Author Confessions: Simon Sylvester

Simon Sylvester
Category: Reading

Simon Sylvester is a writer, teacher and filmmaker. His debut novel The Visitors, described as 'intoxicating' and 'enchanting' by The List, is published by Quercus on 12 June and he's currently working on his second book, The Hollows.

We interrupted his writing to demand some answers for our Author Confessions.

The Visitors

Is writing a pain or a pleasure?

Both! On a good day, when I’m immersed in a story, there’s a lightness inside me that I can barely articulate. The world makes sense. But on a bad day, when the story is fighting back, I’m distracted and wracked with doubt. Writing tumbles me through extremes of high and low, but even on a bad day, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. I need writing. I crave it. I started writing fairly late – when I was in my mid-twenties – and now I can’t not write. It’s how I record and interpret my world.


What’s a successful day of writing for you?

A good day is 2000 words that move the story along, and knowing where I’ll pick it up next time. On a very good day, if I’m really flying, it’s 4-5000 words. I’ve often written 6000 or 8000 words, and I once wrote 11000 words in a day. Some people wince to hear my word counts, but I don’t have a lot of time to write. I teach three days a week, and make films much of the rest of the time, which doesn’t leave much time for writing. If I know where my story’s going, then I’m anxious to get my head down and get it on paper before I lose the threads. I tend to find that my word counts increase as I approach the last half of a piece – it’s important to me that my stories evolve, and that my characters have the space to become independent. When they start doing things I’d never planned, the story develops a momentum I can’t control. At that point, I’m along for the ride as a scribe.

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring authors what would it be?

Read your work aloud. Read to yourself, read to your partner or parents or friends. Read to your cat.

Read your work aloud. Read to yourself, read to your partner or parents or friends. Read to your cat. Then have someone else read your story back to you. There’s absolutely nothing else that makes your work so organic as speaking it and hearing it. In reading aloud, you discover the natural beats in each sentence, and you discover what’s awkward or twisted on the page. Reading aloud makes your words dance.

Which book should every child read?

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Everyone knows it’s an amazing book, but it’s become doubly important to me since my daughter Dora was born. She’s three years old, and we’ve read Where The Wild Things Are hundreds of times. We howl at the moon, and gnash our terrible teeth, and dangle from tree branches. It’s a riot of imagination. Sendak perfectly captures the anarchy of childhood, the magic that lurks in corners, the way the world is alive with dangers that adults can’t understand. In fact, every adult should read it as well, just to remember. That last line contains everything about being a child and being a parent: “And it was still hot.”

What’s your favourite book shop?

This will always be James Leakey’s in Inverness. When I was growing up, no trip into town was complete without dropping into Leakey’s. It’s a huge second-hand bookstore in an old church, with a café on the mezzanine, a spiral staircase and a menacing stove. I haven’t been back for years, but I remember teetering stacks of banana boxes packed with books, all the shelves bowed with weight, and books on the floor along the skirting boards. I used to escape the rain and simply browse the shelves for hours at a time, cricking my neck with looking sideways at the spines. It smelled of woodsmoke and dust on sunlight. Leakey’s introduced me to Frank Herbert, Anne Rice and Terry Pratchett, and will always be my perfect bookstore.

Do you use your local library?

I do. Kendal library is brilliant. I tend to only borrow graphic novels at the moment, though, because I have a reading list at home that is quite literally as long as my leg. I want to know more about graphic novels, but seldom know where to begin. Every so often, my friend Ali Shaw recommends a title, and I’ll invariably enjoy it, but I’m a bit bewildered by the codes and system that seem to govern comic universes, and never know what to read next. The library is the perfect place for me to browse and borrow. Kendal now hosts a popular comic art festival, too, so the comic collection is growing all the time. I love libraries. Over the years, they’ve given me places to sit, think, read, write, work, dream and stay warm.

What would your dream job be if you weren’t an author?

Writing is a marathon, and film is a sprint. I often think in cameras when I write.

A film editor. In a sense, I’m already doing this in the promotional films I make for local charities, but if I wasn’t writing, I’d want to be editing full-time. When I started out in film, I was drawn to the camera department, and I spent most of my time in television working as a camera assistant. It’s only with time and experience that I’ve discovered how rewarding editing can be. Making a perfect cut feels as good as writing a perfect sentence. It’s still storytelling, but with a totally different set of tools. I love the immediacy of editing – especially when I’m bogged down in heavy redrafts – but then again, I love the long burn of writing. Writing is a marathon, and film is a sprint. I often think in cameras when I write.

Who would play you in a movie?

He isn’t an actor, but numerous people have taken great delight in pointing out that I’m the spitting image of Ben Folds.

Are there any films that are better than the book in your opinion?

Does Game Of Thrones count as a film? I wanted to enjoy the books, I really did. I like George R. R. Martin’s dialogue – I think he has a gift for voices – but I found Song of Ice & Fire slow, slow, slow, and gave up. Maybe I should have read them before Game Of Thrones came out, and now it’s too late. But the television show is dazzling, and the books simply don’t stand up. I’ll probably have to build a barricade now. Generally, I always prefer the book; words make a frame that the reader brings to life, where a film – even a good film – gives a fixed, finite sense of how the story unfolds, or what the characters look like. Books ask more of your imagination.

Which author or fictional character would you most like to party with?

This is tough. I’d love to visit the Discworld, and I’d love an hour in a pub with Hunter S. Thompson, who started me writing in the first place. Although, on reflection, I doubt I’d survive 60 minutes unscathed. I’d also like to wander around Armada, the extraordinary floating city in China Mieville’s sci-fi novel The Scar. But I’m going to choose an adventure with Thursday Next. I love Jasper Fforde’s books, and the chance to tag along with Thursday would be pretty special.


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