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Jon Sparks

The Short Version

(There's a longer version below for those who may be interested).

 

I'm an award-winning writer & photographer, now focusing on writing fiction, without abandoning photography or the outdoors.

 

For over 30 years I've specialised in landscape, travel and outdoor pursuits, especially walking, climbing and all varieties of cycling. I'm based in Garstang, Lancashire, UK, but have travelled and photographed in more than 30 countries and have written travel guides to Finland and to the Baltic region. I have also written guidebooks for walkers, climbers and cyclists. 

 

Throughout those decades I never completely lost sight of writing fiction and now I'm giving it much more of my time and energy.  Three Kinds of North, Book 1 of The Shattered Moon, is out now and you can get it from a range of outlets. Look out for Book 2, The Sundering Wall, due on the 8th of August.

 

Born: Macclesfield, Cheshire: apart from four years in Cambridge I've always lived in the North-West of England.

 

Age: a few months younger than LeVar Burton and a shade older than Stephen Fry

 

Star Sign: Don't have one.

 

Education: The formal part: Lancaster Royal Grammar School and St John's College, Cambridge (Geography then Social and Political Sciences). The informal part: being a voracious reader and travelling a lot, plus TV series like Earth Story, The Incredible Human Journey, and above all Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

 

Relationship status: Civil Partnership (formally since early 2020, informally a lot longer).

 

Annoying habits: shouting out the answers when watching University Challenge. ( Not all the answers, I'm afraid!)

 

Below left: Lancaster, where I grew up. Below right: Garstang, where I live now.

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The Long Version (1300 words!)

I can't remember a time when I didn't write stories. I have a misty recollection of one about a boy called Ajax who lived on a space station, which certainly would have been written while I was at primary school. I know I submitted something to Gollancz when I was an undergraduate, back in the days when it was home to much of the best SF around (and when it was a genuine family firm, not an imprint of a corporate giant). I think I know which story it was, but I can't be sure. It wasn't good enough, anyway.

 

Of course, writing fiction had to fit in around school essays, and then University ones. I came home from Cambridge thinking I'd throw myself into writing, but "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans" (apparently this line doesn't originate with John Lennon after all). It wasn't fiction that first got me into print; my first published piece was about rock-climbing in Greece (spot the climbers in the photo: yes, I did that climb, it's called Traumpfeiler).

 

For a while, though, my primary occupation was photography, shooting mainly landscapes and outdoor pursuits but also pretty much anything that local tourist boards required. For around thirty years my income came from various combinations of writing and photography; postcards and greetings cards, calendars, magazine features on climbing, walking and trekking, travel guidebooks, including four editions of a Thomas Cook guide to Finland (the bikes photo is from my very first visit), and lots of 'how to' books on photography. 

 

Those three decades just happened to span a period of transformative change in media and publishing. I started out submitting words as typescript, having carefully bashed out a 'fair copy', though I usually couldn't resist making a few editorial tweaks even at this stage (I'm still an inveterate tweaker to this day). It was just about OK to make one or two corrections using TippEx, but more than that and you'd  be advised to do the page again. And now I bet most writers don't even know what TippEx was. (I should say 'is'; you can still get it.)

 

Pictures were sent as slides, in plastic wallets so they could be instantly viewed on a lightbox. This meant submitting your precious, and often unique, originals to the tender mercies of the Royal Mail and the rough and tumble of a busy editorial environment. Often they'd come back smeared with the sticky residue of scanner oil, but that was better than when they didn't come back at all. Some things are a lot better in the digital age (and some aren't, but don't get me started).

 

If the digital cataclysm reshaped the way I wrote, shifting from a manual typewriter to an Amstrad PCW to the first of a series of Macs, it brought even bigger changes to the way I worked as a photographer. In 1990 I went to Pakistan for six weeks carrying just 25 rolls of film: an average of fewer than two dozen shots per day. I certainly shoot more liberally than that now, but I still reject the 'shoot hundreds and one of them's bound to be good' fallacy.

 

Learning to use a digital camera meant re-learning a lot of habits, not least in how I judged the exposure of an image. It also meant learning my way around Photoshop, and then Lightroom; other apps came and went over the years too. I've often said that the first few years of shooting digitally presented me with the steepest learning curve of my life (although getting to grips with self-publishing a novel runs it close).

 

Working in the outdoors and travel meant I got around a lot. One of my best ever jobs was shooting the photos for a book on the Scottish Islands. I've been to more than thirty other countries, including New Zealand four times, but nowhere's more beautiful than Scotland. Still, I loved the travel. I've slept everywhere from a bivouac halfway up the Eiger to the Nobel Suite in Stockholm's Grand Hotel, and I've met amazing people from many different cultures. Best of all, though, was a trip to Morocco over New Year 1993—94. It would have been grand anyway, but it happened to be here that I met my partner. Okay, technically we first clapped eyes on each other at Heathrow Airport, but who's quibbling? We made it 'official' with a civil partnership ceremony in February 2020, but it didn't change the way we feel about each other.

 

Since we met on a trekking trip, it'll be no surprise that Bernie (that's her in the photo) shares my love of the outdoors. We've had plenty more great adventures together, from the Tongariro Crossing to trekking and climbing in Wadi Rum. She's played a big part in my creative processes too, from being principal model for action photos to first, last, and best beta reader. In her day job she's an academic with a nursing background, so she writes a lot too and I've done my best to reciprocate the beta-reading favour.

All through these years I still had stories bubbling away in my mind, and would write in whatever spare time I could find. One result was an early draft of 'The Shattered Moon' (now split into books 1 and 2). It's changed substantially since, but the basic setup and the key characters remain. Still, time and creative energy were mostly taken up with other sorts of writing, which was hardly a bad thing. I did end up with rushed and rough first drafts of several novels, but didn't take any of them further.

And then several things changed. A number of regular income-streams began to dry up. Who would have thought, for example, just a few years earlier, that Thomas Cook would stop publishing guidebooks? Still, I might have responded very differently to this challenge if I hadn't also been faced with some health issues. 

I'd got to age 59 with very few real problems, and was still fit enough to take on 100-mile bike rides. I'm always aware that this makes me one of the lucky ones, but I'm not sure it made the change easier to assimilate. But before I got much further I started to experience cardiac arrhythmia. And just as we thought that was fixed, after a couple of ablation procedures, we discovered I had cancer.

This is the moment to reiterate the point that not all cancers are equal. Some have far better survivability than others. I have an 'indolent' (as my consultant described it) lymphoma which is currently being kept very well at bay with oral chemo. Throughout these years I've kept as active as I can and I'm typing this after we enjoyed a 35km hilly bike ride this morning.

Still, any such diagnosis is bound to make you stop and think, and one of my main thoughts was that I really ought to focus on fiction while I still could, as well as 'seizing the day' in lots of other ways.

 

Since then, so far I've had some very encouraging responses both from magazines to short story submissions and from agents to the novel(s), but none have quite crossed the line to acceptance. After a bit of a strategic assessment I decided to go ahead and self-publish The Shattered Moon series—which currently stands at four complete novels, though the latter two will need further revision. I also have a big chunk of a fifth and what looks like the beginning of a sixth, by which time my main character will have aged thirty years. Well, I've aged nearly as much since the whole thing began!

At the same time I'm going to pursue the trad publishing route with a standalone novel, a rather different kettle of fish, with a more 'mainstream' SF setting… and a couple of characters you'll already have heard of. Can you work out who? The solution is 'Elementary, my dear…'.

And I say 'standalone', but…

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