It’s a real pleasure to welcome Alan McCormick to the blog today, to talk to me about his book, ‘Dogsbodies and Scumsters‘ published by the utterly wonderful Roastbooks.
It’s a collection of flash fiction. It’s illustrated. And, as I said, it’s published by Roastbooks. Interesting? I thought so.
Here we go…
Welcome to the blog, Alan. I’m delighted to have you here. How are you?
Hi Nik, I’m delighted to be here; also excited to have a book coming out. I loved ‘Not So Perfect’, and Shark Boy seemed pretty close to perfection to me.
So, your book, ‘Dogsbodies and Scumsters’ – what’s it about? Who’s it for?
Not sure who it’s for. Most of the stories started with character, people I’ve met, seen (more accurately glimpsed) and imagined. They’re normally people on the edge, which in some way reflects places I’ve lived – a council block in Vauxhall for sixteen years – and places I’ve worked. A key place I think was a Victorian Asylum on the edge of a small Sussex town where I worked in the early eighties. I once tried to start a novel drawing on actual patients I met but it didn’t work, but the feeling and sense of the place and the people, rather than anyone in particular, has fed into some of my stories in the book.
Why short stories?
They suit my energy and the time I have to write. I don’t have the stamina for the long haul though I’d like to in some way piece together something longer like a novel in the future. Also I once suffered long-term health effects from a serious viral illness and short stories were what I could read and absorb, they entered my DNA and gradually became the preferred way for me to communicate my ideas and thoughts. A good short story is unique: enjoyment, inspiration and a little magic all in one sitting; I love them.
And why Roast Books (like I need to ask!).
I sent Faye Dayan at Roast Books a collection of my stories and the illustrated writing with Jonny Voss, and she liked them. Faye also had the idea of putting together the stories and the illustrated writing in one collection which was very exciting. Faye has been very easy to work with and though she has a clear vision of how things might go – she decided the order of the stories much better than I could have done – she also listens and is open to ideas and change. Working with an independent publisher with a unique take on things has meant Jonny and I have been creatively involved in putting the book together and getting it out more than perhaps we would have been with a larger, more corporate publisher, it’s been a really enjoyable learning experience.
Many of the stories in the book have been illustrated (excellently!) by Jonny Voss. Could you tell us a little about that? What’s the process? How much are the stories collaborations?
Jonny and I are friends. We started drawing and writing for each other about five years ago. Our work was never intended for publication when we started but over the years we have collected hundreds of collaborative pieces. We began by walking in our local area each morning – me in Vauxhall, Jonny near the Rive Lea in Walthamstow – and I would write and Jonny would quickly draw the first interesting thing we saw and then email it to each other for the other to respond to. Pretty soon it became apparent that it worked best when Jonny drew first and I reacted by writing. I love Jonny’s energy, originality and imagination, and I always write the first thing that comes into my head once I’ve looked at his picture – this has inspired and freed me to write in a way I probably couldn’t otherwise do. It’s a fun and instinctive way for us to work and I hope, even when the work gets dark, that some of this enjoyment and energy comes across.
Where do good stories come from?
I don’t know – strong characters, some craft, and conviction in purpose perhaps? Sometimes stories break all the so-called rules or conventions and just work.
And what do you think makes a story great?
When a story is ‘great’ it absorbs me completely, and often continually surprises (perhaps even unsettles) me as I read it, and then when I’ve finished it, even if I may not quite know why it worked so well, the feeling of the story stays with me long after. For me that’s why good short stories are exciting and great ones are powerful and sometimes even miraculous.
Could you tell us a little about Simon Please, please? He’s one of my favourite characters from the book.
Thanks, I’m glad you like him. In the book, Faye very cleverly placed Simon Please next to another neighbourhood nutcase in the story, Meet the Builder. I like the idea that someone like Simon Please might control his emotions to be seemingly placid and pleasant through the day, and then lose the fight to control things and turn into a rampaging madman like Mad Mike at night. Replying now, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it, a couple of lines from a favourite Nick Lowe song (made famous by Johnny Cash), ‘The Beast in Me’, keep popping into my head: ‘The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars. Restless by day and by night rants and rages at he stars. God help the beast in me.’
What’s next for you?
I’m going to enjoy the book coming out. Jonny and I are also completing a children’s illustrated book. This time we’ve reversed the collaborative process; I’ve already written the second draft and Jonny is reacting with pictures. We also hope to bring out a small collection of Scumsters – perhaps weirder and darker ones.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank you for asking the questions and for giving some exposure for our book. I hope our paths cross sometime soon – it would be good to know about your writing plans and to hear about how the collaboration with Caroline Smailes is going.
Alan McCormick lives with his family in sleepy West London suburbia. He has been a political researcher, trainee nurse, porter in a psychiatric hospital, writing tutor and unsuccessful comedian. Dogsbodies started life on the Writing MA at Middlesex University and was later developed with the assistance of an Arts Council Writer’s Award. He was recently Writer in Residence for the Stroke charity, InterAct Reading Service. His short stories have won numerous prizes and have been widely published and performed.