Interviewed by Peter Tennant
Whispers of Wickedness introduction to the work of Steven Pirie came in May 2004 with the unforgettable opening line to his story A Small Box of Rat Poison , In the grocers shop, nestled on the quiet corner of the Kings Road, Norman stood alone in shadow, fondling his sprouts. Sprout fondling Norman and a host of similar off the wall characters have been entertaining us ever since, courtesy of Stevens fertile and innuendo prone imagination, while his career has progressed in leaps and bounds, with publication of the critically acclaimed novel Digging Up Donald by Storm Constantines Immanion Press and appearances in prestigious short story outlets, such as The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy , Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and, of course, the Whispers of Wickedness print-zine, regarding which Steven also helps out on the editorial side of things. His story The Soup in Uncle Norman's Beard was nominated for the Pushcart Award in 2005, and a paperback edition of Digging Up Donald is imminent, while Steven continues to work on a sequel.
PT: So Steven, by way of ice breaker, tell us a little bit about yourself, and in particular what makes a reasonably intelligent forty something male decide to devote his spare time to an activity as ridiculously unprofitable as writing fiction when you could be off doing something much more fun, such as abseiling down the west face of the Eiger or propping up the bar at Stringfellows?
SP: I failed my Boy Scout Knot Tying Badge, so Id probably abseil down the Eiger very quickly. I have done my share of bar propping in the past, and they do say alcohol kills off the brain cells, which is probably useful in writing absurd, humorous stories of sprout fondling and such like.
But I dont think I ever did decide to be a writer. In 1990, I was studying for a degree with the Open University, and as part of my course I had access to the Janet network which, back then, was something of a precursor of the Internet (the Internet was around but was really in its infancy as far as the general public was concerned). We quickly learned that, like the Internet today, Janet was fine for chatting over, for role playing and Dungeons and Dragons, for creative writing, for most things apart from communal, online study.
It was then I began gaining comments from fellow students about how they enjoyed my instalments in round robin stories etc. People began telling me I could write. I sort of just shrugged--Id had no aspirations to write creatively before then--but I did decide it was enjoyable and relaxing, and Ive carried on writing since, until fairly recently just for me and just for fun.
PT: Your big break was when Immanion published Digging Up Donald , so I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the background to that, the gestation of the novel itself and what difficulties you encountered finding somebody to take it on? And also perhaps you could share with us your experience post-acceptance as, for instance, how proactive were Immanion in the editing and promotion of Donald ?
SP: It began as a short story of the same name in 1997--keen-eyed readers can perhaps single out by its structure the scene unearthing Donald early in the novel as that stand alone short--but Donald the novel tumbled about my head until 1999. By then I felt I knew enough of what was going on to begin writing and I felt confident enough in my writing to take on a novel length project. I started mid January 2000 and finished a first draft by mid June 2000. It was quite quick considering I like to ponder words/sentence structure and edit heavily as I go along. Although, having said that, there were times when Id be up writing to 4 a.m., so I certainly put in the hours.
After a further, single edit, I made the mistake of thinking it ready to send out. Foolish me; the first agent I sent to rejected me on a rather mangled postcard bearing the message: Dear Steven Pine, no thank you.
That shouldve been a wake up call, but I hadnt learned theres as much an art to submission as there is to the actual writing. I submitted to thirty-two agents in all, and only one expressed any kind of interest, albeit muted. In the meantime the novel went through several rewrites, as did the synopsis and query, and I also began to acquire publication credits elsewhere to help things along. The entire package was a lot stronger toward the end and I often wonder if Id resisted the urge to submit too soon perhaps Id have had more response from those agents. Its easy to say step back, but the euphoria at finishing makes it hard to resist getting it out there right away.
Eventually, I decided to approach publishers directly, and I had much more of a response going that route. Pan McMillan were interested for a while, and I was told several editors looked at Donald before they passed. Its funny, really, but after so much rejection it came as quite a shock when Immanion accepted. Id always imagined with a yes it would take a determined surgeon to get the grin off my face, but instead I had an awful weekend, suffering terribly from fear of success, and I almost ruined my chances with Immanion. I wobbled, but thankfully Storm caught me and kicked my arse a bit.
Immanion accepted in the November of 2003, and Storm herself edited with me toward a release date of July 2004. There are a number of editors at Immanion, but I feel privileged to have drawn Storm--shes sharp, and it was a dream to work with someone so knowledgeable, so passionate about writing. Theres no doubt the novel is better today for Storms input.
As regards promotion, well, Immanion is still small press, and like most small presses money is tight, so I knew from the start we werent looking at full page adverts in the New York Times. I do know each time an Immanion member is interviewed or is present at a Con, theyre keen to push all Immanion titles not just their own works. It feels like a family in that respect, only without the rivalries and the socks at Christmas. Fellow author Neil Robinson, for example, was good enough to read from Donald on my behalf in the States, recently, and David Barnett keen to sing others praises in his own interviews. That and the fact that Immanion has taken the back catalogues of some big names (Michael Moorcock, Ian Watson, Freda Warrington the list goes on, and of course Storm herself) can only be good for novices like myself. Ive loved being with Immanion, and I think its raised my status as a writer a lot.
PT: Yes, Immanion have quite an impressive stable of writers, though of the names I recognise youre the only one who fits in the comic fantasy niche occupied by the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin etc. Could you tell us which writers you particularly enjoy reading and who do you consider to have exerted an influence on your own work? In fact, for that last bit perhaps you could discuss your influences in general and not just writers.
SP: One of the nice things about Immanion is that I think its small enough not to worry too much about niches. And like the publishers of old it will take on a work because it feels it should be published rather than by how many units the work will sell. Whether it can continue doing so and survive I dont know. I hope so, because with rampant, irresponsible capitalism strangling new and mid list authors who else is going to nurture new talent if the small press dies?
Sorry, Ill sit down now influences? Im sure any comic fantasist will list Pratchett and Rankin--both very different in style but both phenomenally successful at what they do. Ive been told I write like both, which is a huge compliment, of course, yet at the same time an annoyance seeing as I was writing the way I do before Id read either.
Id dearly love Douglas Adams to have been more prolific, and Neil Gaiman is the consummate story teller. Michael Moorcock wields a fine blade, and Storm Constantine can brush it aside and delve into the emotions beyond. Dan Simmons has an imagination as broad as the universe itself. Stephen King, when on form, is pretty useful, and surely everyone writing fantasy draws upon Tolkien to some extent or other. All fine writers, I think.
I love the anarchic humour of Alexi Sayle and his ilk (though I think he opens supermarkets these days) and the cheek of Tony Hawks ( Round Ireland with a Fridge is a riot). You can probably guess by the list that Im more a reader of current fiction than older, period stuff. Ive tried to read Kafka and whatnot, just to show how well read I am, but its true I have the attention span of a fruit fly. Its an interesting exercise to see how the elders and betters used words, but give me fast and furious fiction for entertainment any day.
I do have a passion for science, for physics in particular, so youll often find me tangled up in differential calculus for a little light bedtime reading, or perhaps with a Richard Dawkins lecture. I read New Scientist on the loo; one should ponder upon the universe at such times.
The Internet has been a big influence, too. Ive learned a great deal from watching how others write, from the advice and encouragement one gets from sites such as Whispers. Without it I doubt Id have known how to begin to place my writing, and quite possibly the interest might have fizzled out, or at least Id have carried on writing just for me. Then, Norman and his sprout fondling might never have seen the light of day. Good thing too, some might say.
It amazes me the sense of community one can often find amongst online writers, and how keen those folks are to share their wisdom. Its certainly a way in to the small press, and I now subscribe to far too many small press magazines thans good for my bank balance. But these inspire me too. Its nice to read stories that are sometimes a bit raw, written by folk who do so for the love of it rather than for any short term gain. Theres something special about a well constructed short story. Its a real art I love to study.
Im inspired by old women. I love to lurk behind old women on buses. Im fascinated by the way old women talk in and out of each other, their words disappearing off in odd directions only to twang back to the point at some later juncture. Im not sure old men do that--its harder to lurk behind old men as they tend to notice and threaten me with their walking sticks. But get me behind two daft old sorts and Im sure to miss my stop. I love to try and capture that daftness in my writing.
Sometimes it feels like Im a humorist first and a fantasy writer second. And its true I love comedy in all its forms. Liverpool is famed for its music and comedy cultures, and its hard to live here and not be touched by both to some extent.
At least, thats what we tell the tourists. Its a stereotype, of course, that everyones a comedian in Liverpool, but its one of the nicer stereotypes we put up with and one that perhaps does carry with it a grain of truth. I suppose even the miserable bastards are good with a quip when poked with a sharp stick. A recent review of Digging up Donald at Infinity Plus described its humour as distinctly northern, and I think there is something in that thought, I think there is a regional influence in my writing. Hopefully, unlike other perceived Liverpool traits, it wont alienate me to the rest of civilisation. Buy my book or your car will be on bricks in the morning!
PT: Now from what youre saying here I get the impression that, first and foremost, you see yourself as a comic novelist with a brief to entertain the reader, but of course that doesnt actually preclude dealing with more serious concerns. For example, you mentioned Richard Dawkins, who was recently on our TV screens sticking it to the religious with The Root of All Evil? and religion comes in for some gentle satire in your work, similar to if nowhere near as overt as that found in the oeuvre of fellow comic fantasist Steve Redwood (who pays me 5 every time I plug him). How do you feel about issues like this, the use of comic fantasy to address social concerns and moral questions, and is it something youre doing consciously, or are you looking at this question with a puzzled expression on your face and wondering where the heck Im getting this rubbish from?
SP: Oh, Im all for it. I love fantasy and humour with an edge, with an underlying social comment or message, and the more subtle the way that message is contained the cleverer the humour and fantasy is, in my view. Pratchett is very good in that respect; I see undertones in his works that sometimes I feel dont get recognised because hes so adept at hiding them in the delightful humour. I try to emulate that skill in my fiction--I like to hide metaphor and symbolism in there when I can, I like to play with words and their meanings, Im a whore with euphemisms and innuendo.
But youre right, I am a firm believer that fiction should also entertain--surely the writer who isnt conscious of that is destined to be set aside in favour of the shopping list. The best fiction does both, entertains and challenges. Im sure I dont always succeed in that, at least not outside my head. Sometimes its hard to rein the humour side in and it descends from subtle to farce.
Dawkins is good with a Christian, isnt he? I heard a radio show he was a guest on once in which he fielded listeners questions, and he came across as a very astute man, and so absolute in his atheism. Im slightly more agnostic, I suppose, and if there is a god I guess hes long since grown bored with us. I blame the incessant prayers. But I find so much to ridicule in organised religion, in all of them, that its hard to resist having a pop at the devout at any opportunity. And, of course, with its rites and rituals religion fits very well into any fantasy/horror writers armoury. Youre right, Steve Redwood does it well (there you go, Pete, a pint and a takeaway). I like the stuff Steve churns out. Steve and I are destined never to get a Christmas card from the Pope.
Politics is another favourite subject. I had a fair bit of local politics in Digging up Donald until Storm Constantine made me take it out as one wild, winding sub plot too many. And theres sex, and the battles between its participants; everything I write these days seems to have an element of sexuality in there, or at least something on gender differences. Maybe Im at that funny age.
PT: The age where sprout fondling starts to appeal? Now youve talked about characterisation, which is certainly something Im always struck by in your work, the care you take with the actual writing and language, and the way in which you look to include subtexts in your fiction. I wonder how you would rate these various elements of writing, which you consider the most important? Iain Banks, for instance, considers plot to be paramount I believe. And perhaps you could take us through the construction of a typical Steven Pirie story, if there is such a thing. Which comes first, the plot or the characters, the chicken or the egg?
SP: I wonder if Banks feels that way about both his literary guises. I think whats of most importance depends to some extent on what youre writing. Crime fiction relies very much on plot, for example, else theres no murder and the detectives get twitchy.
I think general fantasy has a little more leeway in that both character and plot led stories can work. But comic fantasy needs character. I mean, I know its not strictly fantasy, but its hard to see how the likes of Black Adder would work as a series of plot scenes without the strength of Edmund Black Adders character for example. When I started writing I wrote plot led comic fantasy and it felt weak, felt slight. In general, I prefer to read and write character led stories.
Timing is something I never hear comic fantasy writers mentioning, yet to me the rhythm of a sentence leading to a joke is timing. Get it wrong and a joke rattles on too long, or is so terse it needs subsequent explaining, and by that time the gag is lost. Thats why Im careful in choosing language and structure--thank you for noticing, youve paid me a huge compliment with that comment.
The construction of a story? I can sit down and think today Ill write a story about mutant rhinoceroses or whatever, but the stories I enjoy most tend to start with an opening sentence plucked from the ether. Ill then let it run free for a few hundred words, and if I like whats there Ill stop and fish out the bones of the story. Then its a case of grafting it out--usually character first and plot close second. Ill edit heavily as I go along, but Ive also no fear of rewrite followed by rewrite followed by until its right. Im a harsh critic of my own writing and can be quite ruthless with myself. Sometimes I come to blows, and the wife has to leap in and separate me.
PT: Anything we should be looking out for from the pen of Steven Pirie in the next few months? Are you working on a new novel or a collection of short stories or anything else?
SP: I have a short story, Lucys Flower , due out in The Horror Express and another, Mrs Mathews is Afraid of Cricket Bats in Dark Doorways anthology. An Occasional Card , another short (literary fiction, would you believe, whatever that is) is to appear in the June anniversary issue of Tryst . In April, Harry, the Wife, and Mrs Robson, Hells Temptress from Number Six is to appear in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 24.
Im writing a second Digging up Donald novel, which I plan to call Burying Bob , but progress on that has been slower than Id hoped. Immanion have expressed an interest in seeing it, so I must get back to it quickly. It opens with old women playing Bingo, so it cant be that bad. Its to do with the aftermath of Armageddon. Any religion worth its salt would want a decent judgement at such a time, and I think Im just the man to chronicle it.
PT: One last question. Youre a comic fantasist, so tell us your favourite joke?
SP: Horse walks into a bar and the bartender says: Why the long face?
Sorry, but it works on far too many levels for me :-)
Those wishing to know more about Steven Pirie and his work, should check out the authors website or his myspace page, while copies of Digging Up Donald may still be disinterred from Immanion or Amazon.
To give feedback on this interview and/or talk to Steven Pirie, go here
NB: A slightly different version of this interview appeared under the title Pieces of Pirie in Whispers of Wickedness #12
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