University of Birmingham student Joseph Sale recently released his debut novel, The Darkest Touch, with American publishing house Dark Hall Press. If having a novel published at twenty-years old wasn’t enough, all paperback copies sold out in the first week and the novel reached #6 on the Kindle Horror download bestsellers list. Elisha Owen talks to Joseph about his writing process and experience with publication.
Q. A huge congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. Tell us a bit about yourself.
A. Thanks very much! This is always one of the harder questions. I suppose to start I’m currently in my third year at the University of Birmingham doing an English with Creative Writing degree and about to graduate this year. I’m a fencer and a musician and I work in Bournemouth at Quantum Card Services. I loved books and literature since I was little and, unless I’ve been inserted into an artificial dream-tank, I’m a novelist and author of The Darkest Touch.
Q. You’ve self-published novels in the past. What made you decide to try a professional press, and how did you go about doing that?
A. The issue with self publishing is that you have to become an entire publishing house on your own: editor, reader, artist, marketer, salesman, copywriter, all at once! Unless you have an incredible understanding of the market and how to promote your work without alienating people, you ultimately can’t reach an audience. Self-publishing has become a more respected industry and professional writers are starting to use it for side projects or more experimental works, but it still doesn’t have the seal of approval that a professional publication has, and doesn’t get you the reach you need. Getting readers is more important than making money, at least for me. I want lots of people to read my work because I feel I have something to say which might change the way they think, even help them. I knew that professional publication was the way to achieve that.
Getting your book professionally published requires a lot of work. Most people think about perfecting their manuscript, but in a way, I found that wasn’t the major issue. It was learning how to write a good cover-letter (which needs to have an elevator pitch style snapshot – something to get them excited), learning about what publishers expect from a manuscript, and learning about where to send my work that were the real challenges. Luckily for our generation, almost all of the information you need is online, you just have to find it. Though it took me roughly 1 ½ years to finish The Darkest Touch (not the first draft, but a fully edited capacity), it’s really the sum of 5 years of research.
No one gets picked up straight away. It got rejected from one other publisher before it was accepted – but only because it didn’t fit the publisher’s aesthetic. That’s when I knew it had at least a shot. I sent it off again, just the first three chapters and a pitch, to Dark Hall Press. They said that if I didn’t hear back in 3 weeks they weren’t interested. On day 21, I’d given up, but at 9:00 in the evening they sent me an email saying they’d like to see the whole thing – talk about cutting it fine!
Q. Give us a brief synopsis of the novel.
A. A nuclear World War 3 has happened. From the radiated ashes of this calamity, a group of individuals ‘touched’ by a dark power assert their control over the ruined New York city, slaughtering any baby or child that displays signs of the ‘touch’. But voices speak in the deep. Rebels gather. One of the touched goes rogue. The fabric of their reign is starting to unravel. All it needs to topple is one, soft, touch.
Q. Where did you draw inspiration from and what other writers influence you?
A. Where to begin!? Originally, I was heavily influenced by fantasy writers – in particular Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. Several times I tried to recreate their epic fantasy worlds, but without any success. Then I encountered Stephen King and I realised that I had a whole different story inside of me I hadn’t been able to see before.
King is quite simply a genius storyteller, and really understands how to shake you with language. Most people think horror is full of cheap scares, but King will make you laugh, cry, weep, and sing – there’s life in his writing. Everything feels so real you can touch it. The Stand, his 1800 page epic post-apocalyptic masterpiece, was obviously a huge influence on the choice of setting for my story. The stand helped me see the ancient, the fantastical, the biblical, the mythical in our own world – it was a liberating experience.
The other thing that heavily influenced The Darkest Touch was the Bible. In fact, the whole text, in a way, stems from one quote from the Gospel of St John: “In him was life and that life was the life of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:4-5). The darkness does not understand the light. It’s such a profound statement. How many suffering people do you know who have rejected your help a thousand times? Who will not accept help? How many people are blank to your pleas to be reasonable? We live in a world of darkness, and occasionally, just occasionally, a light shines in – a mercy, a grace, a justice – but it’s too bright and brilliant for us to get hold of.
Whatever your beliefs, the personal, symbolic truth of the biblical stories, at least from my experience of the world, is irrefutable. Christ speaks figuratively and in parables, and the Bible as a text is hugely symbolic. These symbols speak to us in a way that scientific fact never will. Adam and Eve’s tale of lost innocence will always resonate with more emotional impact than a list of facts about puberty. Stories create truths, and the Bible is perhaps one of the deepest roots of story we know. I wanted my own book to echo (never recreate – that’s impossible) this deep, profound mythic source and create its own web of symbols that the diligent reader might uncover.
Q. Writing a book, while also completing your degree is extremely impressive. How do you manage balancing writing with your other commitments?
A. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. I try to write every day – that way you build momentum and can finish projects in good time. You also don’t lose your train of thought, or lose sight of the threads you’ve woven together, so you have a clearer picture. It’s also good practice. If you want to be an Olympic athlete you train every day. Writing’s no different. Every day I’m training and hopefully improving. I never believe I’ll stop learning.
Q. Do you have any advice for budding writers?
A. Yes. Write every day – 500 words or 1 poem or one scene from a play/script. The first two weeks will be hell. You’ll be tired. In fact, you’ll be more exhausted than any time you went on a training camp or competed in a sport or did a midnight shift at work, but the third week it’ll get easier. Like a marathon runner you’ll have built up stamina. Writing every day is the single most important step to getting better. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Write. Write as if you’re trying to save your life. That’s how I started anyway. When you’ve finished something big, or a collection of shorter works, then you can take 4-6 weeks off and edit.
Q. In three words, why should people buy your book?
A. It’ll change you.
The Darkest Touch is available in paperback from:
Check out Dark Hall Press at – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dark-Hall-Press/320319528012123
Tweet Joseph Sale @josephwordsmith