Backstories by Simon Van der Velde was the first compilation of short stories I’ve ever read and I absolutely loved it! There was an element of guessing to each story – trying to work out who the famous (or infamous) protagonist was and I found it a genius book! It kept me entertained and altered the reading experience for me, from just reading a book to it becoming a game in its own right. You can read my review for Backstories by clicking here.
For those who don’t know what Backstories is, here’s the synopsis:
Backstories – ‘the stand-out most original book of the year’ – is a collection of stories each told from the point of view of one of my personal heroes, (or villains) back when they were just another Jew or black, or queer – back when they were nobody. Bullied, assaulted or psychologically abused, their road to redemption was never easy, and for some there would be no redemption, only a descent into evil.
These are the stories of people you know. The settings are mostly 60’s and 70’s UK and USA, the driving themes are inclusion and social justice – but the real key to these stories is that I withhold the protagonists’ identities. This means that your job is to find them – leading to that Eureka moment when you realise who’s mind you’ve been inhabiting for the last twenty minutes.
I should also add that this is a book that operates on two levels. Yes, there’s the game of identifying the mystery activist or actor, singer or murderer, but there is then the more serious business of trying to understand them. This in turn leads to the challenge of overlaying what you now know about these famous people onto what you thought you knew – not to mention the inherent challenge to your moral compass.
These are people you know, but not as you know them. Peel back the mask and see.
This book is dedicated to the victims of violent crime, the struggle against discrimination in all its forms and making the world a better place for our children. That is why 30% of all profits will be shared between Stop Hate UK, The North East Autism Society and Friends of the Earth.
Here’s my interview with Simon:
At what point did you decide to be an author / publish books?
I’ve always found the real world a bit dull and stressful, which meant I spent a lot of time living in my head. It took me till my early 20’s though, to get my act together enough to put anything on paper – a story about a boy wizard having a tough time at school, until it turned out he had the true power. The twist is, this was back in about ’92, before Harry Potter was even written – though it did owe a little to Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
Usually, I have trouble writing when I try to rush, or when I get distracted by social media and marketing. The key for me is to remember why I’m doing this – for the peace and purity of thought – and then get back to basics. Who is my character? What do they want? What’s in their way? And what’s happening, step by step, blow by blow, – see it and write it down.
Was there anything you edited out of a book that you later wished you kept in?
Yes, but I can’t tell you, because it will be in Backstories 2.
How do you find the inspiration for new novels and storylines?
The Backstories collection is, of course, a series of backstories about my heroes, (and villains) before they were famous. This makes the inspiration easy, I just read and research one of my heroes until I see the way into their story – the key moment that made it all happen.
If you could give one tip to someone wanting to get into writing, what would it be?
Do it for its own sake, for the joy of creating (simulated) life, and the meditative place it can take you to.
What made you choose to write a series of short stories?
It came about accidentally.
A few years ago my wife and I went to see a performer from way back when. The truth is, I was a bit worried. Would he still be any good? In fact, he was brilliant. Great voice, great music and above all, great honesty, especially about his struggles as a kid.
The next day I put aside my novel and wrote a piece about that kid. Not about the super-star, but about the kid, starting out with the whole world against him. That was why I withheld his name. I didn’t want to write some sycophantic, ‘what a genius, it was always meant to be’ tribute. I wanted to set aside preconceptions and give you the lost little kid who could easily have gone down in flames. I wanted to highlight the emotional truth of this person, and leave the reader with a fresh perspective.
The guessing game was a bi-product. Blind luck. I can’t even say that I realised what I had. But my wife, (and number one critic), loved it. She saw the potential in both the game and the meaning. The result is a book that operates on two distinct levels with pretty broad appeal.
Like a lot of things though, this game element is double-edged. Yes, Backstories is a fun, easy read. Everyone likes a challenge, but it frustrates me when people race through the book at 100mph, desperate to ‘find the mystery characters’ and come away thinking that’s all there is to it.
Sure, read Backstories for the game. But when that’s done, please, slow down. Remember how it felt to be a kid. Open your heart to the pain and the joy and the fury simmering between the lines.
Are there any of your short stories that you’d like to adapt into a full novel?
No. A lot of these people’s stories have been told already. What I like about Backstories is that these are snapshots from surprising or revealing perspectives. I wouldn’t want to lose that.
Is there anyone you’d like to write a short story about but think it would be too controversial?
Oh yes. Trump is one I always toy with, so much material there, what really makes him tick? I haven’t written it, though. Yet.
Is there another genre of writing you’d like to explore in the future?
My writing is generally literary but accessible, and that’s what works for me – digging down into the emotional truth of my characters. There’ll be novels, but to be honest I struggle to suspend disbelief when reading fantasy, and crime tends to be formulaic – so I think I’ll be sticking with the character-led stuff, at least for the foreseeable future.
Can you share any spoilers about your next book?
Spoilers! They’re called that for a reason. Half the fun of Backstories is identifying the characters, (the other half is understanding them). So why spoil half the fun?
What I can say is that there’ll be the same startling mix in Backstories 2 as there is in Backstories – so you can never quite trust the character you’re with, because whilst they could be a musical or political hero, they just might turn out to be a murderer.
Amazon (UK) Paperback edition – click here
Amazon (UK) Kindle edition- click here
Audiobook via Audible – click here
Simon’s Social Media:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/SimonVdVwriter
Website – https://www.simonvandervelde.com/
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