Joining me today is debut author, Alex McGrath, who's new novel, All the Same Songs, is available now in paperback and e-book at Amazon.com.
"After he and his friends’ botched robbery of a local bingo game leaves one patron dead, eighteen-year-old James Reed leaves his hometown and the girl he loves as he desperately tries to escape the police. While in hiding James reflects on the past year and on his life as a whole as he tries to figure out how he got to this point, and how he could have changed things."
JLR: So much about our real-life influences our writing. Are there any specific things in your past which influenced “All the Same Songs”?
AM: Definitely. Anyone who reads “All the Same Songs” will have a pretty good idea of who I am, how I think, what my opinions are, how I feel about life etc. The events, the scenes, mostly come from my real life experiences, or, in some cases, from things my friends and I have thought about or discussed. In the book, I told the stories I felt I had to tell. I wrote about all the things that I’ve been discussing, thinking about, or living for my whole life. In particular, the conversation two friends and I had about robbing a bingo game sort of started this whole project, giving me an opening scene and a mistake for my main character to make.
JLR: Many writers draw inspiration from music. Do you listen to music when you write? What music inspired “All the Same Songs”?
AM: Music inspires me in all aspects of my life. It gives me a soundtrack to dream to and makes me feel things even more strongly than I would otherwise. Like an emotional amplifier or something. This evocation and the effect it has on the main character is a huge part of who he is as a person.
I often listen to the same songs over and over again, or even just the same part of a song continuously. I have written while listening to music, though I can not do so while revising as listening to the lyrics really divides my attention from the words on my own page.
The understanding of the nature of music and what it is for, helps shape and define the main character’s cyclical view of life. To him, just as songs are only about a handful of key emotions, life is the same as the stages of hope, frustration, despair, and triumph repeat themselves forever.
The songs that inspired this book are all my favorite tunes from over the years. Bands like The Early November, Explosions in the Sky, Rufio, The Junior Varsity, Armor for Sleep, and Thursday to name a few.
JLR: Have you ever been worried that you might be going too far in your sex-scenes and might alienate readers? Does anticipating reader reaction ever cause you to censor yourself?
AM: There was one sex scene in this book that I re-wrote six or seven times because I kept thinking it was too over the top…and it was. I’d edit it, come back to it a few weeks or months later, and think, ‘This is still crazy.’ It involves the main character’s best friend and an older woman he meets at his job at the local supermarket. I finally scaled it way down to the point where it left a lot more to the imagination. This was one of the hardest parts of the book for me to get right.
Aside from that scene there are three other major sex scenes…these were much easier to write and felt more organic, I think because they are all from the main character’s point of view, and he is simply talking to the reader as normal, instead of hearing about something from someone else as in the other case. I’ve never worried about alienating readers with sexual content… I think most people would enjoy reading about it the same way I would.
I didn’t censor myself in any of these scenes or in any other scenes… when I scaled the one down it was just because I thought it wasn’t as interesting to read the way it originally was. I couldn’t take a part out that I believed in… I’d feel like a phony.
JLR: With advancements in technology, self-publishing novels has gotten a million times easier and more affordable. What made you decide to self-publish, and how has that process been working for you?
AM: After spending about a year and a half trying to get an agent, I was finally frustrated to the point where I started thinking seriously about the self-publishing route. I had written about 115 letters with only a few decent conversations to show for it. It was around this time that I read an article in USA Today about authors “catching fire” with eBooks. Reading about the number of book downloads they were able to reach in a short time amazed me. Without it I don’t know how long I would have been waiting for a traditional deal.
JLR: There is so much advice given by authors about the writing process. What type of writing routine do you have? Are you a planner or a figure-it-out-as-you-go type writer? Any tips you want to share?
AM: I wrote the vast majority of my works late at night, alone in my bedroom. I’ve always liked the peace that comes when mostly everybody else in the area is asleep. I type much more than I hand write, just because it’s so much faster. When I need a break I usually watch TV or play video games or just rest in bed. I need to do something that involves thinking differently than I do while writing and reading.
I did not plan things out ahead of time with this first book. I wrote scenes as I thought of them, and was not sure exactly how the story would end or how the characters would arrive at that ending. This was certainly fun in its own way. I did end up with several parts that I either re-wrote or left out, but, most of the scenes I thought of ended up in the final version.
With my second novel, which I’m still revising, I planned out every scene I could think of first. I made notes on a calendar from the year it takes place in to help me keep it straight. I thought of additional scenes and ideas along the way, but I knew where the story would end, and, for the most part, how I would get the characters to that destination. This second book has been a lot easier for me to revise.
My advice to new writers would be: Tell the stories you are dying to tell. Don’t tell the story you think other people will be most interested in just for the sake of popularity. A story could be set anywhere, and involve any kind of people, and be about anything, and still be captivating, if the writer gives the reader good reason to become emotionally invested. My other piece of advice, is, don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do something big. If you feel passionately about writing, or anything else, let the doubters be your extra motivation to succeed. I thought about those people a lot while writing and I still do.
JLR: As writers, so much of our work is done alone, and this can lead to discouragement. How do you keep from giving up? Who do you get your support from?
AM: I’ve enjoyed working alone…I think one of the most beautiful things about writing is sitting there telling the story you want to tell, and not having anyone else tell you how you should do it. I used to worry about what a publishing company’s editor would want me to change, so you could say the absence of that conflict is one major benefit of the self-publishing route. I felt my most frustrated after getting so many rejections from agents…I’ve always believed in my book and I’ve always known that the issues in it are things that almost anyone could relate to, so, it was hard to feel like I wasn’t getting the opportunity to be heard. Even just a few years ago self-publishing was not nearly as easy as it is now. I’m a big fan.
I’ve never thought about giving up during the actual writing process, I just had to abandon the whole query letter thing, for my sanity.
One good friend of mine, the first one to read this first book, his positive reaction to it was a real emotional boost. I’ve had a similar experience with my second book, with a family member of mine who has read the early version of it.
JLR: Do you feel it’s necessary to read a lot in order to be a good writer? Why?
AM: Yes, I would say so. I guess different people have different ideas about what is ‘a lot’, but, you certainly need to see how something is done before you go and do it yourself. Not that you want to do it just the way the great ones do it, but, you get an idea of how a message can be conveyed well, and how a message can be conveyed in such a way that it is not so clear. I’m catching up on my reading now that I am not writing as much… during the book writing process I made a conscious effort not to read many novels because I was worried that I would write too much like them or something.
JLR: The Speak Loudly campaign has been fighting censorship in teen books, specifically in schools. Of the books under fire, many include issue books which deal with heavy themes or controversial subjects such as eating disorders, abusive relationships, sexuality issues, teen suicide, alcohol or drug abuse, etc. Do you feel there are topics which should be considered off limits in Young Adult literature?
AM: My second book is in the Young Adult category so I’ve had to think about this for myself… I think any topic should be considered ‘on the table’ for Young Adult writing, because, kids live in the real world. Even though we would like to completely protect kids from every bad thing, they live among those bad things, and those bad people. They occupy the same flawed world that we adults do, so, those things effect them too. Often times kids have to deal with things that we wish they didn’t have to. It’s better that they hear about the ugliness of the world from a responsible adult than on the street, and, in the case of books, a book could introduce many important topics of conversation between a child and their parent or guardian. And of course just because a book has a kid as the main character, doesn’t mean it is only for kids.
JLR: What types of books do you read? Are there any genres or subject matters that you avoid?
AM: My favorite type of book is literary fiction. I like memoirs that are written like novels… the non-fiction novel approach. Informational books are good too in a different way. There isn’t any kind of book I actually avoid.
JLR: Where can readers go to learn more about your work?
AM: The first chapter of “All the Same Songs” is available on alexiswriting.blogspot.com There is also a short story on there, links to where you can purchase the book (paperback or eBook) and a link to T-shirts that feature scenes and passages from the book.