Tom Hyman was my first writing mentor and my main editor for Eye of the Moon. He guided me through many aspects of the journey from reviewing the first chapter to the final draft. He advised me how to reach out to publishers and agents, and when I encountered barriers with traditional publishing, he encouraged me to self-publish and get the book out into the world regardless. Over the years, he has become an invaluable friend, and it was a delight to interview him.
You were in the publishing industry for many years. How do you think it has changed and where do you see it going in the future?
Well, welcome to the digital age. In publishing, and in the arts more broadly, there’s a brutal democratization going on. Now anyone with a few bucks to spare can write, produce, and distribute his own music; write and direct his own movie; and write and publish his own book. The upside of this new age of democracy in the arts is clear enough, but the downside is also obvious. How can good work get noticed in such a glut of mediocrity? The traditional publishers, music labels, and film studios produced and sold a lot of inferior work, but they also acted as a rough kind of curator, and knew that ultimately their profits—and their survival—depended on finding and promoting quality work. That system is still there, but it’s rapidly reshaping itself in the face of technologies that allow everyone to compete.
The present chaos will ultimately subside, I imagine, and a new order of some sort will emerge, and the curators will come back in some form. There’s been a lot of cannibalism in the last couple of decades. There are only five or six major studios and five or six major publishers left standing, but meanwhile the world is somehow awash in new films and books. (Amazon lists over 12 million book titles!)
Back in the 1950s everyone was convinced that television would soon kill the film industry, and that movie theaters would cease to exist. Well, there are fewer cinemas these days, but more films than ever. And more books, despite the alarming decline in independent bookstores, thanks to digital technology.
The digital age is changing our lives in many ways, but the arts will survive, in one form or another. They always do.
Who is your favorite author/writer and why?
No favorites. There are a lot of authors I like or have liked or admired and for different reasons. For my own genre, political thrillers, I have always looked on novelist Nelson DeMille as a model. His writing is consistently witty and sophisticated, and he really knows how to plot a story and tell it well.
For my own reading pleasure I’m drawn to authors who not only tell good stories but teach you something new or give you entree into a world you didn’t know—involving science, or medicine, or law, or politics, or history, or whatever. I’m especially drawn to historical fiction. In recent years that meant an absolutely fanatical devotion to the works of the late Patrick O’Brian, specifically his twenty-volume set of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s involving the British Navy and his legendary main characters, Captain James Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin. The series is a literary masterpiece, right up there with C.S. Forester.
In the nonfiction realm two of my favorite authors are Bill Bryson and Michael Lewis. They both are experts at tackling complex or unusual subjects, finding engaging personalities behind them, and spinning a riveting human tale—and along the way giving you an education.
Sometimes you can love a book, but not the author. Case in point, Kingsley Amis. I read Lucky Jim years ago and fell completely in love with it. Humor is so hard to do well, and this one really cracked me up. I so wished I could write like that. I read it several times and kept recommending it to everybody. But every other novel by Kingsley Amis I found utterly disappointing.
What gives you inspiration?
I’m not sure. I’ve become accustomed over the years, both as a writer of magazine articles and as a novelist, to look for the story. If you find the story you have found the inspiration. Next comes all the hard work of shaping that inspiration into something from which others will also derive inspiration—or at least be moved by or affected by in some way.
And the possibilities here are limitless. Great works of art resound down through the ages like nothing else. Consider this: The most famous individuals in the world are fictitious ones:
Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Madame Bovary, Ulysses, the Great Gatsby, Ebenezer Scrooge, Raskolnikov, Sherlock Holmes, Lolita, Hans Castorp, Leopold Bloom, Holden Caulfield, Atticus Finch, Quasimodo, Frankenstein, James Bond, Jean Valjean, Oliver Twist, Sister Carrie, Portnoy, Augie March, Lord Jim, Studs Lonigan, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Hannibal Lecter, Lady Chatterley, Doctor Zhivago. Etc.
We know them all. And imagine: these famous individuals were all created not by God, but by writers.
What would your advice be for an aspiring writer?
If you want to write fiction keep in mind that there’s absolutely no demand for your work and that you will most likely not ever make any money doing it. Write only if you feel you need to, that you cannot help it. If you’re obsessed, you may have some talent, and if you have some talent, you may get lucky. You’ll still have to work hard at it, but success does happen, occasionally.
What’s the best advice in general you’ve ever received?
I recall reading this in a humorous novel a long time ago:
Turn stumbling blocks into stepping-stones. Pick up your feet!
I thought that was pretty good advice.
One of my father’s drinking and fishing buddies many years ago once gave me this little nugget of wisdom about how to be a success in life:
Always do more than is expected of you.
And an old carpenter who used to work for my father once dropped this profoundly philosophic observation on me while he was searching around for a missing tool:
You can’t do, if you ain’t got what to do with.
And back there somewhere in my teen years I recall this short but sweet suggestion from my father, no doubt prompted by some behavior on my part:
Don’t be a wise guy.
How did you get into being an author?
Very slowly. I did everything else I could think of first. I worked in a bookstore, I worked for AP, I was a teacher for a while, then a magazine journalist, then a magazine editor, then a magazine articles writer, then a book editor. Meanwhile, I kept lying to everyone that I was writing a book. In my head I knew that’s what I wanted to do—intended to do—but I just wasn’t doing it. There was a strange dynamic at work. My endless procrastination, the avoidance of actually sitting down and writing the novel, was a sneaky way of keeping the facade alive. As long I avoided the moment of truth and left the actual writing of that book out there somewhere in the indefinite future, I could say I was writing a book and keep the dream alive. But if I tried—and then, God forbid, failed—then the dream would be dead.
Finally, I guess I just couldn’t live with myself any longer. I had to find out if I was going to be a novelist or not. So, at the age of forty, I purposely put myself in a do-or-die situation. Against the advice of virtually all my friends and colleagues, I quit a comfortable and rewarding career as a publishing executive (I had worked at Atheneum, Doubleday, and Putnam), gave up my Manhattan apartment and moved upstate to a small weekend cottage I owned in Woodstock, and sat down to write—terrified, but determined.
A couple of months later I emerged with some chapters and a summary for a political thriller called Giant Killer. Luck clearly played a role. Thanks to my previous connections with the industry I quickly found myself an agent, and he quickly found me a publisher. With the modest advance I received, I cranked out the book in about nine months and saw it into print. It wasn’t really all that great a novel, but Kirkus Reviews said it was better than perennial bestselling author Robert Ludlum’s novels, so I was off to what turned out to be a twenty-year career as a novelist and a screenwriter.
What skill should every writer have?
The obvious answer is the talent to write well, which appears to be largely innate. But success usually depends on perseverance as well. I’m not sure that’s a skill or just a mindset.
What is the biggest success you’ve achieved from your point of view?
Getting over a million words of fiction published in over fifteen languages and actually making a living doing it.
Read more of the interview with Tom next week.