"Even if this wasn’t the author’s first novel, this would be an extraordinary work, as it is it is astonishing"
An Interview with SS Turner
Do you ever wish you were someone else? Who?
I’m generally happy being me these days. But I’ve had days I wished I was someone else when I was younger. On those days, I always wished I was Superman, but Superman from the eighties when he had a sense of humor and his underwear was far too tight to pass as good dress sense. I love the idea of flying in to save the day and making everyone’s lives better whilst also providing them with a giggle or two before I fly away.
What did you do on your last birthday?
I got up at the crack of dawn and headed to a nearby beach with my golden retriever Mia who passed away a few months ago. Mia was my best friend so all memories with her in them are special. On my birthday, we went for a long beach run together followed by a glorious swim in the ocean. Mia rolled on the sand with so much joy that day. After the beach, I met my wife Jess for a lovely lunch at a local café. It was a great day.
What part of the writing process do you dread?
I love most of the writing process, however, the most challenging part for me is editing the sections of the first draft which clearly need to change. I know which sections fall into this category because they don’t energise me as much as they should when I read them back. The famous advice to “kill your darlings” is exactly what it feels like when I delete those large sections of writing which appear to be friends who so wanted to make the cut but didn’t. I often feel a tinge of sadness as I bid them farewell for the greater good.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
Not often but I’ve experienced it a few times. It’s like someone is patting you on the back and telling you to leave the writing alone for the day because you’re a liability. I’ve always found being physically active to be a great way to get the little grey cells moving again when writer’s block strikes like that. When I’m in the depths of physical exhaustion during and after a long run I’m always amazed by way the ideas start to flow again.
Is your life anything like it was two years ago?
There’s been a lot of change in my life during the past two years. The biggest change is where I live. We moved to the countryside just over a year ago having spent a few years in the city before that. I’ve always loved nature so city life wasn’t a match for me, and the moment we moved to a beautiful property with a few acres of greenery around us I felt as though we’d righted a wrong. I absolutely love it! And the move has catalysed so many other changes in our lives. The most noteworthy is greater appreciation. When you move to the countryside you’ve got less options available on your front door but you tend to appreciate the opportunities you have a lot more. So thanks to the move I’m far more present and at peace. I’m proud to be a country bumpkin who talks real slow these days.
How long have you been writing?
Writing has always been a passion of mine as well as a way of making sense of the world. I’ve been writing ever since I was at school and have written numerous short stories, novellas, children’s stories, and film scripts. I also wrote a regular newsletter for friends and family about the funny little stories which popped up in my life called “The Chronicles”. It ran for over five years.
What advice would you give a new writer just starting out?
My best writing advice is to write a story which is important to you for you. Don’t worry about what the reader will think when they read it because if you do you won’t be as connected to the story. Remember, you can edit the novel with the reader in mind later on, but when you’re writing the first draft you really want it to flow out of you.
Tell us something about Secrets of a River Swimmer that is NOT in the blurb.
The voice and humour of the main character Freddy is mine, and I share many life experiences with him, particularly in the form of river adventures. Just like Freddy, my friend Matt and I used to jump into the River Tweed in Scotland every few weeks, including in the depths of Scottish winters. Every time we immersed ourselves in the Tweed’s majestic waters we’d experience love, joy, and fun in more beautiful ways than we could have imagined on dry land. We’d laugh like kids at the silliest little things. We’d feel euphoric to be accepted and free and alive. We’d meet fascinating characters alongside the river who were shocked and amused that two crazy humans were swimming so close to the enormous salmon in the river. We’d have life-affirming conversations that put the world to rights, and that involved us speaking our truth to one another and to the universe. We always emerged from the river with newfound energy, clarity, and love for our lives. It was like pressing a reset button on life. And that’s what Secrets of a River Swimmer is all about.
Have you ever had an imaginary friend?
Not as a child but as an adult yes! We lost our beautiful golden retriever Mia a few months ago. She was my best friend so it was a very painful loss for me. However, I still feel her energy in my life at unexpected moments like when I’m gardening or walking at the beach. She’s become the imaginary friend I never had as a child.
Do you have any phobias?
My biggest fear is being average—the idea of not living the best version of own existence terrifies me. This is a key theme in Secrets of a River Swimmer. I believe it’s also a key theme in many other peoples’ lives and is a symptom of modern living. We all have so many options available to us these days, but most of us aren’t sure we’re on the right path amidst this vast ocean of choices.
Do you ever read your stories out loud?
Yes. I often read passages out loud during the editing process as I find words often sound different when they’re read out loud. Reading out loud reminds me to use as few words as possible, and to stick with simple words.
Where did you get the idea for Secrets of a River Swimmer?
The book was inspired by my own Scottish river swimming adventures which provided me with clarity and guidance when I was particularly lost.
Any weird things you do when you’re alone?
I go stand up paddle boarding on a local lake most weekends. I love it there because it’s stunning and there are literally no people around. I often take advantage of that glorious space by singing loudly (and badly!) as I paddle board across the lake. A few times the local pelicans have made their disdain for my poor singing obvious by turning their beaks up when they hear it.
What is your favourite quote and why?
“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” ― Mark Twain
I love this quote because I believe in being kind to others and doing the right thing. It’s such a powerful strategy in a world in which love and kindness can appear scarce. Many people are genuinely shocked when someone behaves with kindness towards them for no reason these days.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my all-time favourite novel because no matter how many times I read it I have a different experience of the story. Twain’s ability to get inside his characters’ heads to beautifully express their emotions, motives, and real thoughts is so powerful. For me, this is the timeless beauty of writing, and it means we can all be transported back one hundred and forty years ago to when the novel is set to discover that people haven’t changed at all. I’m sure I’ve met many modern versions of the duke and the king in the corporate world!
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
In my opinion, good writing is writing which inspires the reader to continue all the way through to the end of the story. And great writing is a writing which readers can’t put down because they desperately need to know what happens by the end. Great writing is a form of alchemy which is hard to break down into a simple formula, but I generally love books with strong characters, as well as an underlying story which moves forward in an interesting direction. I’m also a fan of novels with only one narrator as I find multiple narrators can weaken the readers’ connection with the story. I’ve only read a small number of truly great books throughout my life.
Which mythological creature are you most like?
I’m not sure it’s a mythological creature but I’d say the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story. My wife tells me I have a similarly calm serendipitous energy.
First book you remember making an indelible impression on you.
A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter. I loved all Mollie’s stories about Scottish myths and folklore. A Stranger Came Ashore was particularly exciting and I remember I couldn’t put it down when I was only around ten years old. In fact, I blame Mollie for opening my mind to living in Scotland for so many years despite my love of sunny climates. She presented the country in such a wonderfully mystical light.
How do you develop your plot and characters?
I start a novel with a few page plot plan and some short character essays. However, once the writing process begins and the characters come alive, I listen to where they need to go. Often my initial plan goes out the window relatively early in the story as a result. It’s a humbling process which involves sacrificing control to the story to the characters in it.
Describe your writing space.
I generally spend a couple of hours in the morning writing in one of a number of beautiful cafes which serve great coffee near where I live. I love it. There’s something about a warm and welcoming café environment and drinking a good coffee which helps me relax into the flow of writing. I also find nature inspiring and often write in parks and countryside locations with inspiring views. As you can tell I’m not an office person!
What are four things you can’t live without?
Pets – We have cats and chickens at the moment, and we recently lost our dog.
Books – I’m always reading and learning from the books in my life.
Coffee – I love starting the day with a good coffee.
Red wine – I don’t often drink but I do enjoy a glass of red wine some evenings.
What is your favourite television show?
Right now Black Mirror is my favourite television show. It reminds me of a modern version of The Twilight Zone. Each episode is carefully crafted and well written. I’m impressed.
If you could be any character, from any literary work, who would you choose to be? Why?
I’d be Westley from The Princess Bride because he lives in a magical world where the baddies are charming and say silly things like “Inconceivable!”. He battles his demons through a fun adventure while he returns to the woman he loves. He’s an inspiring dude.
What have you got coming soon for us to look out for?
My next novel, The Connection Game, is a psychological thriller based in London. A family of four, The Basilworths, have fallen on hard times after becoming victims to an online fraud. They are forced to move into welfare housing in London as they’ve been declared bankrupt. The flat they are allocated is located on the ground floor in a rough area, and the only light that enters the flat comes in through a tiny window which only provides a view of the feet walking past on the street above. Benny, the husband and father, is angry about their downfall and starts ranting against the world. Then one day, he starts staring out the tiny window at the feet walking past on the street, and he calms down. There’s something about seeing people as nothing more than a pair of passing feet that’s therapeutic for him. However, watching the passing feet soon becomes a passion for him, and he starts noticing unusual patterns in the feet, patterns which deeply concern him. The more he watches the feet, the more Benny believes the entire city is in serious danger. He convinces his children Will and Wendy to join his foot watching operation at the window, but his wife Belinda is concerned for his mental health. However, the more excited Benny becomes by the foot movements, the more Belinda is drawn into the mystery. She’s determined to discover if there’s any truth behind Benny’s inexplicable theories about the passing feet. The Connection Game is due to be released April 2023.
What books or authors have most influenced your own writing?
My biggest influences have been Mark Twain and JD Salinger. Mark Twain taught me how to create real and complex characters who are unique and memorable. And JD Salinger taught me how to allow the reader into the narrator’s head in a way which allows the reader to discover themselves in the story.
Who is the last person you hugged?
I hugged my six-year old daughter Rosie when I dropped her off at school. I need to make the most of hugs with her as it will soon be uncool for her to hug her dad in public.
How do you come up with the titles to your books?
This is a hard but fun process! I tend to do a brain dump of all my best ideas and I then I run the list by Lou, my publisher. Lou is great at identifying the right title from a list of options and I trust his feedback. So it’s a team effort.
Where do you get your best ideas?
I’m not sure! My best ideas hit me out of the blue when I’m jogging or hiking or doing anything other than thinking about writing.
What comes first, the plot or characters?
For me, a story’s plotline comes first and then the characters become clearer as the story becomes clearer in my mind. When I wrote Secrets of a River Swimmer for example, I had a very clear picture of who Freddy, the narrator, was when I started writing but the other main characters stepped forward with more clarity once I reached their parts of the story. And then once they stepped forward, it was like meeting people I’d met before. They became clear in my mind very quickly.
What does your main character do that makes him/her special.
My main character Freddy is special because he addresses heavy subjects with a unique lightness and humour. He’s even able to enjoy himself as the hard truths of his life descend upon him.
How to handle negative criticism.
I think most of us are born with an innate fear of criticism. It must emanate from our memories of being told off for getting things wrong when we were kids. The bad news is being an author almost certainly means receiving both positive and negative feedback on your writing, so criticism is coming your way whether you like it or not. This may particularly be the case if you write a hugely successful book which touches on a collective emotion or nerve. I always remind myself that The Catcher in the Rye was repeatedly banned from libraries and schools for its use of vulgar language, violence, and sexual images. I also often remind myself that The Catcher in the Rye sold over 65 million copies. And how did JD Salinger react to the criticism at the time? He did and said nothing. He didn’t respond to the criticism in any way. In fact, he let his critics market his novel for him.
So how do you learn how to handle negative criticism as effectively as JD Salinger? Well, the first point is handling criticism becomes easier as you get older. At some point in your life you learn that everyone has their own opinions on everything, and there’s no conceivable way everyone will agree on what’s good or bad. This realisation allows you to hear negative criticism as nothing more than an alternative perspective on your writing. And on a deeper level it also allows you to view negative criticism of your writing as a potential gift. Your supporters are never going to tell you the hard truths about your work, but your critics will enjoy letting rip. Having said that, negative criticism may also reflect more about the critic than it does about your writing. This form of criticism should generally be ignored as it isn’t really about you. The way to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful criticism is to listen to it with an open heart, and to feel if it resonates with you. If it does, the chances are it’s an opportunity to learn and improve, otherwise you may be wise to just let it go.
And finally, the other way to view criticism, particularly emotionally strong criticism, is as a marketing gift. JD Salinger wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as he was if his critics hadn’t so loudly denounced his novel. As long as people are discussing your writing, the chances are high that your sales will benefit. So next time you receive criticism, be ready to thank your critic for potentially helping your career thrive.
What would we find under your bed?
A cat! We have two very charismatic cats, Oscar and Heidi. They patrol the entire house looking for unwelcome intruders like mice and bugs. Under the bed is one of their favourite patrolling areas, and they often fall asleep whilst they’re on duty down there.
What was the scariest moment of your life?
It was when a scene from Secrets of a River Swimmer literally came to life a few months ago. I was stand up paddle boarding on our local lake. It’s a massive beautiful lake which no one ever visits. I discovered why on that fateful day. It was super windy and there were small waves running across the lake. A more sensible person would have turned back when they saw the dangerous conditions, but I ventured in anyway. I’ve always loved adventure and I sensed an opportunity for a wild adventure that afternoon.
Anyway, I managed to paddle out a few hundred meters into the wind and waves and I was enjoying the experience. But then, a bigger wave struck my board. It literally turned me around and carried me forwards with it. So I was riding a wave across the lake which I couldn’t get off it. It was a terrifying moment, and it became more terrifying when I saw where the wave was carrying me: up one of creeks which connected with the lake. I was heading up shit creek with a paddle!
The wave carried me at least a mile along the creek until I eventually pulled myself off it. I pulled myself to the side of the river and took a moment to assess my situation. The realisation hit home that I was stranded where I was because the current was moving so strongly up the creek. As I sat there, I felt more relaxed than I should have considering the high risk situation. But I trusted the situation would play out in my favour just as it had in my novel. So I took a few deep breaths, got back on my board, and started paddling against the waves and current. At first, it was useless and I was washed further up the creek. Then, I moved to the side of the creek where the current was slightly slower and I paddled with all my might. The good news was I was making slow progress forwards, but the bad news was it was costing me a huge amount of energy.
I had no choice but to keep going so I kept going. Each stroke was exhausting. After what felt like an eternity, I finally made it back to the lake, and then eventually to the side of the lake where I’d launched from. By then, I’d been paddling against the current for over four hours without food or water. I was beyond exhausted. But I survived. And I learnt the hard way why so few people visit that lake on windy days. I also learnt that novels have a way of coming to life.
Do you listen to music while writing? If so what?
Always. I love music and find it helps me write. I try to match the music with the vibe I’m aiming for with my writing. When I aiming for a mystical vibe, I listen to Max Richter or Lanterns on the Lake. When I’m after uplifting, I turn up Gabriel & Dresden, All Hail the Silence, or Of Monsters and Men. And when I want thought-provoking I tune into Laura Marling or The National. Selecting the right music to write to is one of my favourite parts of the writing process.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Secrets of a River Swimmer took me around a year to write and edit.
Who designed the book cover for the book you are touring?
My publisher Lou Aronica deserves full credit for the novel’s beautiful book cover.
If you had to do your journey to getting published all over again, what would you do differently?
When I wrote Secrets of a River Swimmer, I really opened myself up to getting into the flow of the writing process. By the time I’d finished it, the novel was deeply personal with a unique voice—so much so that I was shy about anyone reading it at first. But I now realise that getting into the flow on a deeper level like that is exactly what I should always be aiming for with my writing. Rather than being shy about it, I should be confident about any writing I produce when I’m in that state of mind.
Ebook or print? And why?
Print one hundred per cent. For me, printed books are glorious things which contain wisdom, joy, learning, adventure, fascinating characters, and entire worlds to be discovered. We have a huge bookcase containing our all favourite books at it’s one of my favourite spots in our home.
What is your favorite scene in this book?
My favourite scene in Secrets of a River Swimmer is when one of the characters Willard goes into bat for the main character Freddy when Freddy is being threatened by a vertically challenged duke with a shotgun and anger issues. Willard is hardly a tough guy, but he manages to dance, slap, and dodge his way to victory despite the duke’s obvious fighting and aggression advantages. I cried with laughter when I wrote that scene, and I love reading it.
Interested in learning more about SS Turner?
Read his interview with the Australian National University
Read his interview with the Story Plant