Hi guys, in the spotlight today we have a fascinating writer who is living the dream! Let me introduce James Collins.
Hi James! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born on the edge of Romney Marsh, in southern England, grew up there and moved away when I was 18. Cut to 36 years later and I am living on the Greek island of Symi, in the Dodecanese, with my husband-to-be. We have been here 15 years and for the past ten, I have been able to make my living from writing.
During those 36 years, I was involved in various occupations but also found time to write four stage musicals (and direct them), two choral works, perform in various cabaret shows and theatre pieces and write my first novel. I’ve always been creative and spent a lot of time creating with music. Now, I create with words.
You write different genres of books, blogs, screenplays, and more! How did you discover your passion for writing? Did you always see yourself branching out into so many areas?
I am still not sure where it came from, this need to create. My grandfather was a brilliant pianist and organist, so perhaps that’s where the music came from, but I also had excellent teachers at school. I was encouraged to write creatively from an early age and found that I enjoyed doing so. I was also encouraged to take part in school stage productions and fell in love with the idea of creating stories with words and music. My music teacher, when I was 17, asked me to write a revue for the school, which I did, and we staged two before I left at 18. The theatrical side went from there.
As for writing in other ways, books and screenplays, I started on my first novel when I was on holiday here on Symi, on my own. It’s that kind of inspiring place. That first novel was accepted by a small publisher, which gave me great hope to write more. Sadly they went bust before it came out, but the acceptance gave me the confidence to carry on trying. These days, with indie publishing, it’s even more rewarding. I can spend time writing rather than chasing agents and publishers.
As for the screenplays, that came about by accident. A friend was involved in a small production company who wanted a low budget horror script and asked me to have a go. After much reading and film watching, I came up with a script, it was accepted, worked on and finally filmed. The original story changed somewhat as the process went on but, keen to tell my story as it was first imagined, I wrote the novel version, ‘The Judas Inheritance.’ The film, now titled ‘The 13th‘, had been doing well on the film festival circuit, has picked up 18 awards so far and, it is hoped, will be distributed before too much longer.
As for branching out into so many areas, no, I never thought I would end up doing that. I wanted to be an actor but soon realised that I would rather create stories than play them out. I have always written something; business plans for theatre companies, reviews, website texts, articles… As Billy Crystal says in ‘Throw Mamma From the Train’, “A writer writes.”
Are you a big reader? What types of books do you enjoy?
Because of my interest in many genres, and in cross-genre storytelling, I read a wide variety of books, but yes, I am a reader – when I am not writing. I have an interest in history and read many factual books. I also read books akin to my genres, though not as many as I should. I love a good conspiracy theory, though don’t believe many of them, and read books on the subject. I’m always on the lookout for a good, true-life mystery that I can adapt to fit a story.
My favourite book in the horror genre is Dracula, though it’s more a romance than a horror in my opinion. My favourite non-fiction writer is Bill Bryson and, as I have written three books about moving to Greece and am working on a fourth with travel tales, I find him an inspiration.
Your (almost) daily blog, Symi Dream, is packed full of beautiful photos and posts about your island life. Where did the idea for this blog come from? Tell us a bit more about it and where your inspiration for the content comes from.
Long story short: years ago a group of us looked into the idea of setting up writing courses on Symi. Part of this was to have a website, which I designed and called Symi Dream. The courses never came about, but the site stuck. It grew from a once per month update to a blog and, as blogging became popular, it grew to what it is now, a six times per week update on whatever I am up to and whatever is going on in Symi. We had a photo shop for 11 years, and the blog helped publicise that; Neil, my husband-to-soon-be, is the photographer but, as he is now writing rather than owning a shop, I tend to be the one out and about snapping with the camera. He contributes from time to time.
Sometimes the content comes from a ‘sensible’ idea; I will talk about how to get to Symi, what to expect when you are here, etc. I’ll put together a travel piece for the blog as I am always keen to promote the island. At other times, it’s a case of talking about my day to day work, because that’s what I do. From six in the morning to five in the afternoon I’m at the desk, most days, and so there’s not a lot else to talk about. It depends on what mood I am in and what I have been doing. On Some days, usually after a party the night before, it’s only a few photos of the Symi scenery.
What kind of art do you love?
My mother is a brilliant artist, and I love her work; Sarah Bassett in Cornwall. I’m also rather drawn to abstract works and artists such as Mondrian but appreciate Impressionists too. I guess I am eclectic. Some of my favourite works of art are the ancient Egyptian tomb paintings and sculptures; they never cease to impress me.
Out of all the books you’ve written do you have a favourite?
It’s always the one I am going to write next because it is going to be better than the one before. No, honestly, it’s a hard question to answer, a bit like asking a parent who is their favourite child. But, being honest, my favourite to date has to be ‘The Saddling’, the last novel I published. For this story, a mystery set on the Romney Marshes, I delved into the local Kentish dialect and old ways of life. The village of Saddling where the story is set lives in the past in many ways, and so it was important to have characters use dialect. I love playing with words and was able to invent some of my own, as well as using real (though sometimes now obsolete) words from the county.
I also took more time with this story, it took about four years from the first idea to finished book and started as an idea for a Hammer Productions type screenplay. I am very proud of it, and the reaction to it has led to me writing a follow-up, which is due out early next year, called ‘The Witchling’, and that has led me to consider writing two more set in Saddling. Four books, four elements, four village festivals, it all seems to make sense. So, my favourite has to be ‘The Saddling’ and, as I think about why, it’s also because I was able to make my main character a gay man without making him a typical/stock gay character. Through ‘The Saddling’ he comes to terms with who he is (and that realisation saves his life). In ‘The Witchling’, his love (for Barry, one of the villagers) is tested, and he is able to totally accept himself. What will happen to this gay hero in books three and four remains to be seen, and the books are not ‘gay’ stories. They are mainstream mystery/thrillers but I think it is about time we had more action heroes and main characters in mainstream genres who just happen to be gay.
There’s a quote on your author page, “James’s great talent lies in his careful observation of the absurd and the amusing, the dramas and the difficulties, and in reporting what he sees with kind humour and a writer’s eye for the details essential to lively travel writing.” Tell us your favourite amusing story from your travels.
First, I want to say that I am very proud of that quote. It was written by Anne Zouroudi, the author of The Greek Detective Mystery’s, published by Bloomsbury. It’s my favourite review so far.
Funny you should ask this question as I am currently putting together a book of travel (and other) pieces. ‘Symi, Stuff & Nonsense’ will be out in November and is a collection of travel tales, starting from when I was 16 and coming up to almost the present day. The trouble with this question is, there are so many amusing stories. So, forgive me if I don’t quote one. They are rather long anyway. As long as you have the eye for it, you can turn even a trip to the shops into an amusing travel story. Mine range from being bored to death by a milk-float spotter on an overnight ferry to Holland (did you now that in North London they used to use a P3-67D type electric motor in their class six floats?), to being led into the Hilton Hotel, Luxor, at gunpoint. Failed skiing attempts in Scotland to presenting an award for ‘The Best Threesome’ at a European gay porn awards ceremony. (Don’t ask.)
Describe your perfect day.
This would be any day when I have the whole day ahead of me to write. We will get up before sunrise, go for a three-mile walk up the mountain road and down again, watching the sun rise and clearing my head for the day to come. I will then be free to write – the best days are when I am editing a manuscript I have spent months writing, and the hard slog is over. Neil will take care of the household duties (he is incredibly supportive) while I edit away improving something and being harsh with myself, checking my overused words and improving the story. Later, in the afternoon, I will finish that and join Neil at the bar where he works a few hours. We will have a couple of glasses of wine and watch the village world go past, meet with friends and visiting tourists before returning home to watch a good film, or, better, sit on our balcony overlooking Symi harbour, with music playing as we watch the stars and boats, and remind ourselves how lucky we are to have achieved this way of life.
I see you’ve won lots of awards, congratulations! What has been the high point in your writing career and what are your next goals?
Receiving any five-star review for a book on Amazon is always a high point. More specifically, winning a British Arts Council Award for creativity back in 2000 for a musical I wrote is probably near the top. Being asked to present an award at a film festival is another one, and seeing the number of awards ‘The 13th‘ is currently winning is a third. I look at that and think, ‘If my mind hadn’t created that story, these people would not be receiving this positive publicity for their work and their own creativity.’
But the ultimate? It’s an odd one, and it goes back to ‘The Saddling.’ The idea for that story came to me in a dream, as a few story ideas have done. But I had never dreamt about one of my characters until one night, after finishing the fifth draft, I think it was, I dreamt that I was in the village of Saddling where I met Barry, one of my favourite characters. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to actually meeting a person I’ve created; a Frankenstein moment perhaps. I’m pleased to say, he was as much fun, just as naughty and as sexy as he is in the book. It’s probably a high point because it’s never happened before or since, but it made me wonder if these characters are real and out there somewhere living in a parallel world of my own creating.
Tell us all about your latest release! (Or an upcoming one if you have a new release soon.)
The next books out are to be ‘Symi, Stuff & Nonsense’ and we are aiming for November, followed by ‘The Witchling’ early next year, and I’ve mentioned them just now. ‘The Saddling’ was my last full-length novel, but after that, and more recently, I have brought out a novella, so that’s the most recent.
The story goes:
Last year I released my gay/straight body-swap comedy, ‘Remotely.’ This story pokes fun at British reality TV and talent shows in particular. With it comes the mysterious character of Miss P, a timeless lady who casts spells on those who need them. In ‘Remotely’ she mends a broken friendship by swapping the two lads’ bodies, so they experience what it is like to be each other. This brings them together, and together they save the day and the show, and so on. Because Miss P was so loved by readers, I wrote ‘Honestly’ as a short novella (25,000 words) to see if the character still works. I am pleased to say it looks like she does.
In this story, ‘Honestly’, she helps a young writer overcome writer’s block (having done the same thing with Shakespeare in the past – she is, after all, timeless). Mark has moved to a small fishing village with his mother, and there they find resentment because they are outsiders. Mark longs to write but can’t, and doesn’t understand why. Miss P does; It’s because he has no friends. She puts a spell on the village to make them speak honestly to each other for the day of their annual Fisher Festival. Comedy and a bit of bawdiness ensue, Mark and his adversary Billy, actually want to like each other, and through their honesty, they become friends. In the end, Mark is able to write and, as Billy knows the history of his village, they set about writing a book about the village together.
That’s the kind of story I like. It’s not a gay story, there’s no ‘gay’ in that one, but it’s about friendship.
What interview question do you wish someone would ask you?
‘Did you know you just won the Booker Prize?’
No, joking aside – I’m never going to do that. The question might be:
“Why do you write?’
For many reasons. I like to tell stories and entertain people. I like the process of creating plots, characters, twists and everything else. I like the planning stage, and I like inventing stories in my head. I enjoy the editing and see it as a way of improving my skills. And, many years ago, when I was being interviewed for an important promotion at the day job, I was asked: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ I replied, ‘Living on a Greek island writing books.’ I was, and I still am.