The Stars of Speculative Fiction #3: Michael Stone

Well it’s that time again and today I have the honour of a rather special interview as this week it is no other than Flight Lieutenant Michael Stone, legendary pilot in the Battle of Britain, who was the only man in the attack to actually shoot down 32 jerry planes in one day…

*shuffles papers*


Today I have the honour of interviewing Michael Stone (

), who comes from Stoke and writes stuff…

Welcome Mike, I must say it’s nice to have one of my countrymen along after those two yanks… I mean… even if you are from Stoke.


1. You’ve been pretty active recently in this writing and editing arena; want to tell the readers about it all?


If you want me to tell you about it all, then I need to go back to when I was seven, because that’s when I started writing lies. But recently? Let’s see…


In 2004 a young guy named Chris Hall challenged readers of an anthology he’d edited to find a single typo. He offered a copy of the book for each typo found! The folly of youth, eh? Seeing as I had a story in the book, and I’m nothing if not a nitpicking swine, I thought I’d take a look, and found *ahem* more than a few cock-ups, including one in my story that hadn’t been there when I submitted!

So I sent Chris a list of corrections for the second edition and he offered me a gig co-editing an anthology called ‘Badass Horror’, for which he had just started taking submissions. I wasn’t interested at first. I’m a member of a online writers’ workshop called Critters and read enough unpublished fiction as it is without wading through submissions for a horror antho. Anyway, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing Chris convinced me the job wouldn’t be too strenuous and I took it on.


Actually, the fact he offered me decent money had a lot to do with my decision (cuz I’m, like, such a whore, y’know?).


And I’m glad I did take it on. The first story I read for ‘Badass’ was a blinder by Gerard Brennan (

), a writer I now regard as a good friend, and it was through him I came onto Live Journal and met a whole bunch of like-minded people.


It was while editing ‘Badass Horror’ that I wrote a story called ‘The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark’. It started life in two parts, a drabble and a 2k horror story. I married the two, got carried away and ended up with a 17k novella in the ‘Butcher Shop Quartet’ anthology. A couple of things clicked with the publication of Kasper Clark. I’d found my voice, and I knew I could write something entertaining beyond the 7k-limit I’d placed on myself. Flogging a novella straight out of the box…I felt like I’d sold a novel!


That was early 2005. I wrote three more novellas that year and came within a gnat’s winkle of selling two of them. That’s when Chris Hall came back on the scene. He was setting up a publishing biz and wanted to publish a collection of my short fiction with Kasper Clark as the main attraction. FOURTOLD was born! Out this week from all good booksellers…or where there’s an Internet connection, anyway.


Was that too much of a shameless plug?


Is there such a thing as too much shameless plugging?


Blimey, what a way to get into editing, I wish I’d heard about a gig like that, may have made me reconsider the long way around that I chose…


2. I do believe you’re one of the few full-time writers in my interview group and I’m curious about how that came about and how it’s going?


Oh God, you’ve read that on my site, haven’t you? — “I’m either a full-time writer or unemployed; it depends on who’s asking.”


In January 2006 I was registered blind. My right eye is pretty much shot while I have about 20% remaining in my left on a good day (it varies according to light conditions). It’s largely down to a degenerative condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which in my case is tied in with a hearing loss, symptoms of something called Usher Syndrome. I’ve written quite a bit about this on my site so I won’t bang on about it here. But yeah, early 2006 I was registered blind and lost my job of 23 years.


I’d written and sold a few stories prior to this particular turning-point in my life, including the aforementioned novella, ‘The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark’. From early 2006 onwards, though, I had a lot more time on my hands and I wrote three more long works as well as selling 13 shorts. In 2007 I sold another 8 and wrote a YA fantasy novel called ‘Heather Berry and the Battle for Turner’s Wood’. The question is, would I have done this while working a 40-hour week? I don’t know. I’ve always been serious about the nuts and bolts of writing, but now I’m serious about making a living from it, and no one does that selling short stories. The novel form is very much where I’m at now.


I think it’s fair to say that writing is a much larger part of my life than it was when I was working. No way can I call it a hobby. I get irritated and edgy when I can’t write. I suspect edginess is something a lot of people reading this will have experienced — writer’s block is a bitch — it’s just when you can’t go for a run around the park or go for a blast on your motorbike to clear your head, when you can’t throw yourself into another activity, the days can feel very long. 


Well I, for one, didn’t know about the blindness thing. Coming to your journal late I thought you’d simply made the decision to write full-time.


The computer was and is my saviour. It’s one of the few things I can still do relatively unimpeded. Through the miracle of email and Live Journal I have a social life that isn’t reflected in reality. Since my early teens I’ve been a socially shy person. My hearing and sight problems don’t help.


3. You’ve now touched on one of the topics I wanted to concentrate on and that is something I’ve heard a lot on your LJ, that of the infamous Heather Berry. How did that come about?


I started the Heather Berry novel by accident, really. I found a scrap of writing on a floppy disk: an elderly couple listening to a heartbeat in a tree. I don’t know when I wrote it, but as it was chockfull of adverbs and telling issues I assume it was back in 2001 when I started writing lies for grown-ups.


Rough as the writing was, I liked the premise of a dryad living in a fictional English Midlands and decided to run with it. I didn’t know whether it’d be a novelette, novella or a novel. I would simply make it up as I went along. Every five thousand words or so I’d shove my work-in-progress before my peers in the Critters online workshop. It attracted a dozen regular readers in all and they were incredibly helpful.


I visualise the cover blurb as being something like this: There’s a curious swelling on Bill Berry’s horse chestnut tree, and it’s emitting a tiny heartbeat. Looking and sounding, his wife agrees, as if it’s somehow . . . pregnant.


That was twelve years ago.


Now meet Heather Berry, a shy and solitary child content to climb the trees in her grandparents’ cottage garden and watch the world change colour with the seasons. Until she ventures into Turner’s Wood, that is, where the swish of sap presses on her ears, acorns hatch in her hand and her reflexes become super-human.


Clearly her grandparents have some explaining to do. But try being told you’re not human and see how you like it. Heather’s existence is further complicated when a boy is found dead in Turner’s Wood and the wood itself is threatened by developers. With her grandparents, the police, social services and the dead boy’s siblings breathing down her neck, Heather has to decide where her loyalties lie. She is about to discover that sap is thicker than water.


The funny thing is, I expected Heather to be discovered by the authorities and packed off to school, but that didn’t happen. Which is why I’m writing a sequel and not developing any of the other ideas for novels I have swirling around in my head. Part of me questions the wisdom of doing a sequel to an unpublished novel, but an agent has taken an interest in ‘Heather Berry and the Battle for Turner’ Wood’ so . . . I’m hoping that interest will turn into something more concrete.


 And how’s the sequel going?


Very slowly, unfortunately. I wrote the first HB novel in a little over six months. At the rate I’m going with HB2 it’ll be two years before this one’s finished. The issue of recapping has been a major stumbling block. Every few paragraphs I found myself referring to an event in the first book, and then I’d agonise over how much detail to include. I’m over that hurdle now (I think) but things are still progressing slowly. I need to get over the psychological barrier of writing a novel. When I started HB I was blissfully unaware of how big it’d be. This time around I know just how big the journey is and I’m more than a little daunted. It’s inexperience. Once I have a few novels under my belt I’ll be churning them out.




Look forward to seeing those in book stores worldwide!


4. So are you thinking mainly in terms of novels now or do you want to continue writing short stories? Which do you prefer and why?


There’s no way I’ll ever stop writing short stories, but I’m not very good at spreading myself over different projects. For example, I’d like to have submitted something to the ‘Voices’ antho you’re working on, and the Viking one too. And there’s another antho called ‘Harvest Hill’ that appeals, but if I start a short story then the second Heather Berry novel will be neglected. Worse, it’ll go cold on me.


My heart says “Go on, six thousand words max, it’ll only take a few days!” but my head knows I must stick with the novel. It’s a shame because I love the buzz of finishing a story and sending it out. And as I’ve already said, if I’m to achieve my ambition of doing this thing for a living, novels are the way to go.


I know what you mean, I have three novels unedited and waiting for me to get my arse in gear, then I see some interesting subs online and then… well then I start a publishing company and edit full-time…


5. Have you any writers that inspire you, steer your writing in any way, have you any favourite genre?


I’m fairly omnivorous in my reading habits. I’ll devour anything by Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett, Garry Kilworth, Iain (M) Banks, Jasper Fforde, David Gemmell, Colin Bateman, Malcolm Pryce, Douglas Adams, Graham Joyce, Carl Hiaasen, Donald James, Desmond Morris, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ben Elton, George R R Martin–


*deleted for length*


My favourite novel of all-time, and it’s unlikely to be toppled from its lofty perch, is Graham Joyce’s ‘The Tooth Fairy’. That’s the book that made me want to write. He nearly matched it with ‘The Facts of Life’, but not quite.


Ooh, I met him in Canberra! Interesting, yes.


A writer who has helped on a personal level is Garry Kilworth. I was so enamoured of his fiction in the late 90s I started a 32-page, full-colour quarterly fanzine in his honour. Picture me: no computer knowledge whatsoever, buying a PC and printer in December 98 just so I could do a fanzine. I didn’t have a clue how to use the preinstalled software — MS Works, Corel Draw, etc — but I somehow managed to write and print #1 of ‘Spiral Words’ for March 99. I produced 9 issues over the next two years. SFX magazine gave #2 the thumbs up, gracing it the coveted ‘Fanzine of the Month’ award. And you get these editors who can’t knock out a magazine without taking all year about it; they don’t even have to write the material! Huh, they don’t know they’re born, says I.


Heh *shuffles his feet in a guilty manner*


Doing the ’zine had its perks. I was invited to London to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Orbit. I met Garry, as well as Michael Moorcock, Robert Holdstock and Brian Aldiss. I also interviewed artists like John Howe (by fax) while he was in New Zealand working with Peter Jackson on the LotR films and (by email) Stephen Player, an artist I’d admired for years. Me and Steve struck up a correspondence that rattled on for several years and I was thrilled when he did a painting for the cover of my ‘Fourtold’ collection. Garry Kilworth came through with a fantastic foreword too.


I dropped the ’zine in 2001: the Net was becoming well and truly established and printed fanzines fast replaced by fansites. It was Garry and Stephen Player who suggested I should try writing fiction. Garry in particular was surprised I hadn’t written anything other than articles for ‘Spiral Words’. So I thought, “Well, if he thinks I can do it . . .”


Sounds like a lot of confidence building, help and advice from a great many sources, something we all crave in the industry. This of course leads me to:


6. Have you advice for new writers or new editors or those wishing to get a project off the ground?


Be humble, seek advice and don’t be defensive. If you’re going into writing, editing or publishing with pound signs in your eyes, you’re going to fail. You’ll need passion to see you though.


If they made writing illegal I’d be an outlaw.


Heh, I like that line, may have to steal it!


7. You have sort of answered this question but I’m wondering if you have anything like a five year plan in terms of writing, and if this is not too personal, is your health likely to affect it?


No plan with regards the writing. I may be a published novelist, I may not. The health . . . ah, that’s a good question, and the short answer is I don’t know. There are different types of RP. Some take all the sight while others leave you with a small central portion — enough to read with. If I lose all my sight and have to rely on voice recognition software, I’ll probably throw in the towel. I’m nowhere near organised enough to dictate my stories. Well, that’s what I say now . . . Who knows, maybe stem cell will fulfil its promise and repair the infirm? I don’t dare hope for such things but it’s nice to dream.


Well it’s a phobia of mine, the blindness thing, and I have no idea how I’d cope…


8. What you up to when you’re not writing then?


Let’s assume I do my share of the housework and childrearing duties, eh? *ahem* Moving swiftly on. I spend a lot of time surfing the net for essential software I didn’t realise I can’t live without. I enjoy reading, listening to music, and playing Half-Life 2 mods — you can’t beat a good session of mindless virtual violence, can you?


Well considering the looks I got from the wife when she came in to see me aiming for the Combine’s (Half Life 2 police force) heads to get that perfect shot I don’t know if I should thank you for that gift or not…


9. You’ve mentioned a couple of times in the interview about time taken to work on your novels and I’m wondering if you are one of the planning/researching kind of authors, using software and all that before writing, or do you just get on with it and write (or both)?


I’d love to be more organised but I just make things up as I go along. Sort of. Let’s say a novel is a journey from A to Z. I set out with a flask of coffee and some sandwiches, and a pretty clear idea of where I’ll find B and C. I think I’ll recognise D when I get there but E and F are vague. And that’s how I go, flying by the seat of my pants and listening to feedback from my peers. I usually know how a story starts and ends, but not always. It’s very exciting actually, because you get these moments of “Wow, I didn’t know that would happen!” Which is how you hope the reader will react. And it can be scary too because you occasionally get hopelessly lost and have to backtrack i.e. make heavy use of the delete key.


I do scribble notes now and again, or use a dictaphone.


1st Man: Do you use your Dictaphone?

2nd Man: No, I use my finger like everyone else.


See I had you down as the sort of writer that was a serious planner and so it’s good to ask these questions… bad jokes aside…


Well time’s almost up and so I had better ask my last question.


10. You and I have been prattling on about the joys of great music recently and I was wondering if you listen when you write or if you have any music or artists that inspire you to write?


Music is a great source of inspiration. Some of my stories have personal soundtracks. For instance, a brutal murder scene in ‘Lemon man’ was written after listening to Gary Numan’s ‘Rip’, and a snowy night scene in the same story borrowed from James’s ‘Blue Pastures’, in both mood and lyric.


I didn’t listen to music when I was writing till about six months ago; I always found it too distracting. Lately, though, I have started to plug the earbuds in when I sit down to work. When I’m struggling, music fills the void, the dreaded white space. When things are flowing nicely I tend to turn the music off. So if you see me nodding my head to ‘Pablo Honey’ it probably means I’m not getting much work done. I’m still on a Radiohead kick at the mo’. If Heather Berry laments that she’s a creep, a fucking weirdo, and she doesn’t belong…you’ll know why.


I can’t believe I didn’t listen to music in the past when I wrote, especially as now it’s all I do when writing and working.


Well it’s been fun Mike, thanks again for agreeing to do this and I wish you all the best in your writing and hope that you sell many copies of Fourtold, and of course Heather Berry and HB2.


Cheers, Mark.

About Mark S. Deniz

English teacher, writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and blogger. Founder of publishing company, Morrigan Books and imprint, Gilgamesh Press and editor-in-chief for review site, Beyond Fiction. Also cycles, plays floorball, listens to lots and lots of music, reads a ton of books and tries to fit in some TV, film and writing too. View all posts by Mark S. Deniz

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