The publication date for Seth Robinson’s upcoming mystery-thriller Welcome to Bellevue’s is just around the corner!
As we work towards finishing off the final touches of the book, we had a chance to chat with Seth to hear about his writing process. We’re also thrilled to be able to give readers some new information about Welcome to Bellevue.
Can you first tell us a little bit about the story of Welcome to Bellevue?
Welcome to Bellevue is a mystery. It’s about a young guy who wakes up on a ferry as it arrives in a spooky little town, with no idea how he got there or what his last name is.
With that mystery in mind, I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s been an awesome project to work on, and as far as debut novel’s go I couldn’t be happier with the result.
Bellevue has evolved a lot along the way (for example, it was originally written in third person, the published version features a first-person narrator), and I’ve learnt a lot, about writing itself, the publishing process, and some of those funny conversations around things like literary vs. genre fiction.
I think there are levels to the story that come from some of that learning, and I think there’s some space for readers to take different things away from it, depending on how deep they want to go.
When did you first conceive the idea for Welcome to Bellevue?
I first had the idea for Bellevue at the end of 2016. My partner and I were visiting my parent’s house over the holidays, and I had a very weird dream. It was one of those dreams where the details kind of escape you, but I think it planted the seed, because I remember from that morning onwards I had a pretty solid idea for the narrative. Originally, I actually thought it might be a kind of a comedy, maybe a bit of a quirky, Terry Pratchett kind of read, but that changed pretty quickly once I started writing.
That said, I think there’s a bit of that flavour in there still, there are lots of Easter eggs for readers and pop-culture fans in there, for the readers who want to sniff those connections out, there’s an added element.
Were there any authors or other sources you drew on while writing the book?
Not directly – but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t influenced. Personally, I love to read (although a lot of the time this actually takes the form of audiobooks), and I love movies, and good TV, music, theatre, and video games, basically I’ll be happily hooked by anything with a good story. That’s really what it’s all about for me, a good story.
I think there are breadcrumbs of all the above in this story, but it should speak to fans of the mysterious and spooky, or speculative, readers who like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or maybe even Philip K. Dick.
Are there any aspects of Welcome to Bellevue that are based on your own experiences or the experiences of people you know?
Not exactly, no, although coincidentally I spoke to someone the other day who told me a story about a friend of his who had a big night out and woke up the next day on a ferry bound for the Isle of Wight.
I think where personal experience comes into this might be in some of the descriptions, and the sense of place, although it’s a bit of a geographical patchwork. In my mind the town is the kind of place you might see in the Pacific North-West, or even here in Victoria. Some of the descriptions for the mountains in chapter one come from a trip I took to Nepal, where I hiked to Annapurna basecamp with a friend.
What do you think are the biggest challenges people face when trying to have their manuscripts or other work published for the first time?
Man, where to start? I think there are a heap of challenges that come with trying to get your work published for the first time. Bellevue is actually my third manuscript, so before this one there were two pieces that still haven’t seen the light of day.
I think one of the things that’s hard about getting your first book published, is that writing itself is such a labour-intensive thing. Once you’ve stuck it out and written something, it feels like that should be it, but really that’s just the first half of the process. There’s this whole other side of writing, one that involves hearing the word ‘no’ quite a lot. It’s tough because once you get a few of those rejections, the imposter syndrome can really kick in.
That traditional path to publication can be very fatiguing. When I finished my second manuscript (a piece of dystopian fiction), it was picked up by an agent from one of the bigger agencies in New York. Ultimately, that relationship ended up dissolving, and that book is still sitting in my drawer, but at one point he said something that stuck with me, for authors, a lot of what they hear is ‘hurry up and wait’. You get three days to finish your draft, then you have to sit on your hands for six months while other people read it.
There will always be exceptions to this, but I’ve found it a real joy to connect with the local literary community more, and go through publication with a smaller press. It’s given me that chance to learn and work in a more collaborative way. What’s more, my book will be out in the world, on a Kindle screen or a shelf, or in someone’s hands, as opposed to living on my hard drive.
When did you first start to have aspirations to become a writer?
I’ve always liked making up stories, as far back as I can remember, but I didn’t really decide it was something I wanted to actively pursue until I was in my undergrad. That’s when I wrote my first manuscript. I’d had a couple of false starts before that, but that was the first time I made it all the way to the end of a manuscript. It was a 140,000 word behemoth, that I think is still a pretty cool story, although definitely in need of a haircut.
I altered my English major a bit to pick up some more creative writing classes, then decided I wanted to pursue a master’s after I graduated.
Is writing your main job or is there other work you’re involved with? If so, how do you balance your other work with your writing?
That’s the classic struggle isn’t it, trying to spin all of these plates? I’m really lucky, in that I have a full-time job that’s largely writing based. The title is ‘marketing and content coordinator’, which loosely means I spend my time making things. I write articles and copy, produce videos, and we’ve recently launched a podcast. There’s some campaign work and social media in the mix as well. I’ve also done some work as a sessional tutor, which I loved, and would like to do more of in the future.
It’s funny, I think when I first set out wanting to be a writer, I had a very set idea of what that was, it involved working in cafés and secluded log cabins, selling a novel fast and being able to live off of that, and maybe teaching a little on the side. I think in the last few years, my perspective on that has changed. I’ve come to think of writing a bit more like a trade, it’s this set of skills you acquire and hone, that you can use to create your own work, and that you can also employ in a whole variety of different ways in the workforce, as a journalist, editor, etc.
I think once I started thinking that way, it took away some of the pressure of balancing writing and work. No matter what, I get to be creative every day. Now, I usually work in sprints, if I have a cool project that’s keeping me busy at work my focus might shift a bit more towards that. If I have a great idea for something of my own that I want to work on I’ll shift gears a bit. At the moment, I’m working a lot on the structural edits for Bellevue.
I think all of those little things add up to being a writer, same as doing the pitches and submissions and all of the business stuff as well. If someone asks what I do for work now, I just say I’m a writer.
Do you have an educational background in creative writing? Do you think formal study of creative writing is a necessity for an author?
I did study creative writing, yes, and I was fortunate to get that opportunity. That’s not the case for a lot of authors. I did my undergrad in English and International Relations, and while I was doing that I decided creative writing was something I wanted to pursue further. Initially, I looked at going to the US and doing an MFA, but ultimately I came to Melbourne and did the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing, and Editing. Among other things, I liked the mix it offered of creative practice, and vocational skills, things like editing, research skills, and graphic design.
For me, there was also the added value of being part of a community that was all about creative writing. I got to spend two years hanging out with people who wanted to talk about writing. That’s how I connected with Grattan Street Press, and how I was offered opportunities to do things like teach.
Formal study works really well for me personally, I love to learn, and I think the university structure lines up well with my particular learning style. I won’t try to give an umbrella answer for all authors (especially being a baby-author myself). Being an author is essentially about telling stories, and the more people we have with different experiences telling their stories, the more great stories we’re going to have in the world. I don’t think we should do anything to homogenise that. Education worked well for me, I think it gave me a toolkit to work with, but that might be completely different for someone else.
That said, I think learning, and continuing education is important for all people – not just authors – whether or not that’s in a formal setting. It’s how we stay engaged with the world around us, how we stay creative and think critically.
Can you tell us about any future writing projects you might have in mind?
I have a couple of things on the table at the moment! I’ve actually just revisited that first novel. I thought it would be cool to go back now, having done some more training. I’ve done some pretty major rewrites, and shaved about 20,000 words, but it still has a long way to go. At the moment it’s sitting with one of the editors who helped me on Bellevue, Amanda McMahon (the same one who suggested I flip the narration), so I’m eager to hear her thoughts on that.
Otherwise, I’ve started thinking about my next project. It’s at the very early stages, I’m really just jotting down notes and ideas as they occur to me, but I’m starting to get quite excited about working on that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I think there are three things, and they all kind of tie together. The first is the obvious one, that all writers have probably heard before, but it’s pretty fundamental. You need to have perseverance, and beyond that, patience. I think all writers get really good at hearing ‘no’. I’ve definitely heard it hundreds of times… I may even be up into the thousands. Not everything you do will get picked up, and the things that do might take some time.
The second is to be flexible, and really think about what your goals are. I think that image of the full-time writer who exclusively works from cafes and cabins might actually fall short of what it’s cracked up to be. I really love what I do, and while I’ll admit sometimes time management becomes an issue, I think there’s a lot to be said for a slightly more dynamic lifestyle.
And finally, following on from the above, be open to opportunities. If there’s a chance to get your work out there, take it. An event where you might meet other writers, publishers, or even agents, go. If there’s a job that might let you build your skillset, apply. I think this also goes for thinking about what writing is, or the ways we get our work out into the world. The industry is changing, and I don’t think the traditional pathways to being an author are what they used to be, but there are twenty other new roads that have opened up, whether it’s working with a smaller, alternative press (like Grattan), thinking about digital or transmedia projects, or even self-publishing. There’s a lot of scope if you’re open to those opportunities.
I think when we think about being writers there’s a tendency to think very literally, and good writing isn’t always a literal thing.