Author, cellist and ghost writer is how Spaulder Taylor (Alice McVeigh) describes herself. After a break from writing she’s back with her latest book Last Star Standing. Here she is to tell you a little of her own writing story and Last Star Standing:
I started off life as a harmless professional cellist, combining the lucky bits (invited on the Royal Philharmonic’s tour of EU capitals, Carnegie Hall with Sir John Eliot Gardiner) with the scrounging-around-for-work bits, the lowlight probably involving teaching at a local boarding school in an unheated hut about four metres long. We had frost on the cello fingerboards!
It was while touring with various orchestras when I was once again got bitten by the writing bug that had possessed me before the cello. (I had finished my first novel at 12. It was appallingly overwritten, with 94 adjectives to every verb, and 70,000 words long.)
After that, I scribbled in airports; I scribbled in hotel rooms; I scribbled in the early mornings before orchestra rehearsals. The result was, in the late 1990s, I landed the fifth famous agent I tried, who secured me a two-book deal with Orion (now Hachette) for my contemporary novels about the secret life of an orchestra.
My muso friends were almost all wildly envious, certain I was set for life, and that I could just hang up my cello and idly watch the royalties roll in. I was far less confident. I come from a family of writers and editors and I was aware that both my careers hung by a wavering thread. (You really are only as good as your last concert performance/book sales. I had somehow picked two of the toughest ways in which to make a living!)
In addition, I was distracted by the birth of my daughter, to such an extent that my third novel was – I now believe – rightly rejected. My starry agent abandoned me, and I was unable to accept orchestra tours carrying, not only a cello, but a baby as well. So, with the help of my ex-agent and others, I made the decision to market myself as a ghost writer and book editor, something – very luckily – I can do.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write fiction: it really was that I couldn’t. I had lots of writing work; and was also a brand-new mother. I kept reading, though not nearly as much as I had before. It was at this time I began to enjoy sci-fi as well as more literary fiction. My book clubs had something to do with this, too.
Yet I was still amazed, once my daughter went to uni, to find several ideas for novels positively nagging at me. Still more of a surprise was that one of these ideas was dystopian and speculative fiction – something I’d never felt the urge to write before. But the idea – which had come to me while meditating, refused to loosen its grip. I said to my husband, ‘Who’s going to want a sci-fi book by a washed-up author in her fifties, with no track record in sci-fi, no connections in sci-fi, and with practically every agent in New York and London specifying – along with poetry and screenplays, of course – no sci-fi?’
‘Then just write it for you,’ was his advice.
It was an image rather than a plotline that was haunting me: an image of a young man, imprisoned in a steel chair, staring up a 100-metre shaft, into a night sky. This image eventually turned into the opening of Last Star Standing, which I’m publishing with UK publishers Unbound under my two middle names, Spaulding Taylor.
The title relates partly to the 23rd-century rebel protagonist and narrator (Aiden, a volatile and ambitious assassin who longs to be recognized as a leader). However, it also relates to the Earth itself, as, in the book, it’s one of the last ‘stars’ still struggling against the Xirfells.
My imagined Earth is one that’s been pretty seriously wrecked (having endured WWIII as well as the invasion) and much of the action of the novel takes place in Australia, which endured the least, in both cases. (This notion was inspired from a cellist friend of mine, who emigrated from London to Australia in the late 80s. His view – which frankly seemed a bit extreme to the rest of us – was that the world was in a perilous state and he’d prefer to be farther out of the firing line.)
Last Star Standing starts in real time – but is initially interwoven with action-packed flashbacks – to Aiden’s recent capture, about his tempestuous relationship with girlfriend Petra, and to various missions for the rebel cause. It then continues in real-time, through Aiden’s escape and Petra’s betrayal, through various other assignments, working into a fiery, tense and powerful climax.
What principally interests me is people; and the story is extremely character-driven, whether it’s the volatile Aiden, the indolent and casually cruel Ravene, Aiden’s gutsy if stubborn sidekick Bully, the oppressed Pundlings, or any of the long cast of villains – including the Testers and their indolent and casually destructive King.
Here’s a short excerpt, in which a Tester features:
I was teaching – those fat little pundling faces lifted to mine – when the Testers entered, shuddering the ancient door back on its hinges. There were maybe five of them, all wearing that tangle of black and silver insignia on their jackets. It was odd how I could still almost immediately determine their leader: some trick of stance, perhaps.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, but one had clearly pinned me – deadening my every tendon, immobilising my every muscle.
I felt a sudden remorse for all the times I’d fiercely objected, ‘But why didn’t they fight?’ It was utterly obvious to me, in that moment, why the others hadn’t fought. Not only is fighting back not an option but even breathing feels almost impossible. Every breath had to be dredged upwards, as if each molecule of oxygen had been temporarily petrified inside.
Yet my mind remained clear. I suspect that it was nerves alone that crowded that entire class of pundlings into one: 3034, middle of the front row, the one who had always used to pinch his pen so anxiously, a lad with rounder eyes than most. Though most of my attention was reserved for the leading Tester, who had certainly pressed a button, releasing his eel-like zuge, oiled and glittering, as if bent on escape. (It couldn’t escape, of course. Instead, it curled itself sulkily around the Tester’s muscular arm.)
‘Do you see the zuge?’ he demanded, of my class.
No one dared to answer: only I attempted to protest – voicelessly. There was no pain in my throat, only a weird blankness, as if my vocal cords had been jellified. The Tester, enjoying himself, flicked the zuge’s snaky head playfully, causing its long stripe of twenty or so eyes to blink resentfully round the room.
The Tester said, ‘Do you know what a zuge is?’
They did, I felt sure. Every eye in the room was centred on the zuge, its fluidity, the living colours pulsing through it. It writhed bitterly, though I knew it was at most half-alive: they are bred, the zuges, in a secret establishment not far from my own birthplace. The microchip replacing its brain was not visible, but I was close enough to register the minute scar above its topmost eye.
‘Do I have a volunteer to assist in my demonstration?’ sneered the Tester.
Not 3034, I hoped, but perhaps my hope was audible – or perhaps it was fate, as 3034 was front and centre. I watched helplessly as the fat little pundling toddled obediently from his desk, shoulders slumped, flabby lips wobbling, eyes even larger and more apprehensive than usual. The rest of the class remained focussed on the zuge, with its liquid lights, almost hypnotised.
The Tester raised the zuge and I tried to shut my eyes. It’s almost certainly an old wives’ tale, yet it is said that after a glimpse of those pearl-black fangs one can never sleep easy again. For whatever reason, though, my eyelids wouldn’t close – another side-effect of being pinned, perhaps. I waited, endlessly, for the spiteful barb and for the beginning of 3034’s drawn-out, wild-curled dance of death.
Which didn’t happen.
For just at that moment a shock or pulse appeared to rock through the principal Tester as the zuge slicked back into his glove, a movement so startling that I couldn’t help wondering if the creature had received a command overriding the Tester’s own. However, he turned to the pundlings and rasped, ‘Kindness stilled my hand. Sit down, 3034,’ and 3034, still blinking, obediently did so.
‘You will wonder why we are taking your teacher from you. Do not tax your brains with such matters. All that we do is for your good. Your welfare is your loving King’s sole concern.’
Which must be why he feeds his pundlings to his Blurgs, when he has a fit of rage, then. . Tester voices, of course, are always horrible, with that astringent texture, but this Tester was, I believe, attempting to soften his, as much as he could. Then he wheeled round to face me.
Ah, death, I thought, with a strange combination of terror and yearning.
It started with a deep ache in the small of my back and spread outward and upward: like a cancer, like a flower. Then I crumpled, pinned, only to awake beneath this square of sky.
Unbound is a real publisher – having recently had one novel longlisted for the Booker Prize – but in these uncertain publishing times they minimise their risk by requiring all Unbound authors to crowdfund the first part of the book’s production costs.
If you’d like to sponsor (pre-order) my book, I’d be very grateful. There are various rewards on offer, including a developmental edit of your own novel. If interested, please check out https://unbound.com/books/last-star-standing/ In only three days,
I’m on 20% funded – So it’s so far, so good!
Alice McVeigh/Spaulding Taylor has previously been twice published by Orion/Hachette (a ‘top five’ publisher). Her first play was put on the Lewisham Theatre and she has also singlehandedly ghosted over 100 full-length books to publication. She will soon have her first sci-fi novel published by Unbound. A professional cellist and addicted tennis player, Alice lives in London with her husband and two long-haired sausage dogs. www.alicemcveigh.com