Colin Harvey

Colin Harvey is a novelist, critic, and editor who lives
between Bristol and Bath in the UK with his wife Kate.
He is the author of the novels Winter Song (Angry
Robot Books
2009) and Damage Time (Angry Robot
Books, 2010); the short story collection Displacement
(Swimming Kangaroo Books, 2009) and four earlier
novels published by Swimming Kangaroo Books. His
short stories have been published in magazines such as
Interzone, Apex and Daily Science Fiction, as well as
original anthologies.
Colin is the editor of the anthologies Killers (2008)
and Future Bristol (2009) for Swimming Kangaroo
Books, Dark Spires (2010) for Wizard’s Tower Press
and the forthcoming Transtories (2011) for Aeon
Press. He has reviewed and written non-fiction for
Interzone, Salon Futura and Strange Horizons, and is
featured writer for Suite10
Robert Neilson: Let’s start off with you telling me
one little known fact about Colin Harvey.
Colin Harvey: I have absolutely no sense of balance.
When I was a kid there wasn’t this tendency to label
things that we have nowadays – Aspergers, Attention
Deficit Disorders, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia – so I was
just considered clumsy.
I can’t ride a bike, skate, swim – anything that
requires some sort of a sense of balance. In fact, if I
stand up after I’ve been sitting down for a while
people have suggested that it looks as if I’m drunk!
RN: Can you remember when and to whom you
made your first sale?
CH: I started writing back in 97, so this would have
been back in 1999. I submitted a short story to a guy
called Steve Algieri in the US, who was editing a
magazine called Pulp Eternity. When I sold it to him –
4500 words at 3 cents a word – I thought I’d died and
gone to heaven – how hard could this professional
writing be? A year later and I’ve made no second sale,
but it’s okay…I’ve got a sale…but there’s no word back
from him. I’m too inexperienced to know about
querying him.
And then I get a letter from him, saying that he’s
closing the magazine for personal reasons, and he’s
returning my story. It was one of the worst days of my
life. I kept going and keep submitting, and eventually I
sold a story called ‘Dreamstalker’ for the love (i.e. no
money!) in 2001, and another, and then Allegory bought
‘Lee Hoffman’ in 2002 for actual money. None of them
were as dramatic as that first sale that never was.
RN: What was the progression until your first
novel?
CH: While that first story sale to Pulp Eternity was
rumbling along to its eventual return, I was busily
working on my first novel. That eventual first draft of
Vengeance ran to about 85000 words and came out in
late 2001, between ‘Dreamstalker’ and ‘Lee Hoffman’.
RN: Your first novel came out after only one
short story sale? Who published it?
CH: I’d been gradually writing longer and longer stories
over the last couple of years, and at about the time I
sold that sale that never was, I finally plucked up the
courage to tackle a novel. (It may be, although I can’t
remember, that the story sale gave me the impetus).
So I spent most of 1999 – early 2001 writing
Vengeance but what I wasn’t doing was writing – or
indeed submitting – any short stories. It was only in
early 2001, some time after Pulp Eternity returned the
story and as I neared the end of the novel, that I
began subbing again.
I actually sold a couple of stories before I ‘sold’
the novel (like that story, it was sold for the love) but
they ended up as novel chapters, one of them so
altered that an editor who saw both didn’t at first
connect them. So yes, I sold a novel after only a
couple of stories, but that was because I was
concentrating early on a novel, and had actually
neglected the short story side of writing.
Bear in mind that I was working in isolation, so I
had no idea that some publishers were better than
others, and indeed that some publishers were best
avoided. I had no network at that time to raise alarms
and knew no experienced writers to give me advice,
so when I saw an ad saying “send us your novel and
we’ll publish it” I thought, oh-ok, that sounds good.
The problem was that they were coming in a few
months after the end of the dot-com boom when all
start-up companies had to say was ‘internet’ and
financiers would wave bundles of fifty-pound notes
at them. With no business plan (as far as I could tell),
no advertising and probably no capital…well, I never
even saw a finished product.
RN: So the novel, though sold, wasn’t published
at that time. Did you ever sell it again?
CH: I actually sold it again, in 2003, and this time I got
paid (a tiny amount, but it was pay!) and even got to
keep the advance, when this publisher folded as well.
My first novel to actually see print was Lightning
Days, which Swimming Kangaroo Books published in
2006. It actually took me seventy-two attempts, going
through agent after agent, and publisher after
publisher. Swimming Kangaroo Books were a dream
to write for; they couldn’t pay advances, but they
were wonderful to work with, and everything I ever
pitched to them, they took. Three books after
Lightning Days was published, they put out a new
edition of Vengeance as well, which was nice.
RN: You talk about building a network – can you
tell me about this aspect of writing? How did
you build it, who is in it, what advice you could
give other budding writers about networking?
CH: It wasn’t anything as considered as building a
network, but rather a case of giving something I did
without too much thought a name. While I’d been
trying to sell a novel, I started to review books for
Strange Horizons. This gave me the chance to analyze
the work of other writers, to articulate my thoughts, and
to get some publishing credits, which I badly needed at
the time to give me some confidence.
Soon after that, the then
editor Mary Anne Mohanraj came to
London, and invited various contributors
to come and meet over
dinner. I was one of them, and when she learned that
I was a writer, suggested that I attend a writing
weekend. That started a number of friendships that
persist to this day.
What also came out of that dinner was a call for
volunteers to help the Speculative Literature Foundation.
I judged the travel grant that they underwrite
for five years, and got to meet more people – at least
electronically.
The common denominator here is writing to
people and organizations, putting oneself forward as
a volunteer. Most SF-nal bodies are chronically underresourced,
and anyone with a brain who is willing to
help them is unlikely to be turned away.
A second strand is to go to conventions, and
again to offer to help in any way possible, from
staffing the SFWA table in the dealer’s hall as I did in
Montreal, to appearing on panels.
And that’s how you make friends as well. I’ve
called it building a network because it sounds more
professional, but it’s really about making friends,
whether through meeting people at conventions,
through social networking, or through working
electronically with committees, conventions or critique
groups. And no, I wouldn’t do it any differently
because that would mean that I might never have met
some good friends along the way.
RN: What’s next in your plan for world
domination?
CH: At the moment I’m promoting Damage Time, my
latest novel, and Dark Spires, an anthology I edited
for Wizard’s Tower Press; come Eastercon I’ll be at the
launch of Ian Whates’ anthology, Further Conflicts,
which includes my story ‘Occupation,’ and I’ve just
been invited to contribute to another anthology,
which sadly I can’t say anything about at the moment.
And for the future, I have a third novel awaiting
a decision from Angry Robot which is called
Ultramassive and returns us to the universe of
Winter Song. I’m just about to start reading for an
SF anthology for Aeon Press called Transtories which
will be published in Autumn 2011, calling for stories
based on words from the dictionary prefixed by ‘trans’.
RN: You seem to have a lot of projects on the go.
Are you a full time writer?
CH: Yes and no. <g> (You know you never get straight
answers from me!) I am a full time writer in that I
don’t have a day job, and I work considerably more
than sixteen hours a week, which is how H.M
Revenue & Customs define full-time work; since they
pay me Low Income Credits, what they think is
important. So the novels.
However, I’m also a full-time student, studying
for an Honours Degree in Creative Writing. Both years
have included what’s called a Core Workshop, which
includes projects such as writing and presenting a
Murder Mystery evening. I also study three electives,
which are modules that I get to choose; last year I took
Media Communications Studies, Poetry and Script –
writing. This year it’s Planning and Making A Film,
Feature Journalism and Genre.
Each of those electives has taught me a new skill.
Poetry calls for incredible precision; scriptwriting
requires that the writer lays everything out for the
viewer; Media Communications offers a useful insight
into the politics of the media; Planning and Making A
Film shows the effect that a script has on the filmmaking
process, and what the constraints are on film
crews; Feature Journalism is over-whelmingly practical.
And Genre offers a theoretical framework to accompany
my practical experience.
So I have a short SF story that’s going into Asimovs,
a horror story I’m about to finish off, and synopses for
three (non-SF) novels, one of which I’ve turned into a
60,000 word novel. All of them are in areas I’d never
have considered before starting the course.
And as a final bonus, I’m staying at home this
week for Reading Week. My reading list includes
Dune, Pavane, The Man in the High Castle, The
Forever War and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity
Exhibition. Tell me how many other people get paid
to stay at home and read good books?
RN: What else do you like to do with
your spare time?
CH: I don’t get an awful lot of spare time,
and what I get is largely eaten up by
reading, but Alice the dog has to be
walked every day, and walking her is
both a good way of stopping my
waistline from spilling out across the Irish
Sea, and gives me time to actually think
rather than racing from job to job. Plus
we’re firm believers that if you walk the
legs off a dog, they’re too tired to trash
the place when you have to leave them!
So that accounts for a couple of hours each day.
I like to go to the pictures when I get the chance
– we’ve seen The King’s Speech, Black Swan and Paul
this year alone, and if we had more time and money,
we’d go to the theatre as well – we saw Agatha
Christie’s The Verdict earlier this year, but have had to
miss out on Avenue Q and Yes, Minister; we simply
couldn’t get tickets in time.
While reading various sets of instructions on the
sides of packets and/or from cookbooks hardly counts
as haute cuisine, I usually cook in some form or
another during the middle three or four days of the
week – Monday depends on whether I have a late
finish at uni – while Kate cooks on Friday, Saturday
and Sunday; this week I’ve had a stinking cold, so I’ve
been banned from the kitchen. But normally it’s a nice
change of pace after sitting staring at a screen for
several hours.
And sometime or other, Kate and I are going to
take a holiday together. We haven’t had a proper one
for four years because a lot of cons take place over
holiday weekends, and she’s not a great fan – she’ll
happily watch Doctor Who and loved Star Trek:
Voyager when it was on, but ask her to read an SF
novel, and she’ll ward you off with Sherlock Holmes or
the latest Henning Mankell. I’m still working on getting
her over again for another P-Con (she came two years
ago and spent a couple of days exploring Dublin).
RN: If you were some sort of creative artist, but
not a writer, and you were to be known forever
for one piece of work (someone else’s exsting
piece, e.g. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa), what would
that piece of work be and why?
CH: Hmm, that’s an interesting question, and one that
since you’ve ruled out other writers, heads off answers
like Rex Stout or Alfie Bester! Shame you said one
piece, because the non-writer I admire most is Clint
Eastwood, but that’s for a body of work.
Okay, I would say Robert Towne, the scriptwriter
– does the stricture against writers extend to
scriptwriters? – but the one thing I have learned in the
last year is that a film is more than the
sum of its parts. Chinatown is my
absolutely favourite single film, and has
been for years. That it’s so good is more
than due to Towne’s script; Polanski’s
direction, Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes
(apparently the part was written for
Nicholson), Faye Dunaway as Evelyn
Mulwray and John Huston as oligarch
Noah Cross act as if their lives depend on
it, and together with an Oscar nominated
score by Jerry Goldsmith and
brilliant editing by Sam O’Steen they all
make it the definitive film noir.
It deals with land rights outside Los
Angeles in 1937, which makes it sound
as dry as some of the landscape, but it’s the love affair
between private eye Gittes and the beautiful Eveleyn
Mulwray, and the tragic ending – brought about
largely by Gittes’ cynicism – which lifts the film from
the merely good to the absolutely sublime. (I don’t
think I’ve given too much away there…the soundtrack
and the cinematography make it clear that this story
is never going to have a happy ending) I’m glad I’ve
never seen the sequel, because by all accounts it’s
better left that way. If you have a free, wet weekend,
go get the DVD of Chinatown. It’ll be worth it.
In a final twist the film got eleven Oscar nominations,
including for all those named above and others,
but only one of the nominees won – Towne for Best
Original script. It had the misfortune to be up against
The Godfather Part II. But for me, Chinatown is the
better film. What does Hollywood know, anyway?

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