An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part II: e-publishing and digital afterlives

Welcome back faithful readers! As promised, we return today to my continuing interview with Patrick O’Duffy, author and blogger extraordinaire. A couple of thousand words into the interview, I finally bring the conversation around to Patrick’s latest release. Parkinson, I ‘aint.

HG: You self-published your latest novella The Obituarist, not to mention Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, as an e-book. I’m a near-Luddite when it comes to e-books, but your championing of the format has done more than anything to make me consider moving away from the heavy tomes that currently fill my shelves (and cupboards, and boxes in the attic). If you pardon the terrible pun, was there a specific e-piphany that attracted you to electronic publishing?
POD: I started getting interesting in e-books at about the same time everyone else did, with the explosion of the Kindle and other e-readers as viable platforms. Before that point I was interested in digital writing simply because I spent a lot of time on the internet, but it never seemed like something that could replace physical books. E-readers changed that, and are still in the process of changing that; they’re making us reassess the importance of how we package and deliver stories and whether that matters as much as the stories themselves. I don’t think physical books will vanish entirely any time soon, but they’re likely to become more like artefacts and precious items than mass-market objects.

What attracted me to e-publishing as a writer, first and foremost, was the way it made shorter works more commercially viable. Suddenly the idea of publishing a novella, or short collection, or a single story or essay became a genuine possibility, because you were freed from much of the financial weight of having to pay for paper and printing. Paper and printing are usually a smaller part of a book’s budget than editing and typesetting, true, but they still cost a fair bit and they don’t become that much cheaper if the book is short. Having written primarily short stories and a novella, the idea of getting those out there into a market, even if it was a smaller one than usual, was very appealing – and when I sat down to try it, it was easy. Which is the other attractive point – there’s very little effort required to e-publish when compared to print publishing, which is probably why so many people do it. And as a very lazy man – and an impatient one who doesn’t want to sit through 6-9 months of editing, typesetting and shipping – the immediacy of seeing my work up on sale within minutes is incredibly appealing. Instant gratification for the win!

There are a lot of evangelists who say that e-publishing, and especially self-e-publishing, is the way of the future, and speak scornfully of publishers as ‘gatekeepers’. I don’t have a lot of time for that. Different projects demand different processes and goals, and I have plenty of ideas for books that I want to see as hardcopy books from major publishers with big marketing budgets. But e-publishing allows me to have a second option, one that’s immediate and easy and personal, and that has a lot of appeal. It’s certainly something I think writers should investigate and experiment with to find out if it works for them as another way of telling their stories.

I love the concept of the ‘social media undertaker’ in The Obituarist. And, I should add that you can officially consider yourself in the same ranks as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Just the other day, I read an honest-to-goodness legal paper discussing the concept of the ‘virtual estate’ and the need to have an e-executor to wrap up your online affairs just as someone winds up your financial affairs. Goddamn prescient, man!
Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not as prescient as all that! I first had the vague idea of a ‘social media undertaker’ about three years ago, and even at that time there was a little bit of action happening around the concept, especially as more and more Facebook users began to pass away. By the time I’d actually sorted my ideas out and written the book, the ‘digital afterlife industry’ – yep, that’s what it’s called – had become a fully-fledged thing. I turned up a lot of different companies and services when I was doing research, and there are certainly more coming.

Still, I think I’m one of the first writers to take a main character from that world. And if I’m not, well, I’m just gonna pretend that I am.

In any case, I really only scratched the surface of the whole concept, and in many ways gave it short shrift because I was also exploring a crime story. In the sequel – and there’s definitely a sequel on the cards – I’d like to give more focus to the digital afterlife aspect and look at some of the ways society is coping (or not) with the concept. Plus, you know, some fight scenes.

Awesome, everything works better with fight scenes! Especially Jane Austen novels. Or wait, is that zombies? Anyhow, notoriously daft though it is, I need to ask: how do you develop your ideas? Do you start with a character, a scenario, a line of dialogue, or any and all of the above?
I tend to start with a basic premise, which is sometimes something relatively coherent, and at other times may be just an image. (For example, ‘social media undertaker’). That sits in my head for days/months/years until some other basic premise occurs to me and I realise there’s an area where they overlap, and then that overlap starts to generate ideas. The best times are when there’s both overlap and tension – when two ideas fit together but not perfectly, so you can explore the fit and the contradiction. With The Obituarist, it took me a long time to find that second half of things; I spent ages poking at it from a more speculative-fiction angle and it just wasn’t gelling. It was when I saw a news idea about credit card fraud that the identity theft element occurred to me, and that immediately slammed itself into the undertaker concept and the story began to take shape.

Once I have that core, dynamic premise, the next thing I think about is structure – not just how long the story will be but how it’s paced, how it would flow, where it should move back and forth. I often draw a lot of inspiration from unusual structures, because stories unpack themselves into new shapes to fit that skeleton. The Obituarist‘s structure isn’t anything too unusual, but I decided I wanted to adopt the double-plot (‘A-plot/B-plot’) style that is common in crime stories, where two storylines intertwine and cross-pollinate until they both resolve. That made me see that I needed two plots to carry the two premises, and that they had to have enough pacing wiggle room that the story could go back and forth fairly regularly between them.

The last thing is the voice, which brings along with it a lot of the character detail and the prose style. Usually that emerges from the premise, but sometimes it comes from elsewhere. Because there’s a broad streak of Chandler in The Obituarist, I knew I wanted to go first-person, but I also wanted a voice that would question and gently tweak that style without going so far as to deconstruct it. Voice might not seem like something that shapes an idea, but it absolutely does – the way you tell the story has a huge impact on the story you decide to tell and where it goes, because you want a story that gives that voice an opportunity to be heard.

And then once I have those three things I tend to mull them over for a while, get drunk and play video games instead of writing, forget half the great ideas I had but didn’t bother writing down and eventually start writing once the idea stops twitching.

That Chandler-esque streak is certainly there, and, without trying to pigeonhole it into a genre, The Obituarist certainly owes something to the classics of crime noir. In addition, and like a lot of your writing, there is a definite streak of black humour in there. Do you specifically insert humour into a story, or does it just emerge in the telling of the tale?
Hey, I’m more than happy to pigeonhole The Obituarist as a crime story, even though it’s more soft- than hard-boiled. Like the poached egg of crime.

Humour is complicated, because I’m not a very funny guy, nor am I someone who likes comedy much. Well, I like stand-up, but not so much comedy in books/movies/TV. I certainly don’t think I can write comedy, at least not for more than the length of a very short story, because it all starts to get laboured and strange and eventually I feel embarrassed and give up and delete the file.

But what I can do is tap humour briefly and shape it through a character’s voice and viewpoint so that they are funny. That’s a lot easier, because almost everyone can be funny in short bursts, and short bursts is all we ever hear of a character’s dialogue (or probably should be). Again, it comes back to voice and how important it is in developing an idea and a narrative, because everything is carried to the reader by the story’s voice – which often also means the voice of the characters, especially in a first-person piece. Kendall Barber is a clever guy, clever enough to know when he’s over his head, and a great way to communicate that was to let him be a smart-arse every now and then, and then to have some other characters act like smart-arses (or at least arses) in turn – and from that came some pretty amusing exchanges and observations, things that felt not just funny but honest.

So in the end, I didn’t deliberately try to insert humour; I deliberately tried to write characters that had a sense of humour, and then let it emerge when they interacted. Which is where most of the good comedy in stories comes from.

A number of readers have commented on the humour in The Obituarist and that it really worked for them, and that’s been a huge relief and ego boost. It was a lot of fun to write those moments, to play with them briefly and then get serious again. I hope I can do it as successfully next time.

Next time: Hugh digs deep into Patrick O’Duffy’s CV, then casts aside any pretensions of serious interviewing and nerds it up.

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