Author Interview: Malcolm Campbell
Meet Malcolm Campbell
SB: How has your background as a technical writer and journalist shaped you as a writer of fiction? How does writing as a profession differ from writing for the love of it?
MC: Technical writing focuses a writer on detail and how to present it clearly in concise language. When I wrote computer manuals, the in-house joke was that I could say anything I wanted because “of course, nobody ever reads the documentation.” The challenge, then, was writing documentation that actually helped and that didn’t look as dry as a doctoral dissertation. I began writing documentation before today’s Windows-based software presented programs in a graphical interface. This required accurate descriptions of each step from word processing programs to spreadsheet, database and communications applications. I saw the computer software through a microscope, a learned skill that was easy to translate into the realm of fiction.
SB: The thoughts of Joseph Campbell (any relation?) have obviously influenced your writing. Tell us a little bit about why his thought is so important to you.
MC: Joseph Campbell, who is related to me insofar as all Campbells are potentially related, helped the world understand the commonality of myths from disparate cultures and regions as well as the relationship of those myths to our personal stories in today’s world. Myths are timeless because they focus on the joys and fears we all experience no matter where we live. We all face love and loss, families and occupations, spiritual growth and physical growth most of which we can find told as an exciting story in a long-ago myth. Campbell’s “hero’s journey” scheme for understanding mythology translates very well into modern storytelling.
SB: What was your favorite book when you were 25 years old? Is that still a favorite? If not, what has replaced it, and why?
MC: I can’t answer that with any certainty, but it might well have been T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, an excellent re-telling of the Arthurian legends. While those legends helped shape my world view as well as my love of myth and fantasy, my favorite novels now tend to be those that focus on everyday people faced with challenges that can only be met through spiritual and psychological growth. If I were moving to a far island with only one novel, it would probably be Carlos Ruiz Zafón’sThe Shadow of the Wind. If I were allowed to add more novels, I would includeThe Night Circus and the Prince of Tides.
SB: Who have been some of the most influential people in your writing life?
MC: First of all, my father. He was a journalism professor and the author of numerous articles and textbooks. Writing was, so to speak, “the family business.” Both of my parents read to me when I was little and ever after made sure the house was crammed with exciting books for me to read.
While in college, I was able to take a creative writing course from Michael Shaara. He was a member of the Florida State University faculty in Tallahassee where I grew up. The class met once a week in the living room of his house where we sat on the floor and discussed the stories we wrote as our class assignments. After Mike read them aloud without divulging the name of the author, we discussed what made them work or what kept them from working; during the discussion, the author could confess to having written the material or not, depending on how brave s/he was. Mike’s wife, Helen, always set up a huge buffet table of goodies that we devoured during our break. Mike’s approach to teaching and his view of creating fiction influenced me a great deal, leading me to say that his Pulitzer prize winning novelThe Killer Angels would also be among the top five books I would take with me when moving to an island paradise.
SB: Do you often see people you know in real life in your characters? If so, is this something you do purposely, or do they just sort of sneak in?
MC: The personalities and viewpoints of real people sometimes have an impact on my characters. Grandfather Elliott, in my first novel The Sun Singer, has a lot in common with my grandfather on my mother’s side of the family. In fact, parts of the novel are set in the house he owned when I was a child. The title character of my latest novel Sarabande shares some personality traits with a co-worker from 30 years ago. However, neither person would see themselves in those characters because the influences are fragmentary. When a character comes to mind and starts acting one way or another, I’m likely to think, “For Pete’s sake, he’s sort of like Bob” or “She reminds me of Mary.”
SB: You have experience both in working with editors and in self-publishing. Can you share some insights on the differences between these avenues of publishing?
MC: Most self-published authors cannot afford professional editors to go through their work to make sure the plot holds together, the characters are realistic, the continuity is logical, and that the manuscript is free of grammatical and spelling errors. Having read a lot of fiction and worked as a reporter and newspaper editor, my wife Lesa is a wonderful first test of a story or a novel’s merits. She finds the errors whether they are inconsistencies in the plot, unclear scenes or problems of spelling and grammar.
Like most authors, I’m not a professional copyeditor or proofreader, and I’m often too close to the story to see flaws in it. While self-publishing is becoming a more-acceptable route to publication than it once was, most self-published books fail because they are filled with errors their authors never knew existed. I have also been fortunate to have a publisher with a good editor. She catches everything Lesa and I don’t see, much of which often has to do with the latest consensus about style matters such as whether numbers are spelled out or whether one needs a comma before the “and” in a series.
SB: Which is most important to you in good fiction: plot or memorable characters? Why?
MC: I see the characters first. While most readers read certain genres while avoiding others, I think the characters are what keep people interested in the story no matter how exciting the plots are. When a character faces challenges we have faced or that we fear having to face, we compare what s/he did with what we did or with what we might imagine doing. Joseph Campbell thought myths influenced us in that way because we saw larger-than-life protagonists facing what we are facing. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Darth Vader and Leia. If we didn’t care about them, we wouldn’t notice the plot.
SB: Which of your works of fiction do you think would work best as a dramatization? Would you rather see it onscreen or onstage... or in some other medium? (and if so, what would that be?)
MC: I’m one of those authors who hopes Hollywood will put his work on the wide screen with a good director and a cast of actors and actresses who merge so well into the characters that they (the actors) will always be remembered best in those roles.
While I can see Jim Carrey as newspaper reporter Jock Stewart in a movie version of Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire, I tend to think more about what eitherSarabande or The Sun Singer would be like after they were translated to film. My satire depends a lot on dialogue and would probably work well on the stage. My fantasy and magical realism novels are dependent on the places where they are set. In some ways, the place is a character, and when that place is the Rocky Mountains or a huge Florida swamp, that’s hard translate such an environment to the stage. Robert Adams in The Sun Singer and Sarabande in Sarabande both interact with a large black horse and see battles and intrigues along mountain rivers: I love visualizing what Peter Jackson might do if he directed a film version of either novel.
SB: You've written a fair amount of satire, as well as works of magical realism. How different is the writing process for each genre?
MC: The process is the same. I begin with a character in mind as well as the main points of the plot. The rest of the story comes out of nowhere while I’m writing it. That is, I discover what’s going to happen at the same time my characters are confronted with it. Unlike my characters, I know the major challenges and the ending in advance. But everything else simply happens. If I’m writing satire, certain kinds of things come to mind in the process that don’t come to mind when I’m writing magical realism. So, “my muse” isn’t going to introduce things that don’t fit like, say, having an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” in which Half Pint (Laura) comes home driving a pickup truck or Pa starts talking about updating the status on his Facebook profile.
SB: When are you most likely to be struck by a good idea for a story (rank them in order): a) sitting at your computer/desk, b) driving, c) in the shower, d) mowing the lawn, or e) reading
MC: Ideas occur while I’m doing something that requires focus while often allowing my mind to wander: driving, mowing, shower, desk, reading.
SB: Where can readers find your works?
MC: My books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and OmniLit.
SB: Is there anything you've been waiting for me to ask?
MC: I was waiting for you to ask when and how the I Ching became so influential in my life and writing. And the answer to that question has to do with learning to go with the flow whether it’s in life or in a story (supposing there’s a difference between the two).
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