Interviewed by PETER TENNANT
PT: The last eighteen months have been very successful for you, with appearances in prestigious anthologies such as Darkness Rising and The Mammoth Book of Future Cops , plus three of your own books, Spare Parts from Rainfall, Shards of Dreams from Double Dragon e-Books and now, to cap it all, the novella The Mask Behind the Face from Pendragon. Im tempted to ask why you cant find a publisher wholl stick with you for more than one title, but what really strikes me here is that, though Ive always associated you with Horror fiction, actually your writing covers the waterfront, with Horror, SF, Fantasy and Crime all part of the mix, so I guess what I want to ask is how conscious are you of genre when you write and whether theres any form of fiction you feel more comfortable with than the others?
SY: Hang on a sec, I cant find a publisher wholl stick with me for more than one title? Are you a graduate of the Richard Madeley school of tactless interview technique or something? Id storm out of the interview if I wasnt such a publicity-seeking egomaniac
Anyway, genre. To a certain extent Im not so much interested in genre as in story-telling. If I think somethings going to improve a story then Ill try and use it regardless of whether its associated with a particular genre. I think a certain amount of that comes from the stuff I read as a kid. Most of my favourite childhood authors (Enid Blyton, Terrance Dicks, Douglas Adams, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Captain W.E. Johns) wrote in more than one genre and would often blend genres together. So it just felt natural for me to do the same when I started writing.
Ideally I try to write what I want and then see who wants to publish it. But sometimes Im writing to an editors guidelines and that includes their genre preferences. Given the available markets when I first started submitting stories I had to write Horror. Which in turn meant that people came to think of me primarily as a Horror writer.
Consequently one of the reasons for collecting my SF/Fantasy stories together for Shards of Dreams was a conscious decision to draw peoples attention to my other stuff before I got completely pigeonholed as a Horror author. But even then some of the stories had been written for my tastes, others (mainly the pastiche stuff) had been written for various editors.
As for which genre I feel most comfortable with, I dont know -- the mopey contemporary male up to his neck in trouble genre? Offhand the genre Im least comfortable with is the mystery story. Im not so bad at incorporating mystery elements into other genres but whenever I try to write a straight mystery I fall flat on my face.
PT: Now you mentioned some writers there whose work you enjoyed in childhood, so Im wondering which writers you would consider to have had the greatest influence on the development of your own writing? Im guessing the answer is going to encompass comic book writers and Im also interested to know which Fantasy writers, if any, you hold in high regard, as I cant recall ever discussing that genre with you, other than that neither of us have bought in to the Pratchett thing.
SY: There are tons of authors who have influenced me. Usually the latest thing Ive read will have at least a slight influence on the next thing I write. Which can be a bit annoying sometimes, especially if I didnt like the last thing I read.
Long-term influences tend to weave in and out of my awareness depending on how relevant they are to what Im currently working on. So Ill just list some of my stronger influences.
Alan Moore is a brilliant comics writer. Hes very precise in his writing, very erudite, with all kinds of verbal and visual puns flying about the place and captions from one scene overlapping to comment on the actions in another scene, the words and pictures intertwining to create a powerful new synthesis. Obviously its difficult for me to recreate some of those effects in prose but I do my best.
Frank Miller is another brilliant comics writer. He writes in a hardboiled style which goes all fragmented in moments of tension, really turbo-charging the action. He also has this deadpan humour where a line of dialogue can be read as a joke but if you dont happen to have that kind of sense of humour it doesnt matter, the line still works perfectly well as dramatic dialogue.
Garth Ennis is yet another comics writer. His work is cheeky, charming, heart-warming, occasionally shocking and always laced with witty dialogue. And Ennis turned me onto two other influences, Joe R Lansdale and Stephen Hunter. Lansdale is a big influence on Ennis and it shows. Theyre pretty similar stylistically speaking, although Lansdale is the no-nonsense Texan whereas Ennis is the sentimental Irishman. Stephen Hunter meanwhile doesnt have the humour of the other two but hes great at mixing compelling characterisation with fast-paced action. He doesnt just write about tough guys with guns, he writes about complex tough guys with guns.
Chris Claremont is someone I shouldve mentioned as another childhood favourite. For nearly twenty years he was the man who made X-Men worth reading. He could do the big earth-shattering stuff and he could do the quiet character moments. He could do heart-rending angst and he could do quirky humour. His work looks a little dated now but it was the Buffy of its day. In fact Joss Whedon admits that X-Men was a major influence on Buffy .
Neil Gaimans Sandman stories are full of dark whimsy; theyre the point where nightmares and fairy tales meet. And Sandman was a brilliant concept for a series--a main character who is the Lord of Dreams and Stories. That meant that genre-wise Gaiman could write whatever he wanted--Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, Crime, Romance. And he wrote them all beautifully.
As for Fantasy influences Im embarrassed to admit that Ive got really behind in my reading of that particular genre. (Actually Im behind in my reading of all genres but this is the one youve brought up so well just keep schtum about the others and pretend Im incredibly erudite, okay?) For Contemporary Fantasy I like Jonathan Carroll. Although he often writes flawed protagonists to be honest I prefer his more sympathetic leads--when I read Bones of the Moon it was like reading about a best friend I never knew I had. And it was really clever the way he starts off talking about the axe murderer but then goes off on a tangent so after about forty pages I suddenly realised, Hang on, this is a love story. You tricked me! And then thinking, But the storys so good I dont actually mind.
In terms of Sword and Sorcery then Michael Moorcock is my big influence. I loved his Eternal Champion stuff. And Colin Greenlands book-length interview with Moorcock, Death is No Obstacle, is great; lots of fascinating insights into how he structures his stories. About a year ago myself and a few other people chatted to Moorcock on one of his message boards and amongst other things he discussed the Lester Dent Master Plot. Michael Moorcock telling me how to write stories! (Okay, he was telling the other people as well but they dont count, this is my interview!)
There are loads of other writers I attempt to emulate to some degree or other: Alfred Bester, James Ellroy, Grant Morrison etc. Not to mention numerous TV and film influences. But if I dont stop now I wont shut up.
PT: I want to digress for a moment here. Most of the writers you mentioned above were associated with comics at least initially, though some, like Gaiman and Claremont have made the move over into books. Youre a big champion of the comic book medium and you used to write a column about them for the Alien Online, but it seems to me that in the UK, though things are improving, theres still a lot of resistance to the idea of comics as an acceptable medium for stories dealing with serious (read adult) themes. Would you agree with that assessment and do you have any ideas why such an attitude should be so prevalent? Oh, and while were on the subject, perhaps you could tell us a bit about your own experiences writing for comics and what special demands that places on a writer?
SY: Yeah, comics are getting more of a foothold in bookstores these days, I think partly because of Hollywoods current obsession with comic book movies. But as to why so many people look down their noses at comics I would guess there are two main reasons. (1) Superheroes and (2) the perception that even non-superhero comics are for kids.
The comics-are-for-kids argument stems largely from comics pictorial element. Pictures are used to help kids in the early stages of reading so people see the pictures in comics and equate them with Janet and John books. But thats the equivalent of saying that films can never progress beyond the intellectual and artistic level of the Barney the Dinosaur movie. A medium shouldnt be judged purely by the tools it has to offer but by what people can create with those tools.
Unfortunately most comics professionals create superheroes. (Damn, just as I was starting to get people on my side.) Now I love superheroes but theyre not the Holy Grail of comics. Some writers and artists realise this and react against superhero comics, creating deliberately arty and avant-garde work. Which is all well and good but it can often be just as off-putting as the superhero stuff. Most people just want to read a good story, not get someones artistic pretensions rammed down their throat. But theres a growing number of Crime, Horror, SF and Fantasy comics where the emphasis is on entertaining the reader. They may still contain artistic flourishes, political agendas, autobiographical anecdotes etc. but its in service to the story, not just an excuse to show off.
As for my own experiences writing comics probably the biggest problem Ive had, as far as the actual writing goes, is the lack of space. The majority of my strips have been 4-pagers which really isnt enough room to develop a story. Particularly as Ive only done small press comics so I try to limit the amount of words and pictures Im using in case the artist cant fit in as many as a professional can.
Even with longer stories theres still the problem of space. With Seppuku I had 52 pages to play with but I was working from the editors synopsis of a story that spanned over twenty years so I still had to work pretty hard to enfold things within the plot to make sure they all fitted in. Of course after all that the artist dropped out
And its not just the artist dropping out thats a problem. Strips like Meat and Melancholy Mechanics have been drawn but Im still waiting for them to be published over two years down the line. This is especially frustrating with comics because with prose what I write is the final product whereas with a comic I cant be sure the strip worked the way I wanted it to until I see what the artist did with it.
Ideally the collaboration between writer and artist makes comics stronger than if theyd been created by just one person. The artist has more refined visual storytelling skills than I do while I can handle words better than they can. Although because were looking at each others work with fresh eyes sometimes we can spot things that the other person missed. So at best we build off each others strengths. Although at worst we just compound each others mistakes. (Of course that never happens in my comics work )
But really Ive not had that many opportunities to write comics so my learning curve hasnt been as steep as I would like. That said, extracts from a couple of strips I did with Bob Covington were used in Mike Chinns Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel.
Comic book fame shall be mine!
PT: Okay, lets talk about the new book, the plugging of which is ostensibly why youre here in our studio tonight instead of stopping home to watch Doctor Who and repeats of Buffy on C5 like all sensible people. Its called The Mask Behind the Face and is available from Pendragon Press for the measly sum of 4.99 plus p&p. The title novella is the story of Craig, a thirty something male who suffers from Picks Disease, a condition that results in alterations to his personality, including the development of a previously unsuspected artistic talent, and culminates in a vision of God. Now what I guess youd call reality shift is a staple of much of your best fiction, with characters who, either as the result of drugs, mental illness or some experience of great personal significance see their world view overturned, and Mask is perhaps your most ambitious attempt yet at that theme, and one in which events are slightly more ambiguous than elsewhere. So what can you tell us about the genesis of this novella, your inspiration for writing it and what degree of research was involved?
SY: Obviously I would never stoop to using an interview to plug my latest book but seeing as youve raised the subject
Lets see, I first heard about Picks Disease in Susan Greenfields BBC series Brain Story . In one episode she interviewed a sufferer called Dick Lingham whose personality had undergone radical changes as the disease killed certain parts of his brain and other parts had to take over. This in turn led to him suddenly developing great skill as a painter. All of this was rather distressing for his friends and loved ones, especially his wife. I watched the documentary, found it absolutely fascinating and then totally forgot about it. But a couple of years later I dug out the videotapes of the series and realised there was an idea for a story in there.
Unfortunately I couldnt find much information on Picks. Greenfield wrote a book to accompany the series which was helpful but the only other stuff I could find was a couple of internet sites which listed causes and symptoms but very little to actually describe the experience of suffering from Picks or what it was like trying to care for someone who suffered from it. So I fell back on the two key elements of Greenfields interview with Lingham and his wife. Firstly, that Lingham didnt feel any different; he had to take other peoples word for it that his new personality was ruder and more obnoxious than his old one. And secondly, that Linghams wife just desperately wanted her old husband back.
I honestly cant remember when I decided to tie this in with someone having visions. But religion and mysticism are topics that pop up in my stories from time to time so it may have been percolating at the back of my mind for a while.
Still, as far as I recall the idea first started to coalesce into an actual story in early 2003. It was coming together at a vague embryonic level as I finished the last couple of stories for Shards . Then I wrote some fairly extensive notes, trying to figure out the main characters and the spine of the story (this would have been around the time I started researching Picks). I took time off to write Seppuku because the editor was waiting for it then I came back and wrote Mask .
As I say the notes were fairly extensive but not at a Stanley Kubrick level of obsession. Some of the stuff got used and some didnt. For example, I wrote some notes on the philosophy of the meditation classes based on a hodgepodge of pop science and New Agey stuff. Most of the specifics of these notes went unused but hopefully it gave a sense of veracity to those scenes.
And Susan Greenfield came in handy again because her Private Life of the Brain contained an outline of Steven Mithens theory on the development of the prehistoric mind in regards to art, technology and religion. Although I think I may have conflated it slightly with Alan Moores musings on the same subject in an interview he did a few years back.
The art stuff I pretty much bluffed my way through. Ive got a GCSE in art but that was based more on the ideas for my pictures rather than the pictures themselves. When I took my art A level my grades were based on my drawing/painting ability and I failed miserably.
My description of taiji in Mask will probably infuriate a lot of traditional practitioners but I got it from articles by Erle Montaigue who studied with Chang Yiu-chun in an older, more combative style of taiji. Ive never met Mr Montaigue but hes rated by a martial artist who I hold in high regard so thats good enough for me.
And theres a few quotes spread throughout the story, most of which I discovered through pure luck. I stumbled across the first one and originally that was going to be the only one. But then Id be looking up something for the story and a quote would just jump out at me. They were just too good to pass up. Even the Latin quote on the cover was a total coincidence. When Ben Baldwin did the cover he hadnt read Mask , hed just been given this incredibly brief outline (I think it was all of one sentence), but he added the quote on a whim. When I looked the quote up I found that not only was the translation incredibly apt for the story but it was the inscription on Carl Jungs tombstone and Jung got referenced a couple of times in the story. Synchronicity! The only quote where I had to work for it was the Picasso one. I googled a list of his quotes and then searched through until I found one that was suitable.
PT: Oh Stu, I dont see anything wrong with using an interview to plug your work, and those of our readers already familiar with Stus writing and who enjoy intelligent, well crafted fiction are advised to click here. Now, Craigs artistic ability is a symptom of his illness and at the end of Mask he has a vision of God, which may or may not be genuine, and perhaps Im reading more into this than you intended, but I came away from the novella with the impression that you were hinting Gods own creativity was somehow connected with illness. Elsewhere Ive heard stories about the use of art therapy in helping mental patients, while the asylum inmate who draws terrible pictures of the thing that haunts him or her is almost a Horror movie cliché, and on Whispers Forums theres been a discussion about writing and depression. I believe you come from a background in mental health, so Im wondering if you could shed any light on a possible relationship between creativity and mental illness?
SY: I probably cant tell you anything you dont already know. I dont have any actual training in psychology or psychiatry; I work in a mental health community home so my duties are more along the lines of helping the service users organise their day-to-day lives and making sure they remember to take their medication.
Still, I know that various creative types have had mental problems/brain diseases that aided their work. For example, Dostoevsky, van Gogh and Tennyson suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. So some people obviously do benefit from these things. Probably because the role of creativity is to look at things differently and if youve got mental problems youve got no choice but to look at things differently. Although I dont think that mental problems are essential to the creative process. Its more a You dont have to be mad to work here but it helps kind of thing.
Interestingly, Alan Moore became a magician partly in an attempt to increase his creativity. He felt that hed reached an impasse in terms of rational approaches to writing fiction and he needed to approach things in a more intuitive manner. Unfortunately his research showed that most people who got involved with magic ended up going mad. So he asked his friends to monitor his behaviour and if necessary they should drag him away from his occult practices. But as he was a touch on the eccentric side to begin with he needed to come up with a clear distinction between going mad and just being his usual wacky self. Eventually he decided that provided his creative productivity didnt drop below par then he was still sane. Probably.
Now, Moore suggests the influx of strange perceptions that a magician can encounter are similar to those experienced by a schizophrenic. Its just that magicians cope better because their magic rituals give them a more effective mental framework to deal with the strangeness. He quotes Aleister Crowley, The only difference between a schizophrenic and myself is that Im not mad.
PT: Your first published story, Daddys Little Girl , which is reprised in Mask, touched on paedophilia and over the years youve never been shy of dealing with controversial subjects in your fiction, most famously Honour and Glory , written from the viewpoint of a violent racist, while Mask itself might cause concern to the religious right. With most small press writers I think theres a distinction between stories that are written simply to entertain and those that maybe go that little bit further, but with you I feel the distinction is more obvious than most, so Im wondering how conscious you are of this, whether its deliberate on your part or something you just wander into? And also I guess if you do anything different when writing controversial material, or how aware you are that theres a need to tread more carefully than usual?
SY: You had to mention Honour and Glory didnt you? Im still trying to live that one down
Offhand its the only story where I deliberately set out to be controversial. There was a discussion going on in Nasty Piece of Work arguing the pros and cons of total artistic expression in horror fiction so I set out to write a story that would try to encapsulate both sides of the argument and piss off both the pro-censorship and anti-censorship people simultaneously. To the anti-censorship people I was saying, Look, if youre not going to censor anything then youre going to get sick stories like this. And other stories that makes this look like Jackanory . And to the pro-censorship people I was saying, Look, this may be a disgusting story but it does make some relevant points. If you censor it youre throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And so I hoped the story would help highlight various aspects of the censorship discussion and create a new level of understanding.
Unfortunately I totally buggered the story up.
The nastier aspects of the story completely overshadowed the other stuff. My fault really; because I told the story from the viewpoint of the neo-Nazi it limited the ways in which I could criticize him -- his beliefs wouldnt allow him to even see the criticism -- so I had to smuggle the condemnations of his beliefs in through the back door which made them much harder to spot. But at the time I was just thinking that NPoW had published some pretty nasty stories so if I was going to write something to upset the anti-censorship crowd then I needed to write something really shocking.
Daddys Little Girl meanwhile sits at completely the other end of the gross-out spectrum. The horror of the story is entirely based upon reading between the lines so if anything I was worried that people wouldnt get it and would just get frustrated waiting for something scary to happen.
And it didnt really occur to me that Mask could be seen as controversial either. I mean, my sisters a born-again Christian so I guessed that the story probably wouldnt make it to the top of her reading list but I didnt feel I was doing a Salman Rushdie. In fact I was more worried about the atheist response to the book, Ugh, the main characters a Christian! Im not going to read this!
But controversy in my stories is often accidental. For example, theres a post-coital scene in Mask which I didnt have a problem with, nor did any of the male readers Ive spoken to. But all the female readers were, Thats disgusting!
Another thing (and Im oversimplifying this) is that often people want a story with an evil protagonist to have a clear moral stance, or they want it done tongue in cheek so they dont have to take the protagonist seriously, or else they want him to be charming, intelligent, seductive or just plain cool. At the very least they want someone else in the story whos even more hissably evil than the protagonist so they can say, Oh, hes not that bad. And in some of my stories I dont do that, or at least not to the degree that some readers want. Sometimes my stories just feature bad people doing bad things because life doesnt always supply a nice gift-wrapped moral; sometimes you have to look for it. Consequently some of my stories get taken too literally. After Honour and Glory some readers thought I was a racist. And after my Future Cops story someone thought I wanted readers to sympathise with a rapist. And Im thinking, No, I want you to empathise. Theres a difference. And anyway, he wasnt even the protagonist! Didnt you notice the much more sympathetic heroine standing next to him???
Of course Ive written other stories -- light-hearted, humorous stuff -- and the people whove read those stories think Im this smiley, happy person. Kind to children and small animals, always whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. But thats not the real me either I hum Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
Still, if people keep thinking that my stories reflect how I am in real life Im going to write a story about a handsome millionaire who is irresistible to the opposite sex and see if they believe that.
PT: Yes, I recall the censorship debate in NPoW, though I didnt realise your story was written in response to that. One of the things that occurs to me here, is that fiction is in some sense a collaboration, a fusing of horizons as Gary Fry puts it. The fictive experience occurs at the point where the writers intention collides with the readers expectation and so is always individually felt. How conscious are you when writing that your stories can be taken, not in the wrong way as such, but in a way thats different from your actual intention?
SY: I usually aim for a mixture of clarity and complexity in my stories. In theory, the language is clear enough that an eight year old can follow them (not that I recommend giving most of my stories to eight year olds) but theres enough going on in terms of plot, theme and characterisation that adults will enjoy them. And in some stories I embed motifs and references into the text in the hope of getting information across without slowing the story down. Although it doesnt matter if you dont spot that stuff, the story will still make sense. Hopefully.
But sometimes Im a little ambiguous in my stories; occasionally I like to coax the reader to read between the lines. The problem then is that sometimes they read in all these things that I never intended. (Although sometimes that does me a favour because they think I put in all this really clever stuff I never even thought of.)
Even unambiguous stories can be prone to misinterpretation. Say someones had a bad day at work, or their kids are rushing round the living room, or the TVs on in the background--any of these things can distract them from their reading, effecting their interpretation of a story. Lets face it, some people even deliberately skip parts of a story--Oh God, not more descriptive writing! You cant control whos going to read your work, what environment theyre going to read it in, what mood theyre going to be in when they read it, or even how they read it.
Another thing is that people often latch on to particular things in stories, certain scenes that stick with them, certain moments. These then colour their perception of the rest of the story. On a good day this works in your favour, on a bad day it crucifies you. For example, I had someone latch on to a specific scene in Face at the Window and say, Great story, but I didnt like the fact you ended it in such and such a way. And Im, Um, the story actually went on for another page after that scene. But then other people read Face and theyre, My grandmother had Alzheimers. Your depiction of the disease was so truthful and moving. And I cant take credit for that; their recollections of their grandmother are whats providing the emotion, all I did was jog their memory; my story was nothing more than a glorified post-it note.
All writers face this interpretation issue. Its something you just have to accept. All you can do is hone your craft, tell the story as best you can and then hope for the best. If it still doesnt work then you just try to do better next time. That and cry yourself to sleep at night.
PT: The Mask Behind the Face could be seen as bracketing your writing career, containing as it does not just recent material but also your very first published story, Daddys Little Girl , which prompts a two pronged question to bring this interview to an end. On the one hand Im wondering how you feel youve changed and grown as a writer, not just technically but also whether you have different concerns now, and on the other could you tell us something about whatever work you have in the pipeline?
SY: From a technical viewpoint I tend to plan my stories a lot more than I used to. Stuff like Daddys Little Girl and The Death of Innocence only had rough outlines in my head. Basically I just daydreamed a bit and then started writing. These days Ill probably draw up a mind-map to brainstorm ideas before starting. So Im still daydreaming, just in a more organised manner.
I tend to do more research as well. Which is a pain because recently the research keeps contradicting my story ideas so Ill spend months digging into research trying to find facts that fit the story and then twisting the story to fit the facts and generally just giving myself a nervous breakdown. Things were so much easier when I just made stuff up.
Both the planning and the research stem from a desire to get a more complete picture across to the reader. Before I kept slipping onto auto-pilot, writing stories from the protagonists viewpoint and never really giving the other characters a chance to voice their views and experiences. And the theme of the story would sometimes be quite narrowly defined, so if I couldnt fit everything in Id try to write a counter-story with an opposing viewpoint at a later date. But obviously not everybody would read both stories so these days Im trying to fit more stuff into an individual story.
Not that these ideas are set in stone. Ill still improvise or write a more simplistic story if the mood takes me. And there are seeds of my new concerns in my older work.
As for new stories, well, theres a bunch of comics stuff that should have been out by now but isnt. Short SF and Horror stuff like Melancholy Mechanics, Meat and Thats Entertainment ; the SF/Comedy-Drama serial Dead Light; and the Zen-tinged Samurai Fantasy mini-series Seppuku . Ive no idea when these are actually going to be published and Im currently toying with the idea of publishing some of them in script book form.
Im in a similar position with my prose stuff. There are stories and interviews that should be out by now but arent.
And I was going to do a bunch of graphic novel reviews for The Alien Online but Ariels shutting the review section down soon. So Ill have to make do with the dozen or so of my current reviews that will be archived on the site.
As you can see Im having a bit of bad luck at the moment. I really shouldnt have smashed that mirror over that black cats head whilst walking under a ladder. So currently Im just plugging away at various projects and Ill see what comes to fruition.
Anyway, thanks for letting me ramble on about my writing. I tend to go off on one given half the chance. In fact, theres loads of stuff that I didnt get round to mentioning if youre interested in hearing about it
Wait! Come back!!!
PT (barring door and disconnecting phone): Stuart Young, thank you.
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