Thursday, April 11, 2013

An interview with author, Jan Jacob Mekes!

Meet author, Jan Jacob Mekes!

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Rotterdam, one of the largest (and definitely the best) cities in the Netherlands, and I live there still. It's funny how I write fiction in English then, and not in Dutch (although I have written a few short stories in Dutch that I submitted to contests, with varying degrees of success). I blame it on the amount of English-language cartoons I watched as a kid.
Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect your writing?

Alas, I am merely a part time writer. I would like to be able to write full time, but then again, not having all the time in the world makes you appreciate the time you do have more. Of course sometimes it just sucks when you can't get as much writing done as you would like, and on some days I hardly get anything done. On those days, it's good to remember the proverb: "The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones."
What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

I've been a software developer, which has helped me develop my analytical thinking (although truth be told, what I enjoyed most about that was writing manuals). I've also been a postman, which, like any job where you come into contact with a diverse range of people, is a great source of inspiration. Even if you don't have a job where don't meet a lot of people, it's good to always keep your eyes and ears open for story ideas or even snippets of dialogue that stick.

Currently I work as a freelance writer and translator (if anyone out there needs something translated to Dutch, let me know!), which also helps keeping in touch with language; that's something that's important for any writer, and especially so if you're writing in a language that you don't speak natively. I also work as a volunteer for the police, doing historical research. That's oodles of fun, and I get to hone my writing (and research skills) as well.
How long have you been writing?

A long time - I remember in kindergarten, when making a drawing, I would write captions on them, like "THUNDERCLOUD" and an arrow next to a drawing of a thundercloud - the teacher explained that wasn't necessary when drawing, but I guess the writer in me was already emerging.

However, I've only been seriously writing fiction since about 2010. That year I had my gallbladder surgically removed, which was a bit of an eye-opener for me: I decided to focus more on the things I wanted to do, rather than always doing what society expected. Studying history in university (2006-2009) also helped me see that writing was something I was pretty good at, and I enjoyed it to boot!
Have you ever been to a writing conference, class, of critique group? How was that experience? 

I haven't. Since I write in English in a Dutch-speaking country, there aren't many people I could conference with. I do try to keep in contact with other indie authors online though, but it's hard to do so without sacrificing too much of the time I should be spending pounding out those words.
What genre do you prefer to write in?

I don't really have one preferred genre, but whatever I write, I always like to add an element of the fantastical or surreal, if possible, and I definitely always try to add a dash of humour, even if it may not always be laugh-out-loud, thigh-slapping jokes. Subtle comedy can have a place in any good story. Life can be hard enough as it is, why make it harder by reading or writing stories we don't enjoy?
What inspired you to write your latest book?

Readers! My latest release is Bouffon Stories 2012, which is a collection of short stories I wrote on my website,, based on writing prompts people submit to me. It's a two-edged sword: I get to practice my writing with ideas I may not have thought of, and the submitters get a (hopefully good) tailor-made story!
 How long did it take you to write the book?

The 2012 collection contains 21 stories. Each one can take a few days to write, from conception to execution, although some writing prompts can have me stumped for weeks. That's the beauty of it: I'm always challenged to push myself.
How many books have you written?

I'll only count the ones I've published on Amazon, which is 3 at the moment. Struglend Tales, a comedy fantasy novel (the first in a planned series), Chief Inspector Jewel Friedman, a collection of five short detective stories, which I also plan on developing into a series, and the aforementioned Bouffon Stories 2012.
What books have most influenced your life?
The Bible, first and foremost. Apart from just a religious book, it's a book every writer should consider reading, if only for its literary qualities. Lord of the Rings is also a great classic, and highly-recommended reading for anyone looking to improve their world-building skills.
What book are you reading now?
At the moment I'm reading two books. I'm almost finished with The Three Musketeers, and I'm working my way through the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant. 
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
As you'll notice by my previous answer, I mostly enjoy reading classics, but one indie writer who has piqued my interest is Lia London. She does collaborative fiction projects on her website, where readers get to throw about ideas about what happens next. Another great writer is actually a video game maker, Jonas Kyratzes. The reason I categorize him as a writer is because his Lands of Dream games really play like books, and even if you don't think of yourself as a gamer, you should check those out if you enjoy exploring rich fantasy worlds that at the same time teach us something about our own world. 
What are your current projects?


Right now I'm working on the finishing touches on Mothered, which is a nostalgic/dystopian novel (it's rather hard to categorize, so when it comes out I'll probably put it under the science fiction label because of the dystopian elements) about a forgotten island that gets invaded by an army from overseas. What's special about this book, and it's why I'm very excited about it, is that it will feature illustrations by my talented friend Ado Ceric, who also did the cover illustration for Struglend Tales. Speaking of which, I've also started writing the sequel to that, but right now it's on the backburner while I focus all my attention on finishing Mothered.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I've always enjoyed telling stories, I don't really know where it came from exactly, although my mother used to tell me all sorts of cool bed time stories. I think it's important for children to be exposed to a wide variety of cultural outlets, whether it's stories, music, film, or anything else. As they grow up, they'll be able to decide what they like best, and maybe even turn it into their career. At the very least, they'll be much more rounded as individuals. 
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Writing. Thomas Mann once said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people. Sometimes it's coming up with ideas that's hard, sometimes it's the way you want to convey those ideas. Most of the time though, it's the editing that puts me off. There's nothing worse than when you've managed to pour out your heart and soul onto the paper, you have to sit down and edit it... Fortunately I have a great friend, Andrei Constantinescu, who helps me with that, by attacking my manuscripts with a chainsaw (not literally). It hurts at first, and it's still hard work, but in the end the story is much better for it. 

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, who wrote the Discworld series, a brilliant series of comedy fantasy. I especially like his writing style, he has that typical British talent of being funny with words, and especially dialogue. Another writer I like is Agatha Christie. I especially admire how she was able to put out such a massive amount of work, year after year, and most of it good. 

What was the hardest part of writing your books?

As I said before, the rewriting, definitely. Oh, and formatting too, especially for print. I do like doing things myself when I can, but not everything about making a book is as fun. 

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Probably the most important thing I learnt was: "Hey, I can actually do this!" And people seem to like my writing too, which is always a (big) bonus. 

How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
I think there will always be a market for print books, if only because they look great in a bookcase, and sometimes you just want to have something in your hands that you can not just see, but feel and smell. That said, e-books have been a great way to make both reading and publishing more accessible and comfortable to a lot of people, and I don't have any aversion against e-books whatsoever.

Alternative vs. conventional publishing is a bit trickier. I think writers are slowly moving away from the latter, and I don't think that's bad. As an indie, you have full control over the creative process, but a downside is that currently the market is swamped. People sometimes say that we need gatekeepers, a role formerly taken on by the publishing companies, but I'm not sure. They let through a lot of crap with the good stuff, and ultimately the reader decides what's best for them, indie or mainstream.

I think the current craze, where everyone and their dog is publishing e-books, will subside though, maybe in a few years. At least that's what I hope, that the market will stabilize a bit, and above all, that indie authors take themselves seriously and present themselves professionally - without going stuffy of course, writing should still be fun!.
What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
I think we'll see a different sort of consumption of stories. There will always be a place for big books like Ulysses, Lolita, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and what have you, but I think the majority of reading will be done in small chunks. With the advent of internet publishing, well, that's opened all sorts of doors. We can offer single stories for sale, or offer books in chunks, for instance (which is not really a new idea; 19th century writers already did this by selling their stories as serials).

Also, as authors, we can (and should) look at innovations that come with the electronic medium, and see if we can use them. For instance, I'm toying with the idea of writing interactive fiction (after I've established myself as an author of traditional fiction). If you write children's stories, maybe you could try incorporating games, videos or music in your books. And there are also literature channels you might not have considered before. Twitter for instance, is a great place to publish super short stories (check out the #vss hashtag on there).

However, don't turn your book into a gimmick. If those whistles and bells help your book, great, use them. But if the story is strongest on its own, just release it as a normal book. Just because we have Photoshop doesn't mean museums are now full of digital paintings. The synthesizer hasn't made the orchestra obsolete. And in the same way, traditional literature will never disappear.
What process did you go through to get your book published?
I self-published through Smashwords, which has a really helpful style guide, then formatted another copy for Amazon, through KDP. I didn't use their Select program, since I don't want to tie myself to one specific reseller. We live in an economically volatile world, and it's never a great idea to put all your eggs in one basket.

For Struglend Tales, I also did a print version (something I also plan on doing for Mothered and future novel-length stories), through CreateSpace.  
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Keep doing your thing! If there's just one other person apart from yourself who enjoys your writing, you have your reason to keep writing.

Another bit of advice that's more practical: don't break the bank. If you're self-publishing, don't go with scamming companies that require you to invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to publish your book. If you're really, really creative (or you have amazing friends who help you out), you could publish a book without spending a single penny. The only things to spend money on if you must, are your cover, and editing. 

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Thank you, you're amazing! 

If you could live anywhere, where would that be?

Good question... I've always fancied living in a typical English cottage, complete with flowery wallpaper, ditto tea pots and cups, and a garden with roses and wild flowers. If there's a place like that somewhere where the weather is nice (warm but not too hot, and not too much rain), I'd love to live there! 

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? 

The power to read people's minds. Life would be a lot easier if you could go through it as an omniscient narrator... but probably not as fun. 

For more on Jan Jacob Mekes: - my site/blog, with information on my writing