Book Chat: Clayton Zane Comber
Clayton Zane Comber is the author of two novels, Shooting Stars and 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze. As well as writing, he has had an incredibly varied career to date, in fields as diverse as law, DJ-ing, creative writing tutoring and restaurant saxophone-playing! His latest novel, 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze, has garnered a truckload of positive reviews, and connected deeply with readers – myself very much included.
Congratulations, Clay, and thanks for taking the time for a little bit of Book-Chat brain-picking! To start off, would you mind sharing a little about your journey as a writer, and your path to publication? Had this always been an ambition of yours?
Thanks so much for asking me to contribute to your writing blog. I remember writing stories as a kid and hoping to ‘become a writer’ one day, but didn’t pursue writing actively until I started university. I was lucky enough to have my debut novel published by a tiny press, which really gave me the motivation to pursue writing. I continued on studying and completed my MA, and then went overseas to complete my MSt in Writing, so I always had projects on the go. About six years ago now, I started writing the first draft of 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze, which was signed by my wonderful agent Catherine Drayton, and then amazingly acquired by Harper Collins at the beginning of 2020 and released in June of this year.
Tell us everything you’d like us to know about 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze.
Xander Maze is about a fifteen-year-old boy, who is the ultimate list-maker. When his Nanna is diagnosed with cancer and given only a short period of time left to live, she tells him that writing a list of 100 Remarkable Feats and trying to achieve them will cure her. Xander believes her because Nanna is #1 on his List of People he Trusts the Most. The problem is that the list is shared online so everyone at school and in his community knows what he’s up to, and it includes daunting feats like #2 Make a Friend and #10 Kiss a Girl (Preferably Ally Collins). Luckily, he has some unlikely companions that come along to help him attempt his ultimate list.
Was there any kind of thematic trajectory connecting your first novel, Shooting Stars, with 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze, or did they come from completely different places?
I don’t think there’s really any thematic connection between the novels, except for maybe both being coming-of-age stories. I think Shooting Stars was more about the fun of writing and just trying to write a novel, whereas 100 Remarkable Feats is a deeply personal novel to me. During the writing of the book, I lost my father to cancer, who was not only my friend (Feat #2), but my best friend (Feat #3), and writing it I really kind of left my heart on the page. This book is dedicated to him.
I’m fairly sure Xander isn’t meant to be an autobiographical character, but is there much of you in him?
I think I definitely share a lot of characteristics with Xander. I love to write lists, particularly really meaningless lists (like Top 5 Songs by Linda Ronstadt), and I love learning new facts and etymologies etc. I’m also extremely close to my own Nanna, who played a huge role in my upbringing. I also used a few of my own high school experiences in the novel.
Xander’s voice is so unique and authentic – was it difficult to nail, and to sustain as you wrote?
Thanks, Cam. I’m someone who thinks about the writing a lot more than I actually write. So I was probably thinking of Xander’s voice and kind of living with him in my head for a while before I put it down on paper. I really wanted him to be completely relatable to everyone, but definitively unique in his own way, so I think that balance was the hardest.
Probably the thing that affected me most deeply in the book was the love between Xander and his ailing Nanna, and I have a feeling a lot of male readers would draw comfort and strength from your portrayal of his bravery and vulnerability. Have you had much feedback about this aspect of the story from male readers in Xander’s age group?
Owning a bookstore, I’ve actually been really blessed that people can come in and talk to me about the book. I’m also fortunate that a wide and varied group of readers have read the book and come back to me with really positive comments.
So far, two teenage boys have come in to tell me how much they loved the book, and one actually bought a copy for his Nanna, which was extremely moving.
It’s also been wonderful speaking to young readers from other bookstore bookclubs.
Not directly related to the book, but after I spoke to a school via zoom, the librarian told me that through lockdown they asked students who they most wanted to have dinner with, and the majority of answers weren’t famous people, but their grandparents! This just filled my heart with joy.
I’d love to know a little about the drafting and redrafting process for 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze. Were there many big plot changes from draft to draft, or was the plot largely resolved in your head before you got the first draft down?
Writing Xander was like building a house of cards. The main plot and main characters never changed, but because Xander has to get through the 100 Remarkable Feats and do it in one cohesive story, any time I made a wrong decision it felt like the novel collapsed. So it ended up taking quite a few drafts over the course of five years. But I actually never made any big plot changes in that time.
The Remarkable Feats list is not only a great plot device but is a brilliant way to invite readers to self-reflect, and to acknowledge the significance of seemingly modest achievements. Did you have the full list devised before you wrote your first draft of the novel, or did the story suggest some of the feats as you progressed?
I’ve been asked a similar question to this a few times, so I recently went back to have a look at the first draft, and surprisingly, the list remains mostly the same. Before I started writing, I gave the list a lot of consideration, reading through teenage bucket lists, asking teenagers what they’d like to achieve etc. so I think I kind of knew what I wanted Xander to achieve. I always knew that I wanted some of the feats to be things that most people overlooked and sometimes took for granted. Of course, a few feats had to change for plotting and narrative reasons, and sometimes I wrote sections of Xander and his friends completing feats, but it didn’t really go anywhere, so it might’ve just become a single line in the story, and others that might’ve started out small ended up taking a main role in the narrative arc. There are definitely a few stories of Xander and his friends attempting feats that ended up on the cutting room floor, but I still had fun writing it and learning more about each of the characters.
As I was reading 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze I often found myself in awe of your plotting – something I always find difficult. Can you offer any advice to writers plotting longer works of fiction?
Again, thanks so much. This really means the world when you know how hard it was for me to get it right!
100 Remarkable Feats is one main plot with about five subplots running within it. I don’t really start writing unless the main structure is already in place in my head, which is kind of the bones of the story, and then it’s a matter of filling in the flesh when you get to the page. My advice always is to learn Three Act Structure! Some very organised writers, who I’m always envious of, have plotting all mapped out on whiteboard etc. but I don’t really write anything down. I just remember the main structure and then I never play with the bones. I think it’s definitely a matter of whatever works for each person.
Another aspect I particularly admired about 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze was the nuanced characterisation. As close as I felt to the characters, I found them all slightly mysterious in their own ways. Was this a conscious intention as you wrote the manuscript?
Absolutely. I wanted every character to have their own complexities, motives and demons, and to do each character justice. From the beginning, it was always going to be a story about a bunch of broken characters trying to fix each other, and trying to focus on something bigger than themselves. And again, I drew some inspiration from people in my life.
What’s next for Clayton Zane Comber?
I’m currently in the final stages of my next novel. It’s an adult fiction novel with a teenage protagonist set in Sydney in 1931. It’s been another long and really tricky project with lots of threads to try and hold onto, but I’m finally feeling excited about showing it to people so hopefully it’s all coming together nicely.
Where are the best places for readers to follow you online?
Thanks so much for taking the time to share such personal insights into your journey, Clay. I really appreciate your time and generosity, and I know our readers will too.