All the Fun of the Fair
An Interview with Russ Litten
I am not a native of Hull, and didn't move here until was in my mid twenties. As such, my first trip to Hull Fair – the largest travelling fair in Europe – was a memorable experience. Every year in mid October, Walton Street is taken over by old style fairground games; hair-raising, ultra-modern rides and more sweet & food stalls thank you can shake a plastic light sabre at. By the time night falls your senses are assaulted with neon lights, screams of laughter and blaring music. I remember thinking, "this is an amazing location for a novel," just before I took out a load of my aggression on the Whack-a-frog stall.
It turns out, however, that I was right. Russ Litten's debut novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, is based around the weekend of Hull Fair, just after the floods that caused havoc in the city back in 2007. Russ took some time out of his busy schedule to chat to the project about his debut novel, and his experiences of the writing and publishing industry.
Hello Russ! Have you always wanted to be a writer? What stopped you dreaming about it and actually put pen to paper?
I think my desire to be a writer stemmed from having a short story published in The Yorkshire Post when I was seven. The paper asked local school children to write something about Christmas and I wrote a short thing about an angel losing his halo and Santa finding it for him.
After seeing my story in print that was it for me, there was nothing else that I wanted to do. Which was fortunate really, because as I made my way through school it became very apparent that writing was my only real talent. I was useless at maths and couldn't kick a football, so putting words together was my only option. As I got into my teens I started reading about the Beats and that seemed like the very life for me - running around and having mad adventures and avoiding any form of responsibility. So when I was sixteen I joined a rock and roll band and volunteered for the job of lyric writer. That was when I started to really become conscious of my writing and tried to shape it for maximum effect.
You've worked a range of writing gigs prior to completing your debut novel, can you tell us a bit about those?
The first real writing job I had was in commercial radio. I used to write the adverts. At the time there was a concerted effort by people in the industry to raise the bar, both in terms of writing and production values. It was a good time to get involved and I got the chance to travel around a bit and meet some inspiring people. After that I became a freelance writer. I did stuff for magazines and newspapers, web-sites and other bits and bobs, including music festival brochures and cable TV publications. I used to write those things you saw in WH Smith where you buy the first issue and get issue two free, "The World's Most Famous Murderers" and stuff like that. It was all good practice for writing fiction because it equipped me with valuable editing techniques. And I was writing constantly on a wide variety of subjects. Somewhere along the line I got introduced to a film director and I went down to London to write film scripts.
So why the decision to write a novel?
My novel started off as a short film about a lad who got talked out of a suicide attempt by a taxi driver. I was told this story by the actual taxi driver in question. I thought it was a brilliant tale, and set about writing the dialogue and searching out people to put it together on film. I quickly found this to be logistically tricky, so I decided to re-write it as a short story. Impatience, really. And then I started wondering why the lad in this story would want to end his own life. So I put together another short piece along these lines. My original intention was to write a short story collection around a central theme, but I wasn't sure what the theme would be. Then I met up with my brother in law around the Christmas holidays and he told me his neighbour was a writer and if I was agreeable he'd show this fellow my stories. A couple of weeks later I got a phone call from this writer and he told me that in his opinion I was good enough to get published. And he also told me that I should write a novel, not a short story collection, the former being notoriously hard to sell for a first time writer. That was when I started to think of my stuff in terms of a thematic whole and started looking at ways of spinning all the stories together.
What type of writer are you?
I try to do at least two thousand words a day. I find the best routine for me is to get on the keyboard very early in the morning and just keep at it until mid afternoon. I have a rough outline of where it's going, but am always prepared to be led up various side streets and detours. Which is actually part of the joy of the process for me. I find I often think in terms of scenes rather than chapters. That helps me break it down into more manageable chunks. If I get stuck or stymied in any way I tend to go for a run in the park. That usually helps. And I like to write to music, although it's usually instrumental or ambient stuff. Lyrics get in the way. Or lyrics sung in discernible English, at any rate.
How long between starting your novel and seeing it hit the shelves?
I started the novel in the summer of 2008 and it came out in the January of this year. So that's about two and a half years. Although it seemed like several lifetimes longer.
Do you have an agent?
Yes, my agent is Jon Elek at AP Watt, and he's a thoroughly splendid fellow. I got an agent because I was told I needed one, basically. Your chances of having your manuscript read by a publishing house escalate noticeably if you are represented by someone with credibility and contacts. It's a simple matter of maths. They get flooded with stuff, so a recommendation from a trusted source tends to jump the queue.
Tell us a bit about Scream if you want to go faster
It's ten intertwining tales set in and around Hull Fair, in the aftermath of the floods that struck Hull in 2007. It's about ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances and pressures. A lot of it is semi-autobiograpical. It's been described as "gritty", which is usually applied to most stuff that comes out of the North of England. But that's fair enough. I tried to give it a real human heart, because it's essentially a book about people and how they interact with each other. It is written in the present tense and the action all takes place over a single weekend. I had the idea that it would be rather like the police helicopter that flies over the city, picking out people below in the spotlight then swooping over to the next situation. I wanted it to be an accessible book and I wanted it to be very vivid and cinematic.
Has anything about the publishing industry surprised you? Is there anything you know now that you wish someone had told you right at the start?
I was initially surprised at the slow pace at which everything operates. I was used to fast moving commercial environments. But I've come to appreciate this way of working, because it's all about making sure every single detail is right, as painstaking as that can be sometimes. And I was very pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly decent and ego-free the vast majority of people I've met in publishing are. One thing that has surprised me is the lack of heavy marketing or publicity they do. I suppose this is because I'm a first time author. But I quite like this aspect as well. I'm all for letting things grow organically and I think at the end of the day a book will always find its natural audience.
What are you working on right now?
I'm on with my second novel as well as messing about with the odd short story and stage script. I also work in a prison two days a week helping people with their creative writing. The novel is the main event though. It's about two men who confess to the same murder. They're both unreliable narrators. One of them is an eighteen year old kid off an estate in Hackney. The other is a seventy year old ex-sailor who likes to gamble on horses and get drunk. The working title is Captain Jack & The Rocksteady Kid.
Have you got a long term writing goal that you're willing to share with us?
I'd like to write a novel every year and make enough money to keep going, feed the kids etc. And to help people feel less alone. That's the only ambition, really.
And finally, can you sum up a key piece of advice for aspiring writers in one sentence?
Don't think of yourself as an aspiring writer. Just be a writer. With the emphasis on be.
Thanks to Russ for talking to us about his debut novel. For those of you who have not experienced the heady insanity that is Hull Fair, Russ explains some of the draw over here, and you can read some of his articles over here. Scream If You Want to Go Faster is available now from Amazon.