Pete Sortwell is the author of comedy e-books The Village Idiot Reviews, The Office Idiot Reviews and The Idiot Government Review, More Village idiot Reviews. His writing has been published in a total of ten different anthologies. His novel So Low, So High, was published by Caffeine Nights 24 June 2013. Pete met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his new release and the publishing industry.
Who is Simon Brewster?
Simon isn’t one person, he’s more like an amalgamation of many people all rolled into one and then told with my voice. He’s a person that has come to a point in his life where he knows something has to give. He doesn’t know what it is when we meet him in chapter one, but he knows it’s there. Having said that, it’s important to note that Simon is not me, he’s also not anyone I know and doesn’t represent any one person. Of course, he’s fictional. The reason for the disclaimer, if that’s the best way to describe it, is …
The way I’ve written it is to put people in the shoes of someone who is struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve done that to show that people don’t generally choose the lifestyle they end up with when painfully addicted to one substance or another. I wanted to get across the complete powerlessness of the condition. I also wanted to make Simon a pretty likable fellow. He’s not well and his actions leave an awful lot to be desired, but the point is he isn’t a bad person trying to get good, he is a sick man who needs to get well, but who doesn’t know how to. As a rule people in the grips of addiction are generally not nice people to be around. They’re fairly annoying and draining, but I’ve had the absolute pleasure of watching people go from what Simon is to being productive members of society, on more than one occasion.
There isn’t a reason that Simon can pinpoint as to why his life has gone the way it’s gone, there was no horrific abuse, both parents were with him, his brother has not had such issues and he has the best friend a person could ask for. For some reason, and I still don’t know what it is, some people just seem to have a predisposition to addiction. Simon is one of them.
Simon doesn’t have an honest job, he’s a drain on society, the police and the services he attends, when he remembers his appointments. His family have all but lost hope that he’ll manage to recover and his best mate, John, is fed up of bailing him out of trouble.
Tell us about So Low So High.
I started writing SLSH almost three years ago to the day that I’m writing this answer. For years I had a feeling that I should write my life story. Of course at 29 there isn’t too much of a story to write about, so after thinking more I decided to write fiction. It’s my first novel. Well, the first one I wrote, there are other books out there now, but this was my first. I spent many hours toiling away getting it right, to the point that my editor, the great Julie Lewthwaite, pointed out that if I carried on tinkering it may well end up a short story or a boringly long, repetitive essay.
What it’s ended up as is a story unlike most crime stories. There’s crime, of course, although it’s petty. There’s someone who is trying to improve his life, who has not only a terrible addiction to deal with, but also people who he’s mixed up with trying to ruin his chances.
As the product description says: “Simon will stop using, one way or another”.
Do you think that people ever give up addictions or simply transfer them into other areas?
Now that is a tricky question. I suppose it all comes down to a couple of points. With Simon, I picked the type of dependant user that needs something drastic to happen for him to ever have even the slightest chance of living a decent life. Of course everybody is different, or at least there are different types of problem drinkers/users. I’ll frame my answer for someone who is in the same boat as Simon, although please understand that this is just my opinion and I’m still learning myself.
When someone is as ill as Simon and a drastic change is needed for them to stay clean and sober, it’s because there is something within them that makes them not only mentally and emotionally different to others, but also physically different. In a sense they are allergic to mind-altering chemicals. Now, to answer your question, I’ll talk about what I think Simon’s problem is. It is something that means once he takes one, (whether pill or drink or whatever) something happens inside his body that doesn’t happen inside most of the population’s: an almost unbearable craving for more. The mental and emotional side of things are kind of the drive he needs to feel different; without a drink or a drug, Simon feels uncomfortable in his own skin — he doesn’t fit in, he’s full of fear and has an overriding need for acceptance. When he takes a substance, that goes away; however, because of the physical part of the illness, he can’t stop. It’s a double whammy.
Once someone like Simon does stop, with the right programme implemented, then they can stay clean and sober. However, and this is where I really answer the question asked, there is always the risk of moving from one addiction to another. One word I hear a lot is ‘balance’; people who are addicts and recovered addicts will always need to be able to balance things that make them feel good, i.e. food, sex, work, shopping — the list can go on. I’ve found that some people who have suffered an addiction can become extremely motivated members of a workforce/society. If someone has been able to find the money and means to use like Simon does, then once they’ve learnt how to direct that drive into something positive, remarkable things can happen. Although people need to think about what it is they’re doing and whether it causes harm to anyone, including themselves, again, it comes down to balance and sound judgement, which can only be achieved by recovering from the initial problem.
So I suppose the answer to your question is, and this is a long winded way of saying it, it depends on the individual, but generally it’s something that needs honest reflection by the individual.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I f***ing love it. It’s made it possible for me to publish some little comedy books that I dread to think how long it would have taken me to find a publisher for, if I had at all.
It’s put some power back in the authors’/small publishers’ hands. I’m not sure how long it will stay that way and I’m interested to see how it all pans out, but I don’t think anyone better than Amazon could be leading it. I like the way they’ve held their own against the big publishers and not let them name the self-publishing arm ‘vanity’ publishing or anything like that.
The cost of buying a book has gone down for me, I like the e-reader app on my phone, one hand reading is a good thing for me. I think the gadgets and devices have some way to go and I’m waiting for someone to make me an e-ink monitor, which would be really handy for when I’m editing a book.
I really like what Caffeine Nights have done with their iPad app, they offer two free chapters of all their books and if people like them they can click straight into iBooks and be finishing the book in seconds. That is cool. The possibilities for marketing are much wider than in the print world. I imagine something similar to the iPad app in the print world would be a magazine sent out to a few hundred people, who could then mail order the rest of the book they liked.
The reach of e-books is huge. I’ve sold in every Amazon demographic there is. I’ve not had a review in most yet so I’ve no idea what the people of Japan or Germany think of my work. I’ve got their money, though, and that’s all that matters.
Of course there are dangers with it, I’ve seen so many people led up the garden path by people who learn how to format a Kindle book, grab a picture off Google and call themselves a publisher. So it’s an idea to research how you should go about publishing an e-book, but putting the name of the publisher into Google should give you an idea of what they’re like.
All in all though, it’s not going anywhere and will grow. That question has been answered in my sales alone.
Did I say I loved it?
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
I think there’s probably been several. I’ve wanted to write ever since I saw a book my father had written in the school library, so I like to think I was always going to end up doing it … well, doing more than just writing my name on all the school desks, anyway.
However, for ‘So Low, So High’ there’s no avoiding the fact that I got clean and sober myself in 2006, so my experience does come into that. There is very little of my actual life experience in it, as it’s a fiction book, but the thoughts that Simon has have obviously come from someone who knows what it’s like to think like that.
With my less dark comedy books, I suppose there was an event that changed my life and triggered me to write them. Last summer, after a long illness, my friend and sponsor passed away. It was a horrible time and not something that will be easy to forget. After the funeral had passed and I’d settled back into life, I found myself not really knowing what to do with myself, wanting to smile and laugh but not really having the means with which to do it, so I started writing comedy reviews of products that I’d bought, just to make myself smile. The idea went from there and I ended up with The Village Idiot Reviews.
I think writing is a terrific outlet for me. I mean, having a frustrating day can be turned into fun — when I’ve felt like kicking someone down the stairs I can come home and make it a reality for one of the characters in my books. (Although never having actually kicked anyone down the stairs, I can’t compare how different the feeling of satisfaction between writing about it and actually doing it would be.)
Who are your literary influences?
Sue Townsend, Danny King and too many Tv comedy writers to mention. To be brief.
Do you think publishing is in trouble?
I don’t, no. It might have been a different answer had I not heard on the radio recently that paper sales have gone up, along with e-sales.
I think things will change, though, more than they have already. More and more people who self-publish will need to buy in professional help. I already do for getting my self-published titles out: designer, formatter and editor. I think there’ll be publicists that will soon be doing the rounds, pulling together all the information that’s mostly already out there and flogging it to self-publishers. I think that both agents and the big publishers will have to start signing different deals, too, no more 20% of everything, forever, and all rights sold forever with huge buy out fees. In fact, it already is changing. Hugh Howey, the guy who wrote Wool, flat out refused to sell the e-rights and got a huge deal. There’s also the White Glove service, although I’m not sure why anyone would use it when it’s so much cheaper to pay someone other than an agent (who’ll take 20% forever) to do the formatting, editing and cover design. Maybe that’s because I haven’t got an agent and don’t fully understand the ins and outs, though, I’m not putting anyone down that does those things.
So, to get back to your question, no, I don’t think it’s in trouble. I think things are changing and I still fully believe that if you write a good book it will find a market. There’ll need to be promotion though, or no one will know it’s there.
Graham Greene wrote ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
All seems a bit deep for me, but then I’m all for looking at the light of a situation. I suppose for me, it resonates in that I can quite happily write about losers and all the tragic things that happen to them, albeit in a darkly-humorous way. But I think that’s because they aren’t real people. I’m not so heartless as to laugh at others’ misfortune (too much) in real life. I suppose there is also the fact that writers can be pretty isolated; I personally spend many hours sitting alone tapping away at a keyboard. I suppose the splinter in the heart could mean I don’t need to have as much human contact as people who haven’t. I’m not too sure, though. I think I’ll stick with my original prognosis that it’s all a little too deep for me.
What advice would you give to yourself as a young man?
Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a great ride.
More specifically, I suppose it would be to be myself more, not to worry about what others either think or might think about what I’m doing. I don’t have any fear about putting my writing out there now, but I remember worrying about it about ten years before I ever wrote anything. Now you come to mention it I should probably give myself the same advice with a couple of other dreams I have.
You’ve sold over five thousand e-books. Is there any secret?
I just don’t know. I can tell you what I did: One of the things I say to other people who write is, ‘Put some money behind your work, if you’re not prepared to invest in your book, you can’t expect anyone else to.’ I have a team I use now and I’ve been fortunate enough to find some fantastic talent that helps me get the books out there.
I also use the tools that are out there, I might have sold five thousand, but I’ve given away seven or eight times that through KDP select. I’ve seen people say that free books devalue the work we put in, but I’m fairly sure that without giving away the amount I have done, I wouldn’t have sold the numbers I have. I even pay to promote free giveaways now — because it works and I end up selling more than I spent.
Thank you Pete for giving an insightful and versatile interview.