Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Graham Masterton - Brought to Book

What was the most recent novel you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

I was given a copy of The Process by the late Bryon Gysin in a restaurant in Covent Garden in 1970, which I am still very slowly reading. He was not only the laziest man I ever knew, but he was a really wonderful writer. Who else could say that box of matches “chuckled”?

Unfortunately. I do not have the time or the inclination to read any other fiction. If I were a chef I wouldn’t spend all evening cooking, and it’s the same with writing. I am highly critical of my own writing but that means that I can’t read anybody else’s fiction without tearing it to pieces. I have never read anything by Stephen King or J K Rowling or indeed any other contemporary fiction writer. I regret it very much, because I used to love reading fiction, but it’s like a professional magician watching some other magician’s stage show -- knowing exactly how it’s done and spotting all the fumbles and all the mistakes.

Breakfast with Graham Masterton... photographed for
Golden Grahams' recent 'famous Grahams campaign'
( courtesy grahammasterton.co.uk )
What was the first book you can remember reading that really left an impression on you?

Treasure Island. I still think that’s a great book for boys, Jim lad.

Do you have a favourite book, one that you have re-read a few times?

I like Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America which I dip into now and again. It has some harrowing descriptions of the American Civil War but also some passages describing nature which are highly evocative.

What have been the influences and formative experiences that made Masterton into a writer of dark fiction?

Edgar Allan Poe mainly, who I read voraciously when I was a boy. Nelson Algren and Herman Wouk, both of whom were excellent at ultra-realistic characterisation and settings. At the age of about 15, I became very interested in the American Beat writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac and their complete fearlessness in writing what they felt, which is how I got to know William Burroughs among others. Don’t talk to me about Allen Ginsberg, though, he was a prat.

Film poster for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
featuring iconic graphic design by Saul Bass
Who have been your favourite authors, and what have you learnt from them?

I previously mentioned those hard-boiled American authors like Nelson Algren, who write The Man With The Golden Arm and A Walk On The Wild Side. Also Herman Wouk who wrote The Caine Mutiny. I learned from them to make the characters lead the story, even when it makes the story tragic or awkward or uncomfortable. The reversal of one’s antipathy towards Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny is absolutely masterly and is an object lesson in how to control a reader’s feelings. The Man With The Golden Arm is gritty and tough and makes you root for its hero but despair of him, both at the same time. Another writer I used to like a lot was Len Deighton, but when I read his books... I could always tell when he was growing hungry.

Do you have a writing ritual, regimen or a tried and tested process?

I get up, I have a cup of horseshoe coffee, which was what the railroad workers of America used to call their coffee because it was so strong you could float a horseshoe in it. Then I start writing, even if I don’t feel like it. That was why I said it’s my job. I was trained as a newspaper reporter and newspaper reporters can’t have so-called writer’s block.

Do you listen to music whilst you write, if so how do you think it affects the writing?

I never listen to music while I write, although I know that a lot of writers do. I have always compared writing with singing, and so it is vital create your own rhythm, A book should be like a song – you absorb it without even realising that you’re reading it, and so I will balance and re-balance a sentence again and again until it has that effect. Having music in the background would interfere with that process.

After a long-running writing career, do you have any advice or ‘words of wisdom’ for the aspiring young writer of imaginative fiction?

Don’t copy – either style or themes. Be yourself. When I published The Manitou there were no novels on the market at all about Native American mythology which is one of the reasons it was so successful. Because it had raised awareness of Native American culture, Sitting Bull’s grand-daughter bought me lunch at The Russian Tea Rooms in New York and presented me with a framed picture of her grandfather.

So forget about vampires and zombies and werewolves...create some terror that’s entirely yours.

The Manitou - an original work of dark fiction!
STOP PRESS: Taken for Dead, the fourth in the Katie Maguire crime-thriller series is just out, this week!

Read the  earlier Scrawl interview with Graham Masterton here.

For more info and updates, check out the official Graham Masterton website.


Thank you Graham!


- Graham Masterton was talking to Remy Dean

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Erase the State: Remy Dean on 'Scraps', Twenty Years On…

On the 20th anniversary of his debut novel, Scraps, author Remy Dean talks to Winston Dominic about movies, music, art and finding the time to 'write the wrongs'.


Scraps by Remy Dean - across the decades...
So, it has been twenty years since Scraps was first published… where’s the follow-on novel?

"Arghh! Deadlines! There is one… it’s on the way… I already have scraps of writing that want to become a sequel novel. But I have been writing ever since, working on several projects…"

Fact or fiction?

"Oh, that’s a fact… Since Scraps came out I have had ten books published. That averages out as one every two years – not too bad… but they have been mainly commissions, fact-based books. And I have always been doing a bit of journalism and editorial work."

Your writing background was in journalism?

"I was trained in audio-visual design, which covered film, photography and screen-writing, but my first 'proper' job was writing captions and copy for Design Magazine - the magazine of the old Design Council. From that, it just kept rolling, bits and pieces for national newspapers... that led to on to editors coming to me with commissions, which is quite a privileged position to be in for any writer. But I do love fiction - that’s where I find the joy. I have been writing stories since before I was a teenager and will continue to do so… no one can stop me!"

The Race Glass - three short stories by Remy Dean
The Race Glass came out this year and has a selection of short stories from different periods spanning your career, and there is the recent novelette, Final Bough. How do you think your writing has developed over the two decades since Scraps?

"Slowly… I write whenever I get the chance, but I fall foul of many diversions and distractions, such as the reality of living in a capitalist economy where you have to make a living. I could almost make a living from writing, but only by taking those paid commissions – if you are a serious writer, and a publisher comes to you with a commission, then you really have to say 'yes' – and so I found myself writing about things that I was not really interested in. Sometimes subjects that I wasn't interested in would turn out to be interesting once I started on the research and interviewing people around the theme... like Suede and Celine Dion! The last ‘proper’ commission I was offered was a biography of the Spice Girls... I didn’t progress that project. So to make a living, I became a teacher – I know, ironic – but that is something that does interest me. A more reliable, regular income, as far as any professions go these days, and it is rewarding.

"As for developing… the way I write has changed a lot. I tend to use my writing in different ways. As a teacher, I use words to explain ideas and concepts, this resulted in the book, Evolution of Western Art. I find it comparatively easy to sit down and write fact-based text in a journalistic way. If I just manage the odd half-hour here and there, this is something I can do, research and write about themes in a clear and academic way… or write articles for magazines… or pieces for my blogs. That is text as communication and though I still try to keep it lively and flowing and have a few surprises, it is not that creative. It does hone skills that are of great use when applied to creative writing, such as structure, logic, brevity and clarity. Any writing a writer does, does a writer good!"

Remy Dean in conversation, 1994
(courtesy questing beast books)
So creative writing is more difficult?

"Not really, I don’t find any writing difficult. Except filling-in forms! Creative writing, in my case, needs time to live inside me. The characters need to be able to play things out in my imagination… and creativity works best with an open-ended time scale. In some ways it is more difficult to actually do, yes – to find the time to focus without forcing it, allowing the flow of a story to come naturally with its own language and cadences, but that’s also much more joyous and rewarding, when you become immersed. That’s what I love.

"I could sit down and approach creative writing in the same structured and methodical way as journalism, but then the results would be much more formal and would read more like someone who was fresh out of creative writing class – just like so many authors.

"To write fiction well, I need time to settle into the mind-frame of a particular story, become absorbed in its world and mythos, get to know the characters. Then the story just flows into words. It is much closer to play than work. More like magic than science. It can take me a few days to get going along with that flow, though, so when my mind is constantly occupied with teaching and working and shopping and DIY… Yes, it can become frustrating – just as you reach that stage of being able to flow you have to divert yourself to do something else. But those other things also bring varied experiences and interactions with varied personalities that can only feed your writerly repertoire.

"I mean, there aren't many jobs like teaching in the creative arts - every year I get to interact with a fresh batch of fifty or sixty young, agile minds and talk about concepts and ideas with all these people from different backgrounds, bringing their own viewpoints and ways of speaking... I feel I know the 'YA' readership and want to write something for them. And the joys of parenting are innumerable... I've discovered and re-discovered many books, and telly series, and films, and had experiences that have only improved me as a person and also as a writer. You can't live in an ivory tower, can you.... unless you've got a big tower made of ivory, cocker! I couldn't go with that because I care about conservation... and those Greenpeace guys would be on my case, book sales would plummet... though maybe not in Russia and China,"

Then: Remy Dean in a photoshoot for the press launch of Scraps
(courtesy questing beast books)
So if you wrote Scraps now, would it be a very different book?

"Well... I don’t think I could write Scraps now! Just as, back then, I could not write how I write now. Scraps has a lot of energy and bravery in the prose – I re-read it this year and it still impressed me with its relentless pace and the way it relishes language, uses it in an almost physical, percussive way. It is so flip and punky, yet at the same time there is beauty and poignancy in there.

"Now? Well my experiences as an educator, editor and journalist have focussed my writing skills. I hope that my creative writing has more clarity now – a clarity that enhances rather than diminishes its poetic dimension. I hope I still take the risks…

"I still approach creative writing in a way that is closer to abstract expressionism, perhaps as a painter would use colour, brush strokes and texture, I use rhythm and words. I still pay attention to each conjunction and punctuation, y’know, is that full-stop really necessary? How does that ‘and’ affect the overall rhythm of the paragraph it’s sitting in…

"Aristotle used the term ‘melody’ to describe the flow of a dramatic narrative – I try to write in a way similar to a song-writer composing a piece of music – the length of sentences and syllables of the words sometimes create a form that is independent of their direct literal meaning – like films have mood music that enhance the action. I think my writing has become less staccato and probably less over-demanding of the reader – perhaps more ‘prog’ than ‘punk’ nowadays."

Now: Remy and Barnie, in 2014
So what are you working on now, two decades on?

"A few things, the main one right now is a fantasy story for… I was going to say young adults, but it is for the young, including those adults who can remember being young. It will be set in a parallel world …and there will be fairies!"

I’m guessing something like Martin Miller’s Fairies of New York?

"Maybe it started out in that vein, but it is actually being written with my daughter in mind – she has been the major inspiration behind it. It grew out of an old synopsis I had for a much more adult take on the fairy world, but that story has changed and become much richer and… very different from what it was going to be."

So from 'punk-crime-noir' to fairy tales?

"I always considered Scraps to be a fantasy novel. It has all the elements of a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale. A very violent and morally challenging fairy story."

But Scraps is certainly not a book for children!

"No, definitely not! It is aimed at adults. Nouveau adults, I suppose – I wrote it in my twenties…"


There is some pretty strong stuff in it. It caused a bit of stir, mainly because of its sexual content, some of which is not quite ‘PC’…

"Well, thank you. That was intentional. I find it – not surprising, in this society, but strange that people fixated on the sex scenes so much. Its core theme is morality, the morality that is given to a person from parents, peers, priest, bosses and so on and also the core morality that is their own, that develops from their own experience and thinking and heart… personal morality.

"There was a tendency to equate sexuality and sexual practices with morality. To have ‘loose morals’ used to mean expressing sexual freedom, or ‘sleeping around’. Not so long ago, even in this country, it was illegal and considered morally wrong to be homosexual – as if love was immoral and always, exclusively, linked to sexuality!

"I was interested in sex, as many people are! My favourite comment about Scraps came from Lydia Lunch – one of my most favourite authors and critics – when she said, ‘the sex was hot’. That was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer, especially coming from her – a great writer, a generous, positive force, full of energy…

"Yes, some people were shocked by the few pages that dealt with sex, which I think adds up to about four sides in the entire novel, but they were not openly shocked by the violence and murders, which are equally graphic and I would consider much more morally questionable! Our culture still accepts violence in its media much more readily than sex. It reminds me of what Lenny Bruce said on the subject of censorship – I can’t remember the entire sketch, but he makes a comment about a film that cannot be shown on TV because of nudity and an implied sex act, yet in the afternoon they show the story of Jesus, where there are floggings, infanticide and murder by crucifixion. He says that the censors are worried about the young and impressionable imitating what they see. So, that would mean we don’t want our kids to grow up and procreate, enjoy sex and continue the human race, but we’re fine with them killing babies and nailing people to big crosses…"


So what motivated you to write Scraps?

"I really enjoy writing. I wanted to write a good book... and there were characters in my head that needed their independence. I loved reading good books, but much of the writing in some books, that I really wanted to like, was too slow and flabby – I wanted to write a fast-moving, lively novel, where the violence was visceral and the sex was sensual, shocking or seductive. I wanted it to be… not boring. I hoped that the reader would feel something, get involved, question their own responses… and I wanted to irritate those who irritated me back then, the Mary-Whitehouse-Margaret-Thatcher brigade and their reactionary right-wing cronies.

"Also, I had read a ‘how to’ article about writing and it had a list of five things to avoid in a first novel – no excessive violence, no explicit sex, don’t have a main character with amnesia or a central character who is a writer and don’t try to be ‘experimental’… So I made sure I had all of those things in Scraps!"

Why! Why would you do that?

"The whole mind-set of the book was to buck the norm, question authority, challenge convention… It was sort of Dada. If there’s a wrong, I will write it.

"Also, a bit like the Decadents and the early Modernists. Artists like Cezanne and Matisse deliberately avoided the traditional approach, even if that meant doing something the ‘wrong’ way, going against the accepted colour theory, not using perspective in the usual way, not painting the figures to scale… Art usually reflects culture, but they were trying to change culture."

What were the main influences at the time?

"Music and cinema. In the author’s note to the 10th anniversary edition, I explain the connection with music – the novel has a soundtrack… Six Dead Birds, a song by The Moodists – Dave Graney’s band in the eighties – a huge influence, and that milieu merged with Luc Besson’s film, Subway, Alex Cox’s Repo Man and its soundtrack, a bit of Argento in the set-pieces… The title of a Lydia Lunch track, Motor Oil Shanty, also evoked some of the vibe along with The King of Junk, a song by Virgin Prunes… those were the seeds that sparked my imagination back then – there were many other inspirations, from art and life. I was reading books by authors like Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, Richard Miller's Snail, Nick Zedd's Bleed...

"I wanted to produce a kind of poetic collage of things that were important to me - books, songs, films, art - that I loved. Do a sort of David Bowie response to the culture I surrounded myself with, that had strongly affected me at that time. Things I have experienced through books and films have had just as profound an effect upon me as actual primary experience...

"Scraps is crammed with references and symbolism - not that it is explicit, and most readers should be totally unaware of that side of the story, but maybe they get the feeling that there is a richness and a poetic depth - 'more than meets the eye'. For example, there is a narrative structure inspired by the journey through the major arkana of the Tarot... and some of the characters partly reference important periods of Art History - Tom's amnesia is the Mediaeval period... Mary is the Renaissance... "


A bit of Quentin Tarrantino?

"Not really. Scraps was written around the same time as Reservoir Dogs was – contemporary with it. Perhaps it was down to the late eighties zeitgeist… I can see parallels with True Romance – which is no bad thing – that was in cinemas around the same time as Scraps was published, so the reviews that compared them were probably helpful in finding an audience for the book. And of course, Pulp Fiction was also released in 1994."

…there was talk about a cinematic adaptation?

"Perhaps some talk, but no one ‘walked the walk’. Not yet. I was coming out of a film background and Scraps reads like a ready-to-go screenplay. I tried to write visually, there’s not much internal dialogue, always more show than tell. I tried to evoke the dianoia - what the characters may be feeling or thinking - by their actions or in a poetic way with what’s going on around them.

"I think Scraps is already a movie, I saw the film in my mind and the text projects it onto the brain screen within the reader. But, of course, I'd love to see it made into a film... in the style of independent French, or Italian, films from the 1970s or 80s..."

You said, in the author’s note for The Race Glass, that Scraps was autobiographical…

"Yes, I say 'a highly stylised form of autobiography – in the same way that dreams are'."

So is any of it from your real life experience?

"None of it and all of it...

"I like what Oscar Wilde said in, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 'An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them'. But when you come down to it, personal experience, or your own interpretations of the experiences of others, is the only material a writer ever has to work with in order to link imagination to the, so called, real world. So all creative work becomes an element of self-portrait.

"The characters are collages of real people, amalgams, elements from different people merged to form one. The locations likewise, ranging from Wigan, Stoke and Blackpool to London, Paris and Rome... The events are exaggerated versions of real experiences and expressions of my responses to them, warped and coloured in different ways to suit the story. The story is as real as a dream – and a dream seems real while it lasts."

Do you have any advice for up-coming writers?

"Read or write whenever you can. Write because you love writing. Respect your writing, even if you're the only one that does! Publication is a nice bonus, but the writing defines the writer. Don't pander, just keep on writing and keep hold of the joy."

Thank you, Remy - long may you dream (and write) on!

- Remy Dean was talking to Winston Dominic


Scraps is available as a direct download e-book and also remains in print as a tree-book.

More info and up-dates can be found on the Official Remy Dean Weblog.

Check out Dean's listing on the Writers of Wales Database and his author's page at amazon.co.uk

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

‘Blow Your Own Trumpet’ – Jasper Fforde in conversation with Jane Williams

Jasper Fforde handles rejection well, having been turned down more than 70 times before he began his published odyssey in 2001 with The Eyre Affair – the first in a series of seven books to feature the character Thursday Next. In the 13 (yes thirteen) years since, he has become one of the UK’s most well-loved cult-authors - with annual fan conventions dedicated to his books - and is a bona fide New York Times Bestselling Author. So why was there so much resistance from the publishing world to begin with? Because his books were 'weird' – or so those publishers thought… There was not anything really like them (although he now gets routinely mentioned along with Sir Terry Pratchett) and so that meant risk, which publishers of fiction do not like.

Jasper Fforde photographed by Mari Fforde
Now, with 16 novels (that is 13 + 3) and more on the way, he has become the leading light of the genre… what genre? Ffordean novels are set in a parallel world that overlaps with ours, but is also very different – Thursday Next operates her detective agency from Swindon, in the Britain of the 1980s, where George Formby is President and the Crimean War is still on - actually that is sort of true in our real world right now! She is involved in ‘policing’ characters and unrealised plot threads from the literary world. In the first novel, she has to rescue the denouement of Jane Eyre and make sure we get the right ending to the story in our world. The world of books comes alive and creates a complex, overlapping world of imagination. Thursday has a pet Dodo.

So what genre is that? Well, as it can potentially involve any book in the 'Great Library' that is hard to pin down. Fforde’s books have been referred to as metafiction, fantasy-parody, fabulist, satire, comedy… and they are all those things. The books fit most comfortably into the emergent genre of parallel-histories – where authors work with alternative versions of how our world might be if certain historical events had taken different turns, or where the fiction of our history is treated with the same integrity as academic history. Fforde is a leading proponent of this approach, along with the likes of Alan Moore, Jonathan Stroud, Mark Frost, and steampunks like Liesel Schwarz - writers who have an unabashed sense of fun and adventure, who are not afraid to treat fact and fiction in the same inventive, irreverent and entertaining way. After all, ‘real’ history has often been shown to be a thinly veiled fiction.

Jasper Fforde's debut novel...
but not his first!
The Scrawl editors had an idea that it might be interesting to get writers to talk to creatives from other disciplines, so to test out this theorem, we put potter Jane Williams together with author Jasper Fforde... and they talked about America, Wales, children, cheese… and writing.

Jane: Thank you so much for speaking to me, is now a good time?

Jasper: Yes, I have just finished my supper actually.

Jane: Do you need to digest or anything?

Jasper: Why? What have you got planned for me? No, now is fine!

Jane: I believe that you are off to America, you have been to America before…

Jasper: Oh yeah, I’ve been going to America for the past 14 years.

Jane: Do you find that there is a difference between American readers and audiences and British readers and audiences?

Jasper: No not really…. In the UK, audiences tend to fill from the back forwards, in the US the audiences fill from the front to the back. Americans are a much more forward sort of people “I’m going to sit at the front…” whereas the British, “Well, I’ll sit at the back, just in case there are any questions….”

Jane: ...the British are terribly reserved?

Jasper: Yes, but apart from that, they are very similar.

Jane: So, you are promoting The Eye of Zoltar - the third book in The Last Dragonslayer series. I have two quite young kids and my son asked me yesterday whether dragons really exist, and this question is an extension of that really… what kind of age, or what type of audience, is the Last Dragonslayer series aimed at?

Jasper: It’s a good question really. The audience that I aimed it at was an audience that existed when I was that age, because young adults in my day - ha ha, ‘cause I’m so old! - Young adults, back in ‘my day’, were still kind of ‘Tolkein-esque’. Although my work is not 'Tolkein-esque', it IS funny and serious and all that, but nowadays YA - the young adult audience that I would be aiming at - is much more vampire orientated, a lot more sex and a lot more violence, and I’m not doing that. So, I’m now put in the ‘middle grade’, which is 12 to 15-ish.

Third in the Dragonslayer series
Jane: There are some quite adult themes, I’m thinking about Jennifer being an orphan and this idea that ‘orphans’ are a disposable commodity... and she does like boys! So those are some themes which tick the ‘teenage’ boxes aren’t they?

Jasper: I’m hoping to find a very sophisticated twelve-year-old reader - well, not very sophisticated - but I’m hoping to find a twelve-year-old reader who understands that this is a genre, but a genre which could be subverted. Which is a modern thing, I think - a very fashionable thing at the moment. In the same way as the retelling of nursery rhymes, with a different take on them. They are hitting the screens at 12A, which is the age that they are aimed at. Also, perhaps the older teens that don’t really want to go down the route of the vampires and stuff… who just want a bit of fun, really.

Jane: I don’t know what camp I’m in really, as I’m 40.  I would cite those three books (the Last Dragonslayer series) as being the books that I am most looking forward to sharing with my kids, who are tiny at the mo. For me they tick all of the boxes - they are ‘wholesome’, yet subversive, funny, yet sad at the same time, and I cannot wait to share them with my children...

You have strong female leads in your books, Thursday Next and Jennifer Strange, have you always thought about strong female leads?

Jasper: No, not really, I sort of moved into that area. The first two books that I wrote are my ‘Nursery Crimes’ books - The Humpty Dumpty book and The Fourth Bear. They had a male protagonist, ‘Jack Spratt’ but I found his side kick, Mary Mary, and his wife, Madeleine, much more interesting characters. So after I couldn’t get those published I moved on to write the Eyre Affair and that is the first time that I have used a female protagonist, which is much more interesting to me. I don’t know why, but it is. Strong, yet slightly vulnerable, driven women, I think are very interesting… What was it I said the other day in another interview? …Oh I know: Remarkable women are more remarkable than remarkable men.

Jane: Oh I like that!

Jasper: Oh good, you like that do you?

Jane: Yeah, I do like that, though I’m not sure that I whole-heartedly agree - there are exceptions to every rule.

I found it very interesting, in that you write in the first person and the narrative is very much a female voice. I just wandered how difficult it was for a male writer to do that with real validity - although I think that you pull it off really well!

Jasper: Thanks. That’s nice!

Jane: What was the first book that you can remember reading which had an impact on your life when you were younger.

Jasper: Well, this might have some bearing on it. The first book I remember reading when I was young - and remember, when you are young you are told to read 30 or 40 books - in my day it was the Ladybird books, 1B - John and Jane, and you are told to read these. Then, as your skills develop as a reader, all of a sudden you can choose to read a book! I can remember this moment and I was quite young, perhaps five or six, and I remember thinking that reading doesn’t have to be something that you do in school, it can be something that you can do on your own. You can choose to read a book. In the same way that when you can ride a bicycle you can choose to go to ‘Tommy’s’ house. When you’ve get your licence you can drive wherever you want and it is a wonderful empowering fantastic moment. Walking might be the same, for those of us that are lucky enough to walk - that sudden sort of amazing leap.

I remember going to my parents’ house and looking at their bookshelf to see if there was something suitable for me and I pulled down a copy of Alice in Wonderland. I took it into the living room and curled up onto the sofa and read it and loved it. It’s not a long book, so I finished reading it, and read it again. It kind of stuck with me, that very strange subtle humour. It is very funny and very clever. The characters are very real and strange and the whole world is very, very weird. I think that stayed with me and Alice - this very gentle and accepting, understanding character, who all these weird things keep happening to and she remains unfazed by it. She’s not girly about it, a squealing girly who says, “agh!” She says, “now I’m as big as a house so let’s deal with it!” So I think that might have had something to do with it.

Jane: I’ve done some background research on you. I was tentative about going onto your website as it is fantastic and filled with all the information that I may need and I did not want to sound trite or worry about asking you questions that you have been asked before. However, one of the first things that I read was the fact that Alice in Wonderland was one of your favourite books and everything sort of fell into place. Because there are so many bizarre and obscure story lines in your books , yet all of your characters take it in their stride... It's fine for Mrs Tiggywinkle to be a supercool superhero. [ Editor's note: Mrs Tiggywinkle is a ‘Bookworld’ character in the Thursday Next stories. ] There’s so much about your storylines that are hyper-real and obviously as soon as I read that Alice in Wonderland was a favourite book, I could completely and utterly see that… it was fantastic.

So, do your children read your books?

Jasper: Usually. The two smallest are too small really, the two eldest are too grown up really, but generally they do. My second son reads everything I write, so in general they all do. When my two eldest girls were teenagers it was quite funny really, as their friends used to read me and say, ‘Your dad is really cool, he rocks’. They would reply, ‘No he doesn’t, and you know nothing about my father, how dare you! He is completely unfunny and rubbish,’ although I think that they were secretly proud.

Jane: Your father was a banker which I would not have imagined, reading your work. I mean some of your storylines are fairly ‘out there’ and I just imagined this incredibly bohemian, literary upbringing acting as  inspiration for some of your ’crazy’ ideas, I mean, is this how you grew up?

Jasper: No, we are not bohemian at all. I mean dad was an economist. I think escapism was important in my childhood and teens. My family are fairly ordinary, we did not have a bad childhood at all by any stretch of the imagination, it was just very ordinary. I think that for escapism in the 1970’s and early 80’s there was a lot going on - some good sitcoms and very funny movies and I did a lot of reading. Most authors you find are fairly solitary people - I think that is because we have spent a lot of time on our own over the years. Within that vacuum, if you are not going out and shouting and jumping up and down with your mates, you are actually doing something - usually that means drawing, painting, reading, writing or anything like that. There is a strange duality in being a writer, you have to give up this ‘socialness’ to actually put in the hours for this bizarre sort of input.

Jane: When people meet you and know your background, and perhaps know your books, do they expect you to be the funny man at the dinner party?

Jasper: Yeah, they do… They say, ‘Jasper you seem fairly ‘ordinary’ to me,’ meaning, ‘I find you fairly dull,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I make up silly ideas and that’s where my skill lies’. If something happens over the dinner table, I will make some ‘silly’ connection. But mostly my family know me and it’s not anything remotely unusual.

Jane: There are so many things about Wales in your books that make me laugh, and they are so true! You have a strong personal connection with Wales...

Jasper: I’m not actually Welsh, but spent all my childhood holidays here in the Wye valley, which means my connection to the area goes back to 1966. My favourite river swimming spot has remained unchanged and revisited for the past forty four years. My Great Uncle farmed the Olchon Valley and is buried in Llanveynoe. My parents were married there in 1953. I have a Welsh wife, and two Welsh daughters.

Shades of Grey parallels Wales
With such strong connections to Wales - quite apart from having lived here since 2000 - it would seem obvious to feature Wales, in some part, in nearly all of my books. Some feature Welsh plotlines, others - Shades of Grey, Early Riser, Eye of Zoltar - are entirely set here. The Elan Valley is featured as a location in three of my novels, each Elan subtly different. The Elan is a particular favourite. We call it ‘The Empty Quarter’, an area of Wales that is magnificently desolate - upland moorland where little happens except drainage and sheep. It is not visited in any great numbers, but it seems to have an almost magnetic hold on me.

Further up North, we have Cadir Idris, a mountain that is once again heavily featured in Eye of Zoltar, but reimagined by me as a vast pinnacle of rock with stairs hewn into the stone, and on the top, the carved stone chair of Idris. I also made it permanently swathed in cloud due to the fact that even after three treks to the summit, I have yet to see the view.

Jane: As much as anything it is cheese that really makes me laugh. I work in Dolgellau and I have read, with childlike glee, that the strongest of your cheeses come from Machynlleth and Dolgellau...

Jasper: The cheese subplot was great fun - but the choice of place names random - I just liked the idea of Wales being a place in which super strong cheeses could be made in an unregulated way and then smuggled across the border to England, or ‘Poundland’, or ‘East Wales’, as we call it.

I often put adverts in the back of my books - the strapline to my unofficial Welsh Tourism plug is: ‘Visit Wales. Not always raining’.

In short, I write about Wales because I really love it, despite the rain, despite the fact that I don’t understand rugby, or watch Doctor Who, or can speak Welsh, or sometimes feel that a Welsh winter is like living in Tupperware. But if, as I once heard, that, ‘you can be Welsh if you love it,’ then I can indeed boast Wales as my nationality.

Jane: Do you have a routine to writing? Your themes and plots are so complex, how do you keep a handle on it all?

Jasper: I don’t, although I think that I need to start having a routine, because it takes me a long time to write, literally. I have several ideas at a time and I think, ‘right, what is going to happen with this next book’. The one that I am working on at the moment is called Early Riser. It is a crime-thriller set in a world in which humans have always hibernated. And you think, ‘ok then,’ this is a really interesting concept, because if we have always done it, it becomes second nature. How does this mechanism function and where can we find the crime and all this kind of stuff. So, in general, I just start off with these kind of ideas, then I put in a few characters, you know male or female. What kind of person are they? Then I just start writing and I see where it goes. But of course often this can lead you up a blind alley, and you have to re write it and then I have to try out something else... So planning would work a lot better! But I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for me! I tend to get my best ideas literally ‘on the hoof’.

Jane: I’m fortunate to work, and be friends, with some really fantastic artists and very creative people and I have found that there are two schools of thought, either you plan, plan, plan or you ‘wing it’.

So when you have these ‘crazy out there ideas’, do you have a little Jasper that reins you in? How do you know if your ideas are working? Do you have someone that you can run your ideas by?

Jasper: No. I’m really on my own. All authors are basically on their own, unless they are working in close collaboration with someone else. There is a ‘little voice’ - the little Jasper that you mentioned - that says, ‘this is really too stupid’. For example in this new book, which is slightly more serious, every now and again I keep putting in silly jokes, which would make total sense in any of my other books, but in this book they don’t quite set the tone… and once you’ve played around with the character, set them up in 20 or 30,000 words, you know how he or she is going react in a given situation. Once everything starts coming together the book starts writing itself in an odd kind of way and the tone and the atmosphere all slot in to place.

So although the first 20 or 30,000 words may be difficult and may lead you down blind alleys, the rest of it can pop into place. There is always that little voice that says if this is working or this isn’t working. When the little voice says, ‘this is not working’, and you’ve just spent a week working on it, it can be fairly frustrating. But you have to listen to that voice. Ninety percent of writing skills can be taught to someone, and then they could be writing for ten years and gain another five percent, but the remaining five percent is the stuff that you can never, never teach – that’s the magic sparkle and the charm that brings a novel alive. It’s that last five perent that makes a novel, if you could put in that five percent, and the rest was pretty ropy, it wouldn’t really matter.

Jane: When did you discover that you had that five percent then?

Jasper: I dunno… when people buy the books! You get emails from people from the other side of the planet saying, ‘your book really spoke to me and I really liked it and it really made me laugh out loud on the bus!’ And you think, ‘OK, that’s really great,’ because you are communicating these bizarre ideas and then it kind of makes sense.

Jane: So was this fairly early on in your career?

Jasper: I wish…

Jane: Because I discovered you fairly later on… its only been in the past three or four years that I have been reading your work, and you got me through some particularly difficult all-nighters with the sprogs.

Jasper: Oh good, I’m glad of that... No, I spent the first eleven years of my writing 'career' not being published. I wrote seven books in eleven years. I’d been trying to figure out how to make it work - it’s only been through constant experimentation and merciless self-criticism that you finally think, ‘yes this is kind of working now’. Then you can hand it out to the publishers or agents and they say, ‘yes, we can sell this, this is pretty much there’.

Jane: So would this be your tip to an aspiring writer then, to keep plugging and to keep pushing…

Jasper: Yes, my tip to an aspiring writer is wholly counter to today’s way of working really. For example you can be a fantastic photographer with two clicks of a mouse, and you can do everything really quickly and really easily, unfortunately writing is not one of them. I equate it to playing the trumpet.

You can buy the best trumpet, buy the best books on how to play the trumpet. You can listen to the best trumpeters, you can talk to the best trumpeters, you can do all these things - join the trumpet players club, but really when you put the trumpet to your mouth can you play it? The answer is no. You have to put in ten-to-fifteen years of solid graft and practice.

There are no short cuts to writing. Of course, being human is part of that experience, but distilling what it is to be human on the page is something that you cannot do straight away, unless of course you are brilliant, as some people are. So, my tips for writers are: think long term, if you can move from the rejection of your fifth novel to the starting of your sixth with no loss of enthusiasm, then you have what it is to be a writer. But if after writing your first two chapters, you send it off to an agent and when they say, ‘no,’ you give up, then you are not a writer.

Jane: That is what I say to students that I teach in the visual arts. Funnily enough, fifteen years is how long it has taken me to be able to throw a pot on the wheel. Maybe it’s something about that magic fifteen years.

Well, thank you so much for your time, and really have a fantastic time in America. And thank you very much again, it’s been very enjoyable reading your work.

Jasper: Thanks.

- Jasper Fforde was talking with Jane Williams

There is a wealth of Ffordean information at 

Jane Williams is a potter who lives and works near the coast in North Wales, where she also appreciates cheese and teaches in the arts department of a local college.
A pair of Jane's jugs attracting one of her 'mad birds'

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Colin Wilson: From the Outside Looking In

In remembrance of Colin Wilson's life and works, we have resurrected our exclusive interview from the print archive and proudly present it here for internet posterity with a few minor up-dates.

 Colin Wilson, one of Britain's greatest Modern thinkers, talks with Remy Dean about the death of the author, creative immortality, the magic of our minds, morbid curiosity and romantic criminality...


Colin Wilson transcended the material world a year ago... On this first anniversary of his death, I recall my meeting with him back in 2002. I had been to a London venue to see him address the Society for Psychical Research and had arranged to meet him after the event to ask a few questions. This was going well when he called a halt to the interview. I was flattered when he explained that my questions deserved more time to consider and invited me to join him over breakfast the following morning. 

So, early the next day, I was sat across the kitchen table of the his London lodgings, being generously plied with tea, toast and marmalade by Joy, his wife. In this relaxed situation, Colin was extremely generous with both time and intellect - we chatted for a good part of the morning. I was talking with the man who wrote The Occult - one of the books that had the greatest influence on my mind as a youth!

The interview I ended up with was far too long for the intended publication, and it was all too interesting to cut any out... An extract saw print in Outlook Magazine, but I held the bulk back for The Scrawl pilot issue. Now, here it is again, preserved on the internet for posterity, too entertaining and important to be left in the paper archive...

ANGRY YOUNG MAN

Colin Wilson was first recognised as one of this century’s most notable thinkers and literary figures back in 1956, when his first book, The Outsider, was published to, initially, unanimous acclaim. Since then, he has repeatedly fallen in and out of favour with the literary community but always remains the agent provocateur - outspoken about his ideas and opinions, however controversial they may be.

He has written fact, fiction and theory. His story, SpaceVampires, was adapted into the SF movie, Lifeforce, which he has called, “The worst film ever made,” and many of his novels and short stories have been optioned for cinematic development.

Colin Wilson was born 26 June 1931, in Leicester, and grew up against a working class backdrop. He has been a voracious reader and absorber of ideas ever since he was an eight-year-old. He spent his time either reading, exploring the local countryside on his bicycle, or experimenting with his chemistry set. Depressed by his environment, he had built a refuge for himself with the words of the Romantic poets and overcame suicidal urges with the pursuit of meditation.

He left school at 16 and at the age of 18, after a short stint as a civil servant, he had to enroll for his National Service. Military authoritarianism was an anathema to the young Wilson, and after being assigned to various departments he was eventually discharged.

He put all his free time back into reading, thinking and writing. He devoured all kinds of books with a voracious appetite, later writing a book of his own - The Books In My Life - as a homage to those texts that have influenced and shaped both his interior and exterior lives. When he had enough money, he travelled in Europe. He married and divorced in the space of two years. He moved from job to job, barely covering the rent.

In 1953 with an act of will, he set out to escape this repeating cycle, stopped paying the rent, bought a weatherproof sleeping bag and took up al fresco residence on Hampstead Heath, spending his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum to further research and write two books simultaneously.
With the encouragement of novelist Angus Wilson, the Reading Room superintendent at the time, he submitted the first part of a manuscript titled The Outsider to a publisher. The book was accepted on the strength of the unfinished manuscript and an advance paid to facilitate its completion.

The Outsider, was published in 1956, by Victor Gollancz. Never has a debut by an unknown met with such a fervent reception. Wilson was 24 when he found himself the darling of the London literati and hailed as a major writer. The book was a best seller in America and Europe, translated into a dozen languages within a year.


The instant success enabled Colin to afford a comfortable place to live with his second wife, Joy, and they moved into a house formerly occupied by Dylan Thomas, but Wilson was soon reacting against this fame and stardom. He became irritated by vacuous interviewers were only interested in telling the sensational success story of ‘young working class lad makes good’.

The press coined the phrase, ‘Angry Young Man’ and used it to label a perceived trend embodied by the likes of Wilson and John Osbourne. With such a high profile and an increasingly indignant attitude, it was not long before opinion began to turn against him. Serious critics began denouncing him, many changed their views through 180 degrees. Deification turned quickly to vilification.
By 1957, his image had been assassinated to such a degree that his wife’s parents forced entry to a friend’s home, where they were dining, and threatened Colin, accusing him of being a bisexual who had been unfaithful with a string of lovers. They had seen some notes for his novel, Ritual In The Dark, and mistaken them to be his diary!  It is probably apocryphal, but I have heard told that the father-in-law busted down the door, bull-whip in hand, cornered Colin and proclaimed, “The games up, Wilson, we’ve found your diaries!”

The police were called, by the owner of the house, and the newspapers were hot on their heels. Fed up with the media attention, Colin and Joy left London and let the rumour and gossip feed off itself. More than one critic predicted that Wilson would never have another book published and that he had been a charlatan all along

Colin Wilson is the author of more than 100 published books including science fiction novels, psychology, biography, commentary and critiques, countless essays and articles, plus many short stories. He appeared regularly on television as an authority on serial killers, the paranormal, Atlantis and the occult. He is one of David Bowie’s favourite writers.

Scrawl is honoured to present an extended interview with Colin Wilson conducted by Remy Dean:

COLIN REACHES HIS PEAK

You hail the Romantic poets as a major formative influence on your life - what was it about them that affected you so deeply?

“The Romantics had these moods of intense ecstasy, but the question was how to duplicate them. Pushkin compares the poet’s heart to a coal, which is blown into a glow by the wind of inspiration, and then the wind goes away and suddenly it’s just a black lump. What he’s saying is that you have to wait for the wind of inspiration. There’s nothing you can do.

“Well, I disbelieve that, I wanted to learn the mechanics, so to speak. It seems to me that when you get into certain moods, peak experiences, it’s exactly like having arrived in a particularly beautiful place in a city, but a city for which you have no map. And if you want to get back there again, the first thing you’ve got to do is get a map. If there are no maps on sale, you have to make your own. All my life’s been about making maps...”

Like shamans charting the otherworld of the subconscious?

“Not really… a lot more practical than that. What interested me so much about the Romantic poets, was they felt that they had discovered a way of living that was far more purposeful and real than ordinary, everyday life. It struck me that they were making an artificial distinction. What we’re talking about is not ordinary, everyday life, but the state of mind that ordinary, everyday people share If for example, you went into a room of stupid people, concerned only with gossip about the royalty or something, after you’d been in there a few hours, your state of mind would be pretty low. It would be extremely difficult to get yourself into any higher state, or to think about anything more serious. The same goes for human beings in general - we’re stuck among them.

“Apparently, there are ‘feral’ children, found among animals in forests, who have actually been brought up among animals. The problem is with these ‘feral’ children, is that there’s no way of ‘humanising’ them. Even if they had been among wolves or apes for only six or eight months, they behave like apes or wolves - they remain basically ‘animal’ for the rest of their lives, even if you can teach them to speak.

“Since human beings, for the most part are pretty stupid - regarding the love affairs of the royalty as the most interesting thing in the world, for example - you can see why, being brought up among all these ‘apes’ and ‘wolves’, that most human beings are unable to rise to anything better than apes or wolves.

“I had the same problem when I was a child. I was working class, my father was a boot and shoe worker in Leicester. I was always bright, but I had this feeling that I was stuck among some extremely thick, average working class people and that I was never going to escape that. The result was, that I did what a lot of kids do - I went to extremes. I found a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, when I was about twelve, I remember devouring this from beginning to end, becoming a disciple of Oscar Wilde immediately. Simply as a way of escape.

“That’s the big question - ‘How do you get out from amongst the apes and the wolves?’ In the same way, when my mother bought me a chemistry set, when I was about ten, I just became fascinated by science, chemistry, astronomy. By the age of twelve, Einstein was my great intellectual hero and I was reading his book on the theory of relativity. Not just because I was interested in science. Because it was an escape! Like poetry, like music, like going up to a mountain top.

“This is what is interesting about human beings. The intelligent ones have this extremely powerful desire to get to the mountain tops, up from the valleys where the apes and the wolves live.”
So have you found an effective method to achieve this?

“It’s not an easy thing to do! People like myself are trying to create an artificial environment that people can escape to. The Romantics also did that, but the trouble was, if you escaped to their mountain tops, you couldn’t live there, because the air was too thin, and when people came down from those mountain tops, they found the real world so appalling that they shuddered and committed suicide! Now, there’s obviously something wrong with that! It ought to be possible to create this environment, in the mind, for people to escape to from the valleys, which is just as good and healthy an environment. This could be said to be my aim and my purpose.

“This is one of the reasons why I’m interested in crime and psychology… I never felt that you have to escape into some rarefied environment where there is nothing but beauty. What we need is any kind of intellectual interest. As soon as you get intellectually excited, it can be about the theory of relativity, or about murder, it’s equally valid because the excitement carries you straight out of the valley, like a balloon taking you straight into the air.

“The result is that people like me spend all their time, particularly when young, looking for the more interesting people. Very often they’re dead, but fortunately they have left their ideas behind in books, music and paintings.

“In a sense, my books are themselves a complete intellectual environment. If you’re interested in philosophy and mysticism, then you can read certain books of mine, if your interested in crime and so on - the darker depths of human psychology - then you read others.”
What is your motivation for writing if not fame?

“Everybody’s motive is the same: to alter one’s self. In the process of pulling yourself up, you also happen to be pulling other people up, with a bit of luck. The whole question of fame is a very interesting one, nobody honestly says ‘No, I don’t want fame’...

“...Yet, what I was saying in The Outsider, is that it’s extremely important to be able to subsist without fame. All the great outsiders from, Shiele and Hoffman, down to VanGogh and Mogdigliani, have subsisted without fame, died more or less unknown, or even jeered at. The main problem with these outsiders was that they didn’t realise that it was possible to stand alone. If you drove yourself up to a far higher level of intensity, then you could in fact subsist as an outsider.

Colin Wilson - when being outside was the in thing...
“One of the main problems is, of course, if you publish a book like The Outsider, which makes you famous, suddenly you are potentially an in-sider. I was saved from that by a terrific backlash of all the critics. Within three months of The Outsider coming out, everybody was saying the book was a fake, a fraud, it’s just an anthology of quotations from other people... The result was that I was suddenly right back where I started, except that I now had the possibility of making a living as a writer. In a country like England, that made me a total outsider!”

Do you think you have to be on the outside to write?

“In a sense, yes. I wrote The Outsider because I was so fascinated by the people who don’t fit in, who have this strong evolutionary urge to rise to a higher level, because they are totally dissatisfied with the people around them. Then having achieved this, having got The Outsider published, to suddenly be denounced as a fake when I’m probably the most serious writer that Britain has ever produced! The feeling was ‘Oh, well - F**k it! I said that it should be possible - to exist as an outsider!”

“In Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, a sculptor produces sculptures of the ancients instead of the usual beautiful young people. So all these young people go to see them and are revolted, ‘ancients, how awful!’ Then, a much older sculptor tells him that when he was younger, he also had this desire to stop sculpting just beautiful young bodies which bored him and also did busts of ancients. So the first sculptor says, ‘well bring them out, I’d love to see them, I’ve done it and these f**king c**ts haven’t done me any harm!’

“And the other chap says, ‘well, I destroyed them’.

“I feel very much the same – I did it and these f**king c**ts haven’t done me any harm! I’ve succeeded in remaining an outsider and the f**king c**ts haven’t done me any harm! I hope I’m a kind of symbolic figure in that way…”

PLAYING CHESS WITH MR. DEATH

Talking of age, you have said that the peak experience can make people feel indestructible and able to go on for ever… are you a proponent of longevity, and immortality, being good and desirable things?

“Well… Shaw believed that human beings should be capable of living to be 300, but in Back To Methuselah, when the question is raised of what do you have to do to achieve this, his answer is you don’t need to do anything – it will just happen, Now, he had not really understood the basic problem, which is that you need such a high level of intellectual drive and self-renewal in order to keep going indefinitely. Shaw did not have that. You only have to read those later books about him like, Days With Bernard Shaw and Shaw’s Corner, by people who wrote down Shaw’s conversations in later years, to see that Shaw’s mind had reached a full stop. It was just dreadfully repetitive… What he should have been doing at that age is studying the up-and-coming people like Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre, he should have been learning new things instead of living in the past.

“I spent a couple of years trying to understand Heidegger and Fucault, and when I finally got the hang of them, I realised that all the effort had not really been worth it – they said nothing new at all. Then again, in a sense, there never is anything new! There are only two positions in philosophy. A negative, materialist position, or a positive, idealist position. No matter how much you try to disguise it, your philosophy ends up as one of the two. Like a billiard table with only two pockets, eventually, you drop into one pocket or the other.”

Eternal life has had a lot of bad press over the ages, from the Wandering Jew to Dorian Grey. By far the best-known ambassador for immortality must be Count Dracula, cursed to live forever, the Prince of Darkness. All our legends and folklore seem to be designed to make us certain of death. The possibility of physical immortality has been portrayed as evil, something no-body should want...
Why do you think there is such an in-grained resistance to longevity in our culture? Why are those thinkers and scientists who are outspoken proponents of longevity, such as Timothy Leary, so vilified by the UK press?

“Remember, Aldous Huxley wrote a book called After Many A Summer as a deliberate counterblast to Shaw’s Back To Methuselah, and in it the old count – or whatever he is – has discovered how to extend his life by eating the raw liver of fish… something like that. When they find him at the end, he has turned into a kind of ape. This, of course, was Huxley’s typically pessimistic comment on all this. He was a terribly negative man in many ways.

“You see, most people don’t want to be faced with the immense effort that would be entailed in actually teaching themselves how to live for a long time. Or, in deed, having to evolve in any way!
“This is a reason for my unpopularity among the English intellectuals – they’re a lazy lot of f**kers! Every single one of the bastards is f**king lazy! The English are the laziest people in the world, intellectually speaking. They’re living in a kind of cultural desert. They always admire anybody who has no talent and is modest about it! We don’t have a really intellectual tradition, no Satres, Heideggers or Goethes.

“We have Shakespeare, and Jane Austin – who describe everyday life and are very good at it, but nothing much outside that. Aldus Huxley is really a male Jane Austin, still stuck in that little ambiance of tea on the vicarage lawn and all the rest of it! This tends to summarise the English temperament.

“England has many very good things about it. One of them is that there is a great deal of freedom and you can, more or less, say what you like. We’ve never had a dictatorship. It’s quite a good environment for someone like me – I’m allowed to get on and do what I want to do, provided that I can make a living. There are no real barriers, as there would be if I had lived in Russia or Nazi Germany!

“The fact remains that I do get pretty bored, now and then, by the sheer stupidity of the English. There seems no way of making the English think. The buggers just will not think! That’s why they love John Osbourne who says in The Entertainer, ‘I don’t want to make people think, I want to make them feel.’ Well f**k it, we feel too much! Osbourne certainly does. I want to make them think. Unfortunately that’s almost impossible to do!”

ROMANTIC SERIAL

Moving from the sublime to the reviled… Your interest is not solely absorbed by those members of the human species that attain exceptional levels of intellectual and creative powers, you are also an ‘expert’ on criminals and murders – serial killers in particular…

“Ted Bundy was a highly intelligent man, one of my outsider types, who had this rather harsh background with a grandfather he greatly admired, but who was a total bully. Bundy’s mother moved away to Seattle, Tacoma, in order to get away from this family background, and what Bundy as a child wanted, was what I wanted… and what Bernard Shaw confessed to wanting: dreams about being a prince in disguise, about someone turning up and saying, ‘I’m your real father and I’m the Raja of so-and-so…’ Of course, he wanted to be adopted by an uncle who was a music professor, so all these daydreams...

“But! What you need is what I called The Strength To Dream – taking the title of my book from Bernard Shaw, who thought that every dream could be willed into reality by those who were sufficiently serious about it and whose will is strong enough. This is what I wanted to do.

“Ted Bundy did not have the strength to do that. Or rather, he was so completely shunted onto another track, by his sexual desire, that took him the wrong way. The judge who said, ‘You took the wrong road pardner,’ had absolutely got straight to the point.

“In the beginning of Ritual in the Dark, where the character goes down into the London underground and the advertising pictures of girls in their underwear he feels like a match thrown against a petrol soaked rag. The trouble with our civilization is that the level of sexual stimulation is far too high.”
It seems often that our society is very repressive, sexually, evident from the degree of censorship in films, books and comics. Yet, as you say, our advertising seems to rely heavily upon images of overt sexuality. Perhaps this is something (semi)conscious: if sexuality is routinely suppressed, then these quite blatant images in advertising become so much more potent…

“No – you see what you are suggesting by that argument is that perhaps we aught to have a far more open and sexually liberated society. Like the old jokes about Sweden, ‘Oh, that was wonderful… what’s your name?’ And that also leads to too much emphasis on sex and we’re back to Ted Bundy. The simple fact is that when you are really deeply interested in ideas, you become absorbed and transcend sex. It becomes an enjoyable diversion, but you’re not so deeply obsessed by it.

“I realise more and more, that this is a problem with our society. Robert Ardrey said in African Genesis, ‘in the jungle, sex is just a side show.’ As soon as you put animals in a zoo, they do nothing but screw, but in the wild, this just isn’t so. They are interested in more serious things, like eating and surviving… Reproducing is a part of it all, but not the dominant, all-important part.

“The problem with this civilization is that we’re all living in a zoo and as a result, sex has been raised to this intense level where we get serial killers who are obsessed by it. Who, like Ted Bundy or Ian Brady, wreck themselves and destroy their lives, and the lives of others, just because at a certain point they decide that it is worth exploring this sexual thing as far as they can possible go.”

Serial killers seem to have become the entertainment archaetype. Hannibal, and before that Freddie Kruger, are almost heroes. Do you think this indicative of a culture that is teetering on this sexual frustration? Or is it morbid fascination, or just that the serial killer has become the new ogre, the new mythic foe… It seems to be serial killers or alien abductors… or terrorists.

“I was surprised when I went into a shop, in Melbourne, that sold nothing but crime books, and they told me that most of their customers were teenage girls! To me, the reason for this seems clear. Teenage girls are in the most danger of being the next victim, and you always want to know about things that frighten you. When I was young I read books on sharks, octopus and snakes, because they struck me as creepy creatures. Like serial killers, you are not very likely to actually ever become a victim of these things, but they worry you. But what you learn almost immediately is that, in general, the usual stories you hear about them are rubbish! Conan Doyle wrote a story about some mysterious thing that kills people – their bodies are found horribly crushed. It turns out in the end to be a python. It is completely inaccurate about the behaviour of pythons!

“What we want to do is to learn about the things that frighten us by knowing about the real thing. In a sense, serial killers are less frightening than they appear to be. Someone like Henry Lee Lucas turns out to be a very mixed-up man with a strong desire for ‘salvation’, and an extremely bad habit formed when he was young, of fucking dead things. And as soon as you know that clearly, Henry Lee Lucas ceases to be this powerful, sinister serial killer.

“Dennis Neilson said of serial killers, when he was talking about The Silence Of The Lambs, that Harris had turned Hannibal Lector into a tremendously potent sinister figure and this was rubbish. He said, ‘I never felt potent in my life and that’s the reason I killed’. That’s a real insight – you see that Harris has completely distorted the serial killer.

“I think that Silence Of The Lambs is quite a good book, on the level of a fairy tale. It’s rather like Jack and the bean stalk, ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum…’ – totally unrealistic.”

Do think that these criminals, murders and serial killers might be trying to get away from their circumstances, some form of escape from the apes and the wolves – setting themselves aside from the rest of human society by committing ‘inhuman’ acts?


“You’re talking about the criminal romantic…

“To me someone like Nielson is totally uninteresting. Just as he says himself. Not a Criminal Romantic at all, just an inadequate victim of his necrophilia.”

I wonder if any of them can be seen as ‘Romantic’?

“Ian Brady, I think, was a Criminal Romantic. Ted Bundy was a Criminal Romantic. But the others, for example Richard Speck – who killed the eight nurses in Chicago – though he had the makings, so to speak, of a Criminal Romantic, he was basically just another inadequate personality like so many of these mass killers. Just a few have the idea, at the beginning, that if you do whatever you wanted to do – this is the De Sade fallacy – that, somehow, you would evolve beyond it. You would put it behind you… and stand triumphantly above these desires that no longer hold power over you.

“This doesn’t happen. What happens – and this is a very interesting and weird thing – is they get tangled, it’s like they can’t get their feet free of the net and they keep repeating the killing. The Yorkshire Ripper is a very good example of this. Now, I think there is a very good case for arguing that these people are literally possessed. Again and again these people say they are possessed by the devil. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised!”

INSIDE, OUTSIDE and THE OTHERSIDE

How firmly do you believe in spirits? You have given talks at the Society for Psychical Research...

“The answer is that I do, and it doesn’t strike me as the least bit important. The evidence seems strongly in favour of life after death. But, it’s as if you handed me some interesting piece of machinery and I asked you, ‘What’s this?’ and you tell me that it’s part of a car or a radio… I’d say, ‘Well that’s of no use to me whatever’. If I had a car that needed that part, I’d be delighted, but I haven’t. In the same way, handing me a piece of information like there is life after death, I’d think, ‘Well what can I do with this? Of what practical use is it to me?’ The answer is that it’s not.

“Although Dostoevsky said that the problem of whether we live after death is the most important question of all, to me this seems a fallacy. It would be nice to be absolutely certain that we live after death, but the real question is this confusion of the world we live in. The basic point is to try and understand it. That’s why I was so excited by chemistry when I was ten years old, it offered me a key with which to begin to understand it. I like to know things, it gives me pleasure. I feel that in a sense, I’m merely an instrument of a force that wants everyone to know things. One of my jobs, as a writer, is to digest information and process it in such a way that it becomes available to a larger number of people.”

THE CHURCH OF BOB

I think a friend of yours, Robert Anton Wilson is also very good at doing that…

“Oh, Bob is an old friend of mine, and Bob has said some very interesting things! There’s one piece that comes to mind, in his book TheIlluminati Papers, in which he describes when he began to smoke pot, while his wife was out at a feminist meeting once, and how he suddenly realised that with pot you could do the most amazing things. You could make yourself shrink, or expand until you filled the whole room. He goes on to say that later he realised that you can do this without pot. This made him terribly aware that we don’t understand anything about the powers of the mind. He talks about Freudian repressions and says that you suddenly realise that our minds are so full of these repressions, but you never notice because when you look at the external world, we edit it so quickly that we are not aware of the editing process. We are not aware that we are processing all the information. What’s more, processing it through things that we take absolutely for granted, we just accept these things as real. He says that when you do become aware of this editing process and the terrific speed at which it occurs, then you also realise that you can start re-editing things, and learn how to this more and more. It seems to me that when Bob wrote that three-page piece, he said one of most important things that any human being in the twentieth century has ever said. He put his finger right on it!

“He’s great fun, one of these rebel characters, very funny – a kind of Mark Twain. A lot of American rebels, like Vonnegut, for example, are very good at being anarchic and jibing about things, but they’re not terribly good when it comes to being creative and analytical. That’s where, I think, Robert Anton Wilson goes one phase better. He’s a very good example of what I mean by an outsider. He doesn’t make a tremendous fortune, he has to work as a journalist all the time… His books sell to a cult audience and make him a living, and he lectures around, but he is still working hard and he’s two or three years older than I am! The result, I hope, is that him and me both will make 90!” [ Editor's note: Sadly, Robert Anton Wilson has also passed away since this interview was conducted, he died on 11 January 2007, aged 75. He was outlived by Colin, who died on 5 December 2013, aged 82. ]

SERIOUSLY LIGHTWEIGHT

How do you compare your fiction and non-fiction?

“In a sense, my fiction is the ‘serious stuff’. To begin with, I thought of myself as a novelist. Ritual In The Dark took years and years to write and was the basis for The Outsider. I was writing Ritual longer before Outsider. In Ritual, I was writing about the three types of person: the hero, who is the typical intellectual outsider, feeling bewildered but pretending to be very analytical. There is the painter called Oliver Glass, who was based on Van Gogh, who is what you might call the emotional outsider. Then there is the murderer, Austin Munn, who is really based on somebody like Nijinski, who is the physical outsider. Each of them has a different way of disciplining themselves: the mind, the emotions, the body. It was when I was talking to my friend, Bill Hopkins, about this, that I began to express this idea about the three types of outsider, that I suddenly saw that I could write a book about this. So, the central chapter in The Outsider is the chapter in which I deal with T E Lawrence as the typical intellectual outsider, Van Gogh and Nijinski. These three types of outsider became the basis of the book and having taken this stuff out of Ritual and put it into another book, I lightened the load of Ritual and it became much easier to write! I had been trying to digest too much information into it.

“Ever since then, all my novels have been lightweight. I mean they’re not ‘just stories’, they are an attempt to digest extremely important information. For example, I wrote a book called Introduction To The New Existentialism, in which I talked about an idea that human beings are the victims of a kind of mind parasite that is deliberately sucking away our energies. At the same time I wrote The Mind Parasites. There’s always tended to be a novel running parallel with the ideas that interest me at a moment.

“I’m fascinated by virtual reality. I went to a conference in Japan about virtual reality – Timothy Leary was there talking about it. I think the interesting thing about the notion of virtual reality – being able to create a whole world inside your own head – really, the first creators of virtual reality were the Romantics. When Samuel Richardson invented the modern novel, in 1840, with Pamela – what he had done is invent virtual reality more than two centuries ago!”

SHAKESPEARE NEVER DID THIS!

Shamans and many ritual practices, such as visiting the other world, or astral travelling… are an ancient version of virtual reality. It seems that it is a fundamental human need to enter into, or create, these separate and virtual realities…

“The problem with ordinary reality that surrounds us is that it is filled with things that interest us and things that don’t, but mostly with things that don’t. The result is that very rarely do we perceive external reality as something that really interests us. This is why we want to visit strange places. If you are walking down a street in Hong Kong then ordinary everyday reality has taken on a higher level of interest for a short time while you are absorbing new things. The thing about a book is that writer has deliberately taken a lot of things of interest and put them between two covers. Compressed the interest, so to speak. And this was what the Romantics were doing, pushing all the interesting bits between two covers – all the bits that interested them, of course. Which involved beautiful girls, mountain landscapes, ruined castles and so on.

“This is the reason when as a child, the mere sight of a book was enough o send me into a kind of ecstasy. If I went into a room, in the house of some relatives, and I saw a book laying on a table, I headed straight for it. I wanted to know what was in it, what it was. More often than not it was some boring thing that I then didn’t want to look at. Nevertheless, this idea that you can compress meaning into books, so you create a far higher and concentrated level of meaning between the two covers has always struck me as tremendously significant – this is one of the greatest advances the human race has ever made! And when you start compressing your daydreams into books, you’ve gone higher still.

“Shakespeare never really did what H P Lovecraft did. There are horrors in Shakespeare, but he didn’t feel that there were certain things that he wanted to get out of his system and therefore he put them into Macbeth. Whereas Lovecraft, who was stuck in an extremely boring environment in Providence, quite deliberately created a hothouse environment in the mind and put it into stories. In a certain sense, Lovecraft did progress. He started off writing these weird, horrible stories… the early ones really are quite morbid. Then he got more and more imaginative as he progressed and developed. Towards the end of his life, the horror all but disappears and you get very good science fiction stories like The Shadow Out Of Time. They are not horrible any more, they’re fascinating. Lovecraft then stopped writing! He had written himself out of the horror and thought, ‘Oh, my god. I’ve nothing more to write about!’ At which point he died.

“Kierkegaard fell dead on the pavement the day after he went to the bank and withdrew the last of his money. Almost as if the unconscious mind told them to die. As if Lovecraft’s unconscious mind said, ‘Oh dear, I’ve got rid of all my morbidity that turned me into writer, so it’s time to die’. Now if he had the courage he would have said, ‘Right, I’ve put all that behind me, now let’s get on with the next stage!”

- Colin Wilson was talking with Remy Dean

A printable PDF file of the original interview, as it appeared in the first newsstand issue of The Scrawl, can be downloaded here...

Colin Wilson's autobiogtraphy, Dreaming to Some Purpose. is available at amazon.co.uk


and an obituary for Robert Anton Wilson here.

Lots more info and interviews can be found at the Colin Wilson World website.