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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: GARY CORBY

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Sunday, December 26, 2010



Today I’m hosting an interview with The Pericles Commission author Gary Corby.  From Gary's about page: 

I write books.

I've been fascinated by ancient history since I was a teenager. What those guys got up to thousands of years ago was just as exciting and even more bizarre than any modern thriller, with the added fun that it really happened. I also love the puzzles of murder mysteries and have read piles of them. So I've combined the ancient world with puzzle whodunits to create an historical mystery series set in classical Greece.

I live in Sydney, Australia, with one wife, two daughters, and four guinea pigs. My daughters tell me I must now include the two budgies we recently adopted.

You can catch me on my blog, on twitter where I am GaryCorby, on GoodReads, or email me at gary dot corby at gmail dot com.


FROM THE JACKET FLAP:

Early one bright, clear morning in Athens, 461 B.C., a dead man falls from the sky, landing at the feet of Nicolaos.

It doesn’t normally rain corpses. This one is the politician Ephialtes, who only days before had turned Athens into a democracy, and with it, kick-started western civilization. It looks very much as if Ephialtes was assassinated to stifle the world’s first democracy at its birth.

But Ephialtes has a lieutenant: a rising young politician by the name of Pericles. Pericles commissions the clever young Nicolaos to expose the assassin.

Nicolaos walks the mean streets of classical Athens in search of a killer. He’s totally confident he’ll succeed in finding him.

There are only a few small problems. Pericles is looking over his shoulder, critiquing his every move. Nicolaos would like to get closer (much closer) to Diotima, the intelligent and annoyingly virgin priestess of Artemis. He’d prefer not to go near Pythax, the brutally tough chief of the city guard. It would definitely help if the main suspect weren’t Xanthippus, a leading conservative and, worst of all, the father of Pericles.

But most of all, what Nicolaos really needs is to shake off his irritating twelve-year-old brother, Socrates, who keeps making helpful suggestions.

Can Nicolaos save Athens, democracy, and the future of western civilization?  (For purchasing info, see Gary's blog.)

Sound fascinating?  Yeah, I thought so too.  I also wanted to learn more about the author, so I contacted Gary and he graciously agreed to talk about his writing and pulblishing process.  What a treasure trove his interview turned out to be . . .

So Gary, can you tell us a little about yourself, and what prompted you to write in Historical Suspense?

I've always loved reading history, particularly ancient history. And I've always loved puzzle stories, both of the mystery kind and the science fiction kind. So when I decided to write a novel, it was the most natural thing to write a murder mystery set in ancient times. I selected Classical Greece because it was one of the crucial periods of human history. This is the founding of western civilization; you can't get much more critical than that! And to top it off, they killed each other in such interesting ways.

I'm born and bred in Sydney, Australia, the 5th generation descendant of a convict who was transported from Britain for 7 years for the hideous crime of stealing a handkerchief. I don't know if it helps for a crime writer to be descended from a criminal.

LOL. Auspicious ancestry. I can see your next novel title; The Mysterious Case of The Handkerchief Thief. Was exile punishment enough?
Although I enjoy history and mythology, I’m not well versed beyond the typical high school and college 101 “rounding out” courses. I’d imagine it takes a lot of education/dedication to write a novel of this magnitude. Can you tell us about your educational and/or personal research processes for writing a novel that delves so deeply into the subject matter of your novel?

To start with, a decent knowledge of the histories written by Herodotus and Thucydides is mandatory. They're the Big Two, and if you don't know them then you are doomed. As I write this my copies are within arm's reach, on the shelf above my head.

Herodotus is a fine old chatterbox and reads more like a Boys' Own Adventure than the founding document of history and anthropology. Thucydides is full of geopolitics and is better than any modern thriller.

Both can be mined mercilessly for material. There's a novel on every page. For example you may have heard of a movie called 300. It comes from Herodotus, seriously mangled.

It's surprising how much information about daily life comes from archaeology and not written history. For example, what if your character is putting out the garbage? (In which case the character is certainly a slave.) People at the time never thought to write down where they dumped their rubbish. Archaeologists find the middens so we know most people kept a dump out back. We get house plans, cooking utensils, boat design, weaponry, clothing pins, bronze mirrors, hair combs, assorted pottery, voting tokens, clothing styles, musical instruments, and all sorts of other stuff from archaeology. The Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum and the National Archaeology Museum of Athens are my friends.

There're a host of other contemporary writers with useful things to say. Who you read depends on what you're after, and you just have to know who's who. For anything to do with manly pursuits, Xenophon's your guy. For civic administration, you probably want Aristotle. Besides being hilarious, the comedies of Aristophanes are packed with details of everyday life, especially life's little irritations. For anything to do with the life of Socrates, you definitely want Plato.

Plato's a good example of how to read these sources. He wrote reams of profound thoughts about philosophy. It's all totally useless to me. But he made his philosophy interesting by writing it as dialogues, and in the dialogues, historically real characters make off the cuff comments that are absolute gems to me. When I read Plato, I ignore the signal and read the side-channels.

OMG; not exactly what I’d consider light reading before bed! Ok, I’ll have to take your word for it on those fantastic books; apparently there’s this whole genre I’ve been missing out on. This sounds less like research and more like a life time obsession. I’m curious if you obsessed as much over the hook line that begins your novel: A DEAD MAN FELL FROM THE SKY. I don’t know about anyone else, but IMO (awestruck, not humble) this is one of the best first lines I’ve ever read. It engaged me the moment I saw it; and I didn’t even know what the book was about. So which came first: the line, or the novel concept?

The novel concept came first. In fact, it came 2,300 years ago, from a book called The Athenian Constitution, by Aristotle. Aristotle relates, in a short section of only about 3 paragraphs, a for-real murder mystery that happened in Athens in 461BC. The guy who created the world's first total democracy was assassinated, and they never caught the men behind the plot. The moment I read of that killing, I knew it was my book to write.

I wrote that opening line off the top of my head, without a moment's pause, and it's one of the few lines I never had to change afterwards. The line as it appears in the published book is identical to the line in the very first notes, which are dated from years ago. There's a basic rule of craft that you have to grab the reader at once; I got it right the first time and never fiddled with the result. Once the opening line was written, I stopped to wonder how a dead body could fall from the sky, which I honestly hadn't thought through!

I'm a total seat-of-the-pants writer. Notice how I even wrote the first line without knowing the second. My initial thought was catapult, but the Greeks didn't have them. My next thought was he fell off the Acropolis, but that was far too obvious. Then the Areopagus occurred to me. It's a rock outcrop next to the Acropolis that was used back then as the HQ for senior statesmen. My victim was a statesman. Perfect! That I could pull the Areopagus out of thin air like that was my fairly extensive knowledge of ancient history working for me.

Yes, why mess with perfection. That’s awesome that you were able to build your novel concept around the line. I love the process you went through too; much like a puzzle, just putting all the pieces together. And partially answers my next question . . Are you a plotter or pantster? Character driven or plot driven?

Total pantser, as per previous question. But I dislike the term. Stream of consciousness is unwieldy but much more accurate. If I'm in the zone then I fly; if I'm out of the zone then I'm grounded.

Plot = Character + Situation. The characters will tell me how they'd behave in any given situation, but conversely I'm free to set their opening situation, so we're both in control. The fact that I talk about figments of my imagination as if they had independent existence, tells you something about my mental state when I write.

I honestly can't explain where the characters come from. As soon as I think of a character, I know almost everything important about them. I'll research for extraneous but highly important historical accuracy, but their core being, that I know at once. For example, the Chief of the Scythian Guard of Athens is Pythax, a barbarian slave. I knew right away he was the ancient world's equivalent of a tough, embittered New York police captain. His opening line, the moment he sees our hero Nico, is, "We don't take piss-poor little Mama's boys in this outfit, so if you've run away from home, go find some other place to cry." That line is so typically Pythax. Pythax told me that's what he'd say; I can't explain it any other way.

Character building is something I can totally relate to. I can see how your characters could come fully formed to you based on your extensive knowledge of Greek society. And you seem to have a healthy sense of creativity to turn these historical figures into fascinating fictional characters. Speaking of creativity, can you tell us about your publishing experience?

I wrote a standard query and got pulled from the same slushpile we all inhabit. My experience might be slightly out of the norm in that I then went out of my way to avoid a literary agent who wanted to sign me, and that seems to have become the stuff of legend, but ultimately fate overcame my cluelessness and I ended up signed and published. I queried agents in Australia, the UK and the US. (In passing, I don't know why more authors don't query agents outside their own country.) It was ultimately luck that connected me with Janet Reid, who is simply the perfect literary agent for me.

I'm published in the US through St Martins Minotaur, and in Australia through Penguin. How foreign rights are handled varies a lot from contract to contract. It's impossible to make generalizations. In my case, St Martins bought worldwide rights. A publisher in, say, Germany, who wanted to publish the book would need to buy the rights from St Martins, not from me.

Talent, not luck procured you the elusive Ms. Janet Reid and the excellent publishing houses you signed with. I’m impressed - but not surprised - that your lifetime of study paid off so well. The book tour appears to have been a good idea, and I’ll assume it was Janet’s. Now that you have completed one tour, what - if anything - would you do differently, and what type of advice would you offer others contemplating a national or international appearance?

A single tour is not remotely enough to offer advice to anyone! One thing I'll suggest though is this: get some public speaking training, and practice, practice, practice, until getting up in front of random strangers holds no terrors. I had both training and practice in public speaking from my previous work, and it held me in good stead.

Hmm, yes; much more intimidating than sitting in front of a blog interview and getting to take your time with the answers. Projecting yourself well to your fans is important. The question of the day of course, is: How are sales going? Do you feel the in-person tour was helpful? What is your publisher or Agent doing to promote your novel aside from the tour?

As I write, Pericles Commission is number 16 on the Google ebooks bestseller list. I think we'll call that one a victory!

Tours, particularly for debut authors, are not to sell lots of books, but to meet in person real readers, to meet the indie store owners, and to learn about how writing and publishing works where it matters most: at the point where real people buy books. And highly educational it is, too!

My agent Janet is a marvel of marketing, helped no doubt by the fact she was once a publicist. I'd be doomed without her! But, and I can't emphasize this enough, promotion is ultimately the author's job. (See Gary's thoughts on book marketing) Personally I'm hopeless at being the smooth media guy, so I don't even try. I just get up and be me.

After reading some of the comments from people who attended your appearance at Aunt Agatha’s bookstore, that obviously works well for you. The first one (tour, that is) is the hardest, the rest should be a breeze. I noticed that you completed the book tour in the US and UK, but some people commented that the book is yet unavailable outside the states. When will it be available in the UK?  Now that Pericles has published, what is next for you as an Author?

The Pericles Commission, Australian edition, has a totally different cover.  It's printed and in warehouses ready to go to bookstores for a 4th January release. I'm really looking forward to that!

The Ionia Sanction is in production. That means it's completely written and the nice people at St Martins Minotaur are doing their magic to turn it into a book. It will release probably October or November 2011. And subsequently in Australia in December or January.

The third book, working title Sacred Games, is going through my own editing, before I send it out to my early test readers to tear to shreds. Assuming I ever finish it, and I haven't gone insane by then, it will appear in 2012 on the same basic schedule as Ionia Sanction.

This is my full time occupation now. The plan is to write a book a year for as long as the Publishing Gods and my lovely readers permit. The first two books are sold. The Ionia Sanction was bought by both St Martins and Penguin sight unseen, which was rather brave of them. Book 3 is optioned. I just have to assume things will work out and keep writing. If it all falls apart, I'll just have to get a real job.

I doubt a “real job” is in your future Gary, You have arrived at the point every aspiring writer wants to be. And we (here in bloggerland) can say “Oh yes, I knew Gary when he was an above average blogger. Gives hope to us all . .” I imagine your lifestyle has changed due to the publication and ability to focus on writing. What’s different?

Well to start with, I don't have to commute to work! You have no idea how much time that saves. Conversely, it means I never leave the office. I'm working longer hours now than I ever did before. The situation's no different to anyone who runs a small business from home. Because that's what it is. When you're a professional author, you're running a small home business, and for management at least you need to approach it with a business attitude.

A good attitude to take. Setting your own hours doesn’t mean you have no standards to keep. Perhaps some time you’ll post a picture of yourself in your robe, slippers and bed hair. Last question, cuz we’ve all got our own preference. What is your beverage and snack of choice while writing?

If you pick up my keyboard, turn it upside down, and shake vigorously, bits of cashew will fall out. I know, because I've done it.
There is quite a high tower of coffee cups beside me as I write this. For moments of desperate editing, the beer fridge is in the same room as my writing desk.
* * * *
Awesome interview Gary.  Thank you so much for answering all my questions.

If you are interested in more interviews with Gary, stop by :


I am sure there are more interviews and book reviews out there, these were just the one's I've read. 

16 comments:

Roland D. Yeomans said...

What a fascinating interview, Donna. And Gary holds your interest even talking about writing. You did a great job. This is a great primer for any would-be author to see how it is done correctly.

Merry Day after Christmas, Roland

Elliot Grace said...

Well done, Donna!

Professionally candid, and for us starving artists, the perfect ingredient for an inspirational start to the new year. Gary's living the enviable life many of us are striving for...causing all of BloggerLand to believe that anything is possible.

Great first line to a novel, bating the reader to an adventure from a mystical land of yesteryear. I'm hooked:)

Merry Christmas, Donna and Gary. What a treat!
EL

Donna Hole said...

Roland: Gary is interesting, isn't he? Love his subtle humor. Happy Boxing Day to you too :)

Hi El: yes, that is a great first line. And I've been hooked since I first read it. Interview Gary was great fun. I see you're well on your way to being the next Blogger Land buzz. Good luck with South Of Charm Elliot.

........dhole

DEZMOND said...

great interview, Donna, very professional! And the book sounds very interesting. I love history!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks so much to Donna for the terrific questions!

@Roland: My editor at Penguin commented, when we first met, that for a beginner I seemed to have done everything right. But I definitely would not recommend copying the way I mismanaged my queries to agents: after I emailed my queries, I accidentally shut down my web site and email address. At which point Janet was looking for me to request the full ms and couldn't find me. It was only sheer luck and some good detective work on the part of her blog readers that got me published!

@Elliot: If I can get pulled from the slushpile, almost anyone can. Sort of...for whatever reason I began with pretty good craft, and I think it's because I read thousands of books before I tried writing one.

@Dezmond: If you like ancient history, there are a number of terrific authors writing the field, of which I am merely one. Most of them write Roman stories; I'm one of the very few writing in Ancient Greece.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Thanks, Gary, for the personal response. I am impressed at your good fortune : to have accidently shut down your web site and your email address after sending out your queries could have been the kiss of death. I'm glad it all worked out for you. I've downloaded your book to my Kindle.

So see? You're already one sale closer to becoming a bestseller? Have a great, even more successful New Year! Roland

Donna Hole said...

Hi Dez :)

Thanks for coming by Gary :) I know how busy this weekend is for you. I agree with Roland, having your web site and email shut down and still get your novel picked up by one of the best agents in the business is impressive. So glad to have made a sale for you today :)

........dhole

Jemi Fraser said...

Great interview - history is full of stories and ideas for us!

Ian said...

bravo

Janet Reid said...

Terrific interview! I'm profoundly grateful my blog readers tracked Gary down for me. Gary is a perfect client: a great writer, and willing to do everything asked of him. Of course he periodically tries to poison us all with Vegemite...but that's a different story.

L. T. Host said...

Donna-- thanks for this awesome interview, and linking to mine :) Yours is far more in-depth, and thorough, which means I still learned something, yay!

Janet-- he's like a Vegemite vending machine of doom. Still convinced it's an Australian practical joke. (Just kidding, Gary).

Raquel Byrnes said...

What a great interview, Donna, and Gary...what an amazing journey toward publication. I love the concept of ancient history mysteries. Sounds like such a great situation to work with creatively.
Congratulations on your success!
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Donna Hole said...

Thanks Jemi and Ian for stopping by :)

Oh Wow; hello Ms. Janet Reid. Thanks for coming by. Yes, blog readers can be very helpful. I'm so glad you and Gary made a connection :)

LT: you're welcome :) I enjoyed your post too. This vegemite thing didn't pop up in my interview. Hmm . .

Raquel; this will be your situation one day soon I'm sure. Your excerpts are just awesome.

.........dhole

Erica Woolridge said...

Wow, what a great interview! It was great to see some really original questions in there :)

Merry Christmas! Hope you're having a lovely holiday :D

❥ ќʀɨsтɨиɑ said...

Hello! I was here, asking for friendship. ;) Would you like to follow each others blogs? Advance Happy New Year. :D

Gary Corby said...

I'm back from the Land of No-Internet for a couple of weeks, before I disappear again. It's summer hols where I am!

I like the line Vegemite vending machine of doom. I must steal that some time.

If I'm a good client, it's because Janet makes us that way! You wouldn't believe how much she understands about publishing.

Very glad you all liked Donna's interview! It's unusual but great to get so many questions about the process.