In the Spotlight: Interview with Andrew Knighton

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Andrew Knighton’s new novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, will be released on February 7, 2023, as part of the Luna Novella series, by Luna Press Publishing. You can order it through the publisher’s website, or through all the usual retailers, in print and digital.

The YouTube launch for the 2023 novellas, is on YouTube, and you can watch it here.

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

Given how early I started making up stories, the answer is probably A. A. Milne – my 44-year-old copy of The World of Pooh is the most loved book in my whole collection. I still think it’s a masterpiece of simple characterisation beautifully told, and when the great literary war comes, I am 100% on team Pooh.

Yes, I know how that sounds.

After that, there were the likes of Susan Cooper and J. R. R. Tolkien, who I read in primary school and who fed my obsession with imaginary worlds. Every night, as I was falling asleep, I’d make up my own stories full of their characters, or my own, or the people I knew.

But the authors who really made me want to write were Terry Pratchett and Iain M. Banks. In their own ways, they each struck a spellbinding balance between darkness and humour, between transporting the reader into a great escape and delivering powerful lessons about the real world.

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

That would be Superted and the Cow Thieves, a 13-page fanfic about a beloved cartoon superhero. I wrote it before I could even do joined up writing, with the incredibly patient support of my parents each evening before dinner, and I still have the original manuscript, was crayon illustrations and all. It features a bank robbery, penguins, and a submarine that can turn into a spaceship – young Andrew had eclectic tastes.

I’d like to say that my tastes have moved on since then, but right now I’m thinking about how awesome a submarine that turns into a spaceship would be, so maybe not.

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

Working out which bits are good and which aren’t.

Nothing you write will ever be perfect, but even the worst stuff will have something of value that can be salvaged. The problem is that, as the person who wrote it, I see what I meant to do, not the end result. Escaping my own perspective is vital, which is one of the many reasons why beta readers are so valuable.

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

Ashes of the Ancestors is a story about our relationship with the past, how tradition can raise us up or chain us down. That’s embodied through Magdalisa, the last living priest in a monastery full of ghosts. It’s her duty to serve those ghosts and help keep their memories alive, so that people can learn from them. But new arrivals shake up her existence and set her on a path to reconsider her world.

There are two layers to the inspiration behind this.

In a broad sense, I’ve spent a lot of my life pondering history. I caught a fascination with the past off my dad, and went on to do two degrees in history, as well as two years research towards a PhD I never finished. When I got into freelance writing, I used that background to get gigs, and I’ve written hundreds of articles making history accessible. I write comics with historical settings for Commando. Even when I’m making up imaginary worlds, I draw a lot of my inspiration from the real past.

But there’s a tension to all of that. History and tradition get used to justify a lot of conservative politics, while my knowledge of the past has made me ever more left leaning. Some people look at the past and want to cling to it. I look to it for inspiration to build something new, something better.

All of that was already swirling around in my head, and then I came across a couple of quotes that crystalised it all. One was from Haruki Murakami, who said that “History is the shared narrative that binds us together or tears us apart.” The other was something Jeannette Ng said in an award acceptance speech: “Let us be better than the legacies that have been left us, let them not be prophecies.” Those two sentences crystalised so much of what I was thinking, giving me a theme I wanted to explore.

To provide a context for this theme, I delved into the hundreds of pages of random notes that I keep on my computer. I found a two-word phrase which just said “ghost monastery”, and that seemed like the perfect carrier for a story about how the past haunts us. It became the lens through which to view my reflections on history and tradition.

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

I am the worst person to ask about this, because my publication history is a mess!

I’ve tried self-publishing, and I’m lousy at it. I don’t enjoy the business enough to do it well.

Then I had a novella, Silver and Gold, published by Candlemark and Gleam, an American small press. For that, my approach was just sending my manuscript out to one publisher after another until someone said yes.

And this time around, my favourite publisher was looking for novellas, so I wrote something specially for them and it hit the spot.

So I guess my advice would be to persist, try different approaches, and do what works for you.

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?

I don’t think it’s something authors should do – if you’re not comfortable on social media, you won’t have fun, you’ll just waste your time and exhaust yourself. But for most authors, it’s a useful instrument, as much for chatting with other writers as for reaching out to readers. You can use it to share writing advice, provide insight into your books, spread the word about what you’re doing, or, in my case, just stick up photos of your cat.

(My cat is adorable. As a cat person, I am bound by a blood oath to say this at every opportunity and to share his pictures on Twitter.)

Having at least one channel to your readers is a very good idea, as it gives you an opportunity to build up awareness and excitement for new releases. Social media’s part of that, but every piece of advice on this says to have a mailing list as well, so you can retain access to an audience when social media sites change. I’ve followed that advice, and I think it’s worthwhile for every author.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished a fantasy novel about a fake chosen one. This was my chance to vent all the things I hate about the chosen one trope in the form of a story of family, lies, and revolution.

And as soon as I’ve finished sending that out to potential agents, I’m going to start writing a novel about art as magic. I want it to reflect the role art plays in society, not just as a creative process but as a business, a political tool, and so many other things. There will also be paintings that move and sculptures that can control your brain, because this is fantasy, and you need wonders as well as murky depths.

I’ve been mulling this art story over in the back of my head for a couple of years, because I got stuck trying to work out how the magic would work. I’ve finally nailed that part, thanks to reading around the topic, and in particular thanks to input from an art teacher friend of mine – thanks Laura! – so now it’s time to get down to writing.

Do you have other work coming out in 2023?

Yes, but it’s all quite different from Ashes of the Ancestors.

I’ve got a short story in a Mesoamerican steampunk setting, called Land of Black and Red, coming out in 4 Star Stories issue 25 – it might even be out by the time you read this.

I wrote the scripts for several upcoming issues of Commando Comics. Those are war stories, written with my history nerd hat on: one about a specific type of biplane, one about a disastrous raid in World War Two, and one about a soldier finding comfort in music.

There are also a bunch of books I can’t talk about, because some of my freelance work is ghostwriting, so I write books where I’m not legally the author and can’t lay claim to the texts. I don’t mind at all, it pays the bills while giving me a chance to practice my craft, but it’s very weird to read the reviews.

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

There are a couple of books from recent years that I regularly rave about.

One is Sistersong by Lucy Holland, a historical fantasy novel about three sisters living in post-Roman Britain. The other is The Entropy of Loss by Stewart Hotston, a scifi novella about first contact and coping with grief. They’re both beautiful, heart-breaking books that combine clever, innovative ideas with powerful storytelling. I can’t recommend them enough.

You can order Ashes of the Ancestors and the Luna Novella books, here.