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“A story is the length a story needs to be.” An interview with Mike French

Online Editor Harry Shepherd chats to the author Mike French about our brief attention spans, how we categorise fiction and stories, as well as his top tips on how to make it as a writer.

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An Android Awakes, a graphic novel written by Mike French and illustrated by Karl Brown released November 13th this year, is one of the most unsettling, disorienting reads I’ve come across in a long time. Neither a comic book nor a traditional novel, it’s an intriguing story that challenges what we perceive to count as a novel or what defines a story. Speaking with Mike, it becomes clear that this feeling of discomfort is quite deliberate.

AAA centres on the trials and tribulations of Android Writer PD121928 within an extreme dystopian future version of our world. With only a finite number of novel submissions before Android is decommissioned, and where his publishers are incredibly strict on what they deem a marketable story, our protagonist becomes increasingly delusional as his stories get darker and darker — and we witness everything, including his submissions first hand. There are no speech balloons here to indicate a conventional comic book or graphic novel (despite both being contentious, culturally-loaded terms), yet the drawings, spread through the book without a discernible pattern, resist categorisation as a straight-up novel.

Part of the issue French and Brown looked to address in AAA is the restrictive way in which we consume stories. For French, “Some people pigeon-hole themselves into thinking ‘I only read comics’ and, similarly, others might think, ‘oh, comics are rubbish aren’t they’ and will just read novels, which is ridiculous.” In this sense, what motivates the pair is to, “show some people that they might be missing out by not reading prose.” So, for AAA, French and Brown wanted “to appeal to both novel and comic book reading markets. I didn’t want comic readers to be put off by reams and reams of text, but instead I wanted it to be easily digestible to hook them in.”

Satire plays a very important role in the book, especially the way in which it pokes fun at the ways we read and certain parts of the publishing industry, albeit on a very extreme and dramatised scale. A particularly striking example is the story Android writes that’s less than 140 characters: “It’s a satirical comment on where we’re all heading, it’s all quick, bite-sized chunks of information and to actually sit down and read a novel is becoming more and more challenging for people.” The Twitter-length story has an interesting duality: it mocks our short attention spans conditioned through lifestyles dominated by social media, but, it’s also is a key instance of French and Brown questioning what a novel is and how it can be delivered.

“By constantly needing to define art, we miss out on the immense possibilities of telling all sorts of stories”

The Android Publishing Programme is the authority that measures what can and cannot be marketed in AAA, and is characterised as strict and arbitrary as Android’s first submission is rejected for being a mere one word over the 1000 word maximum. French stresses that he is being overly-dramatic if we choose to make links with the APP and real world publishers but maintains that “Some in the publishing industry are fixated on the question ‘what is a story?’ ‘What is a novel?’ What’s a short novel?’. People go on and on and on and debate it, but I think ‘why on earth are you wasting your time?’. A story is the length a story needs to be.”

Despite these tensions, French recognises that books, to an extent, need to be understood as products to be marketed if they’re ever going to be commercially successful. “The problem is stories are a product that need to be taken to market, so ‘small novels’ can be difficult to market. People are too used to certain templates, and, if you fall out of that template, you can’t be published or marketed.” Reading AAA could represent a lot of what big publishers might be missing when they pass over such provocative, problematic works. As a writer and storyteller, French argues “you shouldn’t worry about this. Worry ‘is this good?’ ‘Does this work?’ ‘How can I make this something someone would want to pick up?’. By constantly needing to define art, we miss out on the immense possibilities of telling all sorts of stories.”

Although French ultimately rejects the direct link between the APP and the bigger book/comic book publishers, he admits that they were unwilling to consider his work. “The bigger publishers had no interest in publishing an art-heavy book like AAA. They didn’t want to even look at it.”

French admits it took him a long time to initially get published for his first work The Dandelion Trilogy, but highlights the difference between independent publishers and their larger counterparts in taking risks on different types of books. “Independent publishers tend to take on more experimental literature and generally more adventurous writing”. Elsewhen Press, the publisher of Dandelion and AAA took a risk on French and Brown that larger publishers might not have: “Even though Elsewhen have never published anything like this before, nothing even close to it in fact, they still said they wanted to do it.”

Even though French struggled to find his way into getting his work published, surely it’s not as hard as the conditions the Android Writer has to face? Luckily, “It’s not as dystopian as that, although it’s still incredibly hard. It’s like trying to get a part in a movie or trying to get your band signed by Sony Records, it is incredibly difficult.” French concedes he was naive when he first started out as a writer, unaware of the obstacles in his way to getting published, but he has a few tips for people with similar aims. “It’s not impossible. The main thing that people need is the determination and the drive to keep going.”

“The bigger publishers had no interest in publishing an art-heavy book like AAA. They didn’t want to even look at it”

French stresses that having a degree in illustration will not guarantee you a job in the illustration industry, citing the likes of Steve Dillon who made it without a degree at all. “It’s those with the dogged determination to keep going and learning their craft who stand a greater chance of making it in such a competitive industry. “Understand that this world is incredibly difficult and that, if you want to make lots of money, this is not the industry to be in.” French also suggests that budding writers and illustrators should, “be creative with how you find work, make connections and build credibility. ‘What’s everyone else trying to do to get in this boat and what can I do that’s a little bit different?'”

Unlike the Android Writer, those struggling to get their work published do not have a finite amount of submissions before they’re ‘decommissioned’, which is what anybody looking to break into a competitive industry should remember. It’s equally important that we examine how we discriminate on what we read. Do we restrict ourselves too much? Could we be missing out on certain book we might love if we face them a chance, be they comic books or a traditional prose novel? As a book that straddles both of these binary categories, An Android Awakes is the kind of book that could fall by the wayside. This would be a crying shame, though, as you’d be missing out on an engrossing, disconcerting and highly thought-provoking book.

 

For more from Elsewhen Press, visit their website. You can also find the An Android Awakes website here.

Keep a look out for Harry’s review of An Android Awakes later this week right here on Exeposé Arts&Lit.

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