Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Author interview Simon Van Der Velde/ Book review 'Backstories'



Update 04/03/23 this post won a Page Turner Award 
I've got a great book for you this month, written by the talented Simon Van Der Velde. 'Backstories' is a series of short stories where if you spot the clues, you can work out which celebrity features in each story, but before we get into that, let's meet Simon:
'I’ve dabbled with writing as far back as I remember, but as a kid I was persuaded that I had to ‘do something sensible’. Fast-forward twenty-five years or so to 2011, when I finally realised what I should be doing. I completed an M.A. in creative writing and really, never looked back.

Whilst I try to write every day, my family comes first, my wife and two tyrannical boys, and not forgetting Barney, the dog, who is a great help working through those knotty plot problems.'
I empathise with that doing 'something sensible' sentiment! Simon published 'Backstories' in 2021, and 'The Silent Brother' in 2022 and we're discussing Backstories, (Smoke & Mirrors Press), which is the first in a series. Simon explains,
'Backstories is a collection of short stories that span the divide between truth and fiction. Backstories II (historical) will be coming out soon, with Backstories III (Rock ‘n’ Roll) due for publication late next year and Backstories IV (True-ish Crime Backstories) slated for 2024.'
The book concept fascinated me, what inspired him to write it?
'It was originally inspired by a frustration with simplistic headlines that presented the world in black and white. Everyone is a hero or a villain, a genius or a fool. My aim, in Backstories, is to show that the very best and worst of us are flawed human beings – in all our diverse glory.'

With so many people to pick from, how did he choose?
'They're the people who interest me most. Primarily, the heroes and villains of my childhood - not that they were necessarily around in the 70's - but their aura was, in our house, at least. 
I grew up in the north of England, in a Jewish family, in the 1970s, which might give your readers some clues as to who I've chosen. I should also say that I choose people whose lives illustrate what I want to say - about racism, sexism and all forms of prejudice, whilst at the same time being aware that even the very worst of us are human beings, and there is more to be gained from understanding than from mere vilification.'

Only some are historical, so does it bring additional pressure for those that are still alive?
'Well, I'd prefer not to get sued' I giggle at that point, perhaps I shouldn't 😟, Simon continues, 'But there's pressure on all of them. Perhaps, if anything, there's more pressure with the bad guys - because I know I'm bound to offend some people, and I want to keep that to a minimum - without compromising my integrity.'
And talking of baddies, how easy were they to write?
'Part of my motivation in writing Backstories is to get away from lazy, black and white judgments - especially in these vitriolic social media times - and to see that the truth of any human being will always be nuanced. 

My stories generally go back to my characters' formative years, before their path was set - when the line between victims and perpetrators was at its thinnest, (and so yes, I feel for them at that time in their lives - very deliberately divorcing myself from what may happen in their future).  
Really, I'd say all abusers begin their journey as victims. That's what I believe, and what I want to invite my readers to think about. The Backstories format is perfect for this, because you meet them afresh - before you know the characters' names, and so will hopefully come away with a different perspective.'
That's an interesting point. He continues,
'That said, I definitely do, (occasionally), offend people. Whilst most people enjoy the moral challenge of Backstories, I do have a little collection of powerfully negative reviews from people who simply do not want to be challenged. I guess that’s just the way it is – especially in these days of social media, where it seems like everyone talks and few people listen…'

Why are part of the book's sale proceeds being donated to charity?
'I am proud to be giving 30% of all profits from Backstories to Stop Hate UK, The North East Autism Society and Friends of the Earth.  Of course there are many worthy charities, but as anyone who reads Backstories will see, these are the causes that resonate most deeply with me.
I really, deeply hate prejudice and bigotry of any kind, it is so pointlessly destructive.  Which isn’t to say that think I’m perfect, not by any means.  I guess we’re all a product of our childhoods, and we don’t have too much say in those.  But what we can do is challenge ourselves to be the best we can.'
Hear, hear! to challenging ourselves! Simon continues,
'Stop Hate UK came out of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and is an organization that stands against all kinds of hate crime and prejudice.  Their focus on education is something that particularly appeals to me – and I hope it is an idea that Backstories can develop, by taking the reader into the minds of these diverse characters and showing you that whilst we’re not all the same, in our fears and doubts, dreams and ambitions, we are all flawed human beings.
In all honesty, I should also admit to an element of guilt.  There are criminals amongst the characters in my book, and whilst crime may be compelling on page, it is anything but, in real life - and giving to Stop Hate UK is, I believe, a meaningful way to show respect for the victims and their families.'
I have to admit, I admire Simon for tackling what could be a thorny issue in this way! He continues,
'In writing about crime and prejudice I am holding evil up to the light, but I’m also making fiction out of suffering.  In doing so, I hope to contribute in some small way to human understanding and do my part in reducing such behaviour – but I’m not holding my breath.  
In the meantime, it feels right and decent to give to people who best know how to help those who need it most and in so doing, help to build a better, fairer more decent society for us all.'
And what about his second charity?
'The North-East Autism Society is more personal.  My son is autistic.  That’s why I feel I have to give voice to a group of people who are so badly misunderstood. 
The point is, autistic people’s brains work differently to ours – which means two things:

Autistic people’s difference of approach and intensity can bring something new and fresh to society, to the benefit of us all.  Bill Gates, for example, is autistic, Greta Thunberg, Daryl Hannah, Albert Einstein, Anthony Hopkins and probably Leonardo da Vinci, amongst many, many others – and I hardly need tell you how much they have given us.
Clearly, autistic people enrich our lives, but – because they are different, autistic people can sometimes find our chaotic world so stressful that they just can’t function, and all that potential can so easily be lost.  So, if only for self-interest, we need to understand and listen to the autistic community.  Not least, Greta Thunberg.'
Well said! Simon continues,
'Which brings me to my third charity, Friends of the Earth, because whatever Donald Trump may say, without the Earth, obviously, nothing else matters.' 

I usually ask authors how they name their characters but this time I had to ask how Simon tackles not naming his characters?
'My problem is how best to hide or disguise the characters’ names, whilst drip-feeding you clues throughout the story. I might very well use a real or fictional nickname, to give you a clue.'
So onto his writing journey and what does he enjoy the most and least about writing? 
'I find the research interesting and rewarding, but what I really love is the chance to close the door on life and immerse myself in the world of my characters. I want to feel what they feel, and act with them in accordance with their passions.

I’m only happy if I feel I’m reaching the emotional truth of my characters. In practice, that means an awful lot gets thrown away. That’s tough, but when it works, it’s wonderful. The end result is that less work goes out into the world, but what does get out there does my characters and my readers justice. As for publication, argghh! A whole new world I have yet to understand.'

You throw a lot away? Yikes! I'm assuming that means research ends up in the bin?
'It's not so much that I throw research away, as whole stories - if they're not quite working. I want to give my readers the best I can.' 
Wow, admirable! Simon adds,
'Research is important. I need to do enough, until I see the way in to both my character and the story. Sometimes that means doing a lot. The thing I then need to remember is NOT to use it all. My aim is to give you just enough to make the story real and vivid.'
As he takes so much effort on choosing his stories, what does he feel about reviews?
'I read them. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. Of course, I love the good ones. It’s such a pleasure to feel understood, and luckily for me, most readers are decent generous people. But, there are some people who will, for whatever reason, dislike my work. 
Certainly, my aim, (in Backstories in particular), is to challenge your moral compass, and there are some people, (more in the last decade or so), who don’t want to be challenged. They just want books, (and media), that echo what they already think. In the end, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and I need to remind myself that I will absolutely never please everyone. That isn’t my job. My job is to present my truth, as I see it, as entertainingly as possible.'

If Simon could go back in time, what would he tell his younger writing self?
'Be concise. Be honest. Have fun. Be patient. Don’t believe everything they tell you. Yes, it’s about your personal truth, but there are still techniques to be learned. Sign up for a Creative Writing M.A. now.'

Why does he wish he'd studied earlier?
'The MA was great. It helped me develop the skills to say what I wanted to say. Meeting other serious writers was such a pleasure. The whole experience was so validating, showing me that being a professional writer was a valid and attainable goal, as well as giving me some insight as to how the publishing industry works.'
Does Simon have a favourite novel? 
'Off the top of my head – Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. It is powerful and shocking, but never overstated. Just as in my writing, I like to be FULLY engaged - and right from the start, Cora’s story drew me in and held me tight. I was pretty much terrified from start to finish – yet in spite of all that high speed tension, Cora was a beautifully developed character it was easy to fall in love with – and at the end of it all there was a truth and a resonance to this important story that allowed me to leave the book a little wiser than I was before.'

Another book for my TBR list then! As we were finishing up, I asked if there was anything else he'd like to say?
'It’s a strange business writing and reading, a game that requires commitment and understanding from both sides. More than a game. Really, what we’re doing here is sharing moments of intense intimacy with total strangers. So thank you, not just for reading, but for reading with a keen mind and an open-heart. Without you, my work would be nothing.

Ps. Whilst I largely read before bed, in the case of Backstories – I’ve been told that it’s very much a ‘keep-you-awake’, day-time read. Please – let me know if you agree.' (via his social media links below)

'As well as thanking my readers, I’d like to thank all the writers of all the books I’ve ever read. I genuinely believe that every one of them, (well, almost), has added something to my understanding of the world and the people in it. Surely, if everyone read more fiction, if they entered the minds of people different from themselves every day, we would have less hatred, less self-righteous bigotry, less shouting and more listening, and truly, a better world?'

What a lovely way to end our interview! I asked Simon for a tweetable synopsis of his book and he said (tweet here)

Backstories – the ‘stand-out most original book of the year’ will show you your heroes, (and villains), as you’ve never seen them before.
And a tweetable extract - can you guess who it is? (tweet here)
The Guitar - No doubt about it, he was a bright kid, talented even. He was quick on his feet and with his mouth too, and he could smack a baseball out of the park. But he was a Jew, and he was short…


This book is a gold medal winner so I was expecting something special and I wasn't disappointed. It's a collection of short stories, each one about a celebrity. Some are currently in the news, others are long dead, and it ranges from pop stars to murderers, so you have no idea where each one is leading, but that's the fun. You're looking for clues, trying to work out who they are, which is a brilliant combination of fiction, non-fiction and puzzle-solving. 

People are never named but I managed to work them all out (but I admit having to check the internet for one, and then kicking myself when I saw just how many clues I'd missed!). However, young adults might struggle with some of the famous/ infamous characters but as Simon is a similar age to me, I was in my comfort zone!

Simon has a lovely writing style, very easy to read and a great balance between action and description. Each story is written from the perspective of the person you're trying to guess and they are set in the UK and USA. Here's an extract from 'The Big Attraction':
'The knock comes, three separate sounds echoing down through my stomach. I stop where I stand with one foot on the kitchen lino and the other in the lobby. My hand clutches the fake pearls at my throat. They've come for me. I know it before the door opens. I know it from the terror and the guilt, and the relief.'

Who wouldn't want to read more! I found it tricky to put down as all 14 stories are short enough that you can read just one more before sleeping, but I've heard black bags under the eyes are in fashion this year so I'm on trend 🤣🤣

It does make you think about the people featured and the reasons why they've taken their famous paths, and I enjoyed that immensely. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a fun read, especially if you enjoy real facts splattered amongst fiction. It was the puzzle element that really hooked me and I definitely want to read the future editions of Backstories - I can't wait!

Find out more by visiting the author's links below:

Buy at: https://amzn.to/3j8D2Hp

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