Interview – Duncan Milne, author of The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll…
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Duncan Milne, author of the Sci-Fi comedy The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies. Welcome to the Showcase Lounge, Duncan.
Duncan Milne: Thank you, it’s my pleasure to have the opportunity to lounge about with you and chat.
SPS: For any of our readers that haven’t come across any of your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
DM: This is my first novel. I’m a lawyer by day so I write a lot, if any readers have seen my work before they’ve either been a client, someone I’ve had to sue or a judge; not exactly the same audience that I’m hoping to reach this time.
Originally I practiced law in Canada, then Australia and now New Zealand as my wife discovered opportunities to develop her engineering career globally. While this travel / relocation abroad has provided tremendous experiences for our family, it has also pinched some of my ability to develop a consistent law practice. Part of the problem of moving around is that I’ve had to re-qualify in the new countries as well as learn some of the local nuances. This has resulted in a bit of direction change for me but also given me the opportunity to write things that are less adversarial or contentious. Along the way a few people thought that there was a novel in me looking for a chance to escape, so here it is!
If you’ve read my work before, I suspect you’ll enjoy this more.
SPS: When it’s time to write, do you have any perfect writing conditions? And, as a lawyer, where do you find the time?
DM: I’d have to say that perfect conditions are when I’m properly caffeinated, inspired and generally at peace in my world. Unfortunately there are lots of times where I can’t find my “Goldilocks Moment” and everything isn’t “just right”, in these cases I try to push through and do what I can. Sometimes it’s editing, other times its drafting or others its organising ideas.
Finding the time isn’t always easy, even at the best of times. Even in Australia I had to force myself to be disciplined.
Finding the time is definitely difficult. I’m working 4 days per week so that gives me one day off to advance my script. Even still I find that I’m “sneaking” a few thousand words in here and there. Something will strike me as interesting or inspired and then I’m off trying to get it down. Scribbling on a pad of paper or texting myself; sometimes I just stay up late. Lawyers are used to being busy and working in hard bursts.
That’s probably the best thing about having practiced law. Your mind is trained to always be working and lawyers are notorious for being able to get a lot into a day. People think that lawyers are paid by the word anyway, so why not write a novel? I’m just putting different sorts of words down on paper.
SPS: What was it that gave you the motivation you needed to publish your debut novel?
DM: Most of the text that I’ve written was during our time in Australia. This was during a period where I wasn’t able to work as much as I anticipated. During that time, I stole, I mean recycled, an idea from my wife. She’s always said, you can choose what you do with your time. In a year you’ll be another year older, but will you have something to show for it? Since my cooking isn’t much to brag about, and also because I had received some encouragement from others to write, I gave it a go.
So I would say that my wife inspired me. After all, stories are always about a girl right? And like the boys say in the book, “After how many years of evolution…” guys still want to impress the women in their lives. I’d be surprised if a day doesn’t pass that I don’t try to make my daughter and wife laugh, I’m a sucker for trying to impress them.
Beyond my wife, the idea of heroes being ordinary people doing decent things motivated me to build a story that I thought was important to tell. I’m not talking about rushing into burning buildings or diving into freezing waters; it’s the heroic efforts such as making sure our children are being empowered; that intolerance in schools and workplaces is rejected; doing more than the minimum to get by. The heroes that inspired me to this story look at the world critically and say “if I do something incremental now, will it make the world better tomorrow?” or “Does this person need some help, can I ask to call someone for them?” Things that just need you to be paying attention and use some of your cellular phone minutes. As important as it was for Martin Luther King Jr to have a dream, his dream must have started as an idea he shared with a single person. We all need dreams; we all need the conviction to do something to make things better; that’s within reach, that’s heroic.
SPS: Tell us about your debut novel.
DM: The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies is an adventure story with characters that are probably best described as anti-heroes or beta males. The sort of guys that went from being picked last to not picked at all; that go from avoiding people at school to hanging out in their basements listening to music all night.
As a result of their ostracism, they retreat into rock ‘n’ roll and order their world around the things that they can understand. During this retreat they become music experts, but also discover a means to travel through time to various gigs. They do so tirelessly.
What starts off as an unchecked consumption of gigs, becomes more of a series of adventures in which the characters need to interact with the world around them. Ultimately interacting with the world is a challenge, but an achievable one because in their mind they’re interacting with music and history; subjects that they’re comfortable with, a realm which they’ve mastered.
As the adventures become more significant Kenn and his friend have to extend themselves and compete with pressures on their relationship as well as internal conflicts. In many ways it’s a coming of age story, with a historical view of rock ‘n’ roll as a backdrop.
Ultimately it’s a place we all want to be; somewhere that makes us feel important, a place we understand the inner workings of and feel at peace in.
SPS: What sort of reader do you think it would appeal to?
DM: I think readers who like a bit of a challenge will like The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies. It’s not War and Peace or Moby Dick but there are some ideas and themes that ask you to do some work. At the same time, people seem to like the characters without necessarily catching all the music references or worrying too much about the themes.
People that like reflecting on how things might have been and rock ‘n’ roll should find something here for them to enjoy. In a perfect world I’d like people who enjoy Jasper Fforde, Christopher Moore and Jennifer Egan to find their way to The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies and to tell their friends.
Additionally, people who grew up listening to the music of the late 70s and 80s, ska, punk and goth and other forms of alternative rock should enjoy this as well. There’s an abundance of hidden references and context that is driven by musical references.
SPS: Was there anything in particular that gave you your inspiration for the novel?
DM: It was a conversation actually that kicked the idea off…
I was working as a lawyer in Australia when I was handed a contract to review. At that same time, I was told that they needed it “for last week”, my response was, “right, if I could travel through time your contract wouldn’t be the first thing on my “To Do” list.
Later that day, I was recounting the story to the local barista who thought I looked grumpy (not unusual for where I was presently working), she laughed and asked “what would you do if you could time travel?” The answer was travel to rock ‘n’ roll shows that I never saw. By day she’s a barista, by night she’s the bass player in a local band and we roared with laughter. “What a great idea for a book,” she said. When I got home that night I started drafting.
Tamara is now in the acknowledgements as well as has a fictitious quote in the text attributed to her.
SPS: Kenneth sounds like a great lead character, where is he at in life when we first meet him?
DM: Kenn is a complicated character, genuinely and because he wants to be. We first encounter Kenn through the narrator being called to Kenn’s home with some urgency.
The narrator catches us up on some of the history that he and Kenn share having grown up together, but in this story Kenn is in that early twenties period of his life where he thinks he knows where he’s going but he’s really just drifting. It’s not so much as he’s lost as he doesn’t even know he’s not going anywhere. Kenn is in place that could be described as indifferent isolation
SPS: The ability to time travel to any gig ever held sounds amazing! Where would you go? We know you’ve thought about it…
DM: Ha ha!! There are so many, which sounds like a cop out, but I would have to say David Bowie. I’ve missed him by a day or two about eight separate times. Peter Murphy, the same thing; I tried to buy tickets but the show had been rescheduled. Hunters & Collectors, I missed in Vancouver (UBC opening for Midnight Oil) and the list goes on. Perhaps you can see a theme and where my experiences are coloring those of the characters….but this isn’t a memoir!!
To me the real question is where you would you stop? If you could travel through time to see [insert vice or interest here] where would you stop? What would be enough? 1972 World Series? England’s World Cup win? Super Bowl XX? The Million Man March? Student protests in China? The Ramones? The Clash? Velvet Underground? If I could travel through time to see gigs, I couldn’t imagine stopping.
That’s also why I had to make sure that the story contained adventures outside of an inventory of every song I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs.
SPS: Kenn has some pretty big issues to deal with; does he cope well with the pressure?
DM: I think that Kenn is a bit unusual, but that he also resembles most of us at different times.
One of the things that I’ve most enjoyed about the feedback I have on The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies, is that people seem to disagree about if Kenn is the main character or if the narrator is. I think it’s a story about both of them, in fact that’s part of the tension between them – who gets to lead. Like everyone else that we know, they respond to pressures differently. They also respond to different pressures differently, and I think like most people, the characters have the potential to surprise us. At least I hope that they do.
But yes, Kenn has some big issues and they keep getting bigger. How does he do? Can he cope? I suppose that history will judge, it always does. I think he does OK, but other readers might have a different view.
Like all of us, and like the Fab Four have said, “we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.”
SPS: Are there any other characters we should be on the lookout for? And, do you have any favorites?
DM: There are a few that come to play. The narrator is important; there are a couple of romantic interests that evolve as well. After all, the story is about a girl; like the opening line suggests.
Billy Bragg is important to this story, especially in his alternate form as a right-winged British Prime Minister. Of course the music is important, almost to the degree of becoming characters in its own right, because it defines how the characters understand and interact with their world.
A subtle tip that I’ll share here: there are a number of characters that work in bars, pubs and convenient stores, all with variations on the name “Joseph”; I’d watch that space.
I’m not sure that I’ve got a favorite character anymore, I like the different exchanges between Kenn and the narrator. That’s probably been the source of the most fun for me.
SPS: Do you plan on revisiting Kenn again in the future, or has his story been fully told?
DM: We’ve still got a long way to go with Kenn and our narrator. The story has been built with a number of connection points or hinges that may allow me to insert other story lines as tangents or bridges to Kenn and some of the other characters, almost like Lego. Kenn has more of his own story still to come but there’s also a chance of seeing him in other unrelated novels to help that story along.
Book Two is out for copyediting and I’m hoping to have it in shape during this year. There are also plans for a series of four to complete the story on the boys and their various misadventures.
By the end of Book Two we learn to understand Kenn more, where he came from and where he’s going. The narrator as well. We start to wonder what life would be like for these guys and if they even can grow up? What does growing up mean? Do they have to leave rock ‘n’ roll behind like their parents continue to implore them to do, or is there a way to be an adult and love music?
I figure as long as there’s rock’n’roll, conspiracy and pizza, Kenn will want to be heard.
SPS: We’ve got to admit, we love the originality of the cover. How did it come about?
DM: The cover is great. I have to say I’m exceptionally happy with it and very fortunate for how it came to be.
Everything I’ve read suggests an interesting cover to distinguish your book is vital. Not really rocket science, you need to catch people’s eye before they will stop to take a chance on your words. So, I picked a couple of artists whose work I liked, who I thought had styles that would complement my vision for the cover and approached them. Nothing. Drag.
So I then turned my attention to Peter Wyse who I had developed a dialogue with and asked him “how would you go about finding an artist to do a book cover for you?”
Minimalist in his approach to everything, he said “why don’t you just ask? This is the sort of thing that artists (like me) look for as great opportunities.” He then asked if I would consider letting him take a run at the cover.
Peter’s work is great. Full stop. At the same time, I was concerned that his leaning towards the innocent and lighter side of the world might not be a good fit for a book about the Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I agreed to let Peter ruminate on it for a bit mostly because he’s so good to work with. Earlier in the year he had completed a commissioned piece for my wife that we were very pleased with, and just as important Peter was fun to work with through that process.
With nothing to lose, I sent Peter some of the beta copy of the text and some suggestions of other cover art that I love, for a baseline or a kick start for his creative processes and just let him loose. Before long I received an e-mail from Peter saying that he had an epiphany at the side of the highway which he immediately scribbled on the back of a gas station receipt and what did I think?
What he sent me at that time was ostensibly what you see on the cover of The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies. All that we really needed to do was sort out some of the colors, decide if Death would be wearing Doc’s or Chuck Taylor’s. Minor stuff really. I have to add the rock ‘n’ roll salute was my idea. When I meet Peter I’ll remind him of that. I’m sure he’ll remind me that the colors, the design and all the really great parts were his. We’ll call it a collaboration.
The success of the cover has actually reinvigorated the idea that we’ll have a four book series now. It works for a complete band, plus I think there was something going on with four horsemen being in strong theme in literature. You might want to watch for that theme here as well…
SPS: Do you think you will always write Science-Fiction or are you happy to see where each idea takes you?
DM: Yeah, it’s a good question that I’m not really sure about. I think that sci-fi plays less of a role than most people think when they see “time travel” in this book. But really the time travel piece is more of a device to explore themes of consequence and examining our decisions and our understandings.
I don’t really understand how time travel works. My sciences are on the weaker side of my skill set so, without giving too much away, the boys simply plug in Guitar Hero and the time travel bit sorts itself out.
What I like more is getting readers to think. Getting people to stretch their understanding of what it takes to be a hero, what choices they would make, what opportunities we want another chance at. I think everyone has those experiences and the attraction of time travel allows us to revisit the bits that we don’t really think we got right.
The fiction part of the novel is certainly there and I think that I’ll always write fiction because it is more liberating. I can write something very personal or intimate, but fictionalise it so that it’s actually not something that I’ve experienced. Or I can bend history to show a lesson or outcome that I think a reader will find important.
There are certainly some scientific discussions in The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies, in fact Kenn considers himself a scientist, but they’re all pretty dubious discussions. Things like Theory of Relativity, parallax, cold fusion, are all subjects for which Kenn is an expert, or so he claims, but he actually falls pretty short. In one exchange between the characters it’s pretty clear that Kenn doesn’t know how his time travel device works, except that it works “well”. Not exactly robust scientific discourse.
It’s a better guess to say that the reference to “The Scientist” in Chapter Two is a nod to the Coldplay song. At the same time, there is some discussion that I would consider “soft science” where the characters talk about transmission of sound or science as it relates to how we experience music and art. Again, this looks an interconnected world where philosophy, art, politics, science and humanity are all inextricably linked.
SPS: What we can we expect next from the pen of Duncan Milne?
DM: Vampire love stories. I think that there is a real need for more romance stories with vampires in them. Like Romeo and Juliette but different. Maybe moving away from the idea of fictional Italian families,towards maybe something paranormal, like werewolves or something. I still need to think it through before I kick that one off, I think there’s a lot of potential there, don’t you agree?
However, in the mean time I’ve got three more Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll books to round out. Again stories focusing on art, society and the politics of our daily lives that seems to find its way into everything else.
Without question there is a lawyer book or two in me. I would also love to build my skills to a level that I can take on a classic in the same way that Matthew Pearl did in The Dante Club. I think that The Prince by Machiavelli is probably the place I’m leaning towards. Again, it’s a story that deals with politics, philosophy and society in a timeless manner but yet changes how we view our world.
But first there’s more on tap for Kenn and his buddy.
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
DM: Early on I had visions of sugar plums, contracts, advances, book deals and even bribes from Dan Brown to stop writing so that he could continue to make a living. It didn’t take all that long to look down from my place on high and realise that my delusions were being crushed on the rocks below. I had some decent feedback from a publisher early on, but then that ran its course, so I tried finding an agent. That didn’t happen either, so I had to re-evaluate, and re-evaluate again.
Somewhere along the path, with some great insight from my wife, we decided that this venture was going to be structured more like a commercial project than a nebulous thing that I just allowed to spin around. So, we built a plan and made clear objectives, publishing The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies in 2013 was one of those goals.
I then had to work backwards and look at how I could reasonably do that. At the same time I had to examine how much energy I could realistically spend. Once you do that, finding critical paths becomes fairly easy, so we decided that all the energy chasing an agent or publishing deal was better spent self-publishing.
Ultimately the opportunities to be an indie-publisher seem to be better than ever before. So I was eager to take a bit of control back, especially with the moving and travel that we do. I mean I’m Canadian, wrote The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies in Australia and published in America, while living in New Zealand; its just easier to keep my hand directly on things at this time.
So, short answer; no it wasn’t my original choice to go the indie-publishing route, but early enough on it became the best option for me and here I am. Without indie-publishing options The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Impossibility of Time Travel and Other Lies would still be hidden on my hard drive.
SPS: Has the experience so far been all that you thought it would be?
DM: I honestly can’t say that any of my experiences have been what I’ve anticipated them being. I think as I get older I do a better job predicting, but there are always facets that are different.
I would say on one side self-publishing has been harder than I anticipated. There have been delays, frustrations and complete breakdowns on some of the services that I procured. Things that make me insane. These things seem to occur on a weekly basis.
On the other side, I have to say that the amount of unexpected support and positive responses I’ve had has been overwhelming. I’ve gone from sort of saying I’m writing a book under my breath to having people be really excited about it and harassing me to finish (I’m talking about you McNeill). Others have been super positive and encouraging and then there were a few that stepped forward and made massive contributions. Mike Zablocki was one of those people. Notwithstanding that I’ve never actually met him, he critically reviewed the beta and came up with a couple of suggestions that were very significant. In fact the radio interventions that start each chapter have been built off of an idea he had and represent a departure from the original idea that I worked up.
Mike also got me running on the social media piece as well. Why? All because the story struck a cord and because he’s a great guy. Peter Wyse’s efforts for the cover and support have been an unexpected boost as well.
All of this has been really great because it’s helped me see humanity in a brighter light than I otherwise do practicing law. I think it’s made me lighter as well.
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
DM: My advice would have to be different for what people’s goals are. The first thing that I would say is that everyone needs a goal, anything from “I want to write 1,000 words and print it at home” or “I want to blog twice a week, every two months” or “I want to be a major contributor to global deforestation”; it doesn’t matter what the goal is, you just need to have one.
If you want to write a book because you want to write a book, then read and write as much as you can.
If you want to make a living at writing, read, write and market as much as you can.
Regardless of what your ultimate goal is, make sure you understand it. Organise your plan of how to get there. Build a blog, try new things but read and write. Read something that you might not otherwise.
To me the advice has to be: read, write, revise, read, write, revise, repeat. You have to be organised though, especially the longer you project goes on for.
SPS: Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
DM: Not “just” but the people above and everyone in the acknowledgements section of the novel. These people have been huge and really are the kinds of people that make the world better by increments. People who engage in life and participate by being positive. These are people I want to be like.
SPS: Thank you for joining us today Duncan, and good luck in the future.
DM: My great pleasure and thank you.
SPS: For more information on Duncan Milne and his work, please do visit his Author page here.
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