Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
My name is Neil Rushton and I’m 48… a child of the sixties; just.
Fiona: Where are you from?
I’m originally from Southampton, UK, but have lived all over the UK plus a short period in Princeton, US. I currently live in a small coastal village called Porthleven in Cornwall, UK.
Fiona: A little about your self (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
I’ve lived a somewhat nomadic existence, never really settling anywhere, and always moving on to new places. I’m trained as an archaeologist, and went on my first excavation in 1992. I spent 7 years 1995-2002 gaining a BA, MA and eventually a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. I’ve worked in academia and for various heritage organisations in the UK, But at the end of 2015 I lost quite a bit of my eyesight – this was the crisis point that took me away from my archaeological career and towards a new incarnation as a writer. I live quite an isolated existence and spend a lot of time inside my own head, but I do have one constant companion – my cat Lucy, who is almost as neurotic as I am!
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
I’m currently writing my second novel, Dead but Dreaming, which is set in and around an English psychiatric hospital in 1970. I’m trying not to make it too grim, but the subject matter is ‘challenging’. I am also writing for my blog-site and a variety of websites, mostly on the subject of British folklore, especially about those mysterious and amorphous entities; the faeries.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve always found writing the best way to express myself. It’s the medium I’ve used since childhood to articulate my feelings. But my first forays into writing for public consumption began at university, where I soon realised that I needed to get my work published in journals if I were going to be accepted in the academic community. This was when I learnt some of the necessary skills for coherent written communication.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve had twenty articles published in academic journals and as book chapters, but it was only on the publication of my first novel Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun in 2016 that I finally considered myself ‘a writer’.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
The prologue came from a dream, years before the rest of the book was written. This was the genesis of the story, which I knew I had to get out of my system. One of the main inspirations to writing the book was the knowledge that I had an original story in my head and wanting it to be experienced by other people.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is the title of a Pink Floyd song from their 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets. The music of Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett are embedded throughout the novel, and the title also represents the theme of disappearing into an ultimate light; whether it be enlightenment or oblivion.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I think I probably have two distinct writing styles, one for non-fiction and one for fiction. When I write about folklore and archaeology I utilise the skills I learnt writing academic articles, although with (hopefully) a little more humour. But my fiction is usually quite bleak. Sometimes it’s modernist, sometimes post-modernist and then frequently modelled on a rather austere 19th-century classical style. I enjoy mixing it up, but my own character is prone to gloominess and this seems to seep into the text, even when I’m trying to keep it at bay. The biggest challenge of this type of writing is to keep it palatable to the reader. There are lines that cannot be crossed if you want to keep the reader from throwing the book into a corner, and I often find myself deleting swathes of text that have gone too far. I think that as writers, we sometimes need to rein-in some of our wilder prose, even if we think it’s good. The challenge is to create diversity in the text; ten pages of self-loathing angst may be brilliantly expressed, but it won’t mean anything unless it is balanced by some light or humour.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Although I feel slightly uncomfortable admitting it, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is very autobiographical. It is, in some ways, an exaggerated and surrealist version of the darker parts of my own life. One reviewer called it ‘relentlessly emotional’ and I think that’s probably right. My own life is not operating at a consistently emotional level, but the story distills all of the depression, desperation, grief and altered states of consciousness that I’ve experienced into one very confused individual life. I have also picked up a lot of nuanced behaviour from people over the years, and I attempted to put some of the more unrepresented aspects of their characters into the people inhabiting the book.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
I don’t. I prefer internal travelling these days.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
My publisher designed the book cover, but the artwork is by a very talented friend called Katalin Polonyi.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I think the main message is that our perception of insanity is incorrect. In traditional tribal societies the people who are most revered are the shamans, who are able to communicate with the world of Spirit on behalf of the tribe. In modern Western societies these people would be diagnosed as being severely mentally ill. In the novel I attempt to get inside the head of someone who is struggling to cope with everything that has been thrown at him, and in many ways, his reaction is simply a natural way of dealing with this. His insanity is the coping mechanism. There is also a fundamental message that death is not non-existence – consciousness survives everything and cannot be destroyed.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
I tend not to read much modern fiction as I find I’m constantly catching up with the classics. My favourite author is probably Thomas Hardy, closely followed by all of the Brontës. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a 19th-century novel I didn’t like. I particularly enjoy the attention to detail and depth of the prose contained in 19th-century literature – there is a luxuriance and sumptuousness in it that I always appreciate. I do read a lot of modern philosophy and science by authors who are attempting to push the boundaries of our understanding of reality: Graham Hancock, JJ Valberg, Thomas Campbell, Robert Lanza, Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, Stanislav Grof, Anthony Peake, Amit Goswami, Rick Strassman et al. I appreciate their ability to give us a wider understanding of the universe we live in.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
‘Entity’ is a good term. Nobody (except my publisher) really supported my commitment to become a published author, but there were (and are) certain entities that have told me I could do it. They have usually appeared in dreams and in altered states of consciousness. I very much appreciate their support.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
I do. It is difficult in this multimedia world, and you need to accept that you are probably never going to be in the 1% of bestselling authors making millions. But if I can just get by through my writing, and give other people pleasure in reading what I produce, that is enough for me.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I would probably change the prologue, as it’s quite gruesome and a few people have been unable to read beyond it! But ultimately, the book stands as something written in moments of time. Although some of the phraseology could be improved in parts, it is a record of where I was when I wrote it. It’s something I see as a step to where I want to be in my second novel. So no, it exists as it is, warts and all.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
Two things: perseverance in the face of procrastination, and making sure I took notes from my dreams; our subconscious contains a mass of creativity that should not be ignored.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Jonny Lee Miller. I had him mind throughout the writing process. I believe he’d be able to project the necessary nuances, veering between bewilderment and insanity. The important character of ‘Ober’ is a Byronic invention, and I’m sure Richard E Grant would be perfect.
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Do your own thing. As soon as you begin to make compromises in your writing you’ll start to dilute it, almost invariably to the detriment of its quality. This can be easier said than done; when I was writing Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun I had numerous crises of confidence about some of the more woo-woo concepts I was attempting to portray. But I didn’t water it down, and I think/hope this has made it an enduring work of fiction. I also think that writers need a strategy to deal with criticism. If it’s an inarticulate rant against your writing on a social media platform it’s probably best dealt with by silence. But if someone takes the time to make genuinely constructive criticism, then, after taking some time to cool down, the writer needs to extract the substance of the criticism and perhaps take it on board. But all responses are more effective if framed in a polite fashion, even if the original criticism wasn’t.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Be open-minded. Modern culture seems to be coded to force us into constrained reality boxes. I think we need to break out and allow creativity to have free-rein, as this is what helps us to grow and learn. Also, be considerate whenever you comment on someone else’s writing – you never know what that person is going through, and whilst valid and constructive criticism can be useful, rude denigration can be cataclysmic.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
My Big Toe by the ex-NASA physicist Thomas Campbell. It’s a bit of a misleading title, as the book is exploring the nature of consciousness and discussing the meaning of life. It’s a mind-bender but beautifully written, and forces you to think quite a long way outside the reality box.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Watership Down by Richard Adams. I first read it when I was nine, and I used to carry it around in my coat pocket. I didn’t understand all the levels of meaning in this wonderful book at the time, but I like to think that I did intuit the bottom-line message of the book: freedom over tyranny.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
I usually like things that make me laugh and cry at almost the same time. I think the supreme example of something that can do this is the 1986 British film Withnail and I. I’ve watched it many times, laugh all the way through and then cry my eyes out as Richard E Grant delivers the Hamlet soliloquy at the end of the film. It’s a perfect example of how joy and brutality can live next door to each other.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
Lord Byron. I’ve been a slightly obsessive fan of Byron since my teens. I’m inspired by his poetry, awed by his intellect, and fascinated by what he packed into his short life. If, somehow, I were able to meet him however, I think I’d be a bit of a gibbering wreck, and would therefore get little out of the meeting.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
I still think of writing as my main hobby, and it certainly takes up most of my time. Reading, listening to music and going for long lonely walks take up the remainder of my time.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I don’t have a TV and so I’m totally out of touch with any shows – I think I’m probably the only person in the Western World never to have seen a second of Game of Thrones! My favourite film is the aforementioned Withnail and I, but I like anything with some depth of meaning and memorable imagery, from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone to the hallucinogenic filmic landscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky.
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Food: Indian. Colour: burnt orange. Music… that could go on for pages. Pink Floyd have a special place in my heart, but I love to immerse myself in prog-rock, folk, Indian raagas, ambient and electronica. However, I can only write with classical music in the background, and so that’s what I actually listen to the most.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
I’ve always thought I would make a very good hermit. If someone could supply me with a cave and provisions that would suit me just right.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
Laus Propria Sordet
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun can best be found at my publisher’s website and at Amazon:
I have many articles published on the website Ancient Origins. Here is my author page: http://www.ancient-origins.net/users/nrushton
Many of my articles on the folklore of the faeries are soon to be published on the Beyond Science web-magazine: http://beyondscience.net/mag