Today I have the pleasure of interviewing a new writer on the self-published scene in Richard Milner. Across our chat we cover his philosophy behind writing, his influences, as well as his debut novel Vessel of Kali.
Richard Milner is a writer drawn to explore dark and challenging topics through the tools of the mystical, the fantastical, and the metaphysical. For him, writing is as much of an engine of personal growth as it is a medium of communication.
P.S.Clinen: Thank you for joining me today, Richard. A simple question to kick off: What sort of books do you enjoy most, and which authors/works are your favourites?
Richard Milner: I have to start with Poe. As a child, he was definitely my first literary soul mate. Growing up, I favoured whimsical, mythological stories, like those by Madeline L’Engle or C.S. Lewis, but nothing spoke to me more than dense, ornate prose, grafted atop an eerie backdrop.
I grew to read and love a lot of classics, particularly Russian authors and the bard himself – Shakespeare. I adore Lovecraft, and credit his fluid, emotive style with influencing me a lot. Also, Philip K. Dick; I can’t read any of his writing without being staggered by his originality and creativity.
Hands down though, the writer that’s changed me the most is Frank Herbert. I read the Dune series at just the right phase in my life, and it was an absolute revelation. Most recently, I’ve come to love China Miéville for writing powerful literary stories that use fantastical elements in completely fresh ways.
PC: When did you start writing? Have you always had an interest in the English language?
RM: Phew… you know, I doubt I could accurately convey exactly how important the written word is to me. I was practically clutching books in the cradle, and have done so my entire life. My big treats as a kid were going to the bookstore, or going to school book fairs. I had an aunt who, bless her, took me on a book shopping spree every year for my birthday. I didn’t abuse the privilege, but I did go home with an arm full of worlds every time.
It’s correct to assume that I’ve also been writing as far back as I can remember. What started out as scraps of thoughts quickly transformed into poetry, then verse and journaling, then short fiction, and eventually novel-length pieces of writing. Without a doubt, writing is one of the most important ways for me to express myself and articulate my thoughts and feelings. I also want to be connected to one of the key means that we, as a human collective, employ to problem solve, pass on knowledge, communicate with each other, and so on.
PC: What major themes interest you the most?
RM: Not to aim too high… but I largely care about themes that explore the deepest or most fundamental questions of human existence. That is, the definition of consciousness, the possibility of life after death, dualism, the struggle for self-awareness, the cyclic nature of self-destructive habits, etc. In a lot of ways, I’d go so far as to say that I have very little interest in other lines of inquiry, to the point of boredom.
That being said, current-day political and social issues do factor a lot into what I write. Abuses of power, reactionary cultural attitudes, imperialist posturing… those kinds of things. Feminist issues, in particular, are incredibly important to me – which Vessel of Kali delves into – because I’m endlessly frustrated by the incessant trampling of women’s rights across the globe.
When I write, there’s always this strange challenge of taking a high concept – the core of fascination that drives me forward through the writing process – and expressing it through a human story. I almost invariably wind up talking about the issues I mentioned through the lens of the mystical, the occult, and the metaphysical, because those are the contexts that fascinate me.
PC: Explain your writing process and any habits/nuances you have in this process.
RM: My writing process is like sculpting. I start out with a nebulous, raw concept, or even a single image or scene. A lot of times, I begin with just a feeling: a bundled emotional presence, roiling like a blob, molten and unmanageable. I usually have to just sit and let it play out, mentally, and write down whatever comes to mind. Tangential thoughts, bits of phrases, bizarre images. The initial creative phase is like dreaming while awake.
When it gets down to the actual writing itself, I’ve had to make myself into a writing soldier in order to ensure I get things done. I switch from an idea-generator to a craftsman. I obsess over the smallest detail, and I tinker endlessly. I’ve made myself get into the habit of always moving forward by making writing into a scheduled item. No excuses: just sit down and do it. If inspiration comes, wonderful. If not, be a hammer and pound those words onto the page.
I have a drove of little habits, some compulsive. For example, I always use a worksheet to scribble ideas mid-writing, or copy over fragments of sentences and phrases that I don’t want to delete. Wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but it works for me. Also, I listen to specific pieces of music, I have to make sure my ambient lighting isn’t distracting, I use incense to evoke specific images, and I have to make sure I’m sitting in a direction that feels comfortable relative to the environment.
PC: Do you find it difficult finding time to write? What challenges must you overcome?
RM: It would be most accurate to say that I find it difficult finding time to write *well.* I can make myself sit down whenever, wherever, regardless of time constraints, distractions, environmental conditions, energy levels, and so on. I’ve made myself accustomed to working in a variety of circumstances, typically under pressure, because I refuse to *not* get anything done. I’ve always endured heavy work schedules, so I’ve had no other choice but to squeeze out writing time like juice from already dried fruit. More often than not, I’ll peak at 60% of optimal when writing in this fashion.
My preferred method of writing – more languorous, open-ended, chipping away at things out of order, editing here and there – is very much harder to find time for. I have to dive really, really deeply in order to pull out what I’d consider to be writing on par with the best of what I can write. I have to reach ungodly levels of focus. For that, the conditions are so particular, that I achieve that mental state only occasionally, or with tremendous effort. That’s probably my biggest challenge, and (by my strict estimation) leaves my first few drafts in limbo between, “not terrible,” and “not that bad.”
PC: Your work is very lyrical – what artists / musicians influence your works?
RM: First off – thanks for noticing! Writing is very much a sonic experience for me. I hear the words as much as I feel them, and I read the same way. Much of the time, I know what’s missing in a sentence by the rhythm of language, and the cadence of the passage that precedes what I’m working on. It’s very much like writing music in that way, and as a musician I find parity between the two creative acts.
As to what influences me, I listen to a lot of downtempo, ambient, psy-trance, and world music. Really, anything that’s ethereal, sensual, and super polyrhythmic – heavily percussive helps (especially if we’re talking breakbeats!). I use select pieces of music to help me write for certain stories, certain chapters, even certain characters.
When I was writing Vessel of Kali, I listened to the soundtrack for The Fountain, by Clint Mansell, over and over and over. My playlist says 263 times (for one computer out of three), which equates to about 200 hours. Not bad, I’d say.
PC: We’ve heard about your favourite works; what books do you dislike the most?
RM: Hm… I don’t have specific books that I detest. And even if I did, it’d be bad form for me to call them out. But, I do have styles of writing that I don’t favor – typically those that read like Hollywood blockbusters. I can’t stand phrases like, “a real page-turner,” and I think it’s ridiculous to treat literature like a 100-explosion per-minute action film. I don’t want to have a panic attack when I read. I don’t want to chew through my sandwich and start engulfing my hand because I’m so throttled by tension and anxiety. I don’t want to read a 2-page chapter that has limited space to build rhythm. I don’t want to whisk through a book in a single night.
The largest compliment someone could give me about my own work isn’t, “Your book was so good I couldn’t put it down,” but rather, “Your book was so good I *had* to put it down.” Writers: trust readers’ intelligence, patience, and insight. Readers: ease into a piece of work, and let it wash over you.
PC: As a former English teacher, what sort of books would you love to have students read? Were these ever included in your curriculum, or were you given the generic Austen, Shakespeare to assign?
RM: Sadly enough, your question correctly alludes to my answer; I didn’t have very much freedom at all. In the U.S. at least, public education at the high school level cleaves off as much individuality in teaching as possible, whether it’s style or content. As the myth goes, this is done to evaluate students in a standardized way. More accurately, it helps cater to the bottom line and ensure the business of subsequent university education continues to boom. No child left behind, right?
I had to teach the standard Catcher in the Rye, Jane Austen books, sure. I got reprimanded more than once for trying to veer discussion off topic. So, I used extracurricular, non-credit classes for things outside of the box: creative writing, poetry, public speaking, all mixed together to let kids have the chance to maybe, actually express themselves. Those classes were a *huge* hit.
If I had to beg students to read something, I’d tell them to read 1984, listen to political rhetoric on cable “news” programs, and then write down all the similarities they noticed. (Good luck keeping it to 5 pages or less.)
PC: What is your opinion on the publishing industry? How did this affect your writing? (i.e. did you attempt to publish traditionally before opting to self-publish?)
RM: My opinion is, frankly, pretty dismal. I did the whole query-synopsis-rejection circuit. That is, before I woke up and realized that there was no more direct way to sell out and lose my creative freedom.
Because the traditional publishing industry is facing hard economic times, their business-propelled problems have become pushed onto artists, and throttle creative output in turn. On a whole, the current environment in the publishing industry is very cutthroat, risk averse, and creativity-stifling, which can make writers fearful of writing “the wrong way” (a horrible, self-defeating idea). This is all ultimately injurious to readers who want new, interesting, challenging pieces of work.
The good thing is: as much as there’s a need in the present for independent writing to get in the hands of readers, there’s no greater time for independent writers to take advantage of self-publishing avenues. It’s never been easier. There’s no direct need at this point for a writer to shackle his- or herself to an economically and philosophically entrenched industry.
PC: In the self-publishing industry it is easy to get lost in the swamp of a million authors. Do you think there is some secret to self-published authors getting the attention their books deserve?
RM: I’m not sure there’s a secret, per se, but I do think there’s a method to ensure that writers connect to those readers who are predisposed to understanding, caring about, and appreciating their particular work. That’s the goal, isn’t it? This, in reality, is what a book “deserves.” Not “more” readers. Not “standing out” as the phrase equates to critical acclaim, praise, or accolades. But a sincere understanding on the part of the reader regarding the unique value of a particular contribution to the greater body of human literature.
In a nutshell, I believe we writers have to prevent ourselves from devolving into pure salesman. We need to stay honest with ourselves, stay humble, stay focused on our original vision, and come to understand the value our work contains. Then, when we let people know about our writing, we will naturally attract like-minded folks. This is the most any of us deserve.
PC: A little about your personal life. I hear you have worked in the video game industry. What sort of games interest you and do they have any influence on your writing? Personally I am a huge Zelda fan!
RM: Awesome! Yeah, Zelda games are consistently great. Ocarina of Time permanently changed my perspective on 3D world building. But anyway, that’s a whole conversation in and of itself…
Regarding your question: Games that interest me the most are those where I, as the player, can fully enter a captivating, new world, and play a key role in that world’s narrative. This might sound quite general, but really – genre and mechanics have nothing to do with the games I wind up loving. A good example of a game that has a very emotionally saturated, meticulously crafted environment, and a badass narrative backdrop would be Demon’s Souls.
Being a gamer and a game developer doesn’t really directly influence my writing, at least consciously. In fact, I try and keep the two separate, to keep my own writing as personal as possible. It’s more like games stir stagnation to keep my creativity loose, and open up my perspective to different methods of storytelling. It’s also a good way to stay attuned to what is and isn’t en vogue, culturally (e.g., the zombie craze).
PC: You’ve said you want to visit Machu Picchu. Is travel important to your writing work? Do your travel destinations help shape the worlds created in your writing?
RM: Traveling and new experiences are absolutely key to my writing process. So important, in fact, that I can hardly create anything strongly emotional without exposing myself to new cultures, novel ways of life, and different physical locations. I couldn’t really begin writing Vessel of Kail until I moved to Japan – and I *knew* this would be the case ahead of time; it’s part of the reason my wife & I went.
To clarify, it’s not so much a matter of using a location like Machu Picchu for direct source material, although that could possibly happen. It’s more like simply being in contact with newness invigorates my being, which in turn needs to be expressed through the vehicle of articulation and insight: writing.
PC: If you could have coffee with any literary great, who would it be?
RM: Probably Tolstoy. Everything of his I’ve read – whether it’s a full-length piece of fiction, an essay, a blurb or quote, I find myself sighing in relief. I feel comforted by his honesty and sincerity, and feel his presence palpably in everything he wrote. Tolstoy had an earnest intent to use his writing as a tool to learn about himself, as well as fuse an undivided link between himself and the reader. I respect him immensely, and I’m grateful that he’s widely known in the present day. I’d relish the chance to have a simple, everyday conversation with him.
PC: What’s next for your writing? Do you have a sequel in mind of Vessel of Kali, or a new work entirely?
RM: The very next thing I’m working on is a follow-up novel to Vessel of Kali, called Body of Ash. I hesitate to call it a “sequel,” because the two books can be read independently, and both books completely end, unto themselves. To me, it’s more that the events of Vessel of Kali finish, but the world and its characters persist. There’s another story to tell, and it takes place 14 years after Vessel. Body of Ash unfolds in the fallout of the events of Vessel, and focuses on what the world and its characters have done with the choices they’ve been given. The central theme is one of generational curses, particularly in the context of motherhood.
That being said, I’ve always got short fiction in the works, and I may or may not follow through on a few of them to the point of releasing them publicly. I use short stories as a way to flex creative muscles between larger, more time-consuming pieces of work. They’re also a good opportunity to experiment with different writing styles, voices, settings, etc. Beyond that, I have a ton of premises and outlines for full-length novels; it’s just a matter of discerning when it’s the right time for a specific piece of work.
PC: Perhaps the best question to finish with – What is the best advice you could give a writer?
RM: Never – I repeat: never – let fear be your guiding motivation when writing. Never let fear be the first step: fear of critics, fear of not adhering to industry conventions, fear of losing readers’ attention, fear of writing below expectations. Instead, write the book you want to read, and write what truly fascinates you. Be true to yourself, first and foremost. If you’re disappointed in what you write, then keep writing (which is what you’d have to do anyway.)
Respect your time to write like you would a shrine, and use it as a safe place to say precisely what you want, in the manner you want. Do not, in any way, hedge your words. Channel everything you’ve got – the heights of your mind, the vastness of your feelings – into every single word. Writing is one of the true bastions of free expression, and it needs to be protected as a collective art form. As writers, our earnestness is both sword and shield. *That* is how writing feels “truthful” to the reader, and that’s how you, as the writer, will be truthful to yourself.
PC: Very insightful, Richard. Thank you for the time and all the best with Vessel of Kali and your other writing endeavours.
Richard’s debut novel, Vessel of Kali, is available on Amazon in both paperback and ebook: http://amzn.to/1e9PISF
You can connect with Richard via his website: http://www.richardmilnerauthor.com/ as well the following links: