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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Mark Piesing talks about his debut book, N-4 DOWN, and his writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Mark Piesing about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the work that went into his debut book.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am a freelance technology and aviation journalist and author. I live in Oxford.
N-4 DOWN: the hunt for the Arctic airship is my first book.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
As a child!
When did you take a step to start writing?
I had a go at writing my first ‘book’ when I was 7 or 8, and I kept trying, even when I was back packing around India.
I remember writing rough notes for a book while travelling overnight in the back of a coach from the foothills of the Himalayas to New Delhi. Unfortunately, in the cold light of day what I wrote didn’t make much sense!
How long did it take you to complete your book from the first idea to release?
It is hard to say as I came across the story of the crash of the airship Italia while writing a pitch for another book.
So, from when my agent, publisher and I had a call about the Italia story to completing the manuscript was about 22 months – but only about half of that was actual writing.
There was a deadline in my contract with the publisher – and that really helped to me focus!
What made you want to write N-4 DOWN?
I love aviation, history, innovation, and exploration, and, so, when I discovered the story of the crash of the airship Italia near the North Pole, I just had to write it!
What were your biggest challenges with writing N-4 DOWN?
That’s a good question! The biggest challenge I had was knowing how to start it, and then, how to tell it.
I was really stuck, and I was aware the contractual deadline was getting ever closer.
Then I flew up to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, near where the airship crashed, saw this epic eternal landscape of brilliant white mountains and frozen sea, and realized that the story had to start here, and more than that, Svalbard itself must be a character in the story, which I hope I achieved.
What was your research process for N-4 DOWN?
I read widely about the crash. Then I zeroed in on aspects of the story, such as the background of Umberto Nobile and Roald Amundsen, and explore that in more detail, particularly by reading eye-witness accounts, searching newspaper archives (which are now mostly online), travelling to locations in the book, such as the Arctic Circle for a sense of place, and looking for forgotten manuscripts, such as in an overlooked archive in Tromsø.
I will never forget the feeling of holding a manuscript that Umberto Nobile had typed and then seeing his hand-written corrections on the side. I even tracked down one of the last people alive who knew Umberto Nobile, the protagonist, to a Copenhagen suburb.
How did you plan the structure of N-4 DOWN?
The story told itself! I just followed the chronological order of events. I could add nothing to that!
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did N-4 DOWN need?
Yes. My editor at HarperCollins in New York took the time to do an old-fashioned line by line edit of my manuscript in pencil, and then DHL’d it back to me. I learned so much from reading his comments and seeing his changes.
The book published was the manuscript that was produced by that process; relatively little was changed after that.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
That if they are serious about writing a book, then they need to write every day, even if it’s just a few lines.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I plan to write another gripping, thrilling book about men and women pushing technology to its limits in pursuit of high-stake goals.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I am. The great reception of the book from critics and readers has, for me, made it all worthwhile. But my wife may have a different view!
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