Author Interviews

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Monday, 25 March 2013

Author interview with Ira Nayman (revisited)

Back in February 2013, I interviewed author Ira Nayman for my interview-only WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...

Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with humorist novelist and short story author Ira Nayman. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ira. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
IraIra: I was born, raised and am proud to still live in the lovely city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This has given me the smug contempt for Empires that only somebody who has lived in a country that could never hope to lead one could have. On a more positive note, Canadians live at the nexus of British and American comedy traditions, and I like to think that I have taken the best of both to create something truly unique and special.
As for how I became a writer… You know how some filmmakers had a “conversion experience” when they were young (they were given a camera for their 10th birthday, and all they wanted to do after that was make movies)? When I was about eight years old, I decided that I wanted to devote my life to writing humour, in all its forms in as many media as I could master. I can distinctly remember having the revelation in the parking lot of my grade school (which, given the wonky state of my memory, means it’s probably untrue, but still…).
The first things I wrote were parodies of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I was reading at the time. I used the backs of my dad’s legal sized accounting pads (the fronts had too many criss-crossing lines). I wrote three stories; each one took up a single sheet of paper. I remember thinking to myself, “How do writers fill their stories with so much detail?” Since then, I have written 18 collections of short stories, five collections of cartoons (all of which can be found on my Web site, Les Pages aux Folles), a novel, 15 short stories and novelettes and over 100 (alas, mostly unproduced) scripts for film, radio and television. I guess I must have figured out the secret…
Oh, just so you don’t think I was a precocious child – how many children actually devote their lives to what they want to be when they are eight years old? – I was watching an episode of The Green Room with guest Eddie Izzard one evening. Izzard told the story of meeting his idol, Richard Pryor. In the course of their discussion, they found that they had something in common: they both knew they wanted to be comedians when they were four years old. So, far from being precocious, I was already actually four years behind!
Morgen: I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life (I was a secretary) until I went to my first creative writing class (I was 38) and wham! :) What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Ira: I find that humour works best when combined with other genres. My current major project, the Alternate Reality News Service (made up of three collections of short stories in print – Alternate Reality Ain’t What It Used To Be, What Were Once Miracles Are Now Children’s Toys and Luna for the Lunies! – with two more books coming in 2013) and its spin-off, the Transdimensional Authority (the first novel of which – Welcome to the Multiverse (Sorry for the Inconvenience) – was published in March, 2013), combine humour with science fiction. I also have a series of science fiction short stories that take place after a Singularity (where all matter at all levels of organization has become conscious) that feature object psychologist Antonio Van der Whall.
However, I have worked with other genres. I once wrote 24 episodes of an original (as yet unproduced) comic horror TV series about vampires called Forever Live and Die. I also wrote four scripts for an original comedy / fantasy TV series about a psychologist who is able to enter people’s dreams and affect their behaviours (Dream a Little Dream). I have also written a couple of feature length screenplays that could be considered romantic comedies (Metropolitan Life and A Guide for the Easily Confused). I’m not a big fan of situation comedies, but I did write 13 episodes for an original series called The Love Box (about a family that lives over and runs the biggest porn store in the world). I have also created things that defy easy categorization, such as a New Agey comedy / drama series called Wine and Company.
I write a lot. To keep it fresh for myself and my readers/viewers, I always try to take my writing in new directions. This often means adding elements of other genres to my basic mix of satire, silliness and surrealism.
Morgen: If you’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Ira: Les Pages aux Folles, which is self-published on the Web, was 10 years old in the first week of September, 2012. At first, the idea was to develop an audience, but mostly the weekly deadlines have forced me to write, which is a good thing. I have self-published four collections of stories from the Web site in print because it was the only way I could see to having my work reviewed (since very few review sites/bloggers will write about Web site). This worked to some extent: I have gotten a few really great reviews for my self-published books.
coverWithin the last year, I have sold five Van der Whall stories (with several others awaiting decisions) and the novel. Having other people publish my work was a necessary step in gaining credibility with readers and reviewers (many of whom will not consider self-published books). It’s not an either / or choice, though: even with some work published by others, I intend to continue to self-publish the Alternate Reality News Service (ARNS) books, largely because of the creative control that choice gives me.
Morgen: Wow, you’re tireless. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ira: Two of my ARNS books are available as ebooks. One, Alternate Reality Ain’t What It Used To Be, was published through iUniverse, and I had no say in its production. The other, Luna for the Lunies!, was published through Smashwords, which gave me control over the process; of course, I took full advantage of that.
Paper all the way. If I ever finish the piles of books I have in my room, I might consider getting an ereader. I might.
Morgen: If I waited until I read mine I’d never get one. Which author(s) would you compare your writing to?
Ira: OTHER PEOPLE have compared my writing to that of Douglas Adams (several reviewers), Monty Python’s Flying Circus (a couple of reviewers) and Kurt Vonnegut (a friend). This is very flattering, of course: I adore these artists and would be proud to cite them as influences on my work. I would not, however, make a direct comparison to them (or any of the other artists who have influenced my work) myself.
For one thing, I have worked hard to develop my own voice (which includes both my personal thematic interests as well as my writing style). Comparing my writing to that of established writers plays on certain similarities, but it does that by ignoring what makes my writing unique.
For another thing, such comparisons build up expectations in the heads of potential readers that I write a certain way. I hope most people who try to read my writing will come to it without preconceptions and enjoy it for what it is. However, comparisons to other writers may lead some readers to be disappointed by what I do when they find that I do not write exactly the way a writer they have loved wrote.
Ultimately, what I tell people is that I do not want to be perceived as a second rate Douglas Adams (or Kurt Vonnegut or Monty Python); I want to be perceived as a first rate Ira Nayman.
Morgen: :) Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Ira: Yes, I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in the titling and cover design of my books. I believe that they are both very important. The title of a book is the first thing a potential reader is likely to hear about. If it is bland or generic, it will not interest the reader; if it is evocative, it will entice the reader to learn more about the book. The cover is similar: it will likely be the first or second thing a potential reader sees. Again, bland or generic covers tend to turn readers away from your book, while strong designs will interest them.
Morgen: I love the cover you've provided today. You’re so prolific, do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ira: I try to write every day. Some days are better (more productive) than others.
Of course, I have days when the creativity isn’t flowing, and longer time periods when it flows very slowly. Some writers keep going in the hope that something they produce when they are feeling this way will be useable. My experience, in the few instances when I have tried this, is that I have written complete rubbish. Totally worthless. So, I don’t bother trying to force the creativity when it isn’t naturally coming.
During fallow periods, I find that there are always tasks that can be accomplished. One of the most useful ones is research. Because a lot of what I write for my Web site is topical satire, I need to be up to date on current events. Because of this, I read two newspapers a day, a couple of weekly newspapers and whatever general newsmagazines I can fit in. Since I started focusing on writing science fiction, I have subscribed to Scientific American and Scientific American Mind. I also read non-fiction books (mostly about politics and economics) as time allows; when I have a need for specific information, I will read whatever publications I need. This process is vitally important both for generating ideas for stories and for getting details as right as I can.
There is also a lot of background activity that a writer needs to do. This may include: correspondence with publishers and colleagues; social networking (I am on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads and MyOuterSpace); soliciting book reviews, and; doing interviews. These activities are good for a variety of reasons, but, in terms of blocked creativity, they allow me to continue to feel like a writer even when I’m not writing.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ira: It depends what you mean by editing. I take between three and six passes at each piece of writing, starting with the first draft. Withy each pass, I add and remove ideas and play with wording. I don’t generally post something to my Web site until I am completely happy with it. (Word processing allows for this kind of constant rewriting; I started writing first drafts by hand and second drafts on a manual typewriter, which made it much harder.)
I do believe that I am now at a point in my writing career where the words often flow to my satisfaction; writing quickly is necessary when you have a weekly deadline. Nonetheless, I’m a firm believer in reshaping one’s prose until satisfied.
Morgen: Having written so much, do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ira: Most of the material I wrote when I was a kid was lost in various family moves. While I remember the experience of writing them with great fondness, I imagine they weren’t very good, so I don’t mourn their loss. In a similar vein, some of my early scripts aren’t that great, and I don’t believe they will be missed if they are never produced.
Morgen: What a shame. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Ira: I have heard that you cannot consider yourself a real writer until you have received at least 100 rejections; by this criterion, I believe I am a writer at least three, possibly four times over. Moreover, for the Antonio Van der Whall series of short stories, I received about 10 rejections for every sale I made in the first year, so this question is highly relevant to me.
Most rejection letters are forms that say nothing about the quality of your work or why it was rejected. I make a note of those and quickly move on. Some rejection letters are regretful (I had one recently where the writer explained that a plot element of the story didn’t work for him, but that he could see from how funny it was why I had won the Swift Satire Writing Contest); I bask in the glow of the praise for 30 seconds and slowly move on. Once in a while, a rejection letter will contain a critique of some element or elements of the story I submitted: I rewrite the story using the parts of the critique that will improve it, that will bring it closer to what I imagined it could be when I started to write it, and ignore the rest. And, then I move on.
Your readers have probably heard this a million times before, but it is true: don’t take rejection personally. (Unless you know from other experience that an editor hates you, in which case why did you submit it to that person in the first place?) Editors have a million and one reasons for rejecting a story, most of which have nothing to do with its merits (ie: they didn’t get their morning cup of coffee and were disgruntled; they didn’t like the paper stock you used; they didn’t like your main character; they were disgruntled that you didn’t name them personally in your covering letter; they are looking for stories with lots of action and you sent them a thoughtful story; and so on, and so on).
If you believe in your writing, keep it circulating. If it is as good as you believe it is, eventually it will find a home. And, always keep in mind that any career in the arts is a long-term commitment, so always be looking beyond today’s rejection.
Morgen: I have 72 rejections to go then. :) Do you enter competitions?
Ira: I occasionally enter competitions. As previously mentioned, I won the 2010 Swift Satire Writing Contest. I was also one of 20 winners of the Fluster short story writing contest. It’s equally as valuable as submitting stories to magazines, but, of course, just as competitive.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ira: To date, I have done all of my own promotion (although that has changed with the publication of some of my short stories and my novel). Participating in social networks was an important element of this, but by no means the only one.
Because I write a lot of different kinds of things (within the realm of “humour”), I had a choice of material to publish in print. One consideration was that there weren’t a lot of satire conventions or magazines in which to promote my writing, but there were a lot of science fiction magazines (and other publications, like blogs) and conventions, so, marketing was actually an important consideration in my decision to publish collections of science fiction stories in print.
In the three years since the publication of the second Alternate Reality News Service book, I have been to 16 or more science fiction conventions, nine in Toronto, three others in Canada, four or five in the US and one in England. Whenever possible, I get a table in the dealers room in which I can sell books directly to the public.
As part of my promotional materials, I have developed a card that I hand to people who pass my table at conventions. On the front is a copy of the latest book and publication information. On the back is one of twenty questions (taken from a Frequently Unasked Questions file from the first book) and the URL of my Web site. If I am doing a reading, I advise people who take the card that they will hear some of the answers to the questions there (I usually start readings with the first ten). If I have not been scheduled to do a reading, I tell them that they can find the answers on my Web site, or they can… buy a book…
I attended the 2012 Arisia science fiction convention in Boston for the launch of UnCONventional, an anthology in which I had a story, “Escalation is Academic.” Because I am not American, selling books at American conventions is always problematic, so I didn’t bother getting a table for myself. What I did, instead, was take copious photographs (of events at the con, but, mostly, of people in costume) and handed participants a card, saying that they could see their picture on my Web site in a couple of weeks. (My Web Goddess had suggested I use Flickr to post pictures I take at cons and then display them at the bottom of the articles I write about my con experiences. She is brilliant, my Web Goddess is.)
Because I have done some sketch comedy performing (and written a boatload  of scripts), I am always looking for ways to expand the Alternate Reality News Service’s reach by creating work for it in other media. I have, for instance, produced the pilot for a radio series based on stories out of the first two books; it is called “The Weight of Information.” It can be heard on YouTube (Part One: / Part Two:
Oh, and I produced a trailer for What Were Once Miracles Are Now Children’s Toys. Called “A Book Trailer Called ‘Book Trailer,’” it can also be found on Youtube.
A Book Trailer Called ‘Book Trailer:’
Morgen: I love going to live events, meeting other writers. Such a contrast to being home alone (which I also love). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ira: If you can do anything else, do that instead of making art. The only reason to be an artist is because you passionately love every aspect of the creative process. If you want to be an artist because you want to be rich or famous, you’re deluding yourself. Eddie Cantor, a famous Vaudevillian, said, “It took me 20 years to become an overnight success.” I believe he was being generous. You have to be willing to pursue your art for 30, 40 or more years with no guarantee of success. If success (however you define it) comes, quickly or slowly, fantastic. If success doesn’t come, at least you’ve spent your life doing something you love, and that’s not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Ira: John Cleese, Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton. I’m tempted to say that we would eat Charlie Chaplin’s shoes, but there wouldn’t be anybody there to appreciate the sight gag. They strike me as people who aren’t concerned with their cholesterol, so I might go out and get some Korean fire meat.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Ira: Shtay thrishty my friednishes. (It’s a long story…)
Morgen: I’ve seen that on your email footers, it’s intriguing. :) Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ira: I’ve been on Facebook for about two years, Twitter almost as long, the others not so much. I would say that I’m still getting the hang of them – ask me again in five years.
Morgen: A lot of people feel like that. I’ve been on them a couple of years and am only just getting the hang (still things to learn, I’m sure). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
There are exciting new possibilities for writers (ie: hypertext, games and virtual reality experiences), but, in the end, no matter what the medium, it all comes down to interesting characters caught up in involving stories.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Ira: Les Pages aux Folles
Morgen: Thank you, Ira. Great to have you join me today.

Update March 2013: Ira's latest book is science-fiction comedy novel Welcome to the Multiverse (Sorry for the Inconvenience), details from
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on the mixed blog but everything else (see Opportunities on the main blog) is free.
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