Interview: VP Von Hoehen

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VP Von Hoehen, Author of The Black Sea
VP Von Hoehen is a journalist, author and screenwriter. Born in Canada, he has lived in the US, Spain and the UK, contributing articles to many publications worldwide, including reviews, interviews and critical essays. VP is an active blogger, reviewing restaurants, hotels and spas, and he is also the founder of an exclusive dining club. He currently lives in London with his wife, where he combines his passions for business, the arts, history and food.

His first novel, The Black Sea, was published in April  2011 by Black Mary Press, VP’s own publishing company, and the e-book has just been released.

You can read my review here: The Black Sea by VP Von Hoehen.

What inspired you to write The Black Sea?

I wanted to write a book that was based on my own family’s struggle to get back what was rightfully ours prior to the communist takeover over of Moldova. It was not an easy struggle and was rife with ups and downs and twists and turns. I also knew that I wanted to write a strong heroine who had no super-human characteristics or exaggerated talents other than being a determined intelligent woman – a type of character that I believe there is not enough of in the market place. I wanted to create a heroine that was as appealing to men as women. So, I created Kate and so far from the men’s reviews and comments it seems I have managed to do that.

As you say, novel’s central character, Kate Allen, is a strong and determined woman - dynamic, yet warm. Female protagonists are rare in thrillers, what made you decide to break from tradition?

It seems more and more male or female protagonists are required to have super-hero like qualities. I wanted Kate to be someone people could identify with and think, ‘yeah, that’s what I would do if I were in her situation.’ It is true that it does kind of break with tradition, but the reality is that female characters like SALT are simply not believable although great fantasy - especially for cinema. I wanted a real person, yes, strong, determined, dynamic and warm – endearing.

Was it difficult to write from a female point of view?

Actually, I have a lot of really smart women in my life who all make up different pieces of Kate, so it didn't prove too difficult to write from the female point of view. I had good role models to work with in creating the character so it didn’t seem that difficult at all. And as I was writing I would ask myself, ‘what would the women in my life do if they were in the particular situation?’

There’s a dedication to a Belen Moreno at the end of the book, is she one of the women who inspired you?

There is a lot of Belen in Kate. Belen was the first person I talked to about the whole book idea and she was the one who suggested I base it loosely on my family experiences. I met Belen in Madrid when I was living there. She became a very good friend and is one of the kindest, smartest, and most moral people I have ever known. She inspired me as a writer, she inspired great parts of the Kate Allen character, and she taught me a lot as a person. I needed to recognise her contribution to both my professional and personal life and that is why she has a special dedication.

The novel’s plot sprawls across several European countries; are you as well travelled as your characters?

I have lived for various lengths of time in Canada, America, England, Spain and Australia. Beyond those countries, yes, I have travelled a lot. I have been lucky enough to see much of the world and so many cultures and places. In this sense I have been very fortunate. In the next few years, however, I plan to stick pretty close to home as I still have three and a half Kate Allen mysteries to write. Each one takes place in a different part of the world as well so I get to exercise my writing through my travel experiences. 

Russians have often been portrayed as villains and negatively stereotyped in thrillers, what made you present a more balanced view, particularly when writing about restitution, a matter close to your heart?

It is true that Russians are often portrayed in a negative light. They are easily criticised by other countries for lack of transparency among many other things. The reality is, however, that the same abuses go on in other countries. It is just that we in the West like to point fingers at others before looking at ourselves. We prefer to talk about Russian corruption rather than News Corp or Enron or Madoff if we can. Today many people find it hard to believe Western workers were beaten, sometimes killed and their rights trodden on. And that wasn’t really all that long ago. The things that happened in our own countries, like child labour for instance, we condemn other countries for doing. It is part of our own history too, however. We committed the same sins. Now, it is unacceptable in our culture and one day it will be unacceptable in those other cultures too. I wanted to point out the hypocrisy in perceptions that exist between people, countries and cultures and I hope I managed to do that.

On a lighter note, food plays a big role in the novel, and your descriptions are luscious – good food must be an important to you?

I trained as a pastry chef and I have been lucky enough to work with some of the greatest chefs around. I have owned and run restaurants. Food and drink is one of the great loves in my life – so are cigars. I began cooking when I was six, and food has always been a big part of my world and it still is even though I am dedicated to writing now. As a consequence I now write reviews about food, drink and travel on my blog and other publications such as The Viscount’s Table.

The second book in the series is due out in early 2012, is there a certain number planned for the series?

Yes, I am currently working on, The Golden Age, which is the second in the Kate Allen series. The Golden Age takes place in Spain. The third in the series is set predominantly in the UK. So far I have planned five books for Kate’s character and then we will see what happens after that. I have more ideas for more novels for her, but I also don’t want to ruin a good thing, but Kate’s fans will have the final say.

You set up your own publishing house, Black Mary Press, to release The Black Sea, giving you full control over the novel's distribution and promotion. Congratulations on a great job. You made the decision to release The Black Sea in hardback before it was released electronically. Why did you take this decision, and where do you stand on print vs e-books generally?

Very good question. There is a learning curve attached to beginning any new business. Publishing is new business to me. I invested heavily in Black Mary Press and bringing the book out in hardback and promoting it first. Was that the right thing to do? No, now that I know more, I think I made a mistake bringing out the hardback before the electronic version. Recently, I was in LA and I had to drive about an hour to get to a bookstore that had any amount of stock. In the UK it is a bit better, but we are heading in the same direction whether we like to admit it or not. Are paper based books going to disappear? No, but I do believe they will become a niche market. The internet didn’t kill magazine publishing, it just marginalised it. The realities of distribution deals and the big publishers that are heavily invested in the paper delivery of written material means that a new author has little chance of getting signed. Some distributors require a minimum of ten books and ten thousand copies before they will even consider taking you on. The reality of electronic publishing is that the delivery mechanism means anyone can get into the market with limited resources and triumph. E-publishing has levelled the playing field for aspiring writers. The big publishers are fighting to keep what is left of their ‘kingdoms’ instead of adapting to the new market.

So with that in mind, will you be publishing future Kate Allen novels as e-books only?

I’m undecided at present, but I don’t think I’ll do another hardback. I’m likely to be more conservative in future and, if anything, release a paperback in print to supplement e-books.

Established publishers spend a great deal of money promoting new authors, how has promotion of The Black Sea been?

Promoting it has been expensive and treacherous - like navigating a minefield! I think this was largely because of coming out with the hardback first. I guess even I was clinging to the idea of having a hardback to show the world I was an author. But at the time I didn’t see the shift from paper to electronic books as shift in distribution mechanisms rather than a reflection of what makes an author bona fide. It would have been more responsible to enter the market electronically with a well-priced easily distributed version of the book and then gain some readership and word of mouth. I think it would have helped eventual sales of the hard back. Sometimes I need a reality check. People, generally, like the book. I was reading yesterday how F. Scott Fitzgerald was thrilled with his reviews of The Great Gatsby, but was depressed by his sales. Don’t get me wrong, I write entertainment, and he wrote literature, but it helps to know it wasn’t easy for him either.

Now that you have your first book under your belt, what are the future plans for Black Mary press?

I read a blog recently. The blog was about how to become a successful writer (measured by earning a living). The blogger basically said, if you are reading this blog, you are not doing what it takes to become a successful writer. To be a successful writer you need to write. He actually said that you shouldn’t read blogs like his if you seriously want to be a writer. I read the blog until that point and then closed the window on my computer and wrote something. The future of Black Mary Press is for me to keep writing and producing material. I want to work with some other authors whose books are less suitable to the electronic age and will still sell on paper – like cookbooks. New fiction authors I believe should publish themselves so I can’t see taking on any fiction authors any time soon. Black Mary Press will stick to publishing my own material and non-fiction works with potential in the printed-paper market.

Beyond fiction I hear The Black Sea is being adapted for the big screen. Are you writing the screenplay, or is someone else?

I am writing it with another, much more experienced screenwriter. Kate’s character was always intended to translate onto the big screen. Most people who have read The Black Sea immediately comment on the fact that it would make a great film.

Working on the screenplay must be a great chance to broaden your skills as a writer. I'd be interested to know what your writing process is like generally, how long did it take you to write The Black Sea?

From back in the beginning when I was talking with Belen Moreno about it until it was published it was 9 years. I did, however, write several other projects during that time. Now, I am working to publish one novel a year plus a couple of short-stories. I have seven or eight manuscripts I have been working on during those years as well. Some will end up as books, some will end up as scripts and some of them will be used to light the fireplace.

Having finished a full-length novel you must have a better idea of your own working pattern as a writer. What's your writing process like?

I write in gusts. I can write 20,000 words in one night. Then nothing will happen for weeks. It is really not a fluid process for me. I hope one day that it does become more fluid. In the meantime I have to work within my own constraints. Working with copy editors and proof-readers helps to keep the focus as the book is in the final stages. Now that I have one book out in hardback and Kindle it feels more like a job – but a job in a good way – a job that you love to do.

What first inspired you to start writing?

I was ill awhile back and I needed a career change as a result. Obviously I could have chosen something easier. It is a struggle for new authors. Especially nowadays - nobody is walking away with huge money in an advances. I was lucky enough to have good advice from a very well establish author in the beginning. He told me that if he had to do it over again he would create his own publisher. So he acted not only as a mentor for my writing but I took his advice and established Black Mary Press.

What do you hope your books deliver for readers?

I hope that readers find the book entertaining. I am not trying to write literature. My hope is that people will put down The Black Sea and think that it was fun, that it was enjoyable.

Which authors, if any, do you compare yourself to, or aspire to emulate?

I can’t say that I compare myself to anyone, but I can say that I did want to emulate Jack Ryan in Kate’s character – I wanted a female Jack Ryan. Now, I would hardly compare myself to Clancy but I like how he constructed Jack Ryan as a smart person with no super hero-like qualities. Again, Ryan is a character that is easy to identify with and think, ‘ yeah, that is what I would do in his situation.’

The Black Sea is your first novel; did you attempt any other full length works or short stories before you started writing it?

I have worked on a few other pieces before. I have a quiet a few manuscripts and scripts and short stories – one of which will be published very shortly: I Phone… Therefore. Otherwise I have published food and drink and travel pieces and I wrote one of the first non-sports feature articles on Rafa Nadal. So, I have done bit, but a bit is never enough when it comes to writing especially when there is so much competition out there. Robert Pirsig, who I love, barely got out his highly successfully but hard to publish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance back in the day. I often think how much harder it would have been for him in today’s market. It isn’t easy for anyone. Although the massive shift in distribution to electronic delivery means he probably would have been able to publish himself successfully.

What aspects of writing do you find most challenging?

Grammar! Um, er, grammar! Oh, and grammar!

What advice would you give to people wanting to write?

Persistence. Keep at it. Don’t let others get you down. Listen to people around you, but remember if they are not writers or editors, they won’t necessarily get everything you are trying to do… so listen to what they say and if it makes sense to take their advice - take it. If it doesn’t make sense then revert to following your instinct. When you present your work to copy editors or editors in general you should pay more attention to what they have to say – they have more experience in the field and their guidance is critical in the final process of bringing a book to market.  

The Black Sea encapsulates many of the key elements of a thriller. What makes a good thriller for you?

I think that when you are reading if you think, ‘Oh, I know how this is going to end,’ or alternatively, ‘I am not sure how this is going to end,’ but either way you need or want to keep reading the book – then I think you have a good thriller.

Are you working on anything outside the Kate Allen stories at the moment?

Yes, I am working on a Medieval vampire piece based on historical characters. I am also working on a couple of short stories and outlines for other book projects like the 4th and 5th novels in the Kate Allen series.

Do you have a favourite book or author?

I love reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and read it about once every two years. Robert Pirsig has made a great impact on my life. But without a doubt my favourite book and writer is The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers.

Are there any new writers you’ve read recently who you are particularly excited about?

Actually, one new writer that immediately comes to mind is Palo Alto by James Franco. I think he still has a lot of room to grow as a writer but I think some of his metaphors are genius.

What, if anything, would you change about the writing and publication of The Black Sea?

I would have approached The Black Sea entirely from an eBook point of view. It would have made much better business sense and almost certainly been better for me as a writer. Like I said there is a steep learning curve that comes with learning the publishing business in 2011.

And finally, favourite word, and why?

I like the word niggardly. People’s first reaction to it is to think about the inflammatory racial epithet of similar sound – which has nothing to do with the actual meaning of niggard. As a result of this it reminds me of the power of words to influence people. Now, I would never use the other word, but the mistake clearly demonstrates how sensitive people can be to words – that words can be easily misinterpreted. It’s a reminder to be careful to not mistakenly offend with words and the power of knowledge – especially vocabulary.

VP Von Hoehen's first novel, The Black Sea is available on Amazon  now. The next instalment of the Kate Allen series, The Golden Age, is due for release in early 2012. For more information on VP, his writing, and his publishing company, Black Mary Press, visit: www.blackmarypress.net

Useful Links
The Black Sea on Amazon (UK)

8 comments:

Jess said...

Fabulous interview! Kate sounds like a great lead for The Black Sea, and I love the variety of interview questions and answers here.

I know VP says he writes in gusts, but 20,000 words in one night??? Wow, if he could bottle that power to writers and sell it... :) Thanks, gentlemen!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for being the first to comment on my first-ever interview Jess! And thanks for the kind words, VP was an absolute pleasure to work with and gave tremendously full and insightful answers - The Black Sea is definitely worth a look, Kate Allen is a great character.

I know, 20,000 words in a night - phenomenal. I'm happy to scratch out two hundred words in a sitting ;)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful thourough interview, and a great subject. What impressed me the most was his candid approach to how Russian's are usually portrayed; when the clandestine and the nepharious is found everywhere! I also liked his description of the power of words...and learned a good one for stingy!!!:)Great Job!
M.C.V. Egan
The Bridge of Deaths

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Catalina, and sorry you weren't able to log on as yourself to make it.

I'm really pleased you enjoyed the interview. I think VP has some really interesting things to say, so I'm glad to have got the chance to chat with him. And you're right, the final sentiment about the power of language is very true - a great choice of word.

Lorena said...

Great interview. Kate Allen is indeed a very convincing no-nonsense kind of woman, you can't help but warm to her. So I'm looking forward to see what she's up to next.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Lorena, and glad you enjoyed Kate Allen as a character.

Eduardo said...

Congratulatios. Book fantastic. Very striking and easy to read. I'm waiting for the next adventures of Kate. Thanks!!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Eduardo. It's definitely a fun book, full of action. Glad you enjoyed it.