In The Spotlight: Interview with Steven J Dines

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Let’s start from the beginning. Who were the writers who inspired you to become an author?

J.R.R. Tolkien. In 1985, I think, my older brother bought a copy of The Lord of the Rings computer game for the ZX Spectrum. It came with a paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. I started reading it and was captivated. It transported me away from the tiny flat we lived in at the time, from sharing a bedroom with my two brothers, from our divided, arguing parents, from our cruel neighbours, to…Middle Earth! I got The Hobbit soon after that, the first book I ever bought with my own money, and for Christmas that year, I asked for the complete The Lord of the Rings. I still have those books to this day. I treasure them. In later years, I discovered Stephen King. Misery came first. I devoured most of his books, and still do. Tolkien and King were it for me, for many, many years.

What is the very first piece of fiction you ever wrote?

The first story I remember writing was called The Galactic Adventure. Awful title, I know. But give me a break, I was ten-years-old! As a class assignment, our teacher told us to write a story about a dream. I couldn’t finish the story in class, so I went home and wrote nineteen pages in my school jotter that night. It didn’t end there. I kept adding and adding to the story over the next few months until it eventually filled two jotters, 119 pages at the final count. I remember I ‘assigned’ characters to my friends, and they would come up to me in the playground and ask what their character was doing in the story. It was a magical experience, not only the writing of the thing but the interest from my peers. Life-changing, in some ways. Unfortunately, it didn’t end well – I lost the first jotter (about 50 pages or so) and the story was never finished. But it did lead me to the next story, and the next, and the…

Think back at your debut book. How did you approach the ‘getting published’ process? Any tips, resources that you can share with our readers?

It was good fortune, really. After a publisher let me down, I lost all faith in publishing. I wanted to quit writing. Then Luna Press Publishing opened to submissions from Scottish authors for their Harvester Series of short story collections, and I took the punt. I figured I had nothing to lose. I sent three stories and, lucky for me, the editor saw something in those to want to read the rest of the collection, Look Where You Are Going, Not Where You Have Been. After the acceptance, I wrote a couple of unpublished stories for the book, the novellas dragonland and This House is Not Haunted, and here we are today… My only tip is to never give up. Persevere. You never know what opportunity is around the corner. All clichés, granted, but no less true for it.

Look Where You Are Going, Not Where You Have Been, by Steven J Dines. Cover art by Tara Bush.
Look Where You Are Going, Not Where You Have Been, by Steven J Dines. Cover art by Tara Bush.

Tell me about your book. What was the inspiration behind it?

It’s called Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been. It’s a collection of short stories and novellas spanning roughly the last eight years of my life, stories published in the likes of Black Static and Interzone magazines. I describe them as dark literary fiction rather than horror, simply because the ultimate goal for me is not necessarily to scare the reader but to move them to a dark place so that when they lay the book down, when they look around, maybe take a deep breath, they have a deepened appreciation of what they have. The stories can be bleak, they can be disturbing, and even, yes, horrifying, but sometimes to truly appreciate the light, we need to spend time in the dark.

Is there a particular story in the collection that is closer to your heart? What makes it so?

Many of the stories are close to my heart, because I put a lot of myself, my life, my deepest fears into them, but perhaps the most personal is the trilogy of interlinking stories, So Many Heartbeats, So Many Words, The Harder It Gets the Softer We Sing, and This House is Not Haunted. They feature a fictional version of my own family, including my son, who has ASD (autism spectrum disorder). The first of the three stories is a deeply personal one, a way for me to deal with a family tragedy, while the sequels are me projecting, ‘what if’, while, I hope, maintaining the intimacy and authenticity of the So Many Words. Father-son relationships feature prominently, something that I write about a lot as a father myself and as the son of a man I never really knew.

How did you find the publishing process, in general?

Rewarding and stressful. It’s wonderful to see a book of your own work coming together, reaching an audience, but I’m also a perfectionist when it comes to writing, which is something of a blessing and a curse. It drives me to write the best stories I can but it also means that, for me at least, a story is never quite good enough. That said, I am proud of the stories in this book, and proud of myself for having achieved this goal, thanks in no small part to Francesca, owner/editor of Luna Press Publishing.

What is your take on social media, when it comes to being an author? Do you think that an author should have at least one channel of communication with the readers?

Well, this is a can of worms! I’m not a fan of social media. I find authors fall into two camps on social media: those who don’t promote enough and those who promote too much. The former are drowned out by the latter, unfortunately. There are some great publishers/writers out there whose work I will never buy because they saturate social media with promotional posts, and there are great publishers/writers I will never be made aware of because their posts are outnumbered 100-to-1 by those others. I’m old-fashioned. I believe a book, its author, should be judged by the quality of the work – it’s all about that for me, the work – not the sheer number of followers or friends you have. I also understand a lot of people are trying to sell books to a dwindling audience, and that promotion on social media is necessary, but I can’t say I’m comfortable with it. However, I do think it’s great that authors are contactable and able to engage with readers more than ever before.

What is the hardest part of writing, in your experience?

Again, self-promotion. I find the process of writing, from that first scribbled note to final draft, very rewarding, although it isn’t without its challenges. Getting the work out there, convincing people to part with their money for something I’ve written? That’s hard.

What do you think about Awards in publishing?

I think they are a handy marketing tool (although seeing the words ‘award-winning writer’ on the cover of a book has arguably lost its cachet). Awards help an author stand out from the crowd. Do they always reflect the best work in that field or category? That’s debatable. Quality is subjective. Popularity can be won through social media presence. Award nominations for a work often come from the popularity of the author of the work and not always the work itself. So, I’m neither for or against awards. There are problems with awards, but they promote the genre, they promote reading, and that I fully support.

What do you think is the status of publishing today? I’m referring to issues such as representation, diversity, etc.

White middle-class men have had it too good for too long, right? Well, now we see the pendulum swinging over to the other side. I have a simple, some might say naive view of these things. For me, it’s all about the work. If it’s good, it’s good, and it deserves to be read regardless of who wrote it. Not being a publisher, I can’t speak for them. But put it this way: as a reader, when I choose a book by an author I’ve never read before, the last thing I consider is the author’s colour, sex, or preferences. If I’m interested in what they’ve chosen to write about, I’m buying that book. If it’s great, I’m recommending that book.

The Big Four Vs Small Presses. What are your thoughts in terms of strengths and weaknesses?

I think it comes down to marketing rather than quality. There are some small presses putting out terrific books and there are big publishers putting out generic, mass-market crap. The Big Four have the marketing budget and reach. With small presses, you rely a lot on word of mouth. But there’s a purity in that. I’d argue that if you put a hardback novel on the shelf of Tesco and charge five quid for it, it’s going to be a bestseller regardless of its quality. There is that purity to the small presses that I respect and admire. There just isn’t enough (sometimes any) money there.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m stepping away from short stories for a while to work on a novel. It’s my take on the haunted house genre, a modern gothic thriller. I’m taking all the lessons I learned from my first novel, the things I got right as well as the many mistakes, and I’m applying those to this project. I’m over halfway through the planning stage and I’ve started the research. It’s a little chaotic but I like to let a story breathe and find its own way to some extent. Within the outline, I started out writing nothing but notes but as the story has risen to the surface I’ve found I’m writing excerpts of scenes and even entire scenes sometimes. They’re tantalising teasers of what the first draft is going to be like. I can’t wait to get started on that but I’m not quite ready yet.

If you had to recommend an author and/or a book, who would it be?

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of connected stories about the Vietnam conflict. Everyone who reads, everyone who writes, should read it, in my opinion. Tim’s a terrific writer: I’ve read several of his other books and he’s fast-become one of my favourites. As for novels, it would have to be Westlake Soul by Rio Youers. It’s a masterpiece. I was shaking when I finished it. I cried, too. More recently, The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward. A future classic, without a doubt.

Look Where You Are Going And Not Where You Have Been is available in the Luna store and the usual retailers.