Writers on Lockdown: Gavin Jefferson

Gavin Jefferson is a multi-genre author, spanning time travel, fantasy, humour, and the paranormal. In the second of this new series of interviews, I caught up with him to chat about isolation, trigger warnings, categorisation, and the impact of comic books on his work.

Hi Gavin, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!

Thanks for having me, I love this idea! 

So, how’s this crazy situation been for you so far – do you find isolation a help or a hindrance as a writer?

I find it okay, to be honest. Although I work in an office full of people in my day job, I tend to live there in my own world, with over-ear headphones and music. You might say that I’ve been prepping myself for this for quite some time, ha ha! 

I tend to do most of my writing on my lunch breaks or late at night, so because I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to work from home, I’m getting roughly the same amount of writing done. One thing I didn’t expect from the lockdown is how it has made me look at my work in a different light.

Really? In what way?

Well, it’s forced me to consider theme and story setups more. I’m a firm believer in trigger warnings, but I never really considered pandemics as triggering events. I know, for me at least, I don’t want to read anything relating to that right now. And I don’t think I’ll want to in the near future, either. To think I intended to reread Station Eleven this year, too.

Take The Surrogate, for instance. That’s the story of the world’s last obese man. The way I eradicated obesity in that book was to have the worldwide governments band together secretly and have them release a virus into their respective drinking water sources, altering everyone’s genetics. It felt like something only bigger people, like me, might be offended by. And, to be honest, I thought the presence of that potential trigger would be clear from the synopsis. But, the virus idea… I hadn’t even considered it. I put a tweet out prior to the lockdown telling people not to read the book, or to take care with it if they did. The last thing I want is to upset people. I mean, it’ll happen whether I want it to or not, I guess. But, I’d rather present the warnings upfront and have a clear conscience about it than not.

I jokingly said that there would be an influx of pandemic-related fiction over the next decade, but now that I think of it, there probably will be, right? This’ll be taught in schools, at the very least.

I think you’re right. It’s bound to act as a prompt for sci-fi and literary authors alike. What is it you’re working on at the moment?

A few things. I’m editing a novel for release in 2021. It’s a children’s adventure story but aimed at adults. I finished the first draft a week before Stranger Things premiered, so it feels pretty pertinent. It’s partly autobiographical, as some of the events that happen in the book are lifted from my life. Don’t worry, though, they’re funny things. Ha ha! Mostly, it’s a thank you or a love letter to my childhood friends, for their unknowing support. It’s definitely fun, though. Probably my favourite piece of work so far. I loved spending time with the characters so, if all goes according to plan, it’ll be the first in a series of four or five books. But it does have a conclusive ending.

It turns out that it’s a retirement and respite community for vulnerable vampires...”

Second up is a vampire novel. It’s not your traditional vampire novel, mind you. I have the rules of Vampire-dom in the back of my mind as a guide, but the story isn’t around that plight. It’s called Nursing Home of the Damned, and the basic premise is: matey’s Mum has Alzhiemers, and she wants to relieve the burden on her adult son and daughter in law, so she asks to be put in a nursing home. It turns out that it’s a retirement and respite community for vulnerable vampires. It’s to do with loss, the grief of losing loved ones, and finding ways to ‘get on’ with life, more than anything. There will be a sprinkling of traditional vampire horror, but it’s not a horror story. Similarly, there’s some dark humour, and a little bit of a retro-vibe. It’s hard to pin it to a distinct genre, but it has been a fun exercise. I’m about half way done, right now, but I hope to finish the first draft by the end of quarantine. How weird, but natural, does that sound now? Geez.

Outside of these two projects, which I hope to publish in 2021, I’m casually editing a couple more, and plotting out the story of another two, just to get ahead on my internalised schedule.

Wow, you have a lot on the go! Is that your usual process, to work on several pieces simultaneously?

It wasn’t in the beginning, but it’s becoming that way, now. Ha ha!

I get stuck quite often, so I’ve given myself free rein to work on multiple projects at the same time. My logic is, if I can’t write a particularly difficult chapter on one project, I can turn to another and edit or redraft that while I wait for a spark of inspiration. That way, I’m always making progress somewhere.

I spent most of last year writing a comedy, for instance. I finished the first draft in the end, but it was an experiment in narrative style and proved difficult to write. With the stresses of everyday life, and everything going on in the world, I’ve realised I can’t lock it out. Maintaining that level of emotional stability is a hard ask for me. I just can’t do it anymore. Having multiple projects, all with different themes and ideas going on, allows me to utilise my emotions rather than force something I’m not feeling on that day. It may seem chaotic, but it allows me to always have something I can work on. I find it kinda liberating.

Having multiple projects, all with different themes and ideas going on, allows me to utilise my emotions rather than force something I’m not feeling.”

It’s great that you can work like that. So would you say you’re more of a discovery writer than a plotter?

It really depends on the project, if I’m honest. With Almost Surely and The Surrogate, I didn’t know how they would end, but I knew what I wanted to say. For my adventure novel, I knew the ending before I started writing it.

That’s not to suggest that I prefer one method over the other, though. I plan each chapter as I lead up to it with an understanding of the goal for what needs to happen, but I tend to let the story tell itself. It keeps it fresh and allows for interesting tangents. Sometimes it’s crap, though, so you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth. Ha ha!

The books you’ve released so far are quite varied in terms of genre. You have science fiction mixed with body positivity in The Surrogate, time travel mixed with noir in Almost Surely, and then there’s the grotesquely humorous Lovegun. Your work in progress sounds like you are mixing it up still further. What led to you following such different projects?

Good question, ha ha! I have a lot of interests, and I’ve never liked the idea of being labelled or pigeonholed. I guess, partly, this is me striking a line in the sand and saying: don’t try it. I like the variety and, to be honest, I think I’d grow bored of writing if I concentrated on just one genre. Considering the adventure book I mentioned, and the proposed series, I reckon you could label the first one as paranormal. The second will be more aligned with conspiracy theories, and the third (I think) will be back with paranormal, but with more of a grown understanding of the world they’re living in. Maybe a little horror, too. They’ll all be coming of age stories at heart, but they’ll each have their own flavour. 

I’ve never liked the idea of being labelled or pigeonholed. I guess this is me striking a line in the sand and saying: don’t try it.

In any case, I read and enjoy many genres, so I figured I’d try my hand at all I’m interested in. I mean, Neil Gaiman does it, right? Ha ha. They may not all be winners, but there’s fun to be had in trying. Mostly, though, it’s because the stories I want to read haven’t been written yet. To tell them means spreading my wings.

That’s an admirable perspective. I like the idea of not being bound by genre. Would you say you have a favourite genre to read?

Not specifically. I would say I’m more tuned towards science fiction, but that’s only because it’s the first shelf I look at in book shops. I wouldn’t call it my favourite genre, though. I’m certainly not interested in rocket ships and the affiliated dressings. I enjoy the stories more concerned with the sociological and psychological aspects of future life, rather than the tech.

Recently I’ve been reading more literary fiction than usual. I guess because I’m eight or so projects deep into my writing ‘career,’ I find myself looking at different ways to tell a story, rather than just reading the story itself.

I’m also a sucker for Vertigo and Image comics, and have been for quite a while because they allow their creators to experiment. I’d certainly look at anything published by those. Comics, in general, add a different perspective to storytelling, in my opinion. Everyone should read them.

Would you say your interest in comic books has helped you to think of narrative in more visual terms? One of the things that struck me about Almost Surely in particular was the strong imagery.

Thank you, that really means a lot to me. I’m not certain, but I guess so. Comics feel freer – more fluid and changeable – to me, than literature. It’s a different medium, so they tend not to follow the three-act structure that most books and movies do. You’ve got multiple peaks and valleys in most single issues and, most of the time, complete stories are told over four to six issues. That’s what, eighteen acts, sometimes? It’s certainly different. They’ve probably made me more daring, or willing to experiment with my work, than anything.

I’m not really sure what to say about Almost Surely, though. I kinda feel more precious about that than any of my other works, because I started it when I was newly single and trying to make sense of life. I think I read my first proper comic about that time, too, funnily enough. I was just trying to do something different, emotive, and meaningful for me. It came from the heart, and I’m ridiculously proud of it, even if I don’t talk about it much online. I guess I’m too scared of people disliking it to promote it.

It’s funny, I’ve had a couple of readers compare it to The Sandman, and that’s blown me away completely. I can kinda see it, in some of the ideas I played about with, and the fact that the avatar for death I used was a woman, but… I don’t know. I hadn’t read the comic at the time I wrote it, so it certainly wasn’t intentional. Ha ha! If anything, I was more inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life or that one episode of The Twilight Zone: One For The Angels. God, I loved that.

It’s interesting how different kinds of media influence our own narratives like that. What about music, does that play a part in your creative process at all?

Oh yes, definitely. A bit like Edgar Wright, and the way he does his movies: I score my novels by what the characters are listening to, or what I imagine the story might sound like if it were on screen.

The only project of mine that doesn’t have a soundtrack is The Surrogate, but that’s just because its setup eliminates the need for one. The rest either do or will have the songs listed in the rear of the book.

I listened to one specific Frank Ocean song maybe 70 times back to back, to have it set the tone for a scene I was working on … I like using songs as motifs.

In considering how it influences my creative process, the best example I can think of is one that’ll mean nothing to anyone reading this in 2020. In Triad, a book that won’t see the light of day for a good while yet, I listened to one specific Frank Ocean song maybe 70 times back to back, to have it set the tone for a scene I was working on. I think it worked, but who knows? I like using songs as motifs. I think, if the reader knows the song, it’ll add an extra dimension to the storytelling. If they don’t know it, maybe it’ll give them a reason to look it up. It’s funny, I unintentionally ruined the Black Eyed Peas for a couple of people with their feature in Lovegun. I mean, the moment their music first appears in the story, and the way it happens? Let’s just say that, even though there’s a bunch of bonkers stuff in that story, that’s one part I still get a chuckle thinking about.

Finally, a question I’m asking everyone in these interviews: which three books would you recommend to readers on lockdown?

That is a hard one. I guess I should eliminate anything related to viruses and pandemics, right?

Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers trilogy is the first that jumps to mind. They’re just outstanding. I’m not sure how others think of them in relation to their feelings, but I found them pretty comforting.

I would’ve suggested Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire, as that’s just beautiful and my favourite comic book series, period. But it begins after a pandemic, so I guess I won’t…

This is hard.

Saga! Yes, Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. As far as comics go, that’s just magic. I loved it. Actually, anything by Brian K. Vaughan is great. Paper Girls, Ex Machina. Maybe not Y, The Last Man, as that’s another pandemic-related thing, but it’s suitably epic if you’re willing.

I just read the first four books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. They’re really good, and safe in this time of quarantine. I loved them.

Yeah… that was way more than three. Sorry!

Still more to add to my To Be Read list! Thank you very much for your time, Gavin, that was great.

If Gavin’s approach to fiction sounds like your thing, check out The Surrogate, Almost Surely and Lovegun on his Amazon author page.

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