In this episode, we are joined by Alex de Campi, author of prose novels, graphic novels, screenplays, and more, as well as director of music videos. We heard a lot about how her writing differs across formats and how she decides which format is best for the story she wants to tell.
We also chatted about Alex’s debut prose novel, The Scottish Boy, her writing style, got some great advice for writing fight scenes and sex scenes, and learned more about her researching and world-building process regarding her historical fiction writing – and heard, overall, an honest and frank recounting of her experiences in the traditional publishing industry. Listen to learn more!
- Alex talks about her writing style and how it differs between formats, and how she decides which format suits the story best
- She discusses how writing novels differs from graphic novels, film, and television, and how she developed her style
- Alex gets into her highly strategic approach to writing description, and her interests in a pared-down style
- We ask Alex about collaboration in writing, particularly when it comes to comics and graphic novels, and how that process works
- Alex offers some advice regarding an artistic career, working for others vs. working for yourself, and valuing your work as a writer
- She tells us about her journey from graphic novel writing to publishing a prose novel, and how that process went – plus, her reasons for pushing back against the constraints of publishing
- Alex also talks about queer representation in literature and history, particularly in relation to her new novel, The Scottish Boy
- And lots more!
Alex de Campi has a magpie heart, which is a polite way of saying she could never pick a lane and stay in it. She writes graphic novels (the Eisner-nominated noir Bad Girls; the critically acclaimed pulp horror Dracula, Motherf**ker!, so many more), prose novels (medieval thriller The Scottish Boy; paranormal thriller Heartbreak Incorporated), film and TV (Blade Runner: Black Lotus), and sometimes poetry. Recently she and director Duncan Jones collaborated on the sci-fi thriller Madi: Once Upon A Time in the Future, and she and writer-editor Khai Krumbhaar produced True War Stories, an anthology of soldiers’ deployment tales. She once snuck across the Russian border, and later she explored the mountains of North Vietnam in a jeep armed only with a cassette tape of Boney M’s greatest hits. She had also sailed across the South China Sea a few times. She has lived in Hong Kong, London, Manila, briefly in Mexico, and one or two more places in between, but at present she resides in Manhattan with her daughter, a pair of elderly pit bulls, and a cat.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Rachel: Hey writers, you’re listening to the Kobo Writing Life podcast where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Joni: I’m Joni, author and relations manager at Kobo Writing Life. On today’s episode, we’re talking to Alex de Campi, who’s a New York based writer with an extensive backlist of critically acclaimed graphic novels, including Heist Noir, Bad Girls and Twisted Romance. We’re chatting to her about her recent debut prose novel, The Scottish Boy, which has just been released on audio.
Rachel: Our conversation with Alex was really interesting. We spoke to her a lot about her career, and how she approaches telling a story through different mediums and how she decides which medium is the best way to tell a story. She also gave some great advice for writing fight scenes and writing sex scenes. And we talked a lot about the research and world building that went into creating the historical fiction, The Scottish Boy.
There’s a lot to learn in this conversation. And we hope you enjoy it.
Joni: We are here today with Alex de Campi. Thank you so much for joining us, Alex.
Alex: You’re welcome. Happy to be here.
Joni: Can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and about what you do?
Alex: Sure. I’m a writer. I have this crazy magpie career where I write across graphic novels, and comic books, and prose novels. I’ve got two prose novels out now, The Scottish Boy, which we’re talking about, and another one called Heartbreak Incorporated, and also for film and TV. So, if you’re out there thinking that you have to stay doing one thing in the creative arts your entire life, I’m here to say that no, you can do whatever you want. It’s a little bit nuts, but somehow I manage all of it, mostly through not sleeping.
Joni: I want to touch on the fact that you do write across many different mediums and I’m curious how your writing process changes based on what project you’re tackling.
Alex: It took me a long, long time to get into prose, which was kind of my first love, like, you know, I read more novels than I do comics. And I started off scripting just because I have a very visual imagination. And at the time I was writing, I was also directing a lot of music videos. So, putting words and visuals together was something that came very natural to me. And I use a lot…like, if you know my graphic novel work, you know, Dracula, Motherf**ker! or Bad Girls or Twisted Romance or Bad Karma, which you can download for free on Panels and to get MADI with Duncan Jones, True War Stories.
I use silence a lot. I tell the story a lot with visuals and with, like, reaction shots, rather than people talking about how they feel or talking through their inner monologue. And that was hard to shift to prose because my favorite prose a lot of the time is very interior, very decorative, very imaginative. And here I was, like, with this incredibly sparse writing style being, like, I can’t write like my faves do. And it took me a while to realize the very basic principle of it’s all right because my faves already write like my faves do. I can find my own way of expressing myself. And it took a lot of experimentation to realize that I could do this very, what I feel is a very stripped down style with very little interior narration, everything in present tense, very propulsive into prose and what once it finally locked on, I’m like, oh, okay, this sounds like my voice.
The problem with having such a long graphic novel history is I know exactly what my voice sounds like in graphic novels.
If you hear grunting in the background, that’s my pitbull, Sarge, he likes to roll around and make dinosaur noises. He’s 13. And he’s on the bed behind me. So yes, he’s doing that right now. Aren’t you baby?
So, I knew exactly what my voice sounds like, which is different from a debut prose writer with no other publishing experience, you know, or publishing track record, kind of developing their voice on the fly. You know, they don’t have anything to compare it to, like every voice is their voice, their immediate voice is their voice. I knew what my voice was in one medium, and I had a real trouble transferring it to another one until I kind of unlocked it and found out that I was much more of a kind of a Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, kind of sparse stylist. And then it was like, oh, this works.
The advantage of coming from graphic novels is I was really good at choreographing and expressing fight scenes, because I had done so much of it. Also sex scenes, which are really just generally like horizontal fight scenes, or occasionally vertical, if you’re up against a wall, you know, like, no boundaries, no judgement. So, there were there are pros and cons to it. And I do feel that what I finally ended up on, I’m very confident in because, like, I know what I should sound like, and The Scottish Boy is what I should sound like.
The funny thing is, when people read the book, the feedback to me, they find it very descriptive and illustrative and I’m kind of like, “What are you talking about? It’s really spare.” Like, I barely describe anything. I guess, again, coming out of having to describe the panels of a graphic novel for an artist to draw, what I came what I come through with is a very tactical approach, very strategic approach to description and I describe the things that matter, both for atmosphere and for future plot development and kind of leave everything else out with only the most general idea. And that seems to so far be bamboozling readers into actually thinking that I have descriptive abilities when in fact, the jury definitely remains out on that.
Rachel: That’s fascinating. We had a comic book author on the podcast before and something that I gathered from her was that writing comics is very collaborative, whereas I feel like writing prose is really…can be quite isolating almost. How did you find that process?
Alex: They’re a really nice process to do together because the one issue about collaborative work, I mean, comics, you write a script, you pass it over to the artist, they do layouts, you give them feedback, you discuss it, you know, they discuss the script with you, they suggest, you know, things you can add or subtract or change. They draw layouts, you discuss them, they do the black and white line work, you discuss it, then the colors come in, you discuss it. And then you put the letters on the page, you or somebody else’s. It’s fairly rare that I actually sit there and draw the word balloons and put the letters on the page. Most writers don’t do that. You actually outsource it to a professional letterer. It’s a real skill. So, it’s not something that you can just kind of like wake up and do with any skill. It needs practice. And I started doing it because I didn’t have the money to pay a letterer. So, and now it’s part of my process, because I actually tailor the words of the comic and the dialogue and the sound effects on to the art that’s created and make sure it fits because some words, sometimes you need more dialogue, sometimes you need less. Sometimes you need sound effects to support something, sometimes you don’t. So, I really love working on the finished art.
The one downside of a collaborative process like that is you can occasionally just be waiting for somebody to get around to your project. Like you know, the artists I work with are very talented and very busy. So, I remember I wrote a book on…a series I’m doing on 2000 AD in the UK. I finished the script in April for the entire arc, April of last year. My artist didn’t get around to drawing it until December, not because he didn’t want to or because he was irresponsible or anything. He just had another project. He had this big book coming out in France that, you know, he was contracted for and he had to deliver on. So, you spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen in comics. And sometimes things don’t get drawn and there are very…there are far fewer publishers in comics as well that will give you a good deal. The comics publishing deals tend to be quite predatory compared to prose publishing deals.
Like, prose publishing deals, almost no one would ever try to take your TV and film rights. And comics, they almost always try. Which is, like, it’s nice to travel both industries, because you can now look at some of the things that comics does and you’re like, no, no, no, no. That’s like, nice try, but no. So, I enjoy doing novels at the same time in that when I get really frustrated waiting for everything else to happen and waiting for responses and waiting for artists to get around to things and maybe not flake out, I can just go work on a book by myself. Sit in a little cave and write my story. And increasingly, I find that, like, some books, I’m thinking of, you know, when I start a story off, I don’t know whether it’s going to be prose or comics. But after I develop it a little bit, I get a pretty good idea of, like, you know, actually, this is a prose novel. You know, this is not a comic story.
Rachel: That’s actually really interesting. So, when you’re sitting down with an original idea, do you just kind of flesh out the story with no kind of medium intention, just like this is the story I want to tell. And then once you get into the flow, you’re like, okay, this is going to be better served, like a comic story will better serve this story versus prose. Is that kind of your approach?
Alex: Yes. I have Moleskine notebooks, extra-large, softcover Moleskines with blank pages. And that’s where all the ideas start. And I get a feeling about something and I start noodling away on it. And it’s not really ready…when it actually becomes ready to write as a story is kind of this alchemical process of like, sometimes it can take years. There’s a story I’ve been working on for, you know, five to ten years that, like, it’s almost just getting around, and I started writing it and I stopped and, like, it’s almost getting around to the point where it’s fully ready to write now. I mean, the ideas in it, like the high points in it are still really good and really high. I’m really excited about them. The rest of it wasn’t working.
But then also, I have a graphic novel that I wrote, like my brain kind of almost fully plotted when driving between New York City in May and August of last year that I wasn’t intending to write about. It’s a book called Parasocial that will be coming out from Image probably next year. And it’s a little exploitation horror book as you can probably guess from the title. And I had a lot of feelings about fandom and fandom spaces and conventions and the complicity of parasocial relationships, and the financial complicity effect of parasocial relationships. And then I wrote an entire horror book about it and then browbeat my friend Erica until she agreed to draw it. So, that book took like two months to become a book and then another month to get picked up by a publisher because comics publishers turn around really fast unlike prose publishers. That’s another thing.
Prose publishers … you’re waiting for six months because they’re all really understaffed and overwhelmed. And comics, you generally hear back like very, very quickly. They’re also understaffed and overwhelmed, but they get back to you faster. I don’t know why. Possibly because they just have to look at the pictures rather than reading a whole manuscript. But yeah, it’s like sometimes also, like, it depends on my level of burnout with a particular process. Like, Earth Phase Four, which is the science fiction novel I’m working on that I sort of have, it’s half to two thirds finished. And then I had another bunch of projects land in my lap, and some screenwriting work, and I just get completely sidetracked. And I need to get back to it. That honestly could have been either a comic or a graphic novel, a graphic novel or a prose novel, but where I was, like 18 months of just brutal deadlines for big graphic novels, like oh, no, boohoo, Alex has too much work in the creative arts. Pity me, high class problems. But still, like, I was really super burned out. And I’m like, I can’t do another giant 250 page graphic novel right now. I just, I can’t have another one.
I’ve got one that’s going to come out on Panel Syndicate in about a month. I’ve got Bad Karma, which is also on Panel Syndicate and going to be finished this year, and it’s almost 300 pages. And I’ve got my YA book, Reversal, from Dark Horse, which we’re going to put on Webtoons as well, which, you know, Sky is busy inking the last chapter on that. So like, I just…I couldn’t do it. So, that book sort of got pushed more initially towards being a novel, although it could have been both. So you know, it’s like, there’s this kind of big fuzzy process that happens and ideas come in. And sometimes they don’t come out. And sometimes they come out very quickly. And somehow in that process, like, they gain enough gravity and critical mass to be an actual story rather than a collection of ideas, feelings, and anxiety.
Joni: And then on top of all of your original work, you have also done some IP work as well. How does your process differ when tackling somebody else’s intellectual property?
Alex: It’s not a ton of IP work. The big corporate work I’ve done, I worked on the “Blade Runner” anime which is out now from Adult Swim on HBO. See it. It’s actually really good. It’s produced by Shinichiro Watanabe, who you all know from “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samurai Champloo,” and, like, “Space Dandy” and all that and Kenji Kamiyama who did “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.” So, all my, like, giant heroes I got to work for. I worked on another HBO show called “Scavengers Reign” that’s coming out, another animation. I did “Archie vs. Predator.” I tend not to do a lot of IP work, because in order for me…like, it’s a lot of work to get up to speed on someone else’s property. And often, it doesn’t pay very well, like the Marvel, DC stuff just doesn’t pay enough to make it worth my while. And there’s, like, the commitment to quality there is like…I mean, talk about overworked and underpaid. The editors there don’t have any time to actually edit really, they’re just like…they’re managing, like, 20 books a week, and it’s just too much. So, that wasn’t a process that appealed to me.
The IP work I do tends to be film and TV because you get paid for it. Like I will, you know, like, “Blade Runner” paid me. I mean, it’s “Blade Runner,” so also a) I’m a giant nerd for it and b) they paid me enough to care. You know? I have been doing collaborative projects with other major creators, you know, Duncan Jones, who directed “Moon” and “Source Code” and “World of Warcraft” and “Mute,” he and I did a book together that was mainly his story with me adapting it. But that was like a personal connection. It wasn’t me and a corporate IP. It was me and Duncan. And you know, sometimes I’d say, “Hey, Duncan, can we do this?” And he’d be like, “I don’t really want to do that. And this is why.” And sometimes he’d go, “What if we did that?” And I’d be like, “I don’t think that’s a really good idea. This is why.” But ultimately, like, it was his story, and he’s a very giving collaborator. So, I never felt like it was I was just like his employee. It was very equal.
Same thing. I’m doing something right now with Cliff Bleszenski, who is a games guy who helped develop…he created “Fortnite.” He created “Gears of War.” He’s really well known. Another great, great guy, super collaborator. You know, again, a very human relationship of equals, rather than, like, he’s hiring me to do a thing. You know, True War Stories in some ways was other people’s IP, because I was adapting autobiographical stories by serving soldiers and veterans. You know, when I can keep it personal, and there’s a good relationship, I’m happy to do IP work, but ultimately, like, there’s this feeling of, like, the industry is weird. And you know, God bless people who just really, their life’s ambition is to write “Spider-Man” or “Star Wars” and I hope they achieve that. And I want to preface this by saying that this is, like, everybody finds their own route to happiness in the creative arts and if your happiness is working on corporate IP, then that’s fantastic. You know what you like and that puts you ahead of a lot of other people.
For me, as a single mother who has a lot of my own ideas, I don’t even apply for those jobs. A), as I said, they don’t pay very well. Because, like, you should feel glad that you’re writing “Star Wars,” like, you should be so honored. Baby, I have rent. Like, if I’m going to be underpaid, I’m gonna be underpaid on things I own. I will underpay myself. No one else underpays Baby. But also like, you know, you’re working for this giant corporation who’s going to make billions, potentially billions, off the thing you create if it becomes a movie and you’re gonna see bupkis of that. And they’re not even giving you healthcare, like, you’re not even an employee, like you’re just a freelancer. They’re gonna take your thing, you’re gonna get a little money, and then they’re going to make more money off the thing that you wrote, and they’re not going to share. And that just like, I can’t figure out how that’s a good deal for me, because I don’t love these characters enough. I don’t love them enough to sacrifice my rights and my income and my time to play in their clubhouse. But if you do love them, fantastic, like, great, good, good, you know, good, it makes you happy, do it.
Joni: That’s wild. You would expect Marvel to pay, but it makes sense.
Alex: Seventy dollars a page opening rate.
Joni: Love it.
Alex: Well, thank you.
Joni: So, I wanted to ask about when you came to write The Scottish Boy, what was your journey to publishing like? Because you were already very, very well established in one particular area of writing. How did you come to publish this book that was quite different?
Alex: I mean, I had an agent for graphic novels. And he…and I said, “Hey, I wrote this medieval romance thriller, which is also really gay.” And he’s like, “Oh, great. What have you done now?” You know, my reps tend to be…I have a great film and TV rep who’s dealt with my wild tendencies for years. And he’s very entrepreneurial himself. So, when I roll up and be like, “Hey, Shawn, like, what if we did this thing that’s totally unrelated to all the other things?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll check it out. Like, yeah, sure. Like, I know, the guy who runs Netflix’s documentary division. We’ll just chat to him about it.”
And my lit rep at the time was like, “All right, I guess. I also represent not prose novels. I’ll take this out.” And we had a lot of people respond back…and this happens a lot with my prose stuff, like, “I love this. I absolutely couldn’t put it down. I have no idea how to sell it.” And I’m like, “Great.” And for editors, you know, they can’t just take something they don’t know how to sell, because it’s not just their choice. They have to take the book in front of a marketing and sales committee and say, “Here’s this book. We’ve previously published books like this that have done well, and so, we should have this book too.” And unfortunately, like, medieval gay thrillers aren’t really like, there wasn’t anything to point to and be like, “Hey, we’ve also done these books.” You know, they were like, “Can you make it Regency maybe?” And I’m like, “No, I’m not going to make Regency. Thank you very much.” I enjoy Regency romances, like, you know, you should not like, yeah, like, but I’m not going to write them. That’s not me.
And so, I knew some people at Unbound. I mean, again, part of having a presence in publishing, especially in comics, which is very, like, personal reputation, like some of it’s done by an agent, but that’s literary agent. But that’s mostly like the middle grade and YA stuff. The rest of it is like your own personal connections that you’ve made at conventions. It’s very kind of Mafia-esque of who you know. So, you grow up in the industry in this world of like, you know, kind of marketing yourself a little bit. So, I’m much more proactive with that than a lot of authors. And I have a lot of friends. So, I asked around, and people were like, you know, Unbound is a really good place. One of my friends knew their then editor-in-chief and said, “I think he’d really liked this. Why don’t you send it to him?” Scott pack, who’s since moved on. But Unbound is still great. And he loved it and got it. And there was a lot of support within the Unbound office, like a lot of the gals in the office were, like, “We love this book. We want to publish it. You know, it’s fantastic.”
And the appeal to me of Unbound was…I’d done a couple of Kickstarters by then because, you know, my principle is always like, you can’t just sit there and wait for somebody to come along, like, no one’s gonna come along and like, fix your career. Even if someone magically descends out of the clouds and publishes your first book. And I had a friend who went through this very recently, with a big five trade publisher for her romance book. You know, no one’s gonna come out and, like, create your career. Like, it’s not like you publish a book, and then you’re okay, and it gets easier from there. It’s like, you publish a book, and then you have to do the whole, like, hero’s journey over again to get published again. Like, it’s not…like, it’s just this continual process of it never being easy. I’m sorry. It’s true. Except for like the 1% who go on to like, you know, have giant careers, I guess. But like, for most of us, it’s not. For 95% of us, it’s always a struggle.
You know, so I’ve done a lot of Kickstarters. I’m sure I will do crowdfunding again in the future. Probably not Kickstarter, because their whole blockchain thing is wack. The thing about Kickstarter was that you then had to print the book yourself and distribute the book yourself. And I’ve done that and it’s a pain in the ass. I fundamentally…my skill is creating the book up until like, it goes to the publisher. After that, it has to be someone else’s responsibility. I suck at marketing beyond, like, social media, you know, I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be sticking the book in the padded mailing bags anymore. I’ve done it No, thank you. And the thing about Unbound is they handled all the fulfillment, and they also then operated as, you know, they would, you know, design the book, they would publish it, they would store it, they would distribute it. You would actually get it into bookstores. And so, we raised the money for the book via social media.
Joni: Just for readers that might not be familiar or listeners even, like, Unbound, they operate as a traditional publishing house, but it functions like a Kickstarter in that you need to have people pledge for the book in advance, right?
Alex: Yeah. You’re essentially crowdfunding the cost of creating and distributing the book. And then anything after that cost, and they tell you what that cost is and that’s what the minimum is for any Unbound project, and after that, like, you basically just split the profits 50/50. And then beyond that, you know, they factor into that printing enough for bookstore distribution. So, your book then goes into bookstores in the UK, in the US and anywhere else that orders English language print books, which was a huge appeal for me, because, you know, I knew the book was kind of an odd duck in terms of its, like, not having lots of comps for a traditional publisher. That wasn’t a shock. I knew that also, if people could connect with it and read it, and they liked romances and they liked sort of more thrillery, plot-heavy books, they’d like this. And so, it was more a question of kind of figuring out how to kind of get around the traditional publishing process, knowing its quirks about, you know, it’s odd conservatism towards only wanting to publish things it’s kind of seen before or fits into categories it understands, and then getting into the hands of readers. And I just, I needed help with it. I know a ton of folks who self-publish digitally on Amazon and all the other platforms, very, very talented romance writers. I did not want to do that. Part of it is that, you know, I do have this career of existing in three different industries in the creative arts at once. And I’m a single mom, and like, I just, I knew I was never gonna get around to actually getting the book on Kindle by myself.
Joni: I mean, you sound pretty busy. So, I think that’s reasonable.
Alex: I work every weekend, like I never stop. I’m like, you know, friends of mine are like, “I just binged the new TV season,” of like, whatever. And I’m like, I can’t even imagine having time to watch the first episode. So, Unbound took the book. And they were really wonderful throughout the process. My editor was wonderful. The press team was wonderful. Everyone was incredibly supportive and professional. I would actually say they were more professional than some of the big five publishers I’ve dealt with. So, you know, it was a very positive process. And then the book came out and, you know, it like, it’s done well. It has continued to sell. It’s had this long tail of people continuing to discover it over time. And hence, the interest in the audiobook. Like, it’s just, you know, it continues to surprise me. Like, I get my sales reports and I’m like, wow, it’s still going. Like, it came out two years ago. It’s like, it’s still going via word of mouth. And that’s neat.
Joni: Yeah, it’s really great. As you said, the publishing industry really likes comp titles. They like to be able to say, “Okay, if you love this, then you will love this.” And do you feel like…is there maybe a bit of an advantage to having a book where you’re like, I’ve told the story that’s actually really different and new. And people are buying it and enjoying it. I think this is one of the cool things about hybrid and indie publishing is being able to say, you know what, just because we’ve been doing this for hundreds of years doesn’t mean that people don’t want to read stories that they haven’t seen before.
Alex: No, absolutely. I think it’s a fine line, though. Because a lot of people can use that as an excuse for like, why they’re really not very good book needs to exist. So there…I mean, there’s some, like, you know, I’ve definitely seen some people being like, oh, well, screw the…you know, the traditional publishing industry doesn’t understand me, screw them. I’m just gonna go forward on my own. And I think, you know, there just needs to be a greater understanding of like, well, yes, individual editors really might want to work with you, like, not with that attitude. But like, individual editors really might want to engage in your work. But you’re dealing with an institution here. And rather than kind of throwing all the toys out of the pram and stomping off and making a big deal about it where it’s trackable on social media, you know, you just accept it like, okay, well, so this book didn’t work. Like, my book pitches get turned down. Like, I have a pretty good hit rate, like I would say, at least half of what I pitch gets picked up. But there’s also half that doesn’t, you know. There are lots of projects that I love that I thought would be absolute, like, killer sellers, like right in, you know, right down, straight down the line of, like, things that have comps that didn’t get picked up. Like, it’s just the luck of the draw, like sometimes you don’t win. And you can either like…and if you really believe in a book, you know, you can either give up on it, or you can try to find it a place where other people who believe in it, or who would be interested in it, can find it.
You know, I do think that the rise of indie publishing and the rise of professional self-publishing has significantly improved the diversity of stories available in the best of all possible ways. And I do think there are a lot of great books out there that traditional publishing is not going to pick up because they don’t understand. And also, you know, like there was a Nazi romance that just went…that just got bought at auction in the publishing industry in the year of our Lord, 2022. Like, how does that make Jewish romance writers feel? How does that make romance writers of color feel, like, approaching that publisher? Like, do you feel wanted there? Do you feel understood there? Do you feel like you’ll be taken care of? Not really. So, there are all these outlets like Unbound, you know, like self-publishing, like Kickstarter where you can get a good story out there. And it’s wonderful, like, and sooner or later, like, you know, some of them hit really big. And then traditional publishers are like, oh, people buy these books. Like, yes. Welcome.
Rachel: I just kind of want to take it back a little bit. Like you’ve mentioned, there are not a lot of comp titles for a medieval gay romance thriller. So, what inspired you to write the story in the first place?
Alex: I grew up reading like, you know, the King Arthur books. Howard Pyle, specifically, was a Delaware based illustrator who did illustrated versions of them, which…and I grew up in that area. So, I was kind of…like, every child in that area kind of just gets a box set of Howard Pyle books on their like eighth birthday. It’s like, there you go. And I’ve always been fascinated with them. And I’m fascinated by like, medieval history and culture anyway. And I’d been reading a biography of Edward II, I think it was, and the entire, like, machinations of the Capet family, and, you know, England under Edward I, Edward II, Edward III was just kind of wild. And I just started thinking up the story, and I started writing it. And it just, you know, it was just this funny thing. Like, it was this weird thing I was working on on the side when I had other projects. This is an extremely, like, kind of sexist way to express the way writing works. And it was expressed to me by a guy, so like, you know, warnings ahead. But unfortunately, I’ve never found a better way to explain it, which is like you have your wife project, and you have your mistress project. And the mistress project is the one you run away to when your wife project is like too hard work. And eventually you give your wife project to the publisher, marry your mistress, and create a job vacancy. So, substitute like partner and spouse, I guess, if we want to keep a gender neutral.
Joni: That’s funny. I’ve heard that, not in those words before, but I’ve heard authors say that they’ll be simultaneously working on three projects, and one of them is the escapism from the first.
Alex: Yeah. And so, Scottish Boy was my fun escapism project, which also turned into a ton of like, medieval history reading. For the medieval scholars out there, I did my best, but like, I’m sure I didn’t do enough reading. Of course, once The Scottish Boy came out, I met all these really cool medieval scholars and saw all the books of theirs that I didn’t read before. So like, but I did the research I could. I’m sure there’s some things wrong. So if, you know, if you’re really into like, telling me what I got wrong about medieval culture, I would suggest not doing that, because I don’t care. But overall, I did try to create like…one of the challenges of the book that I really enjoyed, and I like to pick a book that has a specific challenge. And for me, the specific challenge of The Scottish Boy was kind of immersing you in this culture of the 1340s in England and Scotland and France, and making it not feel external, like making it feel something you understood and was natural and was just happening around you without it being like, wow, that’s so far back in time. Look at all the things they didn’t have. It’s just like, well, here it is, you know, and I was writing tournaments, which are a big, big part of the book. Harry and Iain, the two main characters, go on this kind of great season of tournaments across the UK, across England, all of which actually happened. Those tournaments were actual tournaments that happened in those places at those times. And I’ve wrote the tournaments like, you know, rolling up to the music festival, and finding a place to pitch your tent, and like all of the check ins and stuff like that. And that was at the the stalls and the glamping tents and whatnot. And so, you know, I tried to make it something that felt natural and recognizable and interesting, like a world you wanted to spend time in without it being like a history lesson or like, difficult or like, wow, like, look how weird they were.
Joni: So, there’s a fair amount of world building in terms of historical context and creating that immersive world. How do you find that you balance that with all the other elements of storytelling, like character development, and plot and everything else that goes into a book?
Alex: I’m very much a character author. I’m not a world builder at all. I think I find authors tend to approach stories in two separate ways. They’re either character people, so the people come first and then the world is what happens around them. Or they’re world builders. And this is a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers. They create this amazing world and then they put characters in it and the characters kind of show off that world in a way. I’m very much a character person. So, like, the world building just happened around trying to make wherever Harry and Iain were feel like a real place that exists, not existed, but exists right now that you can see and feel and hear. I mean, part of it happens that…it helps that I have friends who are farmers in the English countryside.
So, I knew a little bit about farming. I’d been on English farms, British farms. I knew the general layout of a home farm. I’ve done research on medieval farming, etc. You know, I did a lot of research into tournaments and how they work. You know, this is where it comes down to the strategic description I started off talking about. Like, the description in The Scottish Boy is extremely strategic. It is, you know, what you need to know in order to have an ability to imagine a scene and feel yourself in a scene and nothing else. You know, as someone who came out to thriller noir writing, like I find it’s very much like, you know, writing a story is very much like a game of Jenga, like, you know, where you stack the blocks up. And Jenga is a British game that…I don’t know if it’s in the US a lot. But yeah, there’s a stack of blocks. And then you play the game by trying to pull blocks out of the stack. And the last one to pull a block out before the tower falls down wins. And that for me is what you’re trying to achieve with the stories you create. You make this tower of blocks, you make this tower of plot points and character and world. And then you start pulling things out. And when you’ve pulled everything out that you can pull out, and the tower is still standing, that’s when your story’s done.
Rachel: I think that’s an excellent metaphor…analogy for the editorial process of, like, stripping down all of the unnecessary to find, like, the raw story in the middle. One thing I wanted to kind of like touch back on is at the beginning of this conversation, you mentioned that because you have such a history in a visual medium, you are really good at choreographing fight scenes and sex scenes with your words. And I was wondering if you had any advice for writers who are trying their own hand at writing either fight scenes or sex scenes, or both at the same time. Who knows?
Alex: If you’ve never done any sort of visual storytelling and you’re a prose person, I mean, a basic exercise is to find a short fight scene that you like in a film and try to write it in prose. You know, I think another key element of it is a fight scene…fight scenes and sex scenes need to have some sort of emotional arc within them. Like, it’s not just, I mean, I’m sure you’ve all watched films, I saw one the other day, one of the girl boss assassin films, which was very bad, where the fight scene was like all this choreography and, like, you just watched it, and it was just things happening on screen and you just didn’t care. Like, it was very pretty. Didn’t care, didn’t matter. Just girl beating up some people like who, you know, you know, there has to be something internal going on with the character during the fight scene, which is, I can’t go into a lot of The Scottish Boy ones without it being spoilery. But you know, like, is someone cheating? Is their mind somewhere else? Are they worried about what’s happening to another character in the fight scene? Are they shocked by who’s fighting them? You know, like, there has to be some sort of suspense card that’s laid down as well as a fight card.
And similarly with a sex scene, like sex scenes are great. But like, what is the character realizing about the relationship? What are they afraid of? You know, are they going into the sex scene with good intentions? Are they not going into it with good intentions? You know, how are they feeling about this person? How are they feeling about the act? How are they feeling about the person’s gender? Like, how they feel about themselves, like, you know, that’s almost more important, like, you know, and you don’t have to write sex scenes or fight scenes unless you really enjoy writing them. I know so many good books that just kind of like shut the curtain when the kissing part happens. And that’s really enjoyable for a lot of people. Not everyone likes reading fight scenes. Not everyone likes reading sex scenes. Like, it’s, you know, the fight scenes in The Scottish Boy are really violent. Bad things happen to people. Bad things happen to people you like, repeatedly. You know, it’s okay not to have those. If you want to have them, gosh, it’s such an internal process of mine, I don’t even know how to describe it, you know, it literally is like a choreography of, you know, this person does that, the other person does something, you know. You can tell very easily when a writer loses track of the people in the fight scene and what’s happening during the fight scene and what the main character’s through line is through it. So, I would say if nothing else, carry on, you know, make sure you know what your main character is doing throughout the fight scene. And if you can’t do that, skip it.
Joni: I think the idea of taking a movie scene and breaking it down is a really good one, like a good exercise. And also, I think this is kind of these things that you’ve described are why you’ve bamboozled, as you said, readers into thinking that it’s a very descriptive text because it does feel descriptive because it is immersive and you have a very keen sense of what’s going on at all times. And I can see that. I can see how people would say like…
Alex: There’s also a gift in keeping the focus very narrow during the fight scene, because also, like, then you have the suspense moment of like, you know, Harry is concentrating on fighting this knight who’s rocked up next to him. And you talked about somebody else with an axe or a bow, like a couple paragraphs before and then you stop talking about them because Harry’s off fighting someone else. And then the person with the axe comes back in and hits him and you’re like, oh, I remember that person, because I’ve mentioned it. And so, it’s not completely like, it’s not like where did this character come from? It’s like, oh, that guy. Oh, shit, we lost sight of him. Wham. So, there’s very definitely an…even though it’s “a fight scene,” you can treat it like a suspense scene. Because the character can only, you know, the character only has eyes in the front of their head. They can’t see everything that’s going on in a group fight scene all the time.
You know, again, Jackie Chan movies are great for this. You know, Donnie Yen movies. If you look at some of the Donnie…if you’re ever looking for great fight scene ideas, there’s a… “Special ID” is not the best Donnie Yen movie but, like, if you look at the super cut of “Special ID” fight scenes from Donnie Yen… He was the bloke in “Rogue One” for all the Americans who don’t watch Asian movies. Like, the fight scenes are incredibly imaginative. Another thing I would say is, like, use your environment in the fight scene. Like, where is the fight scene happening? You know, the “Special ID” supercut I mentioned is perfect for this sort of thing. Like, is it happening on a train platform in the snow? Is it happening, you know, in a field in the rain when it’s wet and muddy and people’s feet are getting stuck in the mud and that’s a significant problem to just having the fight? Is it happening in a crowded room? Is it happening in the kitchen, you know, with all sorts of potential weapons lying around, you know. You can do a lot if you’re like, okay, they’re fighting.
And also with sex scenes, is it happening in the kitchen? Sterilize afterwards, please. You know, you can do…you can fake it really well by putting a simple fight scene in an interesting location and making that location really pertinent. Like I said, like, they’re fighting in the mud. It’s very, very hard to remain standing. Like, they can’t move around a lot. They’re just angry and sitting there wailing on each other, you know. That turns it from okay, we need these two characters to fight because they’re angry at each other to like, there’s this metaphor for the fact that they’re neither of them are moving forward. They’re just stuck and wailing on each other, and neither of them is gonna give in and it’s a much more interesting fight scene than oh, like they punched. So, yeah, use your environment.
Joni: Are you a very intense planner, when it comes to plotting out novels?
Alex: My normal process is like, you know, I have all these ideas, an ending, a vague arc in my notebook. And then I generally vomit out like, a couple chapters of just vomit draft, like the beginning. Like, I know what the beginning is, I know how it starts. I know how like, what the momentum is. And then after I vomit that out, and that really like, gets me a feel for the characters’ voices and physicality. And for me, physicality is really important, like how do they move? How do they sit? Like, there are all these, like, early writing exercises that people do of, like, describe what your character has for breakfast. Do they like tea or do they like coffee? Do they sit with their legs spread? Or do they cross their legs? What’s their posture like? What clothes do they wear? And it’s the most incredibly fucking tedious thing when you start being a writer, like it feels very kind of artificial to tack all these things on. And then like 10 years into your writing career, it’s like, well, they obviously have tea, only Chinese tea, nothing in it. They sit with their legs crossed. They always tuck their shirts in and only when you know them really well do you ever see them disheveled. Otherwise, they are perfectly dressed. And there’s your character for you.
And so for me, figuring out how they stand, how they move, what they wear, like, you know, the two chapters of vomit draft are me introducing myself to my characters and watching them come out as fully realized beings. They will require rewriting. The last thing you do in the book process, after you finish the manuscript, is go back and fix those first two chapters of vomit draft. Don’t worry about your beginning. Don’t spend a forever amount of time thinking of your perfect first paragraph. You will rewrite it anyway. Just get it out of there. You know, just get it down. And then once I’ve done that, I kind of stop and go, oh, shit, I need to figure out what happens in the middle of this book. And so, I go and then start just doing a rough outline.
And I think, again, outlining is one of those things that gets terribly maligned, because of the way writing is often taught in institutions. And outlines feel like this very frustrating, artificial process. And I’m here to say that you don’t have to have any sort of formal outlining process. If you need to, think of it as like a sketch rather than an outline. You’re not making bullet points or anything like that. You’re just sketching. So, you’re like this happens and then that happens, then that happens, like literally just listing what happens and why it happens both, you know, for story… Like, a lot of times what you do in TV writing is you have like the plot thread, like what happens to these characters and then you have the emotional arc thread. So, every chapter you’re writing like, here’s your episode, you’re like, here’s the a, b, and c plots for these characters, here are their emotional arcs. Here’s what happens to them emotionally through that chapter. And that’s a really, really useful thing to do until it’s instinctive.
For me, a lot of times it’s instinctive, but still, sometimes I go back, and I’m like, why is this happening? What is this character feeling? Like, and that can be very propulsive, in terms of like helping you with further plot threads. I think something I’d say is, whatever you do, don’t be convenient. There’s a lot of things that you will tend to, like, have happened for convenience to push them towards another, push them towards a point you want to get them to in the book, because then something cool happens. The most enjoyable stories for me are like, well, you’re reading along and you think, oh, this convenient thing is gonna happen or this trope-y thing. And then something very real happens, like someone runs away, instead of engaging, like, they act like a chicken, they act terrified, because you’d be terrified in that situation, and that character will be terrified, too, so they just back off, rather than like, being the hero. And I really love it when that happens. So, I think part of the outlining process is trying to, for me, trying to make sure these characters are having real reactions that make sense and feel grounded and natural, rather than, like, hero reactions.
And then I start writing. Sometimes I’ll…like, sometimes in the outlining process, like you always have this one scene, like in chapter eight of the book that your brain is like, I’ve written this entire scene with all the dialogue, here you go. And write that in your outline, just write it down, like get the dialogue down. You may not use it, or you may only use part of it, but like, just put it down there. And then if nothing else, you can take bits out of it, or you have it there. So, that’s outlining. And then you start just writing the book. And you can write it sequentially. You can write it non-sequentially. I tend to go in a linear process. And then you rewrite the book, like you’ve finished it and you’re like, “Yeah, I can send it to my agent now and…or my editor.” And like, no, you cannot. You put it in a drawer, you walk away for a month, and then you print it out, and you rewrite it. And this is especially important for what I do with thrillers, because thrillers aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Because you’re going back and putting hints about things that are going to happen that you…like, this totally cool thing that you thought up for chapter nine, you kind of start seeing that in chapter two. But you’re not good enough to seed it for chapter two in your first draft. So, you have to do it in your second draft. And then you, like, make sure that all the rough character work in the early chapters that you like, nailed down by writing it, like, you then go back and fix it so it’s not so rough. So, the characters are actually themselves from the beginning of the book rather than being these like shaky constructs who gain, like, stability around chapter five. And you fill in all the plot stuff you missed, and take out all the stuff that you started to put in and then abandoned because it wasn’t a good plot thread or you mischaracterized that character, or whatever.
Rachel: One thing I really loved about this book, and what I love about queer representation in historical fiction is that it kind of serves as a reminder that, like, being gay isn’t new, like queer people have always existed. And I’m really curious what inspired you to tell, like, this particular love story?
Alex: Knights kissing is a really good thing. Like, I just…how is that bad? Like, how is this like, how do we not have more books about knights making out?
Rachel: That’s a really good question.
Alex: Like, sooner or later, I’m gonna write…I can get very boring about “The Green Knight” and how it’s actually this giant, like, story about queer subtext. And no, and I was very disappointed by the film because the film was like…like, it took out all the queer subtext and was like, no, like, Gawain is heterosexual. Here’s his girlfriend and his other girlfriend. And we’re like, no, no. Like, just stop playing. Like, you know, they took out all the three… Bertilak’s three kisses and turned it into this one gay panic moment. And I’m like, wow. This was made by straight people who have not read any of the literature on this at all. Bless you. And, you know, like, people are like, but you know, but he wasn’t clearly gay in the story. It’s like, well, that’s how the closet works. You know, Edward II, like, was kicked off the throne because of all his male lovers. So like, you can’t tell me that this wasn’t happening then. Because it was specifically happening with the king, who directly perceived the story. You know, like, people have been gay the whole time. You know?
Like, I can tell you I can, you know, I can tell you Romanian myths with canonical trans heroes in them. Like, I just, you know, like, everyone has always been gay. Like, it’s not new. Queer people have existed forever. And I think one of the fun things about the book was just like presenting a number of queer characters because there’s an ace character in there as well. Just like without it being that much of a big deal. Like, they know it’s a big deal. They know within their culture what they can do and can’t do. And there’s very much a scene, a subplot in there about two characters who aren’t as economically advantaged as our main two characters who have a very different experience of being queer. And, you know, like, why not, right, gay knights who kiss because, you know, there were…I can guarantee you there were gay knights who kissed because they existed.
Rachel: I remember studying Edward II in a gay male literature class in university and it’s fascinating. It’s really interesting. I also think you should get merchandise made that said people have always been gay. That’s excellent.
Joni: So, before we wrap this up, where can listeners find you online?
Alex: Oh, and by the way, like, in terms of people have always been gay. You know, I came back from 10 days in Egypt and took my daughter to Hatshepsut’s Temple in the Valley of Kings, and Hatshepsut was a Egyptian pharaoh who was born female, but used male pronouns, and had themselves depicted as male and was one of the most successful, commercially, Egyptian Pharaohs of the time. And they were from, I think, 1300 BCE. So, we’re talking about like 3000 year old canonical queers ruling kingdoms, and of course, everybody else like later on after them. There was a pharaoh after them who…we don’t know which one…who decided that he really hated their existence and had their, like, image chipped off every fresco that there was. And there’s a debate of like, you know, like, we don’t know, there are no records of whether Hatshepsut considered themselves non-binary, considered themselves trans whatever. You know, did they adopt male pronouns simply because they were essentially the first ruling, assigned female at birth Pharaoh in the history of Egypt, and they just wanted to make life easy for themselves? Or did they actually, you know, did they view themselves as having male gender? Like, we will never know these things because like, unfortunately, they didn’t keep a diary. And everyone who came after them, like, didn’t like the fact they existed. But it’s cool. And, you know, here was this ruler who was born female and ruled under male pronouns and did a really, really good job at it. You know, so when I talk about people have been queer always, like, there are so many examples.
Joni: That’s really interesting. So, where can readers find you online? You have a website, right? You have Tumblr.
Alex: I do have a website, which is in the process of being revamped. And if you check in on it, like by the time this comes out, the new website should be up. And there’s a big banner across the top of it says “Free to Read.” And there’s a bunch of graphic novels and prose novels I have up on various corners of the internet for free or for pay what you like, but you can download it for free because I don’t care. My graphic novel Bad Karma, which is a black comedy/action thriller. My sort of 1970s spy thriller, Mayday, and it’s sequel Brandenburg School for Boys. My new supernatural thriller romance, Heartbreak Incorporated, which is a prose novel. I think the first half of it’s up at Tapas for people to read for free. There’s a bunch of things. So, if you go to http://www.alexdecampi.com, my name, you’ll find that if it doesn’t have that banner, it means you’ve been really fast, and we’ve been slow with the website revamp. I’m also on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr as Alex de Campi, same as my name, no spaces. And yeah, like, read the book, listen to the book and let me know what you think.
Joni: Perfect. So, we’ll include both ebook and audiobook links to all of your books that are available. Thank you so much for doing this. Thank you for your time.
Alex: No problem. I hope I didn’t rattle on too much.
Joni: No, it was great. I really enjoyed it.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the Kobo Writing Life podcast. If you’re interested in picking up Alex’s books, we will include links in our show notes. And if you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at http://www.kobowritinglife.com. And be sure you’re following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Joni: This episode was produced by Joni Di Placido and Rachel Wharton. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker and our editor is Kelly Robotham. Big thanks to Alex de Campi for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up for free at kobo.com/writing life. Until next time, happy writing.