The Zoo is the debut novel by Jamie Mollart, which was included in Amazon’s Rising Stars of 2015 list. After hearing him read from it last summer, I had to buy a copy, and I wasn’t disappointed. This dark tale of a man with mental health problems is a compelling read, and the use of language is as rich and layered as the plot. You can buy The Zoo from Amazon here or visit Jamie’s website.
Jamie Mollart lives in Leicestershire and it’s always nice when someone puts our forgotten county on the map (not to be overshadowed by the Other Jamie, the football-related one!), so I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed by us.
What are you working on at the moment?
Something completely different. I always admire authors like Peter Carey who can jump between time and theme and genre, so in my own little way I’m doing something similar. It’s speculative fiction and is to do with the way in which we choose to spend the time allotted to us. I don’t want to say any more about it at the moment, I’m weirdly superstitious about that, but I’m about two-thirds of the way through.
You’re due to become a father very soon. Congratulations. Tell us about the book-related memories of your childhood.
Thank you. I am really looking forward to encouraging a love of the written word in my child, the same way my parents did to me. My dad read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to me and I still vividly remember it now. I’ve started reading to my wife’s stomach already! Apparently I was an avid bookworm from a very young age, so I hope that gets passed on in the genes.
Do you have any favourite children’s books or books you read as a teenager that you’re particularly looking forward to introducing your daughter to?
Oh, there’s loads. Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are for when she’s young. But when she gets a bit older, The Eagle of the Ninth, Elidor, The Nature of the Beast, The Machine Gunners. Looking back there were so many good books when I was growing up.
Were you good at English at school?
So my Mum says, but she’s biased. I do know I wrote stories continuously. I always think a love of something depends a lot on the teachers that taught you it though. I was lucky to have a primary school teacher, Mr Beamond, who encouraged me, and a secondary teacher, Mr Braddick, who did the same. Without them I’d probably not have carried it through, particularly during my adolescent years, when there’s lots of distractions!
When did you decide to become a writer?
When I was about eight I think. I wrote a version of Robin Hood and my friend Ian illustrated it. I don’t think it was very good, but I’ve written in one way or another ever since.
Do you write full time?
No, unfortunately not. In my day job I’m a Director of an advertising agency, which in itself is more than a full time job. I try and squeeze writing around that. I get to spend a lot of my day job writing advertising copy, which although a totally different discipline has helped my fiction writing. Advertising copy writing teaches you to find the kernel of an idea and reduce it down to its absolute core components and then expand out from there. It’s a useful approach to writing fiction as well.
How is your working time structured?
There’s not really any structure − it’s more a case of snatched time. If I really want to crack on and get a chunk done I go to Nottingham Writers Studio. I’m kind of a binge writer; I’ll suddenly have a burst of energy and inspiration and will really move the story on, then I’ll slow down for a while and think over what I’ve done and what’s coming up.
Do you aim for a certain number of words or pages per day?
When I’m writing I get a lot done in a day − at least a couple of thousand. With the imminent arrival of my child I’m very aware that time will be at a premium, so am trying to be a bit more disciplined and do a little and often. I’ve done about 500 today and am going to try and do another 250 or so.
Where do your ideas come from?
It’s difficult to say as books are a combination of ideas, and I’m always having lots of little ideas, so I guess there is a point when enough little ideas gel to make one big one. Strangely enough most of my best ideas arrive when I’m in water. So if I’m struggling with something I’ll either have a bath or go for a swim.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Not yet, thank God, but it’s always there as a threat isn’t it!
What was the hardest thing about writing The Zoo?
Because it was my debut there was no pressure to it, so I found the actual writing of it quite enjoyable.
There’s always an element of slog to writing any novel, as it’s such a big thing to undertake. I don’t know any writer who 100% enjoys the writing process. There’s times when you just need to get the story out of you.
The hardest part about writing any novel is getting it finished. It’s a mammoth task. Having an agent and a publisher helps you in some ways. They’re your cheerleaders and that’s a good thing to have when what you’re doing is so solitary. Both my agent and I knew there was a problem with the ending of The Zoo but couldn’t quite put our fingers on it. In the first phone call with my editor she managed to vocalise it perfectly and pointed me in the right direction to fix it.
Was there anything about writing a novel that was easier than you expected?
I don’t think writing a novel could ever be described as easy. Something that involves inventing a whole world, populating it and crafting a story from it, then telling that story over 100,000 words, and that takes you a period of years could never be described as easy. But it’s a vocation. I firmly believe that if you’re a writer, you have to write. It’s not a choice we have. There are stories and people in our head and we need to get them out.
How do you go about editing your own work after the first draft but before sending it to agents or publishers?
I find it really difficult to do it cold. Copy-editing I’m okay at, but structural things I find I need a bit of distance. Once I’ve done the first draft I put it aside for a good few weeks and then try and read it with fresh eyes. It’s always difficult to read something with dispassionate eyes, but for editing it is absolutely essential.
Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’ – do you sit down and map out the whole structure first, or do you just start writing by the seat of your pants and go with the flow?
I’m a combination. To be honest I think most writers are. I do a lot of planning in my head before I start − I need to understand the main arc before I can do anything. Then I’ll very quickly get 20,000 words down, then stop and take stock and from there put together a loose plan.
I use an online project management tool called Trello to do this, but it’s basically a digital version of post-its on a wall. Then I copy the next bit of the plan directly onto the MS [manuscript] underneath the bit I’m working on, so I have something to aim at. Not very elegant I know, but somehow it works for me.
Do you start with the plot, a character or a scene – or a combination?
It’s really hard to define a starting point, but for my current WIP [work in progress] it was a scene. It came to me complete and fully formed. With The Zoo it was the image of the Zoo itself that kind of chimed with some concerns I had about the world at that time.
Thinking about it now I can’t imagine ever starting with the character; for me it’s about a question I want to answer, a topic I want to discuss, or an event I want to fictionalise. The characters are the means to do one of those things by.
When you first sit down to put fingers to keyboard, do you start from the beginning or somewhere in the middle?
At the beginning. I try and work in a linear fashion. I’m a list-maker and a bit OCD, so the idea of doing things in the wrong order is a little bit upsetting to me! I like to be able to tick chapters off.
That said, there are three story strands to my WIP and I’m writing them independently. I know how they connect, but I haven’t mapped how they will sit together in the finished thing yet, so I’m looking forward to doing that and finding those nice serendipitous moments when things butt up to each other.
This might sound a bit silly, but do you have any favourite words or types of words? For instance, I’m drawn to sharp, spiky letters like ‘A’, ‘K’ and ‘X’.
I have individual words I like that I have to make sure I don’t over use. Serendipity is one and I’ve realised I’ve used it in my last answer!
I worked with a Creative Director once and in a meeting he told our client that they were lucky to have the letter C in their name as it was so much better than K. I still don’t know if he was being serious or not, but it makes me smile to think about it. What a genius thing to say.
Have you ever tried your hand at poetry?
When I was younger. My mum reminded me the other day that I won a poetry competition at school and had to read it to Princess Anne. I struggle with it now. I’m not good with the rigidity of poetry in terms of form and if I try and write it it just ends up as prose.
What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out, especially those who haven’t quite found the time or courage to start their novel yet?
You’ve just got to get on and do it. There’s never a right time and you’ll never know enough, so just crack on. Read a lot, in lots of genres, and try and work out why particular books work for you, then take that knowledge back into your own work.
It sounds obvious but, write a lot. It’s a craft and you get better with practice.
Be prepared that you’re going to fail. Repeatedly. You need a thick skin to be a writer.
The publishing industry isn’t against you, it’s just an industry like any other. If an agent doesn’t take you on, or a publisher doesn’t buy your book it’s not because you’re a bad writer, it’s just because they don’t know how to sell it or they’re not the agent/publisher for you.
Shameless self-promotion, but I wrote an article for Writers and Artists Yearbook which covers my journey to publication and you can read it here:
These days a lot of people go down the self-published route, and even if you have a publisher you’re still expected to do a lot of work yourself to promote your books. Authors are expected to have a social media presence. Which social network works best for you and why?
The thing about platforms that people don’t tell you is that it’s better to have 50 people who are engaged with you, who will buy your book and will become your champions, than 5000 people who couldn’t give two hoots about you.
The way the industry latched onto the idea of platforms was just a lazy reaction to a new channel in my opinion. They considered it a numbers game, and while there is some truth in that for big name authors, for aspiring writers that’s at best unachievable, and at worst a waste of their time. Be targeted about who you want to talk to, engage with them and don’t even think about buying followers or using auto-follow software.
Sorry, a bit of a rant there, and I haven’t even answered your question. I prefer Twitter for its simplicity and immediacy.
Do you find that a lot of your readers engage with you on social media? How do you feel about it when they do?
I wouldn’t say a lot, but they have done and I love it. It’s an amazing feeling when someone you don’t know reaches out to you about something you’ve written. Particularly when they say something nice!
How else did you market The Zoo?
I did quite a lot to support the launch of it. Because I work in the adverting industry I pulled in some favours and got things that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford, like a massive poster on the side of the M6.
I ran Twitter, Facebook and YouTube ads for the few weeks prior to the launch. On the day of the launch I did a cover takeover of the Guardian books page and ran ads on book blogs.
I’ve done a couple of Goodreads book giveaways as well, which I found worked well and only cost books and postage.
To me the best bit about promoting the book was the book festivals. I did quite a few around the launch and they’re an absolute privilege. The Manx LitFest on the Isle of Man was amazing. I thoroughly recommend getting over there if you can; it runs in September each year. It’s a beautiful location with a brilliant line-up and the organisers are lovely people.
Have you ever done a book trailer? If not, do you plan to do one in the future?
I have, and you can find it here:
Do you think that giving books away really works to generate more sales? Why (not)?
Yes. I’ll put myself out there and say that I don’t even mind people pirating my books. For mid list authors, who aren’t backed by big marketing campaigns, word of mouth is the best possible promotional tool. Give them away, get people who’ve bought your book to give them to charity shops, leave them on trains, anything you can do to get copies of your books in people’s hands.
Do you have any advice for authors about how best to market their work?
It’s difficult, but you need to distance yourself from the work emotionally and treat it as a product. Look at similar products and see what they did. Try and understand the marketplace you want your book to fit into and then sell yourself to that marketplace.
Your book isn’t the artistic outpourings of your mind any more, it’s a commodity and you need to think of it that way. Who would want to buy it and why? What do you need to do to get it in front of that particular audience?
Then, once you’ve worked that out, you need to treat it as a business and get out there and do it. Even if you’ve got a publisher they will expect you to put the graft in.
How did you decide on your book cover? Who designed it? Did you have a lot of input into the process?
My publisher asked me to give them some initial thoughts over on the cover so I sent them some example covers that I thought would fit with the style of book that I saw The Zoo as. They then sent a brief to one of their designers, called Jason Anscomb, who read the book and then did me two routes to chose from. He pretty much nailed it straight away and I’m really pleased with the way the book looks.
Doing what I do I was aware that I could be the nightmare client, but I hardly needed to make any comments on it at all, he just got the book. I think I asked him to change the font, then realised he was right in the first place. If you want to have a look at some of his other work here’s his website:
Which authors inspire you and why? Who are your favourite authors?
I’ve got authors that I keep coming back to and will read everything they write, and for me it’s always about the craft and the style of the words. I’m not a big one for plot; I’m more about the way the story is told and the ideas contained within it. So the list would be something like:
What are you reading at the moment? What do you think about it?
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. It’s very impressive. I only realised about 100 pages in that his father is Gordon Lish who edited Chandler, so he’s got good pedigree. It’s a beautifully written book, looking at the dark underbelly of New York with a poet’s eye.
What is your absolute favourite book, the one book you’d take to a desert island with you, and why?
Blimey, do I have to chose one?
Underworld by Don DeLillo then. It’s an undeniable masterpiece and probably the nearest thing to the Great American Novel that is possible, but it’s also very long so it would help me pass the time while I was waiting for rescue. It’s also a book that rewards repeat readings because of it’s reverse chronology.
Oh, but I’d want to take American Psycho by Bret Easton-Ellis and Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey as well.
Can I have three?
Have you got any ‘guilty pleasures’ – books that you’re embarrassed to admit you read and enjoyed?
I’m not embarrassed by this, but my guitly-ish pleasure is Belinda Bauer. Only because I don’t read crime or thrillers really, but there’s something about her books that I can’t stop reading. I’ve just pre-ordered her upcoming book and am looking forward to it arriving in November.
Are there any classics that you feel you really should read but haven’t done so yet?
I’ve got one waiting on my shelf at the moment to read − Catcher In The Rye. I was convinced I’d read it, but I picked it up in a bookshop not too long ago, read the first page and realised I’d never read the words before. So I bought it and now it sits there, waiting for the wrong to be righted.
Do you read much non-fiction? If so, what kinds of things?
Not really. I’m a firm believer that you can understand more about how the world works from fiction than non-fiction. I think it was Obama who said he learned empathy from fiction. I agree with him.
Do you still buy books from bricks and mortar stores? Do you have a favourite book shop?
Yes, but ashamedly not as much as I used to or should. Amazon is so easy, particularly when you’re time poor as I am. My favourite is Foyles on Charing Cross Road. A trip to the big smoke is not complete without a visit to Foyles.
Do you go to any writing or literature festivals? If so, which ones would you recommend?
Yes, I love festivals, both attending and featuring at. Leicester Writes is great, Writing East Midlands’ writers’ conference is definitely worth attending, Hay is amazing every year. But as I said in a previous question my soft spot is reserved for Manx LitFest on the Isle of Man.
How do you see the future of publishing shaping up?
I predict continued growth in audiobooks and top end hardbacks. Ebooks are slowing down and children are exhibiting a preference for the printed word. As an industry publishing is actually growing; the hard thing for emerging authors is that the vast majority is focused on big names, so it’s a very uneven and top heavy business model.
Do you prefer to read ebooks or hard copies? Which do you sell more of?
Personally I prefer hard copies. I like to hold them, I like to smell them and I like to be able to physically feel where I am within the story as I read it. That said, I sell more ebooks at the moment so what do I know!
And finally, after all this reading and writing, how do you relax? What are your hobbies?
Relax? What’s that? I used to write to relax!
I’m a season ticket holder at Leicester City [football club] so I go down there and let some steam off every couple of weeks.
Is there anything else you’d like to add to help or encourage writers who are just starting out or who maybe haven’t even put pen to paper yet?
Just do it. It’s hard work and very often thankless, but it’s all more than worth it in the end. Holding a copy of your own book is the best feeling in the world.
Thank you very much, Jamie, for your time. All the very best for the success of your next book!
A reminder to our readers, you can buy the debut novel by Jamie Mollart, The Zoo, here
Jamie’s website: http://www.jamiemollart.co.uk
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