I thought I’d start this year off with a blog full of FUQs – Frequently Un-asked Questions.
As a writer there are many questions you are frequently asked, not least the least of which are: ‘Do you actually get paid for this?’ and ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’ Occasionally, in the course of being interviewed, I am asked questions that no sane or decent person should ever have to answer, which is most probably why they were levelled at me.
The following is a compendium of some of the most interesting or outlandish questions/answers from the interviews I’ve done over the past couple of years for various magazines and websites, including questions about my new collection Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts. If this is your first exposure to me or my work then God help you, but I’m ashamed to say, for my sins, it’s probably quite a fair representation.
WRITING AND CAREER:
What is a day in your life like? Can you walk us through the minefield?
I tend to wake fairly early when the blunt object my wife has thrown connects with my head. Usually this is either because the kids are driving her psychotic, or she’s found the writer with his throat torn out that I left in the middle of the lawn the previous night (when the cats do this with their prey it’s considered cute, but apparently when I do it, it’s psychopathic – double standard anyone???).
When the kids are safely delivered to school or, if it’s the weekend, safely locked in the basement with the power tools and the matches where they can’t distract me, I’ll settle down in my office to work. I tend to begin my day by writing a list. Lists are great ways of pretending to work without actually doing anything and they bring a completely unearned sense of achievement. I’ll start with a ‘to do’ list to which I’ll subsequently pay no further attention, then, if I’m about to embark on a new endeavour, like a short story or a script, I’ll write an ideas list like this one:
LIST OF IDEAS …
1) Erm …
2) Err …
3) How about … no that’s a bit obvious …
4) Well I could always … no I couldn’t – God what was I thinking!
5) There’s always the old one about … no, everyone’s used that …
6) Does an inappropriate thought about the Creature from the Black Lagoon actually count as an idea???
Once that’s successfully accomplished, I may even write another list as a direct consequence of the last list. Such as this one:
LIST OF POSSIBLE REASONS WHY I’M GOING TO MISS THE DEADLINE:
1) I’m on the run from the CIA – again (this has possibilities)!
2) Look, it’s women’s problems alright! You wouldn’t understand (not sure if I can pull this one off – fnarr, pull this off, snerk).
3) I’ve just suffered a rectal prolapse due to a civil war between the microscopic alien races inhabiting my lower colon. (might need to work on this one, fnarr – work on this … oh wait that’s not an innuendo).
Once the serious business of list making is out of the way, along with other important admin tasks such as ‘liking’ every lame picture of a cat that I can find on Facebook, it’s time to settle down to some serious writing. First, I open a new document. Next I spend two or three hours staring alternately out of the window and at the blank screen of my laptop. At some point during this vital stage in the process, my wife will walk in and say something devastatingly witty like: “working hard are we?” I’ll then spend half an hour contemplating whether I should draw up a list of snappy comebacks for the next time she cracks this particular howler, but failing to come up with anything in the least bit ‘snappy’ or ‘comebackable’ (yes that is a word) I’ll abandon the idea.
After eating a light lunch, I’ll return to my desk for a concerted hour of weeping tears of bitter frustration, interspersed with kicking my desk and weeping tears of pain from the injury I’ve done to my foot. Then, I’ll lie on the floor, stare at the ceiling and bemoan the fact that I was stupid enough to enter a profession for which I obviously have no talent and my children will undoubtedly starve as a consequence.
Remembering that my children will soon have to be picked up from school (or released from the basement) finally spurs me into action and, fuelled by sheer panic, I manage to rattle off a thousand words or more before I have to down tools and resume my role as a parent. In the 30s and 40s at the Disney Studios, the sixty minutes before the animators would clock off for the day at 5pm was known as the ‘golden hour’. This was the time when all the guys in the studio would stop giving each other hot foots, or drawing penises on each other’s cells when they weren’t looking, and knuckle down to do some serious work. It was estimated that the majority of work that you see on the screen from that period was drawn in this single hour.
That’s how it is for me, too. I’d like to say that all the preamble leading up to this hour or so is an integral part of the process, but even I’m not that self-deluding. In fact, one of the main reasons for having a routine is not so much to encourage myself to write, but rather to avoid all those things that stop me from writing (namely just about everything). Don DeLillo said: “A writer takes earnest measures to ensure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” Which effectively says in seventeen words what’s taken me nearly a thousand.
Have you ever written something so truly, deeply frightening that you scared yourself?
If you’re going to successfully scare your readers, you need to be able to scare yourself. You need to probe those parts of your psyche that you’re normally too afraid to explore. You have to confront those irrational impulses and deep seated phobias that fester away under the skin of your mind like an abscess, and use your fiction like a scalpel to lance them and bleed off the poison. If it works for you, it will work for a fair number of your readers.
One story that did deeply disturb me was How The Dark Bleeds. The idea for the story originally manifested in a graphic novel I was pitching to an American publisher. One of the subplots contained a concept that increasingly unnerved and disturbed me. It grabbed hold of the darker side of my imagination and tortured it incessantly, until I was both in love with and terrified of the concept all at once. I had never seen this idea anywhere before and I knew I had to write about it. The only problem was, as amazing as this concept was, the graphic novel I was pitching was better off without it. So it was with great reluctance that I took it out.
At around the same time, I was stuck for an idea for the short story I was contracted to write for the anthology For the Night is Dark. Well not so much stuck, I had plenty of ideas, it’s just that none of them were as good as I thought they ought to be. The pay for writing short stories is frankly lousy, so I always figure that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing one, it better be something I really want to write.
Then I remembered the concept that enthralled and unsettled me, the one I’d put in the bottom drawer. If anything, it had grown stronger since I’d dropped it into fictional suspended animation. I found it had been waiting for me and it wanted to take me to places far darker than my fiction had ever been before. It forced me to confront and record the taboos I’d previously shied away from and to enter those territories I’d always thought of as ‘off limits’ – even as a horror writer.
The experience of writing this story was both exhilarating and excruciating. There were several moments during its composition when I wondered not only if I wanted to finish it, but whether or not I wanted to write another piece of horror fiction as long as I lived. Ultimately, I did live to tell this tale and I will certainly tell others.
With hindsight, I’m glad that I did. The story turned out really well. It scared my publisher and made my editor queasy. It’s collected in Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts.
How important is authenticity to an author? Should they do hands on research if something is outside their experience?
Authenticity is everything when it comes to writing. Especially when you’re writing about things that are very unlikely to happen. Like decapitating a member of the walking dead with a malfunctioning sex toy. Or staking a vampire with the sharpened end of a frozen blood sausage. If this is outside of the author’s experience then it’s important they at least make some attempt to find out what this would actually feel like, if only as an aid to their imagination.
We recently had a new router installed to improve our broadband connection. This involved rewiring the offices at the bottom of our garden. So I was forced to work on the dining room table in my bathrobe. Well, I wasn’t actually forced to work in my bathrobe, that’s just one of the perks of my job. Unperturbed, I soldiered on with the day’s work and, as an aid to my imagination, I decided to boost the authenticity of the story I was writing by acting out one of the scenes.
Lacking a gothic balcony, I decided to improvise and clamber up the bookcase instead. As there were no members of the undead to hand, I had to use one of our long suffering cats. Being vegetarian, I’d sharpened the end of a veggie sausage to give me an idea of the weight ratio involved in wielding a frozen blood sausage. At this point two things happened: A – my wife and the engineers entered the room to check the phone connection, to find me halfway up the book case pretending to impale a ruffled feline with a sharpened veggie sausage, and B – my bathrobe fell open to reveal my not so sharpened love sausage.
While this is just another day at the office for me and my all too understanding wife, the engineers were, to put it politely, more than a little perturbed. I blame my wife for this of course. She knows there’s no phone connection in the dining room.
How do your two innocent daughters cope with having someone like you for a father?
Thankfully, they’re not entirely traumatised by having me as their father – just yet. They tend to use humour as a way of coping with me. I was hoovering a little while ago when my youngest Ishara looked at me askance and asked: “Dad, are you gay?” To which I said: “I’m married to your mother and I have two children, what does that tell you?”
“That we’re adopted?” replied Freya my eldest.
On another occasion, Ishara was dragging her feet on the way to school. I told her to pick her feet up and stop being such a pain in the backside. She started to sing: “Pain in the backside/Pain in the front/Mummy is a slack bride/Daddy is … Daddy is … Daddy, what rhymes with front?”
You also spent some time as a music and film journalist. Who was the biggest douche you had to interview?
That’s a difficult question as there were rather a lot. Fame and money do not bring out the best in a person’s character.
I did interview Marshall Mathers when he came to Britain to promote his first album. A female colleague and I went to meet him in a suite at the Dorchester hotel. His six foot eight, African American minder showed us in, and for some reason I still can’t explain, we did the interview in the bathroom.
My colleague was perched on the side of the bath, while I squatted over the bidet under the disapproving scowl of the minder. Mr Eminem sat on the toilet and stared at the floor, answering our questions with monosyllabic grunts.
About ten minutes into the interview, my colleague asked him about the number of his lyrics that dealt with violence against women. “Alright, I see where this is going,” said his minder. “Don’t you answer that Marshall.” Then he picked me up by the scruff of my neck so that my feet were dangling above the floor and marched me and my colleague out of the bathroom and threw us into the corridor.
My write up, as you can imagine, was quite cutting and filled with invective, but my editors had a failure of nerve and printed a bowdlerised, sycophantic version of the interview instead. That same week the NME, who’d conducted a perfectly cordial interview, led with the heading ‘Meet Slim Shady – He’s an Asshole’ and completely trumped us.
About a year later, I was given his second album ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ to review. I sat down, sharpened my knives and put it on the stereo. You can imagine my disappointment when I found out it was brilliant. Oh well.
What first attracted you to horror writing?
The fact that it’s the genre you go to when you want to think the unthinkable. The genre where all our worst fears and neuroses bubble up to the surface. What if my child doesn’t come home one night? What if my home, my body or my mind is invaded and I’m powerless to stop it? What if consensus reality is just a cosy fiction that masks a deeper more irrational universe than we can ever understand?
This last fear is probably what attracts me the most. Horror stories are where I first learned about people who held heretical beliefs and practiced unthinkable acts in the name of both science and religion. People who had the balls to lift what Shelley called “the painted veil that those who live call life” and peer at what lies behind it. Granted they usually came to a bad end because of it, but in the brief moments before their fall, I always thrilled to their Faustian excitement, drunk on the power of forbidden knowledge.
The Gnostics used to believe that fearsome angels, known as Archons, patrolled the outer limits of reality to terrify and attack all but the bravest and most dedicated seekers of the truth from venturing into the unknown. Sometimes the deepest and most profound truths lie beyond a howling chasm of fear. To experience those truths, we have to leap blindly into that chasm with no guarantee that we will get to the other side.
That moment of electrifying, near hysterical terror, when we leave behind everything we know to be true and hurtle towards a new reality, that’s the note of cosmic terror that I love the best.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
I think that depends on the story you’re telling, the themes you’re exploring and the scene you’re concentrating on. Both have their place in any horror story.
What connects them for me is that they’re both about revealing the mysteries of the interior. Very few of us get a sustained and intimate look at what goes on inside our bodies, hold a beating human heart, use sharpened steel to remove a vital organ or watch as the blood drains from a still warm body until it stops kicking and turns cold.
Few of us ever explore the truly damaging nature of an aberrant human mind, get deep inside a psychosis so destructive it will bend a human will to murder over and over again, or find ourselves caught up in the maelstrom of a meme, like mob justice, that culminates in genocide.
Horror is important because it’s the one genre where we can take those parts of us that remain mentally and physically hidden and bare them to the light, so that in plumbing the depths of our bodies and minds, we might chance upon our souls.
Do you think horror has a purpose, above giving people a comfortable, entertaining scare?
I really do believe it has. In my opinion, the best horror stories use the weird and other-worldly as a metaphor for a deeper or more personal truth. I also think that the world is quite a scary place at the moment, and because of this the tropes and motifs of horror are some of the best ways of addressing the contemporary world. A lot of the horror writers coming up at the moment seem to be interested in social commentary in the same way that the New Wave and the early Cyberpunk writers previously used science fiction as a vehicle for social comment.
Why should people read your work?
Because I need the money!
Also because they’ll discover imaginative, edgy and unexpected fiction that explores social and spiritual issues while pushing at the boundaries of what genre fiction can and ought to do.
I’ll take them to places they’ve never been before and will never get to visit again. That’s a money back guarantee.
STUCK ON YOU:
What were you thinking when you took an urban legend and turned it into a delightfully twisted story called Stuck on You?
Mostly – “Gee, I bet this will make ’em toss their cookies.” I wasn’t actually sure it was an urban legend when I stumbled across it on an obscure forum while researching something else. The person posting it seemed to think it was a true story. In fact, the tale first appeared on the Darwin Awards site, which is devoted to deaths that are so dumb the victim is given an award for not muddying the human gene pool with their decided lack of smarts. So there’s some debate as to whether it actually happened or not (my guess is definitely NOT).
It was one of those little snippets of information that stuck to the seamy underbelly of my imagination and wouldn’t let go until I wrote a story to get rid of it. Taking the Piss, another story that’s collected in Stuck on You and Other Prime Cuts, was just the same. It was inspired by something hideous I read about that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I sometimes create stories as little traps for the vile and hideous notions that infest my psyche, so I can be done with them and pass them onto my unwary readers. Think of it as a public service.
Stuck on You goes to some pretty extreme places. Did you ever worry that you were going too far?
All the time. The fear for a writer working on something like Stuck On You is that you’re going to lose half your readership, that what you’re describing is going to gross them out so much they’ll throw the story down in disgust. So I would try and slowly ease the reader into each new incident that befalls the main character Ricardo. I would build to a gross climax, then scale it back a bit. The thing about the story is that just when you think it’s gotten as low as it can go, I’ll find a new depth to plumb, but you have to let up a bit in between. The intense levels of eroticism helps with this as did the black humour. Many readers have said they squirmed while reading it, or felt sick, but most have also said they laughed too, which is good because there is a strong element of slapstick in the story.