For my final interview of the year I’m delighted to be joined by Tom Gillespie, author of The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce.
Tom is a novel and short fiction writer. His stories have been published worldwide in journals, e-zines and creative anthologies including East of the Web, Linden Literary Review, The Ogilvie. His work also features in The Federation of Writers, Scotland New Voices Anthology.
Glass Work Humans – A collaborative collection of Short Stories was published late 2020. Herald Scotland describing the book as ‘a soaring success.’
Tom’s latest novel, The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce is the first of three books set in his hometown of Glasgow, published by Vine Leaves Press. Alistair Braidwood, Scots Whay Hae magazine, described it as ” The best book I’ve read in Years.”
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Tom – tell us a little bit more about yourself.
I grew up in a small working-class town in Scotland and studied English at Glasgow university. I then spent the next ten years gallantly trying to avoid working for a living, gigging as a songwriter with my band, playing the festival circuits around Europe. When money, patience, and stamina ran out, I finally succumbed to the inevitability of responsible behaviour, well almost, and I now live in Bath and work as an English Lecturer at the local uni.
How did your writing career begin?
I don’t think I would ever wish to describe my love of writing as a career. It makes me feel a little queasy to think of creativity as a job. I write to try and reach an altered state of mind where I can retreat from the dirge and dirt of daily life. Wandering around and getting gloriously lost in alternate inner worlds I suppose is something we all do from birth, and the trick is to keep my brain wired into the cerebral cortex of that wee wean, and keep searching for and seeking out the tiny, glistening diamonds hidden away in these mad, subterranean landscapes. They are the glimpses of light that help me cope with, and control in fictive form, the real, the flawed, and the ugly, beautiful, bonkers mess of my existence.
Why literary fiction? Did you choose it, or did it choose you?
My first love is literary fiction, and gothic psychological thrillers, but I love to arse about and bend, twist and break genres and conventions. I don’t like to be cornered by rules, so taking a pickaxe to lumps of granite is where I find my real joy of writing. My creative filaments are continually inspired by the brilliance of many writers, but three in particular are the collective rock that I cling to when the sea gets too rough. I stumbled on Alasdair Gray when I was 18 and his genius changed the way I look at my city, my life, and my world forever, and his words vibrate the molecules in my brain every time I return to read. Raymond Carver opened my mind’s eye to the unbridled joy of sparse, terse, minimalist use of language, and how impossibly possible it is to pack infinite pathos and pain in a single word or sentence. And Robert Louis Stevenson, who seems to conjure worlds and immortal beings that exist way beyond and above time and place. I read Treasure Island when I was about eight, and Jim Hawkins is still my invisible friend.
Having said all that, I also love pulp crime fiction, and I’m in awe of crime writers who can rattle out amazing yarns again and again, in double-quick time. I’m busy working on a crime thriller kinda thing at the moment but I don’t want to say any more about that in case I jinx it.
How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between? Where you do get your ideas?
I’m a bit schizophrenic when it comes to my writing process. There are (at least) two strange wee men who live under the stairs in my head. The first is called Leary, a wild, drunken, bohemian beat poet who loves nothing more than to streak naked across my manuscript, ranting and howling relentless hallucinogenic stream of consciousness babble, that I frantically try to transcribe before he collapses in an exhausted stupor on my office floor. The second is called Keir, and he’s my stiff, overly groomed, OCD editor pedant. When I get fed up listening to the ravings of my bonkers beatnik muse, I hit him over the head with a hammer and drag him unconscious under the stairs. Then I let Keir out to nip, tuck, fiddle and fart with my mess of scribbles until he is a little closer to satisfied ( though he’s never ever truly satisfied). And so the war goes on, round and round, until my manuscript is complete. Then I mop up the blood and start again.
Tell us about your most recent publication.
I have two new books out at the moment. The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce is about Dr. Jacob Boyce, an earth scientist, who we find obsessing over the minutiae of a Baroque painting and battling with inner demons that are slowly consuming him. I wanted to write a book about obsession, and the impact of loss, and how we are all like icebergs with only a teeny wee bit of our beings peaking above the surface. I’m also in love with Baroque art, and in particular, the work of the Spanish genius, Diego Velazques, and I also have a particular obsession myself with Robert Louis Stevenson and his gothic masterpiece Jekyll and Hyde. So, I constructed my strange tale around these pillars. And like Jekyll and Hyde the book is also about duality and the pull and push of opposite forces, love and hate, joy and pain, good and evil, truth and lies, chaos and order, stillness and movement. It’s all kicking off in there and I love it when that happens in stories.
My second book is a collaborative anthology of short stories and poetry called Glass Work Humans. Fellow Scottish writers Paul Cowan, Gary McKenzie and I worked on this for three years. At the heart of the collection is the metaphor of glass; its fragility but also its strength and resilience. In our stories and poems we write about lives fractured, shattered, and broken by the relentless hammerings of the world, but also with underlying themes of hope, atonement, redemption, survival. Strangely not unlike The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce too.
How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin? Was it a conscious decision to work with a small press rather than a Big 5 or self-publishing route?
I knew that I had more hope of catching the Loch Ness Monster than landing a major publishing deal with a strange, dark, shape shifting, cross genre novel. The big 5 like certainty and The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce takes high octane risks. Many smaller publishers are ground breakers and I love them because they are fearless risk takers, and for me often champion more interesting books and writers. They kick against the literary establishment, swim against the current, or indeed create their own current or tsunamis. So I thought my book had a better chance of publication with the punks, the mavericks, the risk takers, and the ground breakers. I pitched to a few, and Vine Leaves Press got back with one of the most beautiful offer letters I’ve ever received. Their love of my book was evident from the get go, and on its way to publication, they took time and great care to nourish my words and help me polish the novel until it surpassed even the very best I thought it could be. Jessica Bell and the Vine Leaves Press Team have been nothing short of miraculous, and you can’t ask for more than that from a publisher.
Is there anything you need to have with you when you write? A tool of the trade, a mascot…?
I prefer to write by hand, and I’m obsessed (that word again) with A5 unlined art sketch books, as the paper is thick and can take my scrawls without tearing.. There’s nothing quite so enjoyable as the steady flow of words and ink streaming out of the end of a pen onto the page. Oh that doesn’t sound quite right… haha. Anyways, it is a complete pain to then decipher and transfer to the computer, but for me the words come more easily and somehow feel more liberated.
I completely agree there’s nothing quite like writing by hand – the name of my blog pays homage to it. What’s next for you?
I’m working on a second strange gothic novel set in Glasgow, and also that pulp crime thriller. I’m also in talks with a small film company who are interested in producing short films based on stories from Glass Work Humans, so that’s an exciting development.
Although, I could have made all of that up. It’s a very old habit.
Read my review of The Stange Book of Jacob Boyce here!
This is my last post before Christmas. It almost feels wrong to wish you a Merry Christmas this year because I know many of you have had your plans disrupted or are even facing the day alone.
But Artoo and I hope that a little Christmas magic will come your way.
Stay safe x