An Interview with Laurence MacNaughton
Following my review of Conspiracy of Angels yesterday, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with the talented Mr. MacNaughton himself. I hope you enjoy it and if you read on to the bottom you’ll find out how you can win a digital copy of Conspiracy of Angels for yourself.
Hi Laurence! Can you share your journey from writing to publication with us?
A: Well, I had wanted to write this book for years. I was obsessed with the idea of an ex-con trying to track down his daughter’s killer, only to discover that her killer isn’t human. Deep down, it’s a story about loss and redemption, and I think it resonates with so many readers because we’ve all lost someone and struggled to come to terms with that. That struggle is what makes us human. And if you can show that in between all of the chases and escapes, you create a story that really grabs people’s attention.
I collected a ton of rejection slips before I found a literary agent who had the vision to see Conspiracy of Angels through to publication. But she asked me to consider changing some big things: deleting scenes, deepening the mythology, adding a new character arc and so on. She even suggested un-killing a character.
I’d already written several drafts of the book, and the idea of completely overhauling it was daunting. But the more we talked about it, the more she encouraged me to think bigger, to feel more deeply and to scrutinize the story from every angle. As I rewrote the book, my bad guys became more sympathetic, my good guys became more flawed and my story became more meaningful. It transformed from a monster story into a personal quest for justice set against the threat of the end of the world.
Every part of the publishing process was like that: multiple steps and refinements until we reached something smooth and polished. For the cover art, we went through 12 different concepts before we arrived at this one. It’s been an amazing and enormously positive experience. And a lot of work!
Q: And where did the spark for Conspiracy of Angels come from?
A: Before I became a full-time writer, I had a day job test-driving prototype vehicles. Trucks, luxury cars, experimental hybrids, you name it. We covered them in black padding to disguise their body contours, then wired them up with sensors to track everything from how many hours the headlights lasted to how much vibration we got when we slammed the door. I drove them through areas of Denver that few people ever dare to visit: abandoned factory buildings, mud-choked construction sites, railroad yards covered in graffiti. By the end of the day, my mind was a labyrinth of dark and dirty places, populated by the odd people I’d sometimes see there. So I wrote stories about them.
Q: I liked your take on the Archangel. Where did you get your inspiration from for this character?
A: Late one night, as I was reading through a stack of science magazines, I came across an article about near-death experiences. That was still on my mind when I read another article about life forms that exist in extreme environments, like deep in the Earth’s crust or encapsulated inside salt deposits. And I thought: if some form of life existed outside our understanding of the boundary of death, what would it be like? And that chilling thought became the Archangel.
Q: I loved that Mitch was an ‘everyman’ character with whom it was so easy to identify. Did you consciously set out to create this type of hero?
A: I once had a neighbor who mowed his lawn in his bathrobe. I look for oddball moments like that, human moments I can put into my stories. Mitch loves to barbecue, he has a garage full of junk, he has a troubled relationship with his brother. He’s a next-door kind of guy. That helps the story feel “real” when we start seeing car chases and gunfights. And when the hero is chasing somebody in his bathrobe, it’s also funny.
Q: I found it refreshing to read a thriller where the main relationship between the characters was not sexual. Was this important to you as you wrote the book?
A: It was crucial. Whenever we see two characters in a story, I think it’s natural that we expect them to get together romantically. So I deliberately set out to upend those expectations. Mitch and Geneva are both tough on the outside and incredibly wounded on the inside. He’s lost his daughter, and she’s lost her parents. He’s just out of prison; she just found out her boyfriend might be a cold-blooded killer. They’re both outcasts, alone against the world.
I don’t want to spoil the story, but Geneva gets to a point where she’s lost so much from her life that she shuts down, and we’re not sure if she can ever come back from that. But Mitch is there for her, and that begins the healing process for both of them. That’s not easy to pull off in a scary thriller like this, but I hope it makes the story feel so much more meaningful.
Q: Laurence, are you a planner or a pantser?
A: It’s funny, my agent forbids me from plotting things out! She insists that my most creative storytelling emerges when I write without a safety net, and she’s probably right. But I’ve left too many novels unfinished to start a new one without some idea of how I’m going to end it. So I secretly plan it out beforehand, to make sure everything works logically. Then I put away the outline and write it all from the heart, beginning to end, so that it flows emotionally. After that, when I do revisions, it’s a balancing act, going back and forth, left-brain and right-brain, until the book achieves a natural equilibrium.
Q: What is your writing routine?
A: My wife is a professional artist, and her studio is next door to my office. We go off into our separate creative spaces to work. Using the buddy system like this is possibly the single biggest factor in my success, because we push each other to keep working. Plus, she’s my biggest fan.
Q: Which book do you wish you had written?
A: When I was twelve years old, I discovered the Orbit series of science fiction anthologies edited by Damon Knight. They forever changed the way I thought about stories. At the time, of course, I didn’t really understand that these were edgy, New Wave stories from the psychedelic 1960s, and they were fairly mind-bending even for adults. But I grew up wanting to write those kinds of stories. Weird, wonderful, but most of all, exciting.
Q: Would you mind describing your writing space for us?
A: It’s jam-packed. Stacked floor to ceiling with books on the strangest subjects, from carburetor tuning to near-death experiences. I keep several very old typewriters on and under my desk. And I actually use them on occasion, but I do the bulk of my writing on an AlphaSmart Neo, possibly the toughest and best word processor ever built. Any remaining wall space between the bookshelves is covered with cork boards, where I pin ranks of index cards as I plan out my stories. It’s a battleground between creativity and utter chaos.
Q: Do you believe in angels?
A: At heart, I’m an unshakably scientific person, but at the same time I’ve felt and seen things that I’ve never been able to explain rationally. I blame my weird childhood. My parents had engineering backgrounds, yet I grew up surrounded by deep forest. I was a choir boy at our church, which had been built before the American Revolution. You can’t grow up surrounded by that much science, nature, history and religion without incorporating it into who you are. I suppose Conspiracy of Angels is my way of exploring the intersection between science and spirituality. And also have some kick-butt car chases, because hey, I’m an author and I can do that.
Q: Finally, which three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
A: 1) Just write, and don’t stop. Every page you write makes you a better writer. Before the Beatles ever set foot in a recording studio, they played eight-hour gigs for weeks at a stretch. Similarly, nearly every published author has spent an inordinate amount of time honing his or her craft before getting published. I’ve literally worn the letters off of my keyboards. If you want to get published, you need to put in thousands of hours of work. There’s no way around it.
2) Take responsibility. No matter what the economy is doing, what your childhood was like or how hectic your schedule is today, it honestly can’t stop you if you’re sufficiently determined. If you want to be a writer, you alone have the power to make that happen. If you want to write a book, make it a priority. You won’t “find” the time. You have to carve it out of your schedule any way you can.
3) Never stop learning. Plenty of aspiring writers ask me for advice on how to fix their stories. I post some of my answers on my writing blog, YouCanWriteANovel.com. But I’ll be honest: most people aren’t willing to put in the work, and they just keep making the same old mistakes. So if things haven’t worked so far, try something new! The knowledge is out there. You can find the know-how, you can build the skill, and you can make the time to write your book. It’s possible. Conspiracy of Angels is proof!
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Laurence.
Now, if you’d like a chance to win a digital copy of this fine book for yourself, please leave a comment on this post and include your twitter handle (if you have one). I’ll be picking a winner at random on 31st July. GOOD LUCK!