Interview with speculative fiction writer Leif Spencer

Give us a brief summary of your life till now and how it led you to write.

I grew up in Switzerland as an only child with two cats. When I was just six years old, my parents gifted me an empty notebook to scribble down my stories. I still own that notebook. Unfortunately, I’m incapable of reading the handwriting of my six-year-old self. It could be hiding my best ideas and I’ll never know.

I wrote my first novel at the age of thirteen, but it’ll never see the light of day. Honestly. It’s that terrible.

After finishing high school, I was told to choose a serious degree. Something that will actually make money one day. That’s how I ended up studying psychology, and it’s also the reason I worked in marketing for ten years. During that time, I wrote fanfiction. My little daily escape from a life filled with non-fiction books.

Eight years later, I now live in England with my partner and two dogs, but I never let go of my childhood dream and decided to make it a reality.

The characters in your series never know what caused the apocalypse, which they call the Pulse.  Why did you choose not to reveal the nature of the event that ends modern life on Earth?

I worried for a long time that my not revealing the nature of the event would upset readers, but I decided that I wanted to tell the story of a group of average people just trying to survive and who would likely never find out the reason for their plight.

I didn’t want the reader to know more than the characters themselves. The Pulse kills everyone who isn’t underground at the time. It also destroys all forms of electronics and leads to the development of supernatural powers in some of the survivors.

I’ll be honest: While I considered a government experimenting with a new form of weaponry, in my head it was always a tiny little alien scout sitting at the console in its spaceship. Its task? Mapping Earth. Unfortunately, it presses the wrong button…

The two main groups in the series are very different: one is democratic and multiracial, while the other is a dictatorship led by a self-appointed prophet.  Were you trying to mirror contemporary society, or did you feel that’s how society would break down after the world as we know it ends?

Neither.

I’ve always been fascinated by serial killers and cult leaders and one of the subjects I studied at university was forensic psychology.

To me it was important to show a group of flawed people working together, coming together, forming a new family. People learning to trust each other.

I am convinced that after such a devastating event, several new belief systems would form. People would desperately try and find sense in what happened and try and find a new purpose in life. Those are ideal circumstances for a new cult leader to rise.

How does it feel to be a post-apocalyptic writer in the era of COVID-19?  The pandemic is, hopefully, the closest we’ll come to the end of the world.

One of my closest friends is a doctor and I decided to draw upon her expertise and create a pandemic for my next series. I quickly abandoned the project halfway through February. It was too close to home, but I also knew that it would be easy to get everything wrong and people would know. Besides, if I set it in the future, I’d have to mention the last pandemic, without knowing how it ended.

I’m a huge science fiction and fantasy fan and briefly considered another series with a supernatural event, but then decided to write about a scenario involving an EMP—an electromagnetic pulse.

At first I found it hard to write about the end of the world in these surreal times and many readers were open about looking to more hopeful genres like romances and cozy mysteries, but after a few weeks, I got back into the saddle and began working on my next project.

Tell us about your next project.

It’s set close to where I live and focuses on two women who aren’t prepared for any kind of emergency. No preparation whatsoever. I like to write about normal everyday people who try their best. They’re just trying to navigate the days after the national grid went down. They need to adapt quickly, rise to the challenge and develop new skills. But can they trust each other?

Just like in The End We Saw, one of the themes is what makes you a decent person. How far are we allowed to go? And how quickly can we adapt to a completely new situation?

What’s your research process like?

I like to visit the places I write about, which is why my books take place in and around London. They’re all places I love and can relate to.

With most topics, I start out on Wikipedia, falling into a rabbit hole, often not finding my way back out until I know everything about some obscure detail I’d never heard of before. Once I have a general understanding of the topic, I order books to diver further into the subject.

I order a lot of books. My partner would say too many books.

I read a lot, and I read a lot in my genre.

What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?

I actually do have a dedicated office, but since the beginning of the pandemic it’s been hijacked by my partner who is constantly in meetings, so I had to relocate to the kitchen table.

I combat writers’ block by writing longhand, but I type more often than not. I can touch type, and I’m pretty fast.

I’m also one of those writers who owns two dozen empty notebooks—no stationery is safe from me, and I keep being gifted new ones.

Every January, I try and keep both a diary and a planner—a resolution which I drop by the second week of February.

On writing days, I drink far too much coffee, and I am known to stare at an empty page (sometimes just out the window) for hours.

I write in Word, and I share my work with editors and beta readers via Google Drive. I do sometimes use fancy programs like Scrivener, but I always come back to the simplicity of Word.

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

I used to let the characters take me where they wanted to go, but then I realised that I often get stuck and that I need to do at least some plotting. I’m a so called underwriter who struggles with descriptions. My first drafts are usually only 20-30,000 words, and I continuously have to add and flesh out as I edit. I basically start out with a mere skeleton. As a reader, I often skim lengthy descriptions in books, so it comes as no surprise that my own writing falls on the shorter side, but readers love epic sagas.

I started out writing mostly short stories and progressed to novellas. Perhaps one day I’ll be writing novels.

I still write by the seat of my pants a lot, but I do plot out things like character arcs and conflicts in advance. My characters rarely speak to me, but I spend a lot of time with them when I can’t sleep or when I’m out for a run or afterwards in the shower, always thinking about the next scene.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

Too many.

Pride and Prejudice is probably my favourite book (The Count of Monte Cristo is a close second) and Jane Austen was my first love, but Stephen King is the man who introduced me to the SFF genre.

I admire authors like Adrian Tchaikovsky who are versatile and effortlessly write both science fiction and fantasy. I admire authors like N. K. Jemisin and China Miéville for constantly pushing the boundaries.

I admire authors like Claire North who come up with mind-blowing what ifs and combine their innovative ideas with amazing prose.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

I am afraid of the blank page. I much prefer editing to writing a first draft. I rarely know what to do with a blank page, but I always know how to make existing sentences better.

I’m not a fan of marketing because I’m terrible at selling myself.

What I like best is being able to make up worlds and characters. I’ve always done that, and I always hoped that one day I’d be able to make it a living.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

Wind makes me irrationally angry (not ideal in England, I must admit) and I’ve been found yelling at and shaking my fist it while on a run or on a bike ride. “We shouldn’t leave the house today, it’s quite windy,” is a sentence my partner regularly says.

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