Hammy and Mary talked to Joey Slater-Milligan, the writer of Psy, a supernatural novel for young adults. She is also a backing vocalist in Wheatus, and a band member of The Ventura Project and Grim All Day.
Hammy Havoc: Hi Joey!
Joey Slater-Milligan: Hi!
Mary Ann Mahoney: Thanks for talking to us today! So, tell us, have you always been interested in writing?
JSM: I always wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know what to write about. I had different ideas, but I hadn’t gotten to the planning stage, because I hadn’t worked anything out yet. Eventually, I wrote a children’s book, a picture book. Then I thought, ‘I’m going to write a novel.’ But first, I needed an idea. I sat and thought about it for about six hours or so, and in that time, I thought, ‘I’m going to write a young adult novel, and it’s going to be about teenagers with superpowers.’
HH: So, were interested in writing before you moved to America?
JSM: Yeah, I started writing when I lived in Milton Keynes. I’ve always liked writing, I just didn’t know what to write.
HH: Do you think that having the support of the Gotham Writers Club was useful?
JSM: Yeah, I do. They did different classes. I took part in a fiction one, which was an introduction to creative writing. It was very helpful. I took my first chapter, or maybe first two chapters there, because we had these workshops where everyone brings in what they’ve been working on, and everyone in the group gets to read it and critique it. I changed a lot about the beginning, based on everyone’s reactions to the opening chapters.
MAM: Were you worried about the constructive criticism you would receive at the Gotham Writers Club?
JSM: I was a bit nervous about it to be honest, because I had never shared my work, but it was nice, because we were all in the same boat. Everyone in that group was working on their first novel. First drafts are always going to be terrible, so it’s nice to be in a safe space were everyone can get feedback. Everyone knew it was a first draft, so they ignored the fact that it was terrible, and they looked for the good things in it, which was really helpful.
MAM: How was the feedback from your friends and family?
JSM: It’s different when my friends read my work and they tell me that it’s amazing. I know it’s not. I try to make it good, and I want to know how I can make it better. They say, ‘It’s fine! It’s great! I’d buy it.’ And I’m like, ‘No you wouldn’t!’ You need people who are unbiased to read your work. It helps when they’re doing the same thing as well.
HH: Are you the first person from the Gotham Writers Club to be published?
JSM: No, I don’t think so. I’m maybe the first one to publish a novel in my group, but I think someone might’ve had a short story published. I’m not sure. I haven’t really stayed in touch with many people there. A lot of people had some great ideas in that group, so if they got to finish their stories, then I would like to read them.
MAM: You said that you wrote a children’s novel. What made you want to publish Psy first?
JSM: I just felt like it. I just wanted to set myself a challenge, so I came up with the idea, and I was determined to see it through. I got really into it. I have a habit of delving into a project, and for two years that was my project. Once someone gets halfway into a novel, I think they either give up or they have to fight to finish it. I quit my job to finish my novel, and it felt really good to finish it.
HH: Why did you chose to self-publish?
JSM: Along the way, I thought about whether I wanted to try traditional publishing or self-publishing. If I had chosen traditional publishing, and if it had gotten published that way, then it would have taken a lot longer. I’m really impatient, which is mostly why I chose to self-publish, because I wanted it done quickly.
MAM: So, do you think it’s easy self-publishing?
JSM: Yeah, it wasn’t too bad. I was determined to do everything myself, which was a terrible idea! I wouldn’t recommend it.[Laughing]
HH: The problem with being a creative person is that you want complete creative control, because you have a specific vision in mind.
JSM: I know, right?
MAM: Tell us about the book cover.
JSM: I wanted to create a simple cover. I wanted the book cover to be vague, and not give away too much. I wanted to show the genre, but I didn’t want a typical picture of a pretty girl on the front. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I tried to work out how to use software like InDesign and Photoshop, and I just couldn’t get the hang of it. It was so complicated! Honestly, I cried! That’s how ridiculous it was when I was trying to get it done without knowing how to do it. But I did it eventually![Laughing]
HH: Was it difficult to format the book?
JSM: Yes! I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. You have to format it a very particular way, and I was trying to get all my chapters lined up. The chapters have to be the same and have the same line spacing… It was just way too complicated! Matthew would go to work in the morning and say, ‘Good luck! I know you’re going to do it today.’ I would be so determined to get things done, and then twenty minutes later, I would sit in front of my laptop and think, ‘Why? How do I do this?’ I did a lot of research and watched a lot of tutorials.
MAM: Sounds like you learned a lot from your experience. Did you create the book trailer as well?
JSM: Yes, that was easy. It was just iMovie!
HH: So, has that taken away time from The Ventura Project?
JSM: Kind of. I was doing other things as well. Matthew and I play in another band with our friends, as well as Wheatus.
MAM: What’s that band called?
JSM: Grim All Day. Our friend Phil is the main songwriter of the band. He used to be in a band called Incorporated Village of Ghost. They played what they called ‘ghost rock’, so we called our genre ‘post ghost rock’. Grim All Day has a keyboardist, bassist, drummer, and two vocalists. We recorded an album. It’s a little bit spooky; that the best way I can describe it.
MAM: Tell us a bit more about The Ventura Project.
JSM: We have new Ventura Project music. We’re several songs into an album, which is even slower progress than when we lived on different continents. If you think that by living in the same country, even in the same apartment, it would get done quicker, you would be wrong. And we were wrong to think that as well!
HH: Are you still recording using a MacBook microphone?
JSM: No, I use a real microphone now. It’s only an SM57. Nothing fancy!
HH: An instrument mic?
JSM: Yeah, I really like it. Sometimes I think about getting an SM58. I just want a nice microphone, but there are so many!
HH: The trouble with getting a nice microphone is that you have to treat the room as well.
JSM: Exactly! We have a little recording space.
MAM: So, you didn’t get to use the Wheatus studio?
JSM: Oh, we did. When we recorded Distracted, we used that. But the problem with using Brendan’s studio is that he’s always in it! He loves being there, so it’s hard finding the time to get in there.
MAM: So, are you planning to release another book or another record?
JSM: I really want the new Ventura Project to be done soon. I have my own album that I’ve demoed and I have one song out. And Phil, who’s in Grim All Day, is playing drums and recording that for me, so I’ll just need to sort the guitar and vocals. Again, it’ll be self-released, because I’m so impatient!
HH: Anything else coming out?
JSM: Well, for the last three years, I’ve wanted to finish my picture book.
MAM: And this is the children’s book you mentioned earlier?
HH: Is the artwork coming along for it?
JSM: Yeah, I’ve been doing it. It’s very simple artwork, mostly silhouettes. To be honest, the pictures don’t take that long. It’s just hard finding the time to get around to doing it. You need to be in the right mindset. When I eventually sit down to do it, I can create around three pictures a day. I’m probably about halfway through. I know that at some point I’m going to have to put it in InDesign and go through that whole debacle again!
MAM: So, what’s your children’s book like?
JSM: It’s not a short book and doesn’t have just one or two lines per book. It’s like a long poem.
HH: So, what’s it like to be married to someone who’s in two different bands that you’re in?
JSM: It’s good, actually. We get to walk to band practice together, stop for coffee on the way there. It’s cool. We met on a tour, so it’s easy to get along. We always joke that going on tour with someone is the best test for a relationship, because you will find out very quickly if you don’t get on with someone. Try living with someone on a tour bus, surrounded by twelve other people. That’s a challenge! We did that for years as friends. You very quickly learn about everyone’s habits and good qualities as well.
HH: What’s Matthew doing now? He stopped working at the record store, didn’t he?
JSM: Yeah. He might go back part time, or help out here and there. He loves being around all the records. He’s always coming home with something new. He says, ‘Look at what I got!’ And I tell him, ‘It’s nice but, where are we going to put it?’ We have those IKEA EXPEDIT cubes… Loads of them in a very small apartment. Most of what we own is vinyl! It’s impressive. Matthew loves it and he can tell you facts about all of them.
MAM: Do you have your own collection?
JSM: I have ten or fifteen records.
MAM: Are you looking to collect more?
JSM: I don’t really want to go down that road, because if I did, there would be no end to it. I want every Thin Lizzy and every Deep Purple album. I love British classic rock. Every time we go out and see a Deep Purple collection, I go through it and say, ‘Oh, look! We don’t have this one! We don’t have that one!’ I want to take the whole stack home.
HH: You could triple the size of your collection with the albums of just one band.
JSM: I know! If I did, that then we’d need a bigger apartment!
HH: Are there any physical copies of Psy?
MAM: Where can people buy those from?
JSM: People can buy them on Amazon. I don’t know if it’s available in every country, but it’s definitely available in the UK and the US.
HH: Are they in any brick and mortar stores?
JSM: Not yet. I’m waiting for a few more reviews, then I’m going to take it to some book shops and say, ‘Look, this is how well I’m doing. Would you be interested in stocking some copies?’ We have this great book shop just down the road from our house that highlights local authors. Selling my book in there would be super exciting! Even the fact that people are buying copies online has been crazy.
MAM: What has the response been like?
JSM: It’s been mostly positive. It’s a bit scary. The biggest criticism is that people don’t like the ending. I always knew that was going to be a point of contention, because I deliberately wanted a weird ending. I wanted something unexpected. One of the problems I have with young adult novels is that the teenager always wins. They’re always able to defeat the bad guy, which just isn’t realistic. I thought, ‘What if the protagonist doesn’t triumph or fail, what if something else happens?’ It’s a journey. I wanted to ask, ‘Are they actually helping?’ I think that’s a more human thing to do. And that made it more interesting to write.
HH: So, it wouldn’t have a stereotypical showdown.
JSM: Exactly. And as much as I love books like Harry Potter, I didn’t want it to be like Harry versus Voldemort, because it’s like the all-powerful bad guy versus a kid. It seems very unlikely to me that a kid is going to win, and I wanted to play with the idea that the heroine in my story really isn’t that special or different from anybody else. Maybe she’s special in some ways, but she’s also just a regular person. I wanted to bring a more human element to a superhero story. One of the queries in my writing group was, ‘If they have all these powers, why can’t they do all these extraordinary things?’ I’m not trying to write an X-Men story. I just want these abilities to seem normal, and ordinary instead of extraordinary. It’s our world, just a little different.
HH: I suppose that if you wanted to adapt it to screen, it would be much cheaper in terms of special effects.
JSM: That’s a very good point! I hadn’t really thought of that. But you’re right, maybe I could even do an indie production.
HH: And would you do it all yourself?
JSM: No! I think I’d outsource someone to do all the editing. I think I draw the line at movie editing.
HH: You value your sanity too much!
JSM: Yeah, I do!
MAM: And there’s a sequel coming?
JSM: Yes! As soon as I finished the first one, I tried to sit down and write it. I started the process all over again and I went to the same coffee shop where I wrote the first draft of Psy, and I was really excited to start chapter one. When I got three paragraphs in, I realised that it was so much effort!
HH: So, does it feature the same characters, same places?
JSM: Yeah, this is a direct follow-on and details what happens next. I feel like Psy was a story that was slowly built up and then just ends. And to me, it was always more of a prequel, because I love dystopian-type stories. I love The Hunger Games and that sort of thing, where there are these groups of people who are at war or there is a big divide. I wanted to write a story that shows how they got there and what led up to that point. The second book is going to be about what happens after the big build-up. I think that kind of thing is very interesting.
HH: The first book will probably make more sense after everyone reads the sequel. People do love the overall concept of extended universes.
JSM: Yeah, I’m really into that kind of genre. I always wondered that if superpowers were real, would they be all that extraordinary?
HH: It’s so hard to sell somebody a book, but if you actually manage it, it’s so extraordinary.
JSM: I think the amazing part is when family and friends read it and enjoy it, but knowing that random people read it and like it, feels good too. As an independent author, there’s not really any hope of it reaching charts or anything like that, but that was never my goal. I just wanted to write a book, so I did just that.
HH: It might snowball given the right marketing.
JSM: Yeah. I just hope that if people enjoy the book, they’ll tell their friends about it.
MAM: Do you use any writing resources?
JSM: There’s a good website called Absolute Write.
HH: Is that like a forum?
JSM: Yeah. People are very helpful and there are a lot of great tips on there!
MAM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JSM: If you want to write a book, then just try it. Don’t get hung up on it being good, because it’s probably not going to be good for at least three or four drafts. Just accept that and keep writing. On Absolute Write, there are people called ‘pantsers’, who fly by the seat of their pants and just start writing and keep going until they reach the end. Most people write that way. Just keep writing, get to a point where your happy, then read though it and start all over again.
HH: You mean, writing the whole thing without stopping, instead of editing as you go along?
JSM: Yeah. If you edit as you go along, you’re more likely to stop. If you’re just making it up as you go along, then it’s always going to change if you keep stopping and starting. When I got to the end of Psy, I went back and read it, and there were some things that confused me. I had one character that disappeared halfway through, and that hadn’t occurred to me until I read it back. That’s why editing is so important. And even when I was three or four drafts in, my friend Ken, who played keyboard in Wheatus…
HH: Ken Flagg?
JSM: Yeah! He was the most helpful person. He read the whole thing, and we met up for coffee and he had pages and notes for me. He pointed out things that hadn’t even crossed my mind.
MAM: It’s strange what stands out to the reader versus what stands out to the author.
JSM: It helped me see it less from my own perspective. I was so caught up in what I was thinking about, that when someone had notes for me, I would be like, ‘You’re right, I should go through it again.’
MAM: Can you recommend any good books to our readers? Have you read anything good lately?
JSM: All the Light We Cannot See written by Anthony Doerr is the most well written book I’ve read in a long time.
HH: Thanks for the recommendation! It was great talking to you.
MAM: We’re really looking forward to reading the sequel to Psy.
JSM: Thanks for having me!
You can buy your own Kindle or paperback copy of Psy on Amazon. And don’t forget to look out for the upcoming sequel!