In Conversation with Lee A. Nolan Author of 'Blood & Brown Sugar'
Lee is a Canadian born writer, now living in Mumbai, India. He graduated Granton University’s Short Story & Fiction Writing Course and currently have, along with maintaining a blog a website called 'The
Wandering Hippy', and four published works. The first, 'Memoirs Of A Motorcycle Madman', is a collection of humorous travelogues, recounting his many adventures riding a motorcycle through India.
The second is a hard hitting crime thriller novel, 'Blood & Brown Sugar', released by Leadstart Publishing House. His novel has been trending till now and reached the number one spot on the Hot New Releases chart on Amazon.in under two weeks of its release.
He also has short stories included in the recent 'Chadrayarn – Spin To The Moon' and 'Hell Hounds –Tales' From The Bark fiction anthologies, and two other stories that have been accepted by the 'My Hearts Sunshine' and 'The Abandoned House Horror' anthologies that are being released soon. This exclusive and candid interview done by Associate Editor Shristee Singh will not only take you deeper into the the psyche of the author but also reveal his humorous side as well.
Cc. Lee you were born in Canada but now you have relocated to Mumbai, India. From Canada to India is a long journey! Tell us how it happened? It may sound cliché but we would like to know what you like in India and how has your journey been so far here?
Lee. That is a long and complicated tale, but I suppose the simple answer is that I fell in love. First with a woman, then a culture. In 2012, I was in Canada working as an executive for a prominent fire protection company in Toronto, a shark in a suit. Then, through the unlikeliest circumstances, I met a woman, and after a few years of jetting around the globe for our annual tête-à-tête, I realised I couldn’t live without her. We decided to solidify our relationship into a more permanent situation, so I relocated to India.
I’ve been here almost ten years, and have my citizenship, so it’s safe to say I’ve settled in properly now. Most days I call India home. But, when I first arrived, it was like immigrating to a different planet. I settled in Delhi first. That was a baptism by fire. To say I was culture shocked is a massive understatement. Everything was different. But gradually, the more I learned about the ethnology, the more the gentle heartbeat of India called out to me. To use your word, it may be a cliché surrounding the ‘mystic east’, but I’m at peace here, and having led a frequently turbulent life, a little serenity is a priceless commodity. I will also answer what seems to be the most common question about my settling here, yes, I like the food!
Cc. You have four published books as far as I know. 'Memoirs Of A Motorcycle Madman' is a collection of humorous travelogues, while 'Blood & Brown Sugar' is a hard-hitting crime thriller novel. Such a diverse range is delivered from your end! How did you manage to write in two different genres? Which genre did you enjoy more?
Lee. Interesting question. By nature, I lean more towards the macabre. Horror, dark suspense, that’s the direction most of my work takes. I’ve dabbled in drama, thriller, dystopian fantasy, and even romance. Poetry seems to be well out of my grasp, but other than that, I’ve never really considered myself nailed down to any particular genre.
I’m a story teller, I try not to over complicate that. Genre, along with location, time period, characters, are all just vehicles to that end, telling a story. A vengeful pirate on the deck of a sixty gun brigantine in the Caribbean, a tormented spirit in a Victorian jail cell in England, or a young man riding a motorcycle along a jungle road in India, they are all just backdrops. Canvases on which to paint a tale. When I first get the itch, or the seed of a story, I simply pick the best arena in which to tell it. While I do carefully select the time period and setting, usually the genre suggests itself. I don’t pay that much attention to it, to be honest.
I don’t think I have a favourite, really. Although, as I said, horror seems to be the more prominent direction I head. I do so love the tension created from not knowing, when you swing your legs out of bed and put your toes on the floor, if some wee beastie is going to gnaw through your ankle from under it.
Cc. You have also done a diploma in short story and fiction writing from Granton University. We have writers who take inspiration from their surroundings and experiences. They depend upon their reading experiences to go ahead and write stories. How far do you think a professional degree or diploma in the art of storytelling is important for budding writers?
Lee. Surroundings, experiences, reading, are all essential to writing. But unfortunately, raw talent can only take you so far. If you are writing as a hobby, with no serious intent to publish on a large scale or make it a career of it, then write on, McDuff. But if you are looking to write professionally, I believe schooling gives you a great advantage and is preferable.
If you are writing, or at the very least, have the desire to, then your artistic drive is already there. But to harness it, well, writing is no different than any other profession. Talent and skill are required. Talent comes naturally, but skills must be learnt. If you had a burning desire to help the sick, you wouldn’t simply start operating on people on your kitchen table, right? …Hmm… story idea there.
The mechanics of good writing are complex. When I first put pen to paper, I didn’t know what a limited third person omniscient narration view point was. I had no idea how to avoid tropes, or even what they were, when to use an em dash, an oxford comma, or why people don’t like split infinitives. You can, of course, learn all these things through trial and error, but it’s a long road, fraught with disappointments and rejection. Isn’t it better to hone your craft under the watchful eye of someone who has travelled that road before you? Someone to guide and correct you when you wander off the path? I think so. If nothing else, it will save you a tonne of heartache. Some rejection letters can be downright nasty.
Cc. 'Blood & Brown Sugar' is not only about the thrills and chills of a character who is fascinated by motorcycles but also deals with some shady things like guns and heroin. What motivated you to touch on this subject in your novel?
Lee. In truth, the guns, and heroin, and sex, and violence, are all just by-products of telling the main character’s story. That was the focus. The journey I wanted him to take, and the readers to take, was best told from the pillion seat of a Royal Enfield for a couple of reasons. There is an old axiom in writing, ‘write what you know’ and I know motorcycles. I, myself, have ridden over 60,000 km in two years in India and am a member of a prominent motorcycle club here. So, slipping the main character into an outlaw motorcycle club was something I was comfortable with. The situations I wanted him to face, the things I wanted to expose, lend themselves well to that environment. It was just a good fit.
There was also the draw of introducing the Indian public to things they may not be fully aware of. The MC culture is currently exploding in this country, clubs are popping up all over the map, and the fact that heroin addiction in India is a huge problem, but no one seems to be talking about it, was something I wanted to address. Now, I’m not suggesting that the clubs in India are outlaw, or that they are responsible for the narcotics problem. But it is an accepted premise, as misguided as it may be, that bike gangs peddle drugs, and with that comes violence. It is fiction after all. As I said earlier, a fabricated landscape on which to best tell the story.
Cc. The main character in 'Blood & Brown Sugar' is Alex Crossman, who is surrounded by a plethora of characters. Alex had been leading quite a mundane life and goes through certain circumstances that change the course of his life. What was your inspiration behind creating the character of Alex?
Lee. I love Alex, truly. I don’t normally develop any attachments to my characters, I can’t afford to, as I kill them off so regularly. But he is different, Alex is close to my heart.
He was born from my fascination in literature with the anti-hero. Tyrion Lannister and Lestat de Lioncourt are two of my favourites, for example. That was an avenue I always wanted to explore with one of my own characters. But, while writing his profile sketch, I started to notice that Alex wasn’t a true anti-hero archetype. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and is generally a good guy. I tried to change his personality, to hammer him into my plot line, but, as easy going as he is, I soon found out he could be quite stubborn as well. It was becoming an issue.
During the time I was writing the first draft and struggling with Alex not behaving the way I needed him to, my wife and I were watching the series Breaking Bad on Netflix. It was watching Walter White transform into Heisenberg that gave me that first inkling. What if I deconstruct Alex? A deconstructed anti-hero? Or better yet, deconstruct him into an anti-hero. Now that would be interesting! Then just like that, Alex sprung to life on the page and ran rampant.
In my heart of darkness, I would be forced to admit there is a little of me rolled up in the mix as well. Particularly the way he handles the overwhelming adversity that, through no fault of his own, gets lain at his feet. But I suppose a little bit of the writer always bleeds through into the main characters, no matter how hard you try to contain it.
Cc. The front and the back cover speak a lot about the book. The cover of the book almost looks like a scene from a movie! I can also vouchsafe to my readers that the novel itself is nothing less than a fast-paced thriller movie. Have you ever fantasised that a movie can be made out of your novel? Also, tell us about your escapade with acting in Bollywood after which you became a full-time writer. Are you inspired by Bollywood?
Lee. I didn’t write with any intent toward a film or series, but be that as it may, Blood & Brown Sugar has already been optioned by a leading Bollywood production company. Unfortunately, due to my non-disclosure agreement, I can’t say any more than that, other than you would know the producer.
My acting exploits were short lived, just a handful of roles here and there. It was more of a lark for me really, I didn’t have any illusions about my acting ability. In spite of that, I did alright. I viewed the whole thing through a writer’s eye, soaking up the experiences for cannon fodder later. At some point I’m sure it will show up in a story, one of my characters will act in something, or be on a set somewhere.
It was fascinating though, and I did get to rub elbows with some interesting people. Sidharth Malhotra, Sanjay Gurbaxani, Satinder Sartaaj, Pulkit, people like that. A lot of fun. In fact, one night on the set of Aiyaary, Sidharth and I got scolded while filming the airport scene. I was whispering jokes in his ear during our close up and he kept cracking up. He’s a very cool guy. The director, Neeraj Pandey, got a little steamed and chewed us out. My fault, I own it.
I don’t really follow Bollywood. I actually unintentionally insulted Satinder Sartaaj when we first met. I didn’t know who he was! I’ll make more of an effort now though, I know there are some quality films out there worth watching.
Cc. Your book 'Blood & Brown Sugar' reached the number one spot on Hot New Releases chart on Amazon in under two weeks of its release. Many congratulations on that! Was there any marketing strategy you applied or it was sheer luck?
Lee. Thank you, it was thrilling to be sure. I actually first hit the charts right in-between Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and an Agatha Christie novel. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll take that!’
I would like to believe Blood & Brown Sugar’s initial success was due to it being an awesome read, but, there was a lot of marketing involved. Weeks of build-up, teasers and trailers, and I had a very strong launch. I think that’s what pushed it to the top in the beginning.
Cc. You are a motorcyclist and also a writer. We can make out from your writing that you are passionate about both, with the way you have indulged your passion for riding in your stories. Given a choice to choose between one of the two, what will you choose, bike or pen? Why?
Lee. I think if I were ever presented that as a serious option, I would be forced to do great bodily harm to the individual presenting the choice.
I jest, of course. Honestly though, I don’t think I could choose. How do you choose between your lungs or your liver? I need both to survive. To paraphrase Stephan King, I write, because not to write is suicide.
It’s a passion that burns so deeply for me, that if there were no release for it, I’m certain I would go insane. The same holds true for riding. If you take away my bike, you may as well have my legs as well.
Cc. I have read your book and found that you have kept your language simple so that readers find it easy to connect with. Every chapter is like a story in itself that connects with the next chapter forming the ultimate grand story. We find it difficult to write short stories and you have gone ahead writing a 295 pages novel! How long did it take for you to finish your book? How did you keep your thoughts connected between so many scenes and plots happening in your novel?
Lee. I’ve read that in some reviews. Simple language. My prose is scatological, a little nasty and crude in places, but there are passages of eloquent narration as well. I’m not sure about simple, but the language used is situational. I mean, it is a bike gang we are dealing with. They’re a little rough around the edges. If by simple you mean realistic, I agree. 'Blood & Brown Sugar' certainly doesn’t read like a medical text book, that’s for sure!
Each work in progress is different. This, being my first novel, it took a while. Four years in total, but there were long periods of inactivity, and that includes a couple rounds of edits. I was feeling my way through it, as I said, it was my first full length novel, so I made mistakes. It took a lot longer than it should have. The sequel, which has a considerably larger word count, I wrote in four months.
As far as keeping everything connected, I use the writing program scrivener. That is an invaluable tool, it keeps me organized. I guess I’m lucky in the sense that when I have a novel idea, I see it pretty clearly in my mind. I know the general route I’ll take before I start. Not to say I’m a plotter, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m not really a pantster either. I’m a bit of a hybrid. I write a loose plot outline and very in-depth character profiles, then I just turn them loose, let them tell the story.
Cc. Your story is also going to feature in Chrysanthemum Chronicles 'Abandoned House.' I am already anticipating reading it! What other books/ projects your fans can look forward to in the coming years?
Lee. Yes! I am thrilled to have been selected for the Abandoned House project. I have a deep respect for the Chrysanthemum Chronicles, the staff, editors, and especially the contributing writers. It’s an honour to be included amongst them. I thoroughly enjoyed their last release, Macabre Tales.
As for my work, I have to say that the success of Blood & Brown Sugar has unleashed a torrent of creativity and I’ve been very busy over the last year. I have quite a few irons in the fire at the moment.
The first of which, 'A Crate of Rags & Bones', will be released later this year, or early next. It’s a collection of unique short stories spanning many time periods and even genres. A bit of thriller, a pinch of horror, a smattering of dark drama and a splash of murder mystery. You get the idea. I’m very excited about it.
I have already mentioned the sequel to 'Blood & Brown Sugar' tentatively called 'Blood & Bombay Black'. It picks up the story line about a year after B&BS ends, and focuses on some of the more colourful characters, the ones that made it out of the first book alive, in greater detail. Alex included, of course.
Also, the first draft of my historical drama called 'A Mad Dog & His Englishman' is in its initial round of editing. I like this one too, a dark tale set in India at the end of World War One. It revolves around a British and Indian soldier who escape from Fort William’s stockades in Calcutta and try to escape to Nepal.
I am currently working on a dystopian thriller and I am scheduled to begin work on a good old-fashioned horror later this year. That will be something new as I’ll be writing in collaboration, co-authoring it, with a prominent Indian writer. So, there are lots of sails on the horizon. I just have to keep praying for fair winds!
Interview Created by Associate Editor Shristee Singh (Cc)
'Blood & Brown Sugar' and his other works are available on Amazon.in