A Collar for Cerberus is a story about time, life, pleasure and the decisions we make.
Today I'm pleased to talk to Matt Stanley about his new novel:
Tell us about A Collar for Cerberus
It’s the story of a young English graduate who travels to Greece in search of adventure and experience. He also hopes to meet his literary hero: Nobel-prize-winning author and veteran hell-raiser Irakles Bastounis. The two end up travelling around the country with the young man as chauffer and the older man his mentor in how to live life to the fullest. It’s a fraught and fractious relationship, but one that grows towards an unexpected twist. I guess you could also say it has elements of a travel book because the pair visit some of Greece’s most iconic sites and eat a lot of traditional Greek dishes.
Where did the idea come from?
I’d been reading travel journals from my twenties and I was struck by how differently I viewed life then: how idealistic and romantic I was, how open to experience and how much I enjoyed life. Somewhere in the following decades I’d lost that thirst. This book was an exploration of how we live, the decisions we make and what really matters to us. Where do we really find happiness?
Who do you see as your target reader?
It’s certainly important to identify your readership before you write – ideally a spectrum of potential readers. This is a book for young people with a thirst for travel experiences but also older people who once had such adventures and cherish the memories. It’s a book for writers – there’s a lot of discussion about what makes someone a writer (or not). Those with an interest in Greece will also love the book. I lived there for three years and I pass on my love of the country, its people, its history, its mythology and its food. It’s a great summer read, but also one whose twist invites you to read it again in a different light.
Do you have a writing routine?
Two hours a day or 1500-2000 words – whichever is faster. I tend to spend a long time mapping out the shape of the story with rough notes for each chapter, so I’m always working to a plan and I don’t get stuck. That’s the secret I’ve learned over the years. I don’t sit down to write unless I know what I’m going to write and where I’m taking the story. I typically write a novel in one draft. The read-through later is to fix errors.
How is it switching between genres?
I’ve previously written Victorian crime thrillers as James McCreet. Those books took a lot of research before and during the writing process. I was also writing in a quasi-antiquated style. Cerberus was carefully researched in terms of location detail, but much of it was drawn from experience. That made the book faster to write, but not necessarily easier. Whereas the detective books were purely story-driven, this one is more character-driven with attention on the thematic development. It was a book that taught me a lot about writing.
What advice do you have for new writers?
Having taught an MA in Creative Writing for a few years, I saw most students making the same mistake. You need to understand how a novel is structured: how storylines and characters are introduced, how narrative works, how character arcs work, how pace and suspense work. Too many people begin writing a novel as if they are going to read it. They expect it will simply flow automatically. What tends to happen without a knowledge of structure is that the resulting novel is shapeless or baggy or dissipated or lacking in consistency.
Cerberus is your tenth novel. What have you learned?
I’ve trained myself to produce a larger daily word count with each novel. I started with 500 words a day and have grown to 2000. That’s largely a product of better planning and understanding structure. I’ve also learned to take more risks. Cerberus is a kind of novel I never thought I’d write: a novel about big questions concerning life and death, happiness and delusion. It was a challenge for me, but proved to myself that I could do it. I think each new book has to be a challenge. When people ask me what my best book is, the honest answer is always, “The next one.”
How did you find your publisher?
I did what everyone does and sent out samples with a cover letter and synopsis. It’s not necessarily easier just because I’ve been published before. Every book is judged on its own merit. Unusually, I’ve had four books published without ever having had an agent, and this time I was keen to secure one. Andrew Lownie was the first to get back to me with an interest in my novel and I’ve been very impressed so far with their belief in the book.
Do you have plans for your next book?
Actually, no. I made some notes on a possible sequel to Cerberus, but at the moment I’m taking a break from writing. My life has changed radically in the last year and I have decided to relax into the flow. At first I felt guilty that the next novel wasn’t in the works, but then I remembered that the fuel for Cerberus was a period of intense personal experience. I’m having such a period now. It’s all fuel.
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About the author
Matt Stanley is the author of three crime thrillers under the name James McCreet and a non-fiction guide for first-time novelists on how to plan and structure a novel. He works as a professional writer in various guises: as a corporate copywriter, as a journalist, as an editor and as a mentor through his site www.mccrit.com. His articles on craft can be found each month in Writing Magazine.