Tell me about yourself and your writing?
I’m basically your run-of-the-mill happily married Anglo-Irish reformed addict, with the bare rudiments of a classical education and too many children.
But to qualify that:
Born in Ireland to an Irish mum and English father. Raised in England. Always felt a greater affinity to the Irish side – a certain hoodlumism is integral to those guys, whereas team England tend to play with a straighter bat.
But having said that, as a child I worked hard, did well, and alongside all the usual Maths/English/Science gubbins, also studied French, Latin, Greek and Classic Civilizations at private school – developed my storytelling tools there – before financial bankruptcy at home saw me turfed out of privilege in my late teens, whereupon in my infinite teenage wisdom I figured hard work was a fool’s errand, and that ingestion of vast quantities of psychedelics (and the rest) would be a far better use of my time.
And it was, for a while, until it wasn’t – eventually deteriorating into less romantic pharmaceutical habits that were altogether less entertaining. At which point I got married somewhat by mistake – and by mistake I mean that I made promises and commitments I probably wasn’t in a position to keep – I was nearly 21. The marriage lasted 13 years, and blessed me with 3 sons.
A short story I wrote way back then got me a gig as a copywriter. That morphed over the years into brand consultancy type stuff. And eventually I sobered up and sorted my shit out.
I’m now heading up on 40 – I met my second wife six years ago, my first daughter was born 5 years ago, second daughter 7 months ago. My oldest son turns 21 this year. I have been tee-total for nearly two years now. I wrote The Knife in 2011, and set up no man publishing in 2013. This year we plan to take over the world. And that short story I wrote all those years ago – it’s grown and warped and will be my next novel (The River).
Why do you write?
Why does a farmer harvest? Because he has fields full of crops and if he doesn’t it’ll all go to seed. That’s why I write – because for whatever reason, I was born with a brain that is a patchwork of story-fields. They grow, and sometimes I harvest them. I don’t write anywhere near as much as I should – I got meadows full of overgrown tales and forgotten dreams and all the rest…
But worth I think making the distinction between writing and storytelling – I consider myself a storyteller first, writer second. It’s more important to me that the story is perfectly crafted than the language – and that language serves the story. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think I write well – sometimes I think I’m amazing: but it kinda happens by accident when it is. Mostly my writing is solid-to-good. But I’m pretty sure my stories are kick-ass. Because I hammer the living shit out of them until they are.
What’s the process like? What inspired you to write The Knife?
For The Knife the process was the epitome of rigour and discipline: I spent a month mapping it out, and creating a framework for the ideas and scenes that came fully formed on the back of the original spark of inspiration (which was, very basically: a dying vampire is stabbed – his blood covers the knife – the knife then creates more vampires). Then when it came to writing it, I set the alarm for 4am every day, literally fell out of bed when it went off, and made sure I was writing before I’d even really woken up. I’d write one scene every day in that fashion until it was done. And it was done quickly – maybe just 5 weeks to have a complete first draft.
At which point I then spent a few months reviewing, editing, hammering the crap out of it. Then sent it out to a small group of trusted readers and had them send back notes. More hammering and brutal moulding. So on, so forth…
What inspired me to write The Knife? Well there was the initial germ of an idea: the dying vampire blood on knife thing. But with a twist: the vampire would be the very last of his kind… he’s committing suicide – checking out of a world gone to shit… but his consciousness would be pulled back into the bodies of those the knife infects: so, trapped in the bodies of the humans he has so come to despise. That was the concept that pinged pretty much fully formed into my head – probably from spending my whole childhood reading Stephen King and Clive Barker etc.
But then, in terms of tone, and feel, and what it would actually be about it was much more inspired by a book called As If by Blake Morrison. That was a factual account of the trial of two young boys in Liverpool (aged about 10 or 11), who kidnapped another young boy from a shopping centre and tortured and murdered him (aged 3). It was a terrible thing – and the British media went gung-ho baying for the blood of these older kids… but As If was much more open-hearted, and honest and true… it saw the older kids, who committed this awful crime, as victims of neglect as well. It witnessed all sides of the story. And I wanted to do something more like that with The Knife – and so it draws from a lot real-world events such as this. I gave a lot of thought to whether it was acceptable to feature such close facsimiles of these (and other) kids and came to the conclusion that they could only be featured if they were not exploited. I hope the story is in its own small way a prayer to move away from the blame culture that, in the end, only serves to give sanctuary to the neglect they endured.
What character or characters do you most identify with and why?
There’s a character in there that is essentially me, at the time I wrote it. He’s investigating this explosion of bizarre violence that takes place over the course of the story. But, as close as he gets to the truth of it, it never quite fits together for him. He observes it all, documents all the evidence, and at the end has to sort of just let it all go – accept that whatever has happened has happened, make his peace with the fact that he might never get to understand it, and get on with his life.
I think he is a very obvious, deliberate representation of me. Having said that, I suspect if you were to ask a psychiatrist they’d probably suggest that the supernatural characters in the book represent aggressive and passive aspects of my subconscious. Back in the dark days of my addictions and rage the old vampire would probably be a much closer fit for me… so different versions of me kind of haunt the book.
What about writing makes you feel powerful?
There comes a tipping point where the world you’re creating comes to life, and the characters start to breathe and think and make their own decisions. That’s an incredibly powerful feeling. You do feel like god at that point. But at the exact same moment it’s terrifying because you realise then that you no longer have control. That they’re going to do what they have to do, and they don’t give a fuck about you as a writer and your obligations to continuity and all of that. I was lucky with The Knife in that when it came to life, the wind came up behind me and swept me safely into shore. The River on the other hand has been a nightmare – pretty much 20 years now of buffeting around at sea on that fucker: but it’ll be awesome once it’s docked… storm-formed and wonderful… But yeah: you’re playing with forces beyond your control. That’s the magic of it. That’s the hook.
Is the novel scary? What’s it like writing scary parts?
It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I didn’t mean for it to be scary – I did – but I’m probably the last person in the world that could judge whether it succeeded or not. I’ve been told by pretty much everyone that’s read it that it is. There are a couple of scenes in there that we build up to and I really pushed the boat out on. And I knew as they we going onto the page that they were hitting the spot – and there was an evil glee that was there when I wrote them.
But I didn’t want it to be just scary. As I mentioned before, I was always very conscious of the real people that I was using as templates for characters in the book, so that had to be respected, as much as that gleeful imp wanted to say fuck it and just go mad – the scares in it had to be underpinned by motive and purpose. So I think that perhaps those scary scenes are more heightened because of that – much more intense and disturbing – but perhaps fewer of them than would have been in there otherwise. I guess more akin to the scene at the end of Ringu… it %?#!ing delivers when you get there, but you can’t keep playing the same hand over and over. And unlike Ringu, the scares come in earlier before the story then goes to different, richer, more unexpected places…
What did you learn about yourself while writing the book?
That I could actually write with discipline. Day-in-day out. Graft, y’know? That the old perspiration-inspiration maxim actually holds true. I was all mouth and no trousers up until The Knife… just noodling when the mood took me.
What might readers learn about themselves?
Perhaps that they can have shifting sympathies – that it’s possible to be apolitical without being apathetic – that good guys and bad guys don’t see themselves as one or the other… they’re just doing what they do because they are what they are. They all have their reasons.
Where can readers go to find out more about your writing?