I was recently given a lively interview by Frank Duffy on Facebook – great fun to answer and I wish all interviews were this energetic. I am publishing the full text here:
Who the hell are you? (In 200 words)
As authors go, I feel like a misfit. I have my roots in horror fiction (the classic atmosphere of Machen and Sarban etc.), yet also chafe against it – partly because I am a rationalist and the things I am afraid of are more social/cultural than spiritual/organic. I venture into speculative fiction as well, yet it is still not home. I cannot call myself ‘literature’ by any means, yet I am not ‘genre’ either. I guess I am Slipstream – the parasitic writing that feeds on everything yet is aligned to nothing. I work slowly, producing a small number of very carefully crafted longer pieces – a work plan that almost guarantees obscurity. And yet I believe that writing matures like wine and I can imagine no alternative. My publications include What the Giants were Saying, A Suite in Four Windows, Brown is the New Black and the novella/story collection Feather, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill prize. I am currently working on several novellas and two novels, one big, one small. Who knows which will win? Almost at the 200w point now – so here’s some magic words: human identity, contemporary classical music, the seashore, urban underground, railways, rocks, homes, poverty, canals.
Questions on writing:
- In the modern age of the jobbing writer, is there such a thing as an average writing day for you?
Nope. I try and get at least some writing and/or editing done every day, but don’t always succeed. I try and keep several projects on the go at once, but there’s always days when I utterly loathe ALL of them, and then there is little to be gained by fighting with them. And yes, sometimes there’s just days when I haven’t time, or the needle of my brain meter is squarely on empty. Maybe there is a norm here after all: that of struggling to avoid the most important activity of one’s life being squeezed to nothing by things you don’t particularly want to do. I imagine that is the default for many or most writers, and the negative energy of that must have infused the entire literary scene!
- How often do you feel a seething envy whenever one of your writer friends posts about their latest publishing success?
Hmm, let’s see, what time is it now? Nearly 8PM … so that would be …
I know I know, in this business of specialist presses and tween-genre literature, when one succeeds we all succeed … divided we fall. In fact, succeed and we’ll probably fall anyway. And yet, it’s not exactly envy but there is a certain desolate feeling that comes trickling into the brain when I watch more prolific authors yelling with excitement over publishing their six hundred and twenty-fifth story this year while I am still toiling through the foothills of my second! It’s not envy because – oh ok, who am I kidding? It’s most definitely envy! Not of success but of speed!
- Should prolific writers be tied to a chair for a few days, before being allowed to post constant updates on social media sites relating to their literary prowess?
It’s one of the most miserable and embarrassing admissions of my entire life that I sometimes actually use a blocker app to shut down facebook for a period. I dunno about my literary prowess, but it is the mother of all distractions as I sit there scrolling through what everyone else is up to, twitching slightly as the fix takes hold. So I suppose if someone else is involved who would care to take on such responsibilities, then great. Yes ma’am!
- How long does it take you to complete a short story from start to finish in the age of the internet and Facebook?
As I pontificated earlier, I am a slow writer, with the slowness of a strange gnarled tree growing while all the little bushes come and go in a heartbeat. Your story goes from a gleam in your eye to that mournful feeling when you know there’s unlikely to be any more reviews, time and again, and I am still sitting there, patiently putting my piece together, polishing it and maturing it … and occasionally I am defiant enough to delight in that. It can take months, even years. In fact, there is a part of me that knows stories are never finished. You just reach a point when you can’t face fiddling with it anymore and have to draw a line under it.
- Can controlled substance abuse really aid the writing process?
Booze (not controlled so much as hassled) can work up to a point. Some of the others though … I am not sure one CAN write under such circumstances. The sheer poetry of the way the lines intersect in the corner of the room is too interesting, or you are too busy hugging every single one of your friends for the thirteenth time. Even with booze there’s several caveats, the biggest being you will have to do a LOT of editing afterwards! I have been known to get drunk while writing scenes about people getting drunk to try and catch some of that splurge of thoughts and feelings. The results were good, though as I said, they needed a lot of editing to fit them into the rest of the piece. Writing is not just about inspiration and ideas, it is about craftsmanship, consideration and hard work, for all of which you probably want as little impairing your faculties as possible.
- What are your thoughts on setting word targets each day? Are they constructive, or is it something only an insufferable pedant would claim essential?
I dislike it intensely for the unarguable reason that I can’t bloody do it. Discipline? Oh yes, I think I heard that word once …
- Would you like to be a reviled and unpopular obscurantist if it meant having worldwide success in the literary world, or are you a true artist who would never dilute the substance of their art?
I would NEVER sell out. Hmph! I mean … no matter how much, how much, um, how much could you make again? I mean – no, no way! That’s not a way for a human to be remembered … even if it does mean maybe having somewhere to live one day. Which would be kind of nice really …
Hey – can I use the same pseudonym as question 13?
Seriously though – do we really have any choice about this? I suppose some may, but I at least find it very hard to change writing styles or to put myself in different places. The biggest ‘smash hits’ – e.g. Twilight, 50 Shades, Harry Potter, all seem to fill a fairly predictable hole in our culture, something people desperately yearn for yet not something that would scare or challenge them. Fairly conservative romance, exciting alternate sex, a dose of magic and adventure – all the while being decidedly non-threatening. Yes, even 50 Shades, mostly. Even the most popular genre works seem to know very much what hole to fill up or what universal push-point of the modern world to push on, though again without being hugely threatening. The thing is, I suppose, that to write something that fills such a hole, you have to own that hole yourself. I’m not sure I do. Such is the nature of the outsider. We can’t fake our way into mainstream resonance any more than we can fake our way into being a social butterfly.
- More importantly, how often are you involved in an online argument among other genre writers bemoaning the state of the writing community?
I usually just read through the long Facebook threads, trying to trace them backwards to see who has got into trouble this time, then dolefully wander away, hoping it never comes to me. Maybe it will though. Not all ding dongs are nice wholesome massacres of bigots or racists, any controversial idea can cause a lot of hot water. AND YET THAT’S OUR JOB!! To push at things and question things. However, personally, I tend to keep the controversial arguments and thoughts to my fiction work.
- What are the most common gripes that authors make on social media sites which drive you bonkers?
I am tempted to say I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I might incriminate myself! But naah. I suppose it pisses me off when anyone tries to lay down the law on what people should or should not include in stories – even more so if anyone suggests certain topics are off-limits for discussion. Aside from that … not much really!
- How long does it take for you to decide if the story is a work of genius or utter drivel?
Normally I know quite soon whether a story is worth pressing on with – though if the impression is negative, then I am more likely to set it aside for the future rather than dump it. It is later on though, as the thing nears completion and I am struggling with the seemingly unending polishing stage that the agony of doubt begins. What have you created here? Are you sure this isn’t crap? I mean really? I mean really really? I mean – how would you know? You wouldn’t know, would you. You think you would, but you wouldn’t. You’d just be happily writing away and you would never know the utter crap tracing itself across your screen, would you? Don’t deny it – you know it’s true.
This shadowy me can honestly go and swallow rocks and jump in the lake.
- Are beta readers a good idea, or are they the equivalent of your Uncle Bertie’s friends from the local library reading group?
I think they are an excellent idea and I love to get betas involved if I possibly can! Because I am a human being and thus totally and completely and hilariously fallible. Written works are big things – especially bigger pieces (um, yeah – you know what I mean!). You can be surprisingly blind to some things while working on them. Things like words you over-use or use in awkward ways. Or crazy stupid things, like forgetting to actually introduce a character’s name (because you know it by heart) … or giving her two different hair colours … or just forgetting to explain something vital because it is so deeply lodged in your head. And above all, how the story presents itself when seen for the first time, which is one thing the author will never ever know. There is no legal requirement to take on board everything a beta reader tells you, but they can spot all sorts of things that you missed completely!
- What is the most difficult form of fiction to write, a short story, a novella or a novel?
Short story, for me. Of course, novels are big – and holding one in your mind is like trying to hold a whole cow in your mouth. But I have a much greater fear of the terrible and inescapable progression I tend to get with short works. Works that slowly grow as I get more and more interested in them – until they are some sixteen times the length of the original word limit. It is a very familiar sinking feeling.
- Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym to kick-start a lengthy career as a writer of erotica?
Oh yes, many times, and I probably will one day – it’s fun and actually very very challenging. The only sad part about it would be the pseudonym. I honestly don’t know why one should care in this age of dinosaur porn and 50 Shades mouldering away in literally every charity shop in the country, yet something about the sex industry persists in craving anonymity! I suppose you are revealing things about yourself that you are not certain the world is worthy of knowing. No – that’s wrong. Things you are bloody certain the world is not worthy of knowing! Not a world where you can discuss eating arse on TV yet a nip-slip causes as much shock and awe as a small war.
As an aside, it seems to me that the 50 Shades phenomenon revealed something about the world: the mainstream is interested in stuff. And also that 50 Shades itself and the somewhat confused corporate forces behind it spectacularly failed to deliver it. Frustrated and slightly repressed Mainstream was sitting there flushed with wanting, 50 Shades came along and teased, but maybe couldn’t quite get it up. Mainstream says “hey that’s ok, could happen to anyone,” yet 50 Shades can see the frustration in her eyes, can feel a door closing in its face … So – who knows. Maybe in a post-50-Shades world, we can go places. Erotica that’s well written? Even willing to go to challenging and interesting places? Why not? And, thinking back to question 7 and outsiders like me, the fun thing about human sexuality is that it is one of the great unifiers of the human race, if we let it. And that there is absolutely no end to that particular rabbit hole. Maybe it even goes as far as literature.
- What has been the longest writing project you’ve embarked on? Was there any point at which you thought of abandoning the story so you could get absolutely sh**faced?
I am currently completing two novels, one quite large and pretty much finished. See question 4, read it over maybe six times, slapping yourself in the face in-between each read. That’s what it feels like. Yes I have shed tears over them, got drunk over them, swore at them, moaned to friends over them, woken up at night over them …
Yet still I press on. I rarely abandon things, anyway – I just set them aside until such time as I can make them work. And if I die before that time, well – can’t help that!
- Have you ever lain awake at night and wondered why you write? Have you ever considered if other people lie awake at night also wondering why you write?
The thought that anyone else cares why I write is so strange that I might have to think about it for a bit. Though hey, if you do, don’t be a stranger. Pop over. You can watch. It must be fascinating. And then maybe you can tell ME why, because I ain’t got a clue!
- Do you conduct research for everything which you write? Have you ever broken into a top secret facility to add authenticity in the name of research, or is Wikipedia your ultimate guide to authenticity?
Well that’s the problem, isn’t it. I am pretty careful actually, and I value getting things right. So the fact that I have never broken into a top secret facility is one of the reasons why I have not yet written anything about top secret facilities. It’s a minor tragedy in my career. Mind you – I do have a post-apocalyptic novel on the back burner, so how I am going to deal with that one I am not sure yet. Problem is, I still need at least some readers around to read the damn thing. I’ll figure it out.
Wikipedia, google earth, street view, youtube, field trips, memories, asking friends embarrassing questions … it’s all basic tools. And there’s stranger stuff too. Health encyclopaedias filled with gross images that the reader should be grateful they don’t have to look at. Other archives with even worse things because I need to get descriptions right. And online sex communities – hey, I’m a guy, there are certain things I just do not intrinsically know, and I do not want half my readers throwing a giggling fit because of it!
We writers get everywhere!
- What piece of research might show up on your internet history and give your family cause to worry about your stability?
Why does a flying fuck not matter? How to liquefy meat and bone? Sleeper Shark. Brazilian Waxing how-to. Scar from Lightning Strike. Do Tasers leave visible marks? How to treat a severe head wound. Vote Yes or be shot. Police Riot Gear Diagram. Nuclear Society of Slovenia. Hand-Foot Syndrome. Most Poisonous Caterpillar fatality rate. List of communist nations. How to prepare snails for food. Earth Worm Burger recipe. Poisoning by stove fumes. Ustasha. Do moths fight? Nuclear Waste Train timetable. IUD insertion. Can one person drive a narrowboat? Wahoo Fish? What time are vending machines restocked? Use a trouser press for cooking. Affinity liquid chromatography. Max Headroom Incident. Transgressive art meat hook.
I think writers must be a kind of spectator sport for GCHQ – and seriously, I am dreading the day I need to write about something really contentious, like a bomb going off. I can’t do that without knowing at least a little about it …
- What life experience has been the most advantageous in terms of writing a story?
Ummmm – oh boy, this is a tricky one. There’s several. Love troubles and loneliness are always great fuel – nothing like a bit of sexual frustration to fire creativity! It’s a tricky thing to express and explore, especially when you are in it, yet one always feels the need to try. Also the housing crisis etc. and the Doom that Came to London all had an effect – a drastically destabilising situation (and no, not just in London) that makes the future seem far from guaranteed. I have to say though, the biggest thing was probably studying at one of the wildest alternate arts college in the UK. People sneer about them for not equipping you for dealing with the ‘real world’, and that may be true but rubbing shoulders with crazy performance artists and playing around with truly experimental ideas does have an effect. I am no avant-garde poet or performance writer – I tend not to write my novels on my body or express them in interpretive dance with Japanese shibari … but something about the aesthetic rubs off and gives you an edge that is a little different to other things. It’s something I value very highly indeed.
- Should authors give advice to aspiring authors, or should they leave them to do things their own way? What was the worst bit of advice you ever heard?
Advice, yes, please do! Instructions – maaaaaybe not! Little tips and ideas for checklists or ‘things worth thinking about’ are great. Laying down the law that thou shalt not use the word ‘suddenly’, thou shouldn’t write in such and such genre or don’t thou dare go above/below Y number of words are decidedly less so. One should just write, dammit! Ideally without creeds and bondage. In the end, only you can really decide what you need to do.
- What are some of the most popular misconceptions about writers from the perspective of the public?
Bloody hell – I don’t know what those weirdos think about us! Maybe that we’re sophisticated successful alpha males who can sweep you off your feet with our remarkable brains? Or that we are hopeless introvert hermits sitting hunched in dark rooms muttering to ourselves and trying to remember which side of this world is real and which isn’t? Oh wait – that might actually be true in my case.
- What was the worst rejection from a publisher you’ve ever had?
Ummm … ok, this is going to sound weird but I have never really had a nasty rejection. A) my career has not been that long yet, and B) I work very carefully to hone a small number of pieces for specific purposes – and, um, haven’t actually had that many chucked back at me. And the ones that were always seemed either a non-entity form rejection or perfectly courteous. Dunno if I should ever admit that in public though – and, um, if any other writers are asking about me, I just moved to Sierra Leone.
- Have you ever thought of launching a secret hate campaign against a publisher who simply misjudged your literary genius?
Hey – I am a publisher myself as well! Eibonvale Press! That puts me in the curious position of being on both sides in the Great War. It also means that leaving aside actual cases of rip-off, I am extremely sympathetic to the troubles of small presses. It also made me a lot thicker-skinned in terms of those rejections I mentioned, since I have had to deal with those stacks of submissions, I have had to chuck out stories I loved. I know, you see, that most basic truth – that a rejection doesn’t mean the editor was rolling on the floor laughing or needed treatment for shock. Only sometimes.
- And finally, which would you choose, a commercial contract with stipulations about what you’re allowed to write, or a career in the Small Press with no restrictions on what you are allowed to write?
Tricky one – if it really was either/or then I’d have to choose the small press. The freedom and the quality seem so much higher, purely because you can stretch out more. I value writers who slip between genres, who have no allegiance to them, the area Slipstream occupies – and I value being allowed to do that myself, and being appreciated for it. And I say all that as a reader as well.
Hey – maybe homes are overrated.
Not to say that commercial contracts are automatically the flipside to that, of course – but again, I have to reiterate what I said in question 7. If someone offered an outsider like me a contract to write a tryptic of ‘young adult’ novels about a teen witch who fights evil undead estate agents in London, I might have to take them aside and have a quiet word, making sure they knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for. But hey – if they really wanted to shove money at me for something that would probably turn out more like J G Ballard meets the Panty and Stocking cartoons, then I am hardly going to refuse, am I!