The Victorian-era crime novel has been a firmly established sub-genre from Sherlock Holmes to Anne Perry’s William Monk. But it has never seen anything like Cornelius Quaint. The hero of Darren Craske
’s devilishly cunning new series (the first book, The Equivoque Principle
, is just out in paperback) is a conjurer whose sleight of hand is matched only by the author’s ability to twist his plot like some contortionist colleague of Quaint's in Dr Marvello’s Travelling Circus. Craske is something of a man of mystery himself, having declined to provide a photo of himself for this interview. But even if you can’t see his no doubt handsome features, you’ll find he reveals enough of himself to make it clear exactly where the inventiveness of his novel comes from. He also outlines a route to publication that's different from the one most aspiring authors would expect to take.
How long did it take you to get published?
I would say that it took me somewhere in the region of 3 years to actually get a publishing deal, although THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE was sent to only one publisher, and the deal was struck pretty much instantly. I submitted several chapters of THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE to THE FRONTLIST website (www.thefrontlist.com) which is a great place for aspiring writers to display their work, and receive criticisms and guidance from peers who are all trying to snare that elusive publishing deal. The idea is simple: you place your work online, and in return must critique several other authors’ work and grade it on a points system. Those works receiving the highest marks automatically get sent on to Scott Pack at THE FRIDAY PROJECT, a vibrant company now under the wing of HarperCollins, that specialize in making fab books out of online material. THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE was read, and I received a request to send the completed manuscript along. I guess Scott saw promise in this young writer’s work, and soon a deal was offered for three books in the Cornelius Quaint Chronicles series and that was that. A far cry from my budding writer days.
I have gone through the whole slush pile reject thing, and I know exactly how most young authors feel. I can vividly recall wading through THE WRITERS AND ARTISTS YEARBOOK at my local library, compiling a list of contacts, then sending off my work, waiting patiently as the weeks ticked by, watching the postman approach my house, and wondering whether this was ‘the one’. The other books that I worked on prior to signing were just not good enough, or I was just not a good enough writer back then. I have revisited much of the old work since. I have tarted them up a bit and reshaped whole sequences, sometimes the entire plot. I do not believe that any ideas are wasted ones, and I have dipped into this little pool of potential ideas many times over the years, and even included some action sequences from way back in 2003 in some of the forthcoming Cornelius Quaint novels. I have a folder on my hard drive with a ton of ideas. Some just the bare bones, some fully fleshed out and completed, and some nothing more than a blank page with a title.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
I found that a lot of the so-called ‘self help’ books can be distracting, and too often a great idea can be watered down and even killed off by worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. I would say first and foremost is to get yourself a damn good plot – or some damn good characters and create a damn good plot along the way. I would recommend to any newbie writer that you join an authors’ forum and get some guidance from people who are in the same boat as you. There are a load of them about -- You Write On, The Frontlist, Writers News talkback etc. You’ll learn far more from writing from an unbiased peer than anything you’ll read in a How To book.
What’s a typical writing day?
Well, in my writing no day is typical. A lot of my ideas are created just before I go to sleep. Dialogue, action, plot points, alterations etc are all fleshed out whilst my head is on a pillow and then committed to my laptop the next moment I can get. I have a trusty notebook by my bedside, and regularly scare the crap out of my wife by snapping on the lamp and scribbling like a madman for five minutes, only to flop back down and start again. Needless to say, she is fairly understanding!
Once I know where I am going with a book, I let a lot of it write itself. Things just happen in due course. I am presently working on the 4th Cornelius Quaint novel called THE ROMULUS EQUATION, and from what has been set up in the previous novels, there is a definite place that I need to get to, and so I write and craft and edit and shape until I get there. It’s kind of like going on a long car journey. I know where I’m going, even though I have no sat-nav to get me there, and I only have a vague idea what it will be like when I get there. But there are defined refueling points along the way that I need to reach if the ending is going to make any sense. When I know I am almost there, writing the last quarter of a book is an amazing rush.
Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
My latest novel is also my first; the first in a series that I hope will be around for some time. THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE is many things, and I am so proud of what I have created, and I know it will surprise a lot of people. It has been compared the THE VESUVIUS CLUB and THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS, but to lump EQUIVOQUE in with those fantastic novels would be doing it only half a service. At its heart, THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE is a Victorian detective adventure, a brand new world based on familiar foundations – yet along the way the story evolves to such a degree that NO ONE will be able to predict where it is going next. Let me just say that the word equivoque to the uninitiated means a double meaning, or a misdirection – and it is no coincidence that the main character is a master of slight of hand conjuring. THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE is unique, and once we get to the end, the possibilities of where the sequels take us are as unpredictable as Cornelius Quaint himself!
How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
Not so much formula as the timestamp of history. As my books are set in the Victorian age, many times have I written something amazing only to have it stomped on by history. Writing historical based novels makes your palette a little more restricted, yet it also frees you up to do great things. Compare the older James Bond films and movies like the Indiana Jones trilogy where everything was staged for real. The explosions, the locations, the stunts, the bangs and the blasts – they were done live. In this day of CGI it has flattened and removed a few layers of the art of believability, so when I write some of my action sequences, this is what I have in mind – ground yourself in reality as much as you can and then play like hell with it.
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
Although my Cornelius Quaint books can be pigeonholed in amongst the Victorian detective genre, I think by the time the reader gets to the end they will pretty much forget that notion as anything can happen moving forwards.
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
My stories, the plots, the characters and dialogue are as original as it gets in that they sprang from my creative mind, but I think it’s a mistake to forget every piece of literature ever written, every film seen, every piece of music heard. There are no original ideas, only old ideas done completely differently.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
That’s a good question, but I think for me my favourite sentence is this one:
"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." by Douglas Adams from The Hitchhhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
Hmm. I can’t say what exactly, but I can tell you who writes it – David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas contains some of the most superlative examples of literary delight that I have ever read, in much the same way as you slap yourself on the forehead and wish to god that you’d written that line yourself.
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
I love a whole host of people who are masters in their field, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Eoin Colfer, Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, JK (the goddess) Rowling, Michael Moorcock, Gideon Defoe, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell to name but a few.
Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
Unashamedly I would have to say JK Rowling, for the effortless interconnections of some superb subtleties of plotline. If I ever met her, I really want to know if it was all as intentional as it seemed…JK, if you’re reading this, drop me a line. Inquiring minds want to know.
How much research is involved in each of your books?
Too much, but that’s the price I pay for setting my books in the 1850’s. It’s not really my fault. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit says: ‘I’m not bad…I’m just drawn that way’ which is probably my second favourite line. The fact that she’s an animated rabbit only adds another layer to it – but the idea for THE EQUIVOQUE PRINCIPLE along with all the characters in Dr Marvello’s Travelling Circus announced themselves to me one night in a bewildering display of subconscious thought. I did not choose to write about Cornelius Quaint’s adventures…he chose me.
Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
Cornelius Quaint arrived in my head one night and forcefully introduced himself. I was immediately enthralled. Madame Destine arrived soon after, and she was as much a mystery to me as she is to Quaint. So, Cornelius and I set about trying to learn as much about her as we could.
Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
A pain from childhood. Hmm, now where could I go with that one? I always had the writing bug, even from a tender age, but I am also an artist (I part illustrated the cover to EQUIVOQUE) and so immersed myself more in comic strip art than the story. My skills as a writer were always there, but I relied on my art to tell the story. I suppose that I was an okay-level footballer with a championship manager inside of me waiting to get out.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
The best idea would be to write a book totally in red and green ink, and then send some satellites up into space and use gigantic manufactured 3D lenses to cover the sun – which would render all printed word illegible, except for my own novel. Ergo, I would rule the world with the written word.
What’s your experience with being translated?
It has yet to happen, but as the royalties increase – I’m all for it!
Do you live entirely off your writing?
No, I have a ‘real’ job to supplement my mortgage, wife and kids. The books are a vocation that became a hobby that if I am really, really lucky will enable me to focus on them one hundred percent. Most writers have to struggle to make ends meet, and as much as I’d like to proclaim that I am part of some avant-garde, that don’t pay the bills.
How many books did you write before you were published?
3. Two of them were pretty rubbish, but one is great and it will see print if it kills me.
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
Not yet done a book tour, but I hope that something strange will occur – as long as it’s nothing to do with being late. Unless it’s worth it. Like being abducted by aliens, or something. That opportunity only comes around once, or twice if you live in the deep south of America.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
I’d rather not say, because one day I do hope to publish it – it’s dead good, and it is about a basket of dirty washing waiting to go into the washing machine. It’s very Pixar, and kids all over the world would be wearing the main characters (socks and a pair of underpants) quite literally as socks and a pair of underpants. Anyone thinking of plagiarizing that idea, two words of warning: I SUE.
Next in The Writing Life: Watch out, God! Here comes Shalom Auslander.