are you a big reader? You certainly were when you were a child. Do you still read a lot?
AJ West [00:37:21] I mostly non-fiction these days, for research and I tend to return - I think because of the era I'm writing in these days - I tend to return to the classics when I'm writing fiction. So at the moment I'm listening actually to my MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT audio book, read by Derek Jacobi.
Kate Sawyer [00:37:47] Oh, nice.
AJ West [00:37:48] And, and I'm kind of working my way through some of those wonderful classic novels that I neglected in my youth. So, so yeah. But I guess really I should be reading more novels, but at the moment I'm just having to find out so much about what Georgian London was like, and that's what's giving me my pleasure.
Kate Sawyer [00:38:08] So I asked if you would have a think about three recommendations. So the first one for a book that you would recommend to people that are fans of the Spirit Engineer.
AJ West [00:38:21] Yeah, I thought about that. I mean, there are lots of different books you could read, but I really thought actually two to start at the very beginning and you really could do worse than the reading. Is that the phrase? You could do better. You could do worse than than reading? Harry Houdini's A MAGICIAN AMONGST THE SPIRITS. It's not currently in what you'd call kind of mainstream print, but you can order it, and it will come to you as a kind of print on demand. And he writes with such flair, he's so cutting about some of the spiritual mediums. But it's also sometimes very touching because he was inspired to investigate spiritual mediums, because he so desperately wanted to contact his mother, who he loved very dearly and was heartbroken when she passed. So it's a very spooky and interesting read. And I think it's a way to get into the mind of one of the greatest show people in history.
Kate Sawyer [00:39:17] Thank you. And a book you would always recommend that has been, you know, is one of your favourite books ever.
AJ West [00:39:25]JUDE THE OBSCURE by Thomas Hardy. I adore Thomas Hardy.
Kate Sawyer [00:39:29] I me too! I love Thomas Hardy. Can I ask why you do?
AJ West [00:39:34] I think there's some you know, they say we love the sound of the cello because it's the instrument that has the closest resonance with the human voice. And for me, Thomas Hardy as a writer is a cello. He has the closest resonance for my experience of life and the mix of melancholy and humour, the sunshine and the tragedy, the duplicity of characters, but the innate goodness of most of them. And I find with Dickens that often the characters can be wonderfully brilliant and bright and colourful puppets, but they never quite feel real. Whereas for me with Thomas Hardy and even though the books were written such a long time ago, I feel as though, yes, I know. I know Jude, I know Arabella, I know these people.
Kate Sawyer [00:40:24] I think the thing for me is that, you know, you're hurtling towards disaster, but you can't look away. Yes, that’s what I find so fascinating - that you sort of know what the end is from the beginning.
AJ West [00:40:38] Just he's an architect of complete emotional destruction, and he does it with such softness.
Kate Sawyer [00:40:44] And a book that is coming up, is there a book coming up or that you've read recently that you'd like to recommend?
AJ West [00:41:00] Well, well, currently I'm reading an advance reader copy of THE OTHER GUEST by Helen Cooper, who we both know. Oh, yes, yes. Helen was at the Book Party, which I organised with Vic, who runs Insta Book Tours, last year in London, there's going to be one this summer as well in July. I'm reading that very much, enjoying it, largely because I fancy one of the characters.
Kate Sawyer [00:41:27] I have a proof. But, I haven't got to it yet. So it's good to know that you recommend.
AJ West [00:41:31] Well, I get hot over characters very easily in fiction. I get very frisky. Like you just need to tell me he's a guy. He's got a tan, I’m there. But I would say the other book that I've been sent actually is by Sarah Burton, who was generous enough to give me a quote for THE SPIRIT ENGINEER. It's called THE BOOK YOU NEED TO READ. TO WRITE THE BOOK YOU WANT TO WRITE.
Kate Sawyer [00:41:54] Okay.
AJ West [00:41:55] THE BOOK YOU NEED TO READ TO WRITE THE BOOK YOU WANT TO WRITE or you can just Google Sarah Burton. It's a brilliant book that’s written in a completely non-condescending and friendly collegiate way. It just deals with, you know, how to write an engaging opening to a story. Why are you afraid to begin your story? How do you introduce characters? Should you be showing or should you be telling? And it doesn't go into too much detail, but it just kind of talks you round in the way, you know, that best friend you've got does when you've got a problem and they start talking to you.
Kate Sawyer [00:42:51] I don't like sticking to ‘the rules’ very much, but I do find it helpful to read how other people do it. So as long as it's not saying you must do this, then I'm, then I'm interested.
AJ West [00:43:12] What's your least favourite bit of advice? Mine is: “Show. Don't tell.”
Kate Sawyer [00:43:15] Yeah, I don't like: “Don't start with the weather.” It makes me want to start everything I write, you know, even tweets with the weather.
AJ West [00:43:24] Oh my gosh is that is that a thing? Because that's a problem because I'm writing my second book right now and I don't mind telling you it starts with a lot of weather!
Kate Sawyer [00:43:33] Well, I like it! Because I like the atmosphere and I like to know where I am. I know that you can do that within the characters as well. But yeah, I don't think we need to entirely avoid the weather!
AJ West [00:43:47] I think, you know, I mentioned Charles Dickens earlier and actually it's an example that Sarah and Jim use in this book and the ‘Show Don't Tell’ thing as well can be taken too literally. I think actually sometimes that if you describe how a character is dressed or if a character says something and they say ‘jealousy’ or they say it ‘angrily’, I think that has a place in literature. I think it's like all of these things. I hate this phrase as well, but: everything in moderation. It's actually true.
Kate Sawyer [00:44:13] Yeah.
AJ West [00:44:13] Sometimes ‘telling’ is, is the most fun way to introduce a character to a story or to tell a reader what's happening.
Kate Sawyer [00:44:20] Yeah. And sometimes an exclamation mark is required to show that, to say, that there's a certain emotion behind speech.
AJ West [00:44:28] And you can start a sentence with The end.
Kate Sawyer [00:44:30] And you can end with The end. And so I'm going to say thanks so much for being my guest on NOVEL EXPERIENCE today. It's been an absolute pleasure chatting to you and I'm very excited about the next book and I want everybody to go out there and read THE SPIRIT ENGINEER.
AJ West [00:44:49] And I'm really grateful for being invited on, Kate. Honestly, I just hope we can have a glass of wine at some point soon and toast the next books.
Kate Sawyer [00:44:59] That would be wonderful. Thanks so much!
THE SPIRIT ENGINEER by A.J. West is published by Duckworth Books and is currently available in hardback, e-book and audio and will be published in paperback in July this year.
I hope you enjoyed this transcript of NOVEL EXPERIENCE Series 1 Episode 2 with AJ West
To listen to this and all other episodes of the podcast, please visit: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/novel-experience/id1615429783
Where you can subscribe to receive weekly episodes & take a moment to rate review and subscribe if you enjoyed this content.