Author Interview – David Flin
Following on from my exclusive interviews with authors Paul Leone and Tom Anderson, I was lucky enough to get in contact with author David Flin, another Sea Lion Press alumni who has had several novels released by the publisher, as well as editing (and contributing to) several of their anthologies. He was gracious enough to agree to answer some questions from me about his background and life experiences, and how those have influenced his writing and his goals as an author; the inspiration behind his Alternate History novels; the mysterious Sergeant Frosty; and what the future holds for him at the moment.
Hi there David, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer! Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
How long have you got? For a start, when I was born, Britain had a different National Anthem to the current one. Then, it was God Save the King. Which was a bit ironic, as King George died a week or so after I was born. I’ve had a fair number of years to gather a background. And, truth be told, it’s been varied so far.
I’m an East End boy, born in Dagenham (pronounced Dagnum) in London. People often say that back when they were young, times were tough. Back then, for me, times were tough. This was the time when unexploded bombs from the war were still to be found, when the Kray twins ruled and the police regarded the East End as not worth their bother. “No-one important lives there.”
I was lucky in many ways, being big and fit and with some good friends. That said, it was a hungry existence. My father was killed when I was 13, so I had to bring in an income. Which meant playing truant from school most of the time. Again, I got lucky. That’s the story of my life: “I got lucky.” I joined the Royal Marines when I was 16.
It was an interesting time to be in the Royal Marines. Sometimes, “interesting” in the sense of the Chinese curse. Two tours of Northern Ireland during the worst of The Troubles, three months in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, six months guarding the British Embassy in Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh during Bangladeshi Independence. Those were the “interesting” times. For interesting, learning to ski (at Government expense) in north Norway, a two-year trip to Nepal to recruit Ghurkas for the British Army, learning all sorts of things on all sorts of toys.
Then the Falklands.
I went down, got wounded, and met a nurse. The wound ended my career in the Marines, and I was engaged to the nurse before we got back to England. It’s possible some older students of AH might recognise her – Alison Brooks.
Then we did this and that here and there. Just over a decade of trundling around. Then that came to an end, and I got a job as a journalist. Not a high-flying national-newspaper journalist, just on a trade press magazine covering the electricity industry. From there to Editor of a magazine, then a stable of magazines.
Then two events coincided to change things. Andrew, our son, was born, and Alison got cancer from which she was soon to die.
So I became a freelance journalist, working from home. Later, once I became established, I expanded into writing fiction. Essentially, the journalism was to pay the bills, and the fiction was for fun.
Which is a rough rule of thumb I have for writing fiction. If you’re not enjoying writing it, no-one is going to enjoy reading it.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
An eclectic mix, some of them are perhaps a bit obscure, others less so. For SF, I guess my biggest influences have been Arthur C Clarke and Eric Frank Russell. Clarke applied strict science as understood at the time to his stories, grounding them in the feeling: “This might happen.” The writing may have been stodgy, the stories simple, the characters tending towards caricatures, but you could see how it all worked. When he described a moon base, you knew that the science there was solid.
Russell wrote with a joie de vivre and the ability to tell a shaggy dog story that is, in my view, unsurpassed in SF. Allamagoosa and A Little Oil are classics. If you haven’t read them, you’ve missed out on two classic short stories.
For Fantasy, the two biggest influences are Tolkien, of course, and a little known author Claudia Edwards. As far as I am aware, Edwards only wrote three books, but they’ve stuck with me for a long time.
In more general terms, there have been many influences. Kipling’s poetry has been a big influence. It’s by no means epic or classic, but with something like the Barrack Room Ballads, I can close my eyes, and I recognise the voices.
So many others. George MacDonald Fraser, although I’m always in two minds over the Flashman series; Terry Pratchett, despite the tendency for favoured characters to become effectively caricatures; Raymond Chandler is another that I’m fond of.
So many, and a lot will depend on my mood at the time.
I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who goes to a coffee shop and sits with a laptop typing away, or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
Coffee shops feature, but not with a laptop. Notepad and talking and people watching. It’s where I get ideas and little concepts and thoughts for characters and so on.
I do the actual writing in my workspace. A laptop on a desk facing a window with a view to a fence. Minimum of visual distractions possible. Solitude would be nice, but with four-year-old twins, not really an option.
That fact means that I tend to work in fast bursts. It might sound difficult, but I’ve found telling bedtime stories hones up storytelling techniques wonderfully. You quickly learn how to keep the interest of the audience, and how to pace things such that you come to a conclusion when it’s time for them to go to sleep.
As for background music, that depends on the piece I’m trying to write. Bruce Springsteen is one I’ll use, particularly when it comes to working-class hero type elements. Petula Clark for light, social interactions. Carmen and Orpheus in the Underworld for swashbuckling sequences.
Always reasonably quick pieces, though. I find I type to the rhythm of the music. Largo is not good for meeting deadlines.
Currently, the majority of your published titles are based in the Alternate History genre. What attracted you to that genre in particular? Is there something unique to the genre that others perhaps don’t have?
Curiously, it wasn’t a genre I was particularly interested in at the start. Alison was the one who was keen on it, and she was fairly active on the old usenet group soc.history.what-if, back in the 1990s and early 2000s. I just joined in with factual bits in arguments over certain aspects of history.
I’m not a great expert on history, and there are only a handful of periods I’m familiar with. Then Alison got ill, and I took over one of her timelines and brought it to a finish. Since then, I’ve stuck around the AH genre, but if I’m honest, I’m a storyteller first, and an alternate historian second.
Looking back through your published fiction, your ‘core’ Alternate History titles are the two Six East End Boys novels – Six East End Boys and Tales From Section D – which focus on the aftermath of a failed uprising in an alternate 1980s London. That’s certainly a scenario I haven’t encountered before – what led you to write about it?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m an East End boy myself. “Write about what you know” is an injunction given to starting writers, and London is something I know about. I’ve also seen more than my fair share of near-warzones, unfortunately. Combine that with the UK events of the 1970s and 1980s – Toxteth riots, Miners’ strike, Brixton, Notting Hill Riots, Brighton bombing, and turn it up to 11, and you’ve got the core elements of Six East End Boys.
Six East End Boys is, in many ways, a very angry book. It talks of justice, and how no-one should be above the law, and no-one outside the protection of the law. That theme runs through the book from start to finish. It also is unashamedly looking at those who are far from being people of influence. They are just ordinary people put into an extraordinary situation. They make mistakes and errors of judgement, and they are what you get when the ignored say: “You know what, I’m not going to take this any more.”
There are a lot of historical and AH stories that look at the world through the eyes of the powerful; generals and presidents and prime ministers. I don’t know what it’s like to be a general, president or prime minister, and I couldn’t write that view point convincingly. For one thing, these people are almost invariably very well-educated, and I’m not.
Tales from Section D looks at the issues of building up an intelligence service from scratch. It tries to be realistic; more early Spooks than James Bond. It also tries to show how some of the techniques used work. There is a second series of Section D, but as yet, that has not been published.
And, if I’m honest, Six East End Boys started life as a few writing exercises that were
never intended to become a book. Initially, I just wanted a write a short chapter to lay down the bare bones of a setting and to introduce a character. Once I’d done the first six chapters, and got an interesting selection of East End Boys, I thought: “Maybe I should do something with these.” One thing led to another, and the book was the result. If you look carefully, you can still see chapters where what the writing exercise was is apparent, but hopefully everything all links in together to make a coherent whole. Whether it works or not is, as always, for the reader to decide, but I had a lot of fun writing it. The rest is, as they say, history. Or perhaps alternate history.
That’s the key to writing. Unless you’re one of the lucky few, there’s not a great deal of money in writing. If you’re not having fun writing, then you’re doing something wrong. Put simply, if you’re not enjoying writing it, there’s no way other people will enjoy reading it. Writing is about conveying emotion, and unless you’re a superstar writer, you’re not going to be able to fake those emotions.
Sorry, I got a bit digressed. That’s a bit of a habit of mine.
After those two novels, your next publication was a collection of stories entitled The Return of King Arthur and other alternate myths which is certainly different to the Six East End Boys universe! What led you to writing about mythology and alternate takes on King Arthur and other folklore?
I was interested in mythology and legends long before I was interested in alternate history. How different countries, and different regions within countries can have very different emphases in their legends. For example, it’s astonishing just how many times one comes across “the hero who shall return” legend in Britain.
The Dancing Stones, for example, was a story in which I pulled together a number of legends: the Beast of Bodmin, stone circles, Elf hills, Morgan le Fay, and the Western Isles. There’s a full story in there waiting to be told, as there is for the border’s tale, Gentlemen of Leisure.
You’ll notice that many of the stories in the book are told as children’s stories. That’s because many of them started life off a bedtime stories. I’ve long maintained that the purest form of storytelling is that of bedtime stories. One thing is for certain: you’ll never lack for ideas if you tell bedtime stories to a suitable audience.
And of course, you’ve also edited an anthology from Sea Lion Press – Comedy Through The (P)ages – as well as a series of articles collected from the Sea Lion Press blog on How To Write Alternate History. For the latter, what would you say are some of the key lessons for anyone hoping to write Alternate History fiction?
Don’t regard the Alternate History setting as the be-all and end-all of the fiction. There are basically three elements to any fiction: Characters, plot, and setting. Interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places. The alternate history is just one strand in three.
People will forgive a weakness in the history if the story is a good one: the history behind The Man In The High Castle is, when analysed, pretty poor stuff. But the story is good, the characters compelling, and the description evocative. By contrast, you can have the most detailed and plausible history you like, if the story isn’t very good, people won’t read it.
The number one rule for me is: “Have a good story to tell.”
The only way to get good at writing is to practise. Read a lot and write a lot. Get feedback on your work. Experiment with new things. Sometimes things will work, other times, not so much. Find out what style you find easiest to work with.
In the end, the history element of alternate history isn’t that important. If the specific setting you’ve got for your story is evocative, no-one is going to care how you got there.
Someone once said there were two types of Alternate History: Alternate History as Setting, and Alternate History as Genre. In the first, you have a story that’s based in an AH setting – the Nazis win WW2 or the Confederacy wins the American Civil War and gains independence. The details of how the setting come about aren’t that important. What is important is the story being told.
By contrast, AH as Genre is where the historical steps are what is important, and there is no real story as such. It’s essentially like developing a different history, which can be as simple or as complicated as you like.
As for advice for writing a story. There are two hard bits in writing a story: starting it and finishing it.
It’s easy to get lost in doing the research for a story, and to start looking at every little detail before starting. It’s very easy to never get started with this approach.
By contrast, one can spend forever revising and improving and polishing a piece, to the extent that it’s never quite ready. There comes a point in every book where the author finds continuing hard work. There’s a hump, and many would-be authors put the work to one side and never come back to it.
There’s only one solution to dealing with the hump, and that’s to work through it. There are thousands, maybe millions, of half-written stories with promise that have got no further because the author hit this hump and couldn’t get over it.
It might be that you are starting to hate the story, or the characters, the ideas seem lame, you’d rather do anything other than write. We’ve all been there, and the only solution is to work through it.
It’s worth it when you reach the end.
But your latest title is one you’ve released independently, and which is rather different from your previous releases. What can you tell us about The Complete Tales of Sergeant Frosty and the story behind the stories?
It’s getting to be a familiar theme. Bedtime stories. Part of the routine for getting Alison and Gareth, the twins, off to sleep when they were young was to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” to them. The only trouble was, it only worked if it was sung in Welsh. “Pwff y ddraig hud” became a catchphrase.
Sergeant Frosty’s origin is described in the first story in the book, and that part (apart from the bit about him coming to life) was pretty much true.
The third element is that I’m a sucker for Christmas stories and films. I think I must be the only person in the world who admits to liking them, but that’s my taste for you.
Then the stories just seemed to come together. You have to grasp Children’s Logic. A A Milne captures the Child Logic concept perfectly in his Winnie the Pooh stories. Like A A Milne, I introduced the children’s toys into the story, because of course, they had to be involved.
This included the biggest and bestest toy of them all. For their second birthday, Andrew and Katya (his friend, now his fiancée) made them a Pwff from cardboard boxes and kitchen roll tubes and cloth for the wings. It was a work of art, 10 feet from nose to tail, and with a 12 foot wing span. It had two open boxes in the middle just big enough for a twin to sit in.
That was a much-loved Pwff, and one that was quickly battered with much use. It survived a nigh on two years, before succumbing to wear and tear, which is a long time for a cardboard dragon.
Obviously, Pwff features heavily in the stories.
The reason for publishing independently, rather than though Sealion Press, my previous publishers, was simply that by no stretch of the imagination is it Alternate History. And, truth be told, it was also a trial run for my next project.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? Will you be returning to Alternate History as a genre – or will Sergeant Frosty perhaps get another outing?
What’s next indeed. The short answer is Sergeant Frosty Publications. SF, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults. It launches in October 2020, and will be publishing 3-5 books each month, specifically for children and young adults.
In October, the four titles being launched are:
Cave Between Worlds, by Andy Cooke. Ages 12-16. This is a story of young people in the modern world who discover a link between this world and a world of magic and fantasy. In this story, Book 1 of the Shadowland Chronicle, they learn of the link when two people from the magic world arrive in ours.
Fight To Dance, by Simon Brading. Ages 8-12. Simon draws on his own experiences as a ballet dancer to bring to life the story of twins with a love of dance, and their struggles to learn in spite of obstacles life keeping putting in their way. This is Book 1 of the Twin Ambitions series.
The Curious Case of the Clairvoyant Curate, by David Flin. Ages 12-16. A murder mystery set in the 1920s.
Green and Pleasant Land, by David Flin. Ages 16+. It’s the start of an Alternate History tale, Book 1 of the Building Jerusalem series. Essentially, it’s 1921, and WWI didn’t start in 1914. The alternate history lies very much in the background, and the story follows the adventures of a group of four who have just joined the army. This book is the story of their training in England. An earlier version of this was published as Bring Me My Bow, published by Sea Lion Press, but now no longer available.
That is the story of “What next?” Of course, that begs the question of “Why?”
Back in November 2019, I was diagnosed with having cancer. Apparently, it was quite serious. Indeed, the Consultant described my condition as “Terminal.”
This was, I felt, decidedly inconvenient. Still, there’s one thing that being told you’ve only got a limited number of days left does, and that is to encourage you to make the most of them. I had already been talking with several people, and I knew that quite a few of us had stories and books for children that we wanted to publish, but we weren’t sure which publisher would be the best to approach.
Well, my time might be limited, but I have been journalist, editor, and writer. There seemed no reason not to add publisher to the list. At the very least, I could get things started.
It wasn’t all selflessness. One thing I have seen is that mental attitude is very important when dealing with cancer. My father-in-law was given six months. He made a list of all the things he wanted to do before he died, and he ticked them off, one by one. He ticked the last one off, and two weeks later, he died. That was three years after he had been given six months. Mental outlook is important, so I set myself a clear and achievable goal.
Then things got complicated. Tests were done on my cancer, and it turned out that rather than one big cancer, I had lots of smaller ones: kidney, prostate, liver, bowel. That was the start of six months of assorted medical people going after each one by one. A bit of a race against time, and fairly draining for me.
Three major operations later, one of them lasting 12 hours, and one kidney had been removed and the other was clear of cancer, and a couple of feet of bowel were removed. Then I was ready for eight weeks of chemotherapy, which was pushed to the limit of what my body could cope with. That brought the liver cancer down to a size that they could operate. Technically, I died on the table, but the nice medical people got my heart working again. Then radiotherapy for the prostate.
Then, in July, I had another talk with the Consultant, the same one I spoke to it November. “Well, Mr Flin, I rather think you’re cured.”
I was, as you can imagine, quite pleased.
The hospital I was in was the Royal Marsden, a specialist cancer hospital. I came across one thing there that has given my project extra meaning. The Children’s ward. Children with cancer. It’s hard to put into words just how wrong that is. I’m not clever or skilled enough to stop children getting cancer or to find a cure. I just fool around with words and tell children’s stories.
That children’s ward will get a free copy of every book Sergeant Frosty Publications produces, to help brighten up the lives of those children. It’s not much, indeed, it’s pitifully small.
With luck, they will get some of the great good fortune I had. When this annoying pandemic is over, I’ve arranged to go in and read them stories.
It’s what I do. Tell stories to brighten the lives of children. These are children who deserve every scrap of brightness that can come their way.
So, I’ve pretty much laid aside the Alternate History. Sergeant Frosty is definitely getting another outing.
Thank-you for such an in-depth and interesting interview, David! I wish you the best of luck with your writing, and look forward to seeing what those initial titles from Sergeant Frosty Press look like – we’ll be having a more in-depth look at them here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer in the near future.
If you’re interested in any of David’s titles, all of which I can highly recommend, they can be found through his Author Page on Amazon. His latest collection, The Complete Tales of Sergeant Frosty, was released late last year and includes some of the characters discussed in this very interview:
Once upon a time, there was a snowman. Actually, he was a snow Marine, and his name was Sergeant Frosty. Over the years, he had many adventures, and these are the stories of his adventures, from his early days as little more than a snowball, to when he was old and white.
There are times when it is true to say that “the tale grew in the telling.” These stories have been developing for over forty years. As with all tales, the characters take on a life of their own. In this case, that is literally true.
These stories start as humorous takes on the WW3 tropes, and develop into Christmas bedtime stories. If you struggle with the logic of some of these stories, well, that’s the nature of bedtime stories. If you want to find out more about Sergeant Frosty, Pwff, the delicate Christmas Angel, Pop-Up, and others, you’ll find them in here.