Author Spotlight – Mike Shackle
Joining us for today’s Author Spotlight is Mike Shackle!
Originally from London, Mike Shackle is now a citizen of the world, having lived and worked all around the world before starting his latest adventure in Vancouver, with his wife and two children. His other constant traveling companions around the globe have been his comic books, his favorite fantasy novels and an army of superhero statues. He more often than not can be found daydreaming over a cup of tea.
Welcome to the Hive, Mike. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I’ve just finished reading Master of Sorrows by Justin Call and absolutely loved it. A great twist on the Chosen One at Magic School trope. It’s got a great classic fantasy feel and yet is utterly modern.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
I’d be a ranger, wondering what the hell I was doing in a dungeon when I could be out exploring the wilds on my own. As for a weapon, I’d have my trusty bow and a quiver of magic, hit-the-target-every-time arrows, perfect for not getting too close to any nasties.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Why?
I make notes and brainstorm with pen and notebook but always write my books on Scrivener. It really is the best for me. I like to jump backwards and forwards as I write and Scrivener makes that easy. I tend to swear a lot more when I have to switch to Word for editing.
And how do you like to work – in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps?
I always have music playing and have go-to playlists to help me get in the mood. Normally I can’t listen to anything with lyrics but a great deal of WE ARE THE DEAD was actually written to U2’s Joshua Tree album. I hadn’t listened to that record in decades but, for some reason, I put it on at the start of the project when I was musing over ideas and it really hooked into the way I was feeling, especially Bullet The Blue Sky. For the first couple of months, I just had it on loop as background noise. A favourite at the moment is the soundtrack to Into The Spiderverse as well as anything by Clint Mansell.
I’m also a big fan of an app called Brain FM. You can pick different music to help you either concentrate or relax or go to sleep. It’s tuned to the exact frequency your brain should be at for those tasks (apparently). When I need to get things done in a short burst, I put that on and turn the internet off.
Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit? Tell us something unusual about your writing method!
I used to be the ultimate pantser but that can make writing a book take forever. I used to go off in all sorts of wrong directions, looking for the way forward and getting more frustrated. However, as I was starting We Are The Dead, I discovered a book called INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke, who is head of drama at the BBC. The book discusses the structure of stories in a way that just made a light go off in my head.
From that point, I’ve become much more of a planner but I allow the stories and characters to still have their own say and I often get surprised by what happens. I’ve just finished writing the sequel to We Are The Dead and I can honestly say I didn’t know who was going to survive by the end of the big battle as I was writing it. It made it a quite nerve-wracking experience.
As for writing in my underwear? Don’t we all? I thought that was one of the perks of the job …
Indeed! What are your most significant non-book fantasy influences?
The title for We Are The Dead (and a great deal of inspiration) actually came from a poem about World War I, called In Flanders Fields by a Canadian army officer called Robert McCrae. It’s a beautiful yet tragic poem about war’s insatiable appetite for the lives of innocents.
I came across it when the ideas of WATD were formulating in my mind, and it really made me think about how wars (especially in the modern age) are often the fault of politicians who would never come within a million miles of a battlefield and, because of their actions, it’s ordinary people who get churned up in the meat grinder of war. And, as much as we love the stories of Aragorn, Logen Ninefingers and Arlen Bales, there are no heroes in real life who will lead the charge and save us. War just goes on until one side outkills the other. We Are The Dead reflects that. There are no heroes in the book in the traditional sense. Just ordinary people caught up in a relentless nightmare.
WATD is also set after the main war is over, when the bad guys have won and are now ruling the conquered lands, so I read a lot of books about the French Resistance during World War II. I’m not sure how much of it came out in the story in the end but it helped me get a better idea of what it must be like to live under enemy occupation.
There’s so much to learn from history – not only for writing fantasy but for what’s going on around us today.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it?
Like everyone else in the world, I watched Game Of Thrones, and probably felt as frustrated as everyone else with how it came out. However, I do think it’s amazing that a fantasy story about dragons and swords and zombies has taken prime place in global culture. I grew up in a world where the geeks and nerds were relentlessly mocked for liking stuff like that. I’m so glad that fantasy is now at the cutting edge of cool and I can’t wait for the next great epic to come to my TV screen. (Personally, I’d love to see Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law as an HBO/Netflix show.)
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write or otherwise do any work. How do you choose to spend the day?
It’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll answer but I’d spend the day with my wife and kids, doing family stuff. There’s nothing better — even if I’m normally the butt of their jokes. I’m a lucky man to have them in my life.
If you could choose one punctuation mark to be made illegal, which would it be and why?
The semi-colon. I have no idea when I should use it. If you see it in any of my books, it’s because my editor has put it there (and I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank all my editors for making me appear at least semi-literate. You are wonderful!)
In no more than three sentences, tell us a little something about your current work in progress!
It’s the sequel to We Are The Dead. It’s about trying to keep hope alive in the face of grim reality, of how we continue to make stupid mistakes for all the best reasons and how sometimes just surviving another day is the best we can do.
If you could co-write or co-create a series (like The Expanse, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen), who would you choose to work with and why?
The book that got me back into reading fantasy was Peter V. Brett’s The Painted Man. It really tapped into that primal fear of what lurks in the dark as well as being a rip-roaring adventure. I love that series so much and it inspired me to try writing myself. I’d do anything to write something in that world and Peat is just the loveliest person too, so I imagine it would be a lot of fun.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Before I started WATD, I nearly gave up writing. I’d written three books that had almost but not quite hit the mark with agents and publishers, and I was feeling quite disheartened about it all, thinking ‘why bother?’ Then I discovered a podcast called The Bestseller Experiment, hosted by Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux. They’d interviewed Joe Abercrombie, who I’m a massive fan of, so I gave the show a listen. While talking about success and how difficult it is to get published, Joe said ‘the longer you dance naked in the rain, the better the chance you’ll be hit by lightning.’ So, I kept dancing and here we are.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I’d love to go to feudal Japan and see the world of the Samurai in the flesh. I’ve been obsessed with that era ever since reading Shogun as a kid and watching the TV miniseries. Even now, I’ll watch anything with Samurai in it. A double bill of 13 Assassins and Blade of the Immortal would be my perfect night in.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
If I hit a stumbling block or I’m really struggling to write, it’s because my subconscious is telling me there’s something wrong with the story. So, whenever I can’t go forward, I ask myself ‘what’s gone wrong?’ and I backtrack until I find the spot where I need to correct the direction.
(And of course, I find deadlines ultra-motivating when I’m not in the mood. I suppose that’s the big difference between writing for a hobby and writing professionally — you don’t have the luxury to be ‘not in the mood’ to write.)
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I’m a big fan of the indie author Mike Morris, and his Jack Frey books, Cry Havoc and Cry Fear. Everyone should check those out if they like monsters, magic and mayhem. (But I would say that!)
Other than that, one of my great loves is a book called The Sunset Warrior by Eric Van Lustbader. I read it back when I was a kid in the 80’s and it’s a post-apocalyptic samurai-influenced monster mash of a tale. I was lucky enough to meet Eric at a writing festival a year or so ago and thrust my old, battered copy at him to sign, and blabbed something about how it had blown my mind when I was younger.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with what we like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Which, by the way, is currently picking between its rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto its elevator.)
Ahem. So: why should readers check out your work? A shark elevator pitch of your own book(s) in no more than three sentences – go!
WE ARE THE DEAD is about what happens after the bad guys win and there are no heroes left to save you. The fate of the world ends up in the hands of a coward, a teenage psychopath, a crippled soldier and a single mother who’ll do anything to save her son. Set over 7 days, it’s a tale of monsters, mayhem and magic and you’d be a fool not to buy it.
It sounds fantastic. Thanks for joining us, Mike, and good luck writing the sequel!
Mike Shackle is the author of WE ARE THE DEAD, published by Gollancz and available now.