This interview was conducted in June 2007 by Something Wicked Magazine, when Viane Venter talked to Greg Hamerton about The Riddler’s Gift.
The average South African ‘best-seller’ comes in at just 4000 copies, and with writers typically seeing less than 10% of the returns, it’s anything but a get-rich-quick profession. In a market of ‘serious’ and ‘worthy’ novels, fantasy fiction is an even tougher nut to crack, but there are some hungry young newcomers who plan to do just that.
Greg Hamerton is the author of Beyond The Invisible and a guidebook for Paragliding South Africa. This year sees Greg’s fantasy debut with the release of the first tale in the Lifesong series, The Riddler’s Gift.
How did you become a writer?
Writing didn’t even feature on the radar when I was at school. It was never presented as a possible occupation. I did a B.Com to do the whole ‘go out and get a sensible job’ thing, which helped quite a lot in fact. It hadn’t entered my consciousness to become a novelist. I eased into writing with magazine articles on extreme sports and once published, I started enjoying seeing my own words in print. I progressed to Beyond The Invisible, which is half autobiography and half fiction. It was a natural first step to draw on my own experience. Writing is a merciless profession to go into though – that’s probably why they didn’t tell me about it at school, and writing non-fiction now seems like a school project by comparison to a novel. It’s also a lot easier to sell, because it’s specialist information that people attach a value to. Fiction is a really tough market to crack until you move into the tens of thousands.
So why write?
Writers are prone to wondering why they do it at all – at times it seems pointless. For me it’s a very personal joy. I really enjoy being in the mental state one reaches when writing creatively. It’s a kind of meditation, and one I find invigorating. It feels that I’m wiser when writing than in the normal everyday world. I can follow my muse and write what I see. That does create havoc with plots though. I often lose long sections that just can’t be incorporated.
How do you write?
I do very little editing on the first draft. In fact, I often switch the monitor off. If I’m looking at the words as they come onto the page I can’t help but spot mistakes and I start thinking with an editor’s mind instead of a writer’s. To maintain the magic or vision of that altered world I try to reduce distractions at the time and come back after I’ve got the flow out, in spite of which I still find the process desperately slow. I wish I could plug into the matrix and just download the thoughts.
My target is 2,000 words per day and it’s a nine-to-five job. I started off trying to write whenever the inspiration hit, but without the regimen of sitting down and doing it every day it didn’t work. I did six drafts of The Riddler’s Gift. That’s 650 pages times six edits, and every time I re-read it I’m reminded of why books are often short.
Is there a market for fantasy in South Africa?
I’m in the process of finding that out. I’ve taken a gamble and printed 5,000 books in the first run. You have to tell yourself you have a bestseller before you go to print, because it’s simply uneconomical to print less than 4,000 copies. And then it either works or it doesn’t. I’m prepared to invest that in my own writing. The trick now is to do the marketing. It got a good response at the Cape Town Book Fair launch earlier this year, and a broad segment of test readers enjoyed it. Now we wait for the trade reviews. I’m aiming for the US market as well, but overseas publishing only works if you’re printing 10,000 copies or more.
You published the book yourself?
Yes. The writing is only half the job, it’s crucial to do the follow up and market the book. It’s tough when you’re so invested in the product, but it’s a necessary evil that you just have to do. It’s also a complete shift from the right brain to the left. As a creative, I find it impossible to do the two at the same time. There’s a lot of cold-calling till it gains momentum. The hidden cost is that I don’t write while I’m being the publisher. It’s worth it to try everything to find a publisher, but if you do publish yourself, it’s important to remember to pay yourself as an author first and make sure you secure your royalty, then try to make money as a publisher. As a writer you do your work writing the book and then walk away. The publisher’s job is relentless and ongoing: you’re always pushing against the mountain.
So, you’re a writer – what do you do for money?
[Laughing and glancing nervously at his peanut-butter sandwich] I worked before the time, saved up and then went on a long financial glide downhill. 1 tried doing odd jobs and had a sideline in photography to support my writing lifestyle, but I realised writing had to be a full-time to become really good.
The sequel to The Riddler’s Gift is sitting at page 550 of about 750, so it’s almost there. It’s ready and waiting and I’m looking to start writing again soon, perhaps in August or September. I estimate it’ll take about a year from that point before it’s ready for publication. A lot depends on how the first book perfonns.
The Riddler’s Gift – is it any good?
[Laughs] Of course it is! Seriously though, it’s impossible for an author to be objective about their own work. You have a relationship with the work. You’re inside the book, as opposed to the reader who approaches it from the outside. If I’ve passed on that creative world I can undoubtedly say it’s fantastic, but it’s up to the reader to discover if that comes through.