Hi! Shirley saying hello from South Africa. Today I'm delighted to introduce to you South African author, Sean Young.
Sean began writing in 1998. It took him three years to complete his first novel, plying his craft over weekends and in his spare time while still holding down a full time job as a software developer. Early in 2009, Sean immigrated to the UK. where he and his wife, Carolyn, live with their two children in a country village about an hour from London.
Shirl: Welcome, Sean! When you started writing, you lived in South Africa. What difficulties did you face as a result?
Sean: Thank you Shirl. One of my most frustrating challenges was that I lived in a country so far removed from the major markets for my work – mainly in the USA. Without the benefit of writers’ conferences and events where I could meet fellow writers and network with authors, publishers and literary agents, I relied on the internet for those opportunities. I had little more than a computer, a dial-up connection and bundles of enthusiasm when I launched my publishing career from the comfort of my own home.
Shirl: And you didn't really follow the traditional path, did you?
Sean: No, I broke almost every rule in the book.
Shirl: We'll get to some of those just now. First, tell our readers about your book, Violent Sands. I'm intrigued what prompted you to write a novel around the little-known character, Barabbas.
Sean: It began with the simple realization that, whether he knew it or not, Barabbas was the first person in history to experience the direct results of God’s plan in Jesus’ death on the cross. In fact, I like to think of him as a physical picture of a spiritual truth. While all those who loved Christ most were still mourning his death, Barabbas was:
- a sinner convicted of murder
- whose guilt was beyond doubt
- facing a certain and painful death
He was pardoned, set free and given a clean slate when one who had committed no sin went to the cross in his place.
Shirl: Amazing. I'd never thought of him like that.
Sean: That got me wondering: what happened to this almost unknown historical figure? Where did he go after being pardoned, and how did his brief encounter with the Christ affect him? Most of all, did he go on to lead a life worthy of the forgiveness bestowed on him or did he scorn the gift of grace and return to his old ways?
There was no doubt in my mind; Barabbas was a powerful character around which to build a story. There was the added benefit that, apart from a brief mention in the Biblical narrative, there is almost zero historical information about the man. It presented me with a blank canvas (or page, in my case), and I started to fill in the blanks.
Shirl: That's fascinating. I've read and loved Violent Sands. You portray the atmosphere so well. How did you capture the sights, sounds and smells of Israel? Have you been there yourself?
Sean: Funny you should ask. In every interview I’ve given about Violent Sands, I have always managed to dodge this question as nobody has ever simply come out and asked. It’s time for me to come clean and admit (for the first time publicly) that I have never been to Israel. There is no specific reason for this, other than that it is expensive to travel from South Africa, where I lived for most of my life and, when inspiration struck, I had simply never had the chance to go there.
I’ll take this opportunity to recommend research to any aspiring authors out there. It doesn’t matter where or when your book is set, do the research. It’s the little things, like knowing the price of a pizza in Amsterdam, if your character happens to be traveling through The Netherlands, that makes the difference between plausible or not.
It made every minute of research worthwhile when a missionary who had spent several years working in Israel read Violent Sands and told me he couldn’t figure out whether I had been to the country or not. As to sights, sounds and smells, you can’t get those from a book. They must be experienced first-hand. Fortunately, I can see, hear and smell quite well. The sizzle and scent of a juicy rump steak roasting on an open flame is much the same whether you are in 1st century Jerusalem or downtown NYC – or so I imagine.
Shirl: Violent Sands is certainly well researched. Where did you find all your information?
Sean: Fortunately, there is no shortage of information on Biblical geography, history, people and culture. I had a fantastic local reference library with an endless supply of material. Most of my research was done within a ten-minute drive of my house. Also, as someone who has been deeply involved in the church from an early age, I had the benefit of fifteen-plus years of Christian teaching that gave me a solid understanding of life and times in the early church.
Shirl: This book seems to be especially geared for men. Was this what you intended?
Sean: That happened more by mistake than actual intent. Back when I started writing, I understood nothing of markets, genres or demographics. I felt inspired to write a novel about the Biblical character, Barabbas. It’s no secret that this character was a man of violence. Further research into the life of a Jewish zealot during New Testament times revealed a shocking culture of violence perpetuated by both the Jewish freedom-fighters and their Roman oppressors alike. From there, the story pretty much wrote itself.
Shirl: Do women also appreciate the book? I know I did.
Sean: Absolutely. Most of my reviews have been written by women who have thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
Shirl: Let's get back to all those rules you broke. I know the road to publication for Violent Sands has been unusual to say the least. What were your first steps towards publication?
Sean: Naïve is the only honest answer. Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry dictates that, before you undertake a novel, you begin your writing career with smaller projects like magazine articles, then work your way up to short stories. Then, once you have built up a solid body of published work, go for the big one. If nothing else, this gives you the opportunity to learn publishing industry’s “rules of engagement”, so to speak.
Unfortunately, nobody ever told me this so, when I got my idea for a novel, I sat down and wrote it. When I finished it, I did an internet search for appropriate publishers and fired off my first batch of email queries. Apart from one or two polite “Thanks, but no thanks” replies that came back faster than you can say auto-respond, the vast bulk of my emails went unanswered.
Shirl: Yet you kept trying?
Sean: After about two to three years of polite rejections, I emerged relatively unscathed from what can be a pretty hazardous journey. There are horror-stories of the cutting replies that aspiring authors have received from publishers over the years. On the whole, I got very encouraging responses but they generally followed the theme “Enjoyed the book – but it won’t sell to a wide enough market.”
The marketing experience had made me a lot more industry-wise. The problem was I had written a book aimed primarily at a male audience. However, the Christian market, especially Christian fiction, is predominantly a female buying public. Argue this if you will, the stats don’t lie and the publishers know this. You can’t blame them. They need to go with what is most likely to sell or they close their doors.
Had I followed a more conventional route to publishing, I would have learned this along the way and would probably never have written Violent Sands. As a result, I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now. Writing Violent Sands was an awesome experience. Writing is too time-consuming and life too short to waste producing material you don’t enjoy in the hope that it will appeal to a wider audience.
Shirl: Well you obviously got it right eventually. How did Violent Sands actually come to be published?
Sean: After coming to the realization that the book was unlikely to be picked up by a publisher, I decided to launch it as an e-book and make it available as a free download on my web site. That went pretty well. After a disappointing seven downloads in its first month, it jumped to 29 in its second, then 129 in its third month and so on.
By month three, I began receiving requests for a hard-copy version. When I replied and explained that there wasn’t one due to printing costs etc, one of the fans helped me out and pointed me to print-on-demand publisher, Lulu.com. I visited their web site and pretty soon set up shop on their site and ordered a single sample copy. After a few minor changes, I was happy with the product and launched the self-published version to the public.
My career as a self-published author was a short-lived one, however. Breakneck Books, a USA publisher, spotted the novel and, within three weeks of launching the self-published version, I had signed a contract with them.
Shirl: That's amazing. And it's obviously doing well. You mentioned to me there's a new and exciting development. Tell us about that.
Sean: Yes. I was extremely excited to learn from my publisher that Violent Sands is to be translated into Spanish. A publisher in Spain has bought world-wide Spanish rights to the book. I can’t wait for its release. There’s not much more to tell but I’m thrilled at the thought of seeing the novel go multi-lingual.
Shirl: You wrote Violent Sands while living in South Africa, had it published in the States, and you've now immigrated to the UK. Where can readers buy the book?
Sean: At the moment, the easiest place to buy it is on Amazon.com. Do a search under Books for Violent Sands or Christian Thriller & it should come up in the top ten. Otherwise, view it directly via this link.
Shirl: Thank you so much Sean. Before you go, may I ask what you're working on now?
Sean: I have completed a second, as yet unpublished, novel. The working title is The Isis Conspiracy. Set in modern times, it is quite different to Violent Sands. I found it easier to write as it required far less research. I am also working on a third novel although it is still in a very early stage of development. The working title is Flight Out of Hades. Its theme is the power of forgiveness. We hear plenty about God’s forgiveness but I would like to explore the effect of one person forgiving another the way Christ forgave them.
Shirl: Both of these sound intriguing. I hope to hear they both make it into print, perhaps in a more traditional way this time! Enjoy your new home and don't forget about us in South Africa.
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SHIRLEY M. CORDER lives near the seaside in the beautiful "Windy City" of Port Elizabeth, in South Africa. She is an RN, a pastor’s wife, a cancer survivor and a freelance writer. Well over 120 of Shirley’s inspirational and life-enrichment articles have been published around the world. You can contact Shirley through her website or follow her on Twitter.