I couldn’t fit the whole interview into my column, so here’s the full thing.
You’re perhaps better known as a novelist, was it a conscious decision to come away from full length novels for a while to write this collection?
Before I wrote novels, I worked up to the task by writing short fiction; it’s a great way to experiment with style and to practise wrapping up a concept in a neat package. If you can do that, you can write a chapter and if you can write a chapter, you can probably write a book – eventually. That was how I progressed into full-length fiction.
For a long time, I came back to short fiction between longer projects because, when trying to make a name for yourself, having a back catalogue of successful story-writing helps to get you noticed. At least, that was the case in the late nineties/early noughties when I was starting out. This collection spans over ten years of work, hence the variety of style and content.
I make almost no time for short fiction these days and that feels wrong. I’d like to create a space in my routine to do more of it.
Lights Out was a real struggle for me, as I was afraid of the dark well beyond the point where it would have been acceptable, is this story based on your own fears?
I’m so glad to hear that the story put the frighteners on you – I love that kind of response from readers.
This tale hinged entirely on that very simple question; “What if there really is something under your bed?”
As a child. I remember going through the ritual of checking under the bed before getting in and then slowly losing confidence in what my eyes had seen until, eventually, I was convinced there was something crouched there, biding its time. It was enough material to cut a story from and I hoped it would touch a nerve for lots of readers.
I used the same fear in the novel Blood Fugue. The protagonist, Jimmy Kerrigan, has two personalities; in one he is terrified of the dark and in the other he rules it. It was great to be able to flip a character from that particular weakness into the strength of its opposite. There’s hope for us nyctophobics yet…
After Stephen King has said that you “rock”, what higher accolade could you get?
As much as I still swell with pride when I think about Mr. King’s comment, I can’t really be defined by it any more – it related to MEAT which was published almost a decade ago. Delighting one person – especially a big hitter like SK – is a wonderful thing but what I really want to do is delight millions.
Food Of Love is slightly sillier than the other stories, if just as bizarre. Was it intentional to end on something a little lighter?
The publisher of Splinters, (and co-owner of The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green) is the wonderful Simon Key. He read forty or fifty of my short stories – that’s most of them, I think – before deciding which ones he wanted in the collection.
He was also responsible for the order of the stories and I love it that he put a little bit of grotesquery and humour at the end. Though, I think the main reason was that he felt it appropriate to wrap things up with a good old zombie apocalypse!
What’s the funniest thing anyone’s ever said about your work?
It tends to be the really awful responses that, in hindsight if not at the time, strike me as funny. When people say things like ‘This is the most disgusting book I’ve ever read.’ I know I’ve made an impression, even if it’s a bad one.
Sometimes people read a book and miss the point entirely, too, which means I very much haven’t done my job properly!
The most ridiculous thing, though, was from an agent who, on finishing a fantasy I’d already pitched to her as written for adults, said: “This isn’t going to work as a children’s book.” I felt like I’d thrown six months of my life in a dumpster at the time. I can laugh about it now, thank heavens.
You’ve described your genre as ‘eco horror’, can you explain what that is?
When MEAT was first published in March 2008, the editor at Bloody Books and I thought eco-horror was a cool sub-genre for the kinds of subjects that it (and Garbage Man) dealt with.
However, I don’t think we were being all that original. I suspect eco-horror and novels that exemplify it have been around longer than my work and I’m fairly sure we weren’t the ones to coin the phrase. Whatever the case, to me the term covers fiction that uses dark or terrifying backdrops to explore environmental or ecological themes.
In 2011 your publisher, Bloody Books, went under, a lot of people would have been crushed by that and given up. Where did you find the strength to keep going?
The short answer is: once a writer, always a writer – I’m not sure I could ever give it up.
Bloody Books was the horror imprint of a new and innovative publishing house, Beautiful Books. At the time they took me on, they were just getting going and, somehow, we took off together. For a couple of years, it was a wonderful ride but when they crashed and burned, so did I.
That said, I doubt it was as devastating a blow to me as it was to the employees, owners and directors. At least I’ve been able to keep writing and work with other publishers.
This is a terribly dispiriting business, at times, but it’s the writing itself that has always called me back and the unstinting support of my wife and family is what keeps me going when things get tough.
What do you think is the role of the writer in society?
Writers – of fiction, I mean – occupy the territory between magician, court jester and shaman.
They take the things we cannot clearly see about ourselves and makes mirrors so that we can look at those things, at least a little more clearly. It’s paradoxical, isn’t it, that though we set out with fabrication as a goal, we can end up revealing something pure and unadulterated. And yet a writer of non-fiction, someone who strives for precision and factual detail actually blurs reality simply by passing it through their own lens.
Great fiction imparts great truths with a subtlety and depth that non-fiction never can.
I’m working on an epic eco-fantasy (apply the same rules that we just did with the eco-horror sub-genre!).
It was the first novel I ever tried to write – about twenty years ago, longhand – and is set in a world where humans are in second place on the food chain. This means that none of the characters or cultures in this other realm have the supremacy that you and I take for granted.
The novel will explore what it would mean if every human life was intended as a gift to the world rather than what it is in our world today – a drain on resources.
I’d love to tell you more about it but I never do that until after the writing is done!