An Interview with Ian Skillicorn

Ian SkillicornWhat better way to usher in the New Year than to share an inspiring interview with Ian Skillicorn who is a very talented and successful writer, publisher, speaker, director, voiceover artist, translator and producer.

Welcome to my blog, Ian! I hope I have not omitted any of the many hats that you wear within your fascinating career.

Thanks for having me! Well, those are all of the various hats I’ve worn over a twenty-five year career to date, but fortunately I haven’t had to wear all of them at the same time!

You obviously have a natural love of language: written and audio, both in English and translation. When and where did this love of words and story-telling begin?

From a very early age. My parents are (and grandparents were) great readers, and so there were always lots of books around the place. The weekly visit to the library was really important in introducing me to a variety of authors, and firing my imagination. At weekends my parents took us to museums, art galleries and historic sites around the country, which gave me a lasting appreciation of art and history, and all sorts of stories about people through the ages. I also had a couple of very supportive English teachers at secondary school who encouraged my own writing efforts. I recently discovered that one of them is a friend of one of my authors, and we have since been in touch, which was lovely.

Did your early career, working for a national magazine in Milan, give you the exposure to the industry that you needed to realise your own literary ambitions and projects?

Not directly, to be honest. I came back from Italy with six years’ solid work experience but at that time, in the 1990s, I think people were expected to follow a much more rigid career path than they are nowadays. I had never worked in the UK, and although I wanted to get into publishing, I found I was over-qualified for some jobs, but didn’t have the relevant experience in this country for others. I ended up taking what was for me the obvious easy route – becoming a freelance translator. It was something I had enjoyed doing in Italy, but literary translation work in the UK was hard to come by, so I went into translating for businesses. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but I suppose I was lucky I had it to fall back on. The upside was that being freelance meant I had the flexibility to work on developing my own projects as well. It took many years of working seven days a week, doing lots of projects for free, financing some myself, and numerous false starts before I was finally able to give up the day job. Now I do work in publishing again, with my own imprint, and in the end I was the one who gave me a job!

That has to be one of the main benefits of being self-employed.

Hardacre by CL SkeltonIn 2006 you founded www.shortstoryradio.com. How passionate are you about broadening the market for short story writers?

Very. Short Story Radio was one of those projects I developed in my own time, and initially at my own expense. I often read comments online and in print from creative people who say they refuse ever to work for free, but I don’t completely subscribe to that view. Even if you are passionate about your craft and believe in yourself, in the early days of your career sometimes the only way to get noticed is by creating your own opportunities. Through working on Short Story Radio I learned that there was an appetite for short stories in English not only in this country, but around the world. I met many talented writers and actors, some of whom are now good friends, and realised how difficult it was for short story writers to find paying outlets for their work. After a while I applied for a grant from Arts Council England. My application was successful and that support from ACE financed work for a lot of writers, actors and technicians, and raised the profile of Short Story Radio and its content. It was also a very important morale boost for me, and the start of building up an audio production business which led to many interesting commissions over a number of years. For most of the Short Story Radio writers it was their first experience of being broadcast, and a number have gone on to have successful writing careers.

Do you see a growing trend for shorter fiction evolving both through audio (The Story Player) and eBooks?

I do. However, I think enthusiasm for the short story among readers hasn’t yet caught up with the form’s popularity among writers. It’s often said that the short story is perfect for today’s busy, time-poor lives, but hearing that always makes me cringe. Good writing should be savoured no matter what the length, not because it is “convenient”. I don’t like the idea of a short story being considered the literary equivalent of “wash and go”. That said, I’m sure that new technologies will present all sorts of opportunities for creating, selling and experiencing short stories. We’re only just at the beginning.

Do You Take This Man by Sophie King coverYour connection with short fiction was further strengthened when you founded National Short Story Week in 2010, which has best-selling author Katie Fforde as its patron. What would you say is the essence of a good short story?

That’s a tough question! I suppose it depends on the opinion of the individual reader and their tastes. Personally, I enjoy stories which manage to say something about the human condition, and which I can relate to even if my life is nothing like those of the protagonists. I think that’s why the stories of authors such as Saki and Katherine Mansfield, mostly written more than 100 years ago, are still fresh and relevant today. Their themes are timeless and universal.

If I could just say something about National Short Story Week. One of the best outcomes, which wasn’t actually an original aim, has been the enthusiasm and involvement of schools and their pupils, librarians and teachers. The National Short Story Week Young Writer competition, for year 7 and 8 pupils, is now in its fourth year and going from strength to strength. I can highly recommend the anthology of last year’s winning stories – The Mistake. It reached Number 51 on Amazon’s book charts last November, and has raised funds for Teenage Cancer Trust. The children’s creativity, imagination and use of language are very impressive. If we are serious about championing the short story form, surely the best way to do this is to get people interested in writing and reading short stories from an early age.

The Property of a Gentleman cover artworkThat is excellent and inspiring for the future.

In 2012 you created your own publishing imprint Corazon Books (I love the tag line: Great stories with heart!). It was launched with a novel by bestselling author Sophie King. However, you have just published an out of print title The Property of a Gentleman by Catherine Gaskin who died in 2009. What inspired you about Catherine’s work and do you intend to publish more of her titles?

I was very lucky to launch my business with a title by Sophie King, who is a great writer (and whose work inspired the Corazon tag line!) and a lovely person. I have been familiar with Catherine Gaskin’s work since I was young, when my mother and grandmothers were reading her novels. Although I knew and loved the books, I didn’t know much about the author before I published The Property of a Gentleman. I have since done some research on her life, and was fascinated to discover she wrote her first book, which became a bestseller, while still at school! I have received many nice comments from readers since Corazon Books started reissuing her novels, and it has been very gratifying to see The Property of a Gentleman back in the bestsellers charts both in the UK and Australia. Corazon Books has also recently published Sara Dane, which is probably Catherine Gaskin’s best known work. The Lynmara Legacy is out in February 2015, and will be followed by Promises in the spring.

I heard you speak at three events last year: Society of Author’s day event in Bristol, R.N.A. conference and at the H.N.S workshop. You inspire, entertain and inform people especially about eBooks. How do you view the major changes happening within this very new industry today impacting upon what for decades has been a very set publishing industry in the future?

Thank you, that’s very nice of you to say so. I really enjoy talking at conferences and giving workshops. When so much of the average working day can be spent in front of a pc screen, it’s a good opportunity to get out there and meet like-minded people, and to share ideas and experiences. Obviously we are living through a period of huge technological change, in many aspects of our lives. The publishing industry is clearly going through a major transformation and as such there will be winners and losers. I think it’s too early to say who will be the winners and who the losers. You have to be able and willing to reappraise and adapt quickly.

What is next for Ian?

I’m very excited about the books lined up for publication by Corazon Books this year, which include a number of novels by new talents and other projects I can’t talk about just yet. Plans for National Short Story Week 2015 and the Young Writer competition are already under way. I’m looking forward to doing more ebook workshops for the Society of Authors in March, and at Sheffield Hallam University in April. I also have a long list of ideas I want to pursue, which are currently at different stages of development!

Thank you for taking the time to share your work and experience with us and every best wish for your continued success with all your projects in 2015.

Thank you very much for having me on your blog Valerie, I’ve enjoyed it. Best wishes to you, and for your writing, and to all of your readers too.

More From Ian:

An interview with Christina Jones

A very warm welcome to this month’s award-winning author, Christina Jones.

Katie Fforde described An Enormously English Monsoon Wedding as “warm, witty and wonderful”. I love the title of this book.  What inspired this novel?

My editor suggested that I should write a summery/weddingy/villagey book as the first in a new series of village-based stories. It threw me a bit to start with, as most of the weddingy themes have been covered a zillion times – but as my daughter recently had a fusion wedding (hers went wonderfully smoothly, I must add – nothing like poor Erin’s!) so I’d learnt a lot about marrying together two totally different religions and styles of wedding ceremony. I knew I had to use the experience – so An Enormously English Monsoon Wedding is the happy result!

What do you consider is at the heart of your novels that makes them so appealing?

Probably their ordinariness (is that a word??). I write about normal people doing normal jobs, nothing and no-one high-powered or high-flying. I also include all ages, genders, and all other diversities. Something for everyone – like real life. They live in small rural communities, everyone knows everyone else, and I suppose it’s all a bit cosy. My whole aim with my books is to create warmth, security, happiness, a few laughs, escapism, and hopefully a massive dollop of feel-good factor. Like everyone else, my real life has had enough sadness – I was determined there’d never be any sadness in my books!

I love the way you create your own villages and the communities that interlink. What was the inspiration for your characters, their world and the stories which they have inspired?

The village where I grew up. No question. It was a very close, rural, working class community, and gave me a fabulously grounded and secure start in life. My friends from back then are still my friends now and we all share the happy memories and the luxury of a perfect childhood. Now I live somewhere very similar, and I watch people and listen to them talking in the corner shop and the pub and just pinch bits here and there! Again, it’s all very safe and cosy – not too twee, I hope – but sort of real and the kind of world that everyone can recognise.

I read in an interview that your cats share your workspace as they do your home. How did you first come to rescue them?

I grew up with animal-loving parents who took in waifs and strays. We had dogs that were going to be shot or drowned before my dad stepped in; cats that had eyes/legs/tails etc missing; ferrets, rabbits and hens that wandered in and out of the kitchen; and ducks that were destined for the dinner table before my mum did a midnight raid on their pen! Nothing was ever turned away. I sort of gravitated towards cats when I first had my own home – via our local vet who had a litter of dumped motherless kittens – and it grew from there. My cats have come from vets, from Cats Protection (the ones no-one wants – too old/scared/injured – oh, and feral in some cases!), word of mouth, and just strays who have turned up and moved in (cats seem to know when there’s a cushy billet!). When I met my husband, he also had rescue cats, so by the time we married and merged our broods we had 11. We’ve never looked back!

What fictional hero/heroine has inspired or impressed you as a reader?

Probably an unpopular choice – but Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Manly because Gone With The Wind is one of my all-time favourite books and also because they were both real people, with flaws and not very nice sides to their characters but I understood their dreams, desires and motivations. They simply walked off the page for me and despite them not really having a Happy Ever After; no other fictional romantic couple can hold a candle to them in my opinion.

You are an award winning author, but what do you consider the highlight of your career to date since you became published in 1997?

There have been a lot of highlights (and some lowlights as well!) and over the years I’ve won awards, been to some amazing places, met some very famous people, done telly and radio programmes, and had more fun than I surely deserved, but I suppose it was that first publishing deal for Going The Distance. Seeing my first book in print, on bookshelves, being chosen for WH Smith’s Fresh Talent… honestly, a dream come true – and a feeling that will never, ever be forgotten or recreated.

You are a writer that many new writers aspire to and respect. What would be your three top tips for anyone wanting to succeed in the industry today?

  1. There honestly are no rules to creating a fictional world – so don’t over-do the “I must study all the manuals/latest info etc” because it’ll only confuse and worry you. Write what’s in your heart – write the story you alone want to write, not what you think you should be writing because it’s trendy or current – write for yourself. If you love your story and your characters it’ll show on the page and everyone else will fall in love with it/them too.
  2. Don’t feel you have to write every day. Write the way that suits you. Some people write 10,000 words a day, others write 500. Some (like me) know that if the words aren’t there then it’s best to forget writing until they are and go and scrub the kitchen floor or go for a walk or chat with friends or read or watch telly, whatever – be yourself and do what’s right for you. Just don’t feel pressurised to be like everyone else.
  3. Don’t overwrite – don’t keep going back and rewriting. You can write the life out of your story by constant tweaking. Usually those first bubbling, brilliant ideas that just pour out on to the page are the best ones!

What is next for Christina Jones?

I’m just writing the next novel in the new series – That Red-Hot, Rock’n’Roll Summer – which is about a summer fete that, thanks to Tiggy, who works in the local American Diner, and Marilyn Monoroe look-alike, Cordelia, somehow morphs into a mini-Glasto in the village of Daisybank, much to the horror of the very stuffy and traditional fete committee. And of course nothing goes exactly to plan (understatement!), and Tiggy and Cordelia find lots of love and laughter along the way…. I have ideas and notes for the next two after that as well!

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in the interview.

Thank you so much for asking me. It’s been an absolute pleasure to be included here. I’ve loved it! Thank you!!!

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