An Interview with Local Writer Richard Sutherland
By Nick Quantrill
Nick Quantrill talks to fellow Hull-writer, Richard Sutherland, about his new book.
Nick : 'The Unitary Authority of Ersatz'...what's that all about? Tell me a bit about the book. Where did the title come from? Is this your first book?
Richard : Well the title was a gradual decision. I basically wanted to create a world where all of the book's contents could take place, like my own version of Narnia or Oz.
But the thing about my writing is that, although it includes characters that range from the psychopathic to the fairy tale, it's still very much set in familiar surroundings - an English city, to be precise. So to begin with I was coming up with names like 'The City of Fiction' and 'The Town of Fakeness'... well, they weren't quite that bad, but you get the idea.
Then I thought about Hull and how it's a unitary authority, and wham! -that became the first part of the title. Next up was the name of the city itself, but words such as 'sham', 'bogus' and 'phony' (I wanted to reflect the fact that it was a fictional city) didn't sound right.
Then I came across the German word 'ersatz', meaning substitute/synthetic/artificial, and I knew immediately that it was perfect for the job. (By the way, in case anyone hasn't heard of it before, it's pronounced 'air-zats'.) So The Unitary Authority of Ersatz was born, or founded, whichever way you want to look at it.
Oh, and yes, it is indeed my first book, but not my last!
Nick : Was the plan always for it to contain both short-stories and poetry? Which do you prefer writing?
Richard : Hmm, that's a very good question. I'm just trying to think back to when I started writing it, which was in July 2008. I'd always wanted to be a writer, and had in fact been jotting - well, typing - bits and bobs for years, but with large gaps in-between.
I wrote a few stories when at college, barely anything at university, a handful afterwards, and then nothing for about 3 years. Then suddenly the writer's block was lifted and all sorts of ideas came flooding into my head, from a perfect couple that can't conceive to an unlucky Zebra Crossing Inspector.
Sorry, I haven't answered the question. Basically, I never thought I'd write poetry; I'd written one poem ('Killing Time') about 4 years earlier but none since, and I'd assumed it had been a one-off. But whilst writing short stories for the book I would frequently get ideas for humorous verse, such as 'A Delicate Palette', which is about worlds with different colour spectrums.
I now consider myself a writer of fiction and poetry, although when people ask what I do for a living I still just say "I work in marketing". As for which I prefer writing, it depends on how I'm feeling at the time -for me, fiction is a longer and more mentally strenuous creative outlet when compared to poetry, which just seems to spew out of me (metaphorically speaking). But when I do write fiction it can be so much more rewarding as I take my time constructing it, so it feels like a huge achievement once completed.
Nick: It sounds trite to ask a writer where he gets his ideas from, but the lifecycle of traffic lights and a king made out food, to pick out just a couple of random examples...where on earth do these ideas come from? What other writers would you count as being influences on your work? Do you draw inspiration from other art forms?
Richard: No, I completely understand why people ask that question, I ask authors it myself! But my answer's a bit weak I'm afraid, as I'm not sure where the ideas come from. Actually that sounds a bit pretentious, like I'm saying it's divine intervention or something, but what I mean is that they'll suddenly pop into my head out of nowhere.
I remember that the character of the Foodstuff Golem King had humble beginnings: on Facebook, where it lists your religion, I'd entered 'Sandwich Golem is King' (for reasons which now elude me). Then one day I started writing this particular character into a story, which then became a poem; the 'Sandwich' was replaced by 'Foodstuff' so that I had more to work with.
As for 'The Life in a Year of the Traffic Lights', I was trying to get to sleep one night but for some reason recalled a moment from earlier that day when me and Izzy (my girlfriend) were in the car, stuck at the crossroads of Anlaby Road, Ferensway and Carr Lane, and had thought to myself, "These traffic lights have a mind of their own". That was all it took for me to get out of bed and write a story about traffic lights with emotions, and how they evolved over the course of a year.
You asked about other authors, well there's this cracking crime fiction writer called Nick Quantrill, whose new novel 'Broken Dreams'... oh wait, best think of someone else. Haha! I love Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde, Isaac Asimov, and have recently become a Terry Pratchett fan (something which I never thought would happen), so yeah, there's a lot of sci-fi or at least quirky writing there. But then I also love Magnus Mills, whose writing is very different, but brilliantly English and deadpan.
Other art forms? A good question\u2026 I guess sometimes I might see a film, photo or painting which will stir some creative gloop inside me, but usually my inspiration comes from random things in everyday life. One example is when I was eating a certain type of bakery product, but I won't say any more as I don't want to give away a storyline.
Nick: It seems to me that the short-story isn't doing too well in commercial terms. You don't seem to really see many collections on sale, not even from the seriously big name writers, though it does seem to be thriving online. Do you think that's fair comment? What draws you to the form? How did you go about creating a cohesive feel for the collection?
Richard: A very fair comment, I'm afraid to say. I do understand why many people don't tend to go for the short story collection, even if it's by a single author -many like to immerse their imaginations into a story arc that will progress over a couple of hundred pages, and then conclude with an air of satisfaction.
The short story, on the other hand, is kind of like a wham-bam form of prose. Also, you can never be too sure of the consistency when it comes to short story collections; it might be that the opening feature is unbeatable in your opinion... which then sadly turns out to be the case.
However, I've always enjoyed the format for a few reasons. First of all, you can't beat reading a full adventure all in one go, simple as that. They're especially good for train journeys or when you're feeling sleepy but fancy a quick yarn (I love that word). Then there's the variety, or the pick 'n' mix factor as I like to call it, in that one author can create an eclectic blend in a single book.
What I said earlier, about how short stories have a wham-bam feel, well to me that challenges the author to create a piece that is interesting, solid and meaningful in relatively few words, which can often result in something very powerful. Plus, in all honesty, I can't resist the lucky dip sensation that a short story collection can boast -one page you're reading about, I don't know, let's say an African safari, the next you're in deepest space. Brilliant!
As for my own book, I like to think I made it cohesive by setting everything within the same city, and the tourist theme (in that the reader is led around different areas, such as the suburbs, city centre and environs) reinforces that concept.
Nick: I see you set up your imprint to publish the book. How has that worked out for you? Was it more work than you expected? Any pitfalls to warn other writers about who might be thinking of following your lead? Any pleasant surprises as you travelled down the road?
Richard: Yes, Ersatz Scribblings is an official imprint, as weird as it is for me to declare. Basically I wrote the book, designed the cover, did all of the fiddly bits like the margins, barcode, rights and permissions details, even the page numbers (that may sound simple, but many of the pages don't require numbers), and so on, then sent it all off to a printer (www.think-ink.co.uk) who literally just put ink to paper and bound it all up.
If there had been any mistakes, from an incorrect page number to a spelling error on the front cover, it would have been included without question (unless of course someone at the printers had both an eagle eye and a heart of gold).
Pitfalls? There are many of them! Aside from the intricate details listed above, there's the fact that you have to buy your own ISBN (they come in blocks of 10, so that'll cost you over £100), do your own administration, marketing and distribution, and even find space for the books in your spare bedroom! Personally I wouldn't recommend setting up your own imprint unless you're absolutely certain you know what you're doing (I worked for Waterstone's for 7 years so knew the tricks of the trade).
There are loads of other ways to get your work printed: there are websites like Lulu.com and Authorhouse.co.uk, small publishers like Tim Roux and Bruce Robinson's NightPublishing.com, and then of course there are God knows how many other publishers in the UK, let alone other countries.
My best advice would be to do a bit of research online and find the method that suits your needs, and ask other people who have experience in the trade; also, 'The Writer's Handbook' and 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook' can be invaluable tools.
Still, a pleasant aspect of self-publishing (not a surprise for me, as it was the main reason I chose it) is that you have full control, and writing a book becomes a very varied project!
Nick: So what's next? Can we expect another set of stories set within the Authority from you?
Richard: You most certainly can! As much as my financial sense tells me I should write a novel, which would be easier to pitch to bookshops ('The Unitary Authority of Ersatz' is in over 100 Waterstone's nationwide, but it was hard work), my creative side is craving more short stories, poems, single-page visual tales (such as 'Black and White, Black and Blue') and perhaps even another miniature play.
As much as I'd love to say that my book is for everyone, I'm just too damn honest.
But then let's face it, what book is for everyone? Apart from perhaps the phonebook. Still, I generally describe it, rather concisely, as "a book", but the Hull Daily Mail said that it "dips into a strange, slightly off-kilter reality", which is a pretty good way to sum it up. The next one will most probably be called 'A Bimble Around Ersatz', and will be a more in-depth trek around the invented metropolis, though with even more diverse occurrences and, hopefully, a few extra pages.
So when choosing your next literary destination, remember: The Unitary Authority of Ersatz... it sure beats being at home.
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