Friday, 30 October 2015

For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow! The Joy of Horror with Ramsey Campbell…

Ramsey Campbell needs no introduction, but if you would like one have a read of this potted biography from when he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University earlier this year.

Yes, Ramsey Campbell is a horror writer - and proud of it - yet he has managed to transition from great genre kudos to writerly acclaim in the wider literary world. He has been garnered with scores of major awards, including ten British Fantasy Awards, four World Fantasy Awards, three Bram Stoker Awards, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ramsey Campbell is a prolific writer and reader...
The Scrawl is proud to present a very special Halloween treat – in this extensive interview, Ramsey Campbell talks to Remy Dean about people, places, the past, the present and generously shares some top tips that will benefit any writer… 

Remy: I grew up near Ormskirk, on the Lancashire flatlands, and the house you describe in Again seemed unnervingly familiar – I feel that I have hurried passed it on country walks, because of a disturbing reflection caught in one of its windows… Such a sense of place is a prominent part of your writing.

What usually happens – does a story come to you and then you think, ‘where shall I set this one?’ or, does visiting a place suggest the story? Either way, is this strong sense of place created ‘poetically’ or through ‘proper research’ into the past of a place and ‘location visits’?

Ramsey: “Very often the place is the seed of the tale. I believe I owe some of this perception to the great Fritz Leiber, in particular one of his earliest and most important tales, Smoke Ghost. Instead of being invaded by the supernatural, the mundane setting – forties Chicago – is now its source, and the grubby half-glimpsed spectre its genius loci.

"In my case the fruitful setting is Liverpool. It has been for forty years, ever since I wrote my first tale set there in 1965 – The Cellars, which grew out of an actual underground location in the city centre – and is still enlivening my imagination, recently in Creatures of the Pool, my ultimate Liverpool novel. That’s founded on decades of research into local traditions and history, and I’m weirdly pleased that because the process was so protracted, I no longer always recognise which bits I simply found in obscure volumes and which I made up. Since the book is to some extent about Liverpool as a pool of legends, I’m rather pleased that it has the potential to become one.

"By contrast, stories using invented settings – Moonwell, Goodmanswood, and so on – tend to build their locations out of my memories. I’m intrigued you found the house in Again recognisable. In fact that tale came out of an idea – my having, as a child, once had to climb in a window of the house when my mother left her keys inside... and then the kind of train of thought we writers have, wondering what might happen if an adult found himself in the same situation. The Wirral Way was just a convenient spot to start from."

You may have invented the urban gothic genre, consolidated in the early 1980s by the likes of Clive Barker, and you both hail from Merseyside – was there a scene (I mean a literary one) based in Liverpool back then that you both were part of?

"Well, I rather think I was writing that kind of tale more than a decade earlier. The Cellars was first published in 1967, and Cold Print not long after. They typify a tendency in my tales to explore the darker areas of city life. Again, I don’t think my stuff gets much more urban or Gothic than The Face That Must Die from 1977.

"Clive – well, I gave a talk on horror to the sixth form at his school back in the early seventies, and he was in the audience. He cites it as a formative experience – meeting someone who actually did the kind of thing he wanted to do for a living. The Liverpool literary scene back then mostly involved poets, and I wasn’t part of it, while Clive was already involved in the theatre, writing and directing friends. All that said, I do think Liverpool has produced a lot of creativity in all sorts of fields, and Clive and Pete Atkins and I were the dark trio it set loose on the world."

The English Eerie is a term being used quite a lot recently (as an example see Adam Scovell’s magnificent weblog, Celluloid Wicker Man). I would say that you are the leading contemporary proponent of this sub-genre - with M R James sowing the first seeds. So, what do you think are its defining components and what marks it aside from the Gothic? Also, with your evident interest in and love for Lovecraft and Poe, what do you think differentiates the American Eerie?

"Well, thank you! I suppose it involves more of the spectral or fantastic than the Gothic generally does - after all, one of the great modern Gothic trilogies is Peake’s Gormenghast series, which involves nothing actually fantastic, though much that is grotesque. As to national differences – I really don’t know...

"In a way Poe and Le Fanu were similar, both refining the Gothic novel and concentrating the uncanny and fantastic elements while also scrutinising the psychological. The English tended towards the mystical and numinous for a while – Machen, Blackwood – but then of course Lovecraft united that tradition with the American, and later Leiber was to bring the unification up to date. Indeed, later writers such as T E D Klein do."

Why do you think English-language cinema shies away from producing your material for the big screen? I am truly surprised your stories are not continually optioned by British indie film producers – so why are the only two major adaptations Spanish language? With Guillermo del Toro making movies like The Orphanage, Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peakhas Spain finally hijacked the Gothick genre?

Los Sin Nombre aka The Nameless - Spanish film adaptation
"Well, there are English-language options on some of my work, and I’m hoping they’ll prove fruitful. The first Spanish film led to the second – I was in Madrid helping to promote Los Sin Nombre on a radio show and talked about my new book, which the producers immediately wanted to buy. Sadly, they bought the first submitted draft to develop, and it needed a great deal of work, which I put in on the novel while another writer did so for the film.

"I don’t know that Spain has snaffled the field for ever. There’s some pretty fine work being made in Britain and America and elsewhere."

Drawing on your experience as a film critic – which of your own stories would you most want to see adapted for cinema? Who would be in that ‘dream’ cast and crew?

"Needing Ghosts often strikes me as the basis for a disconcerting film, as does The Grin of the Dark. But who would be in the films or make them I couldn’t say, though I do dream of David Lynch."

Whilst we are on the subject of films, what recent films (horror / dark fantasy /  other) would you suggest for my watch list?

"It Follows, Kill List, The Borderlands, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, Absentia, Oculus… those have all kept my enthusiasm for disquieting horror alive. Outside the field as it’s generally perceived, Paddington - which is sometimes unexpectedly reminiscent of Wes Anderson, whose films I’ve also grown fond of, Certified Copy and almost anything else by Kiarostami that I’ve seen - especially Shirin, The Turin Horse, Tu N’avais Encore Rien Vu - which I admit I liked far more than Resnais’ next film, his last, Amour - Haneke, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I Wish…"

Probably my favourite of your books in my collection is the edition of Alone with the Horrors, featuring illustrations by J K PotterI believe he has repeatedly produced work inspired by your stories and their locations – did you have any creative input on this and what do you think of those graphic representations?

Essential Ramsey Campbell reading - with illustrations by J K Potter
"No indeed – I trusted J K to follow his own remarkable instincts, and I’m delighted I did. I did show him around locations I’d used, and so his image for The Companion was based on the fairground that had suggested the tale, though the park shelter from Mackintosh Willy had, sadly, been demolished. By contrast, his illustrations for The Face That Must Die were made long before I took him to the actual place, but I for one couldn’t tell. His images for The Influence actually star our daughter, on whom Rowan in the tale was to some extent based, and my wife, Jenny, shows up cradling her."

Have you, or would you, consider writing specifically for a word-based visual medium, such as scripts for graphic novels or teleplays?

"Never have, except for a horror comic I wrote many years ago, which Barry Forshaw drew. We sent it to Warren Comics, but to no avail, and it has vanished into limbo. I remain to be tempted."

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

"I’m here at my desk every morning I’m at home - Christmas and my birthday too - usually in time to see the dawn. Certainly, I’ll be working on the first draft of a tale about six in the morning, when I’m generally most creative.

"One thing I’ve learned in fifty years as a writer is always to compose the first sentences before I sit down to write. I generally work until late morning on a first draft, sometimes later. If we go away the tale in progress goes with me, and when I’m out I always carry notebooks – usually one for the novel in progress or next to be written, another for more general ideas.

"I was also lucky to learn very early in my career – even before August Derleth sent me editorial advice – to enjoy rewriting. These days I do more of it than ever. Absolutely everything in a first draft has to justify itself to me to make the final version, which is pretty nearly always significantly shorter than the first one - anything up to twenty per cent shorter, I’d estimate. The first drafts of fiction are always longhand - with the solitary exception of A Street Was Chosen, written in the form of an experimental report, which I couldn’t write except on the computer - and the rewrites are at the keyboard.

Is there a difference in approach to writing a novel and a short story?

"My approach to both is pretty instinctive, eschewing any kind of prepared synopsis and trusting to my sense that I’ve gathered enough material to get started. I’d much rather the tale grew of itself and surprised me. I would say novels are more likely to do the latter, and gain more energy from the time they take to write."

You have mentioned Lovecraft a few times already, my favourite of his tales would be Dreams in the Witch House… What would be your favourite Lovecraft story?

"The Colour Out of Space. For me it finds the perfect symbol to convey his sense of the alienness and awesome vastness of the universe, even more eloquently than his suggestive mythos. I analysed its style and structure at length - along with other Lovecraft tales - in an essay in Ra Page’s critical anthology Morphologies."

What is it about Lovecraft that inspires respected authors in their own right, such as yourself, to ‘write in the style of’?

"In my case – that is, in my recent attempts, not my slavish youthful bids at imitation – his extraordinary care with language, his use of the precise voice at the particular point in the narrative to convey what he wants to convey, his modulation of style within a single work, his eloquent structure, the gradual accretion of telling detail. There’s a great deal to learn from without modelling one’s work too closely on it."

OK, back to cinema – what films do you think have best captured that Lovecraftian vibe, so far?

"For me no film has come closer to Lovecraft’s ambitions for supernatural horror than The Blair Witch Project. In its documentary realism, its use of hints and allusions to suggest horrors vaster and more terrible than are ever shown, and the psychological authenticity with which the characters react to their plight, it virtually sums up his rules for the genre. That said, I also admire the H P Lovecraft Historical Society’s films of two of his tales, made in the style they might have had of they’d been filmed in the years the originals were published."

What was the first book you can remember reading that really carried you off into its world and left an impression on you?

The horror of Rupert...
 (cover of the 1947 annual)
"Well, if we discount a Rupert Bear annual I seem to have read in late 1947 - one tale therein was my first experience of sheer supernatural dread - it was probably George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, which proved pretty well as terrifying when I was five or so. I believe that despite being aimed at children, both employ the technique of showing enough to suggest far worse – certainly to me."

Who have been your favourite writers and what did you learn from them?

"Lovecraft – see my ‘thumbnail’ analysis above – and M R James, specifically his ability to convey more terror in a single glancing phrase or sentence than most writers achieve in a paragraph. Graham Greene was certainly an influence in terms of social realism and terse keen imagery, and Nabokov – not just Lolita, though that was my introduction to his work – was a revelation: his joy in language, his discovery of comedy in the unlikeliest places, his use of words to make you look afresh. And Thomas Hinde for comedy of paranoia."

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

"I’m not the first to say that the most important thing for a writer to do is to write, but I’ll add that you should work on whatever you’re writing every day until it’s finished; to do otherwise is to court writer’s block, every blank day adding to the hurdle that prevents you from getting back into the story and making the task seem more impossible. An example of this is my story Litter, where six months elapsed between my first day’s work and my return to the story, which I took up by writing the line 'That’s how he enters the story, or this is.' I should have rewritten the story to improve its shape, of course.

"Now I rewrite more and more severely, and take great pleasure in cutting thousands of words out of first drafts; I think that’s a pleasure worth learning as early as possible in one’s career, not least because realising one can do it helps one relax into writing the first draft, where it’s better to have too much material for later shaping than not enough. Learning to relax enough with the technique of writing novels comes easier to some than others; you may feel you need to plot a novel in advance - maybe all the way to breaking it down into chapter synopses - before you begin the first chapter, but it’s worth trying to regard the synopsis merely as a safety net once you begin writing, trying to let the novel develop itself as it takes on more life. I did that first in Incarnate, and since then I’ve avoided plotting or constructing too far ahead, trying to know only as much as I need to know to start writing and head in the right direction. It can be fearsome to find yourself losing your way halfway through a novel, all by yourself in the unknown, but I find that the solutions are usually somewhere in what you’ve already written, and I can tell you that the bad days are worth the days when you feel the novel come to life.

"I’m still stressing the arduousness, but let me see if I can pass on some tricks I’ve learned. We all have an optimum period of creativity each day, and it’s worth beginning work then if you possibly can. Mine is from about seven in the morning until noon or so. It’s easy to get distracted away from your work, but music may help; my desk is between the speakers of the hi-fi on which I play compact discs - which last longer than records and keep me there longer - of all sorts of music from Monteverdi onwards. Steve King uses rock, Peter Straub jazz.

"Don’t be too eager to feel you’ve exhausted your creative energy for the day, but if you sense you’re close to doing so, then don’t squeeze yourself dry: better to know what the next paragraph is going to be and start with that next time. Scribble down a rough version of it rather than risk forgetting it. Always have a rough idea of your first paragraph before you sit down to write, and then you won’t be trapped into fearing the blank page. If you must take a day or more out from a story, break off before the end of a scene or a chapter, to give yourself some impetus when you return.

"Always carry a notebook for ideas, glimpses, overheard dialogue, details of what you’re about to write, developments of work in progress. If an idea or something larger refuses to be developed, try altering the viewpoint or even the form: if it won’t grow as a short story, it may be a poem. Sometimes two apparently unproductive ideas may be cross-fertilised to give you a story. Then again, you may not be ready technically or emotionally to deal with an idea, and it can improve with waiting.

"What else can I tell you? Only to write. Surprise us, astonish us. Enjoy your work. Above all, don’t despair. The frustration you will inevitably experience sometimes, the feeling that you don’t know how to write, may be the birth pangs of something genuinely new. I know I still suffer that experience every time I write a story. Believe me, it’s preferable to playing it safe with a formula."

Thank you for giving such a considered and full answer there, full of actual, practical advice for any writer! It certainly seems to have kept you in good stead… I lose count of how many books you have written – in excess of 30 novels and 20 or so collections of short stories - so… if I’d never read anything by Ramsey Campbell – where should I start?

"Since you have, I think you should say. Let’s see if I agree with your choices."

My recommendation as a starting point is always Alone With The Horrors - that's the one I lend out to friends to get them on the road to Ramsey country. Possibly because it is one of the first books of yours I read myself, and also because I do think that you are a master of the short story form and this is a great showcase of 'essential Ramsey Campbell' material. Also the Waking Nightmares collection... As for novels - and I must admit that I have not read them all, then probably Incarnate for its inexorable immersiveness(?)...  and Ancient Images for the evocative and effectively chilling milieu...

...what do you say to that?

the funny side of paranoia...
"Those choices sound good to me, Jeremy. That said, I might add Needing Ghosts and The Grin of the Dark to represent my comedy of paranoia."

Finally, how will you be celebrating Halloween / Samhain?

"In no way at all, though I’ll be at a convention."

Well, have a good one! Thank you very much for such a stimulating interview and for the well-considered full answers to my questions.

For more info and up-dates check out the official Ramsey Campbell weblog.

If you are somewhat serious and scholarly, you could access the Ramsey Campbell archive, held at Liverpool University...

- Thank you Ramsey Campbell!

interview by Remy Dean

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Books of the Laws

In the run-up to Halloween, UK horror maestro, Stephen ‘Midnight Man’ Laws, talks to Remy Dean about horror, music, being a 'nice' Northerner… and sharing secrets.

Stephen Laws plays 'The Stranger' in The Secret
(photograph copyright Hydra X Productions)
If you know anything about the UK horror scene, Stephen Laws will be a familiar name, having written numerous short stories and a dozen novels within the genre. He is one of the definitive authors of the Industrial Gothic sub-genre and is amongst a handful of writers that have shaped the form of contemporary horror literature.

Stephen Laws gives the horror reader what they want, and often a little extra that they may not have expected. Genres rely on repetition - of themes and scenarios - laced with innovation and challenge. Unlike some contemporary authors, who seem embarrassed to be writing in a genre, Laws relishes the conventions of horror and is not one to shy away from big, satisfyingly imaginative climaxes. His love for classic Hammer films is palpable and scenarios that may have come across as ‘silly’ in the hands of lesser writers remain effectively thrilling when you have been sucked into the fully fleshed-out mythos of one his stories. It is an achievement that few contemporary writers can match – perhaps shared by the likes of Graham Masterton, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell – masters of the suspension of disbelief, capable of immersing their readers in a story and for a while making them accept the reality of a challenging fiction, as if it were a real world… like a dream… or a nightmare.

When researching what Stephen Laws has been up to lately, I came across a rather cool short film adaptation of his short story, The Secret. YouTube presents a relatively new medium for story-tellers to reach new and potentially vast audiences with simple-yet-effective, low-budget videos. A great transmedia way to tell a story and make it accessible – I asked how it came about and if this a method of storytelling that he will be returning to?

Stephen Laws explained, “The Secret came about as a result of meeting with independent film-makers Andrew Leckonby and John Raine (Hydra-X Productions) after they’d returned from a visit to the Cannes Film Festival. They’d made a series of shorts and were trying to attract funding for a full feature. They were also Stephen Laws fans and we got on really well together.

"They bought the rights to one of my stories, The Fractured Man and tried to attract funding to develop it as a film; part of which entailed creating another short movie based on the characters in that story – entitled Schism, later re-titled to Fractured Boy.

“Frustrated at the usual, endless round of financial meetings trying to drum up finance, producer/director Andy was keen to make something more substantial, so I suggested The Secret which had been anthologised several times, and is in my collection The Midnight Man - published by Samhain. But only, on my insistence, if it was done in a black-and-white ‘retro’ style, reminiscent of the 1940’s Val Lewton movies."

Stephen Laws acting opposite John Raine in The Secret
(photograph copyright Hydra X Productions)
“I adapted the story into a short screenplay and pressed on with other work while Andy and John began to set up the production. After a long while, they came back to me and said – ‘Look, you wrote the story and the screenplay. Why don’t you play one of the main parts?’ So that’s how it came about."

Stephen is no stranger to the acting game…

"I’d done bits and pieces over the years, including a stint in the main role of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound years ago at Wallsend’s Buddle Arts Centre. Hardly a claim to thesp-fame."

The location, Byker in Newcastle, used for filming The Secret, has a personal connection and may have brought back memories…

“They hired The Cumberland Arms pub for a week with filming taking place between closing time and dawn the next day. The Laws family lived in a terraced house just behind that pub back in the fifties and sixties – and it still looks the same as it did when my Dad had his Sunday pint there back in the day."

Although the video is very watchable and professional, I am guessing it was very much a low-budget affair?

“It was a very low-budget production. Micro-budget, really. The story, screenplay and notes on the writing all appear in The Midnight Man short story collection. So The Secret came about as an interesting happenstance. A one-off really. Andy sadly died last year, shortly after placing trailers and the short itself on Youtube for what was intended to be a short period. They’re still there if anyone wants to see them."

Yes please - and here is The Secret:

So, which of his other stories would he most like to see developed for the big-budget big-screen?

“All of them! One of the most frustrating things over the years for me has been the number of times that my novels have been optioned for filming, rights have been paid for, screenplays written and nothing has come of it. All part of the game in the industry, of course. But frustrating."

The first Stephen Laws book that I read was Ghost Train, which was his first published novel in 1985. Being a Jethro Tull ‘completist’, I was attracted to it by the lyrics for Locomotive Breath which were quoted in full as part of the frontice. I felt the story was in the tradition of Quatermass, with modern industrial age technology set on a collision course with ancient powers, eventually merging in a runaway fusion of metal and flesh that took the reader right to the end of the line. I asked Stephen about his love of music and how he used it as part of his writing method.

He recounted how music has played a big part in his life, in general, and in his writing, in particular. From an early love of the rousing film soundtracks for big action films he saw in the cinema as a child and the Hammer film music - forever merged with his formative experiences of the Horror genre - to his own piano playing, music has been an integral component of his creativity… Sometimes, when writing a piece, he will think of a sequence or character in a film that shares a resonance and play that section of the movie theme to evoke a suitable mood. He has already explained this process in more detail at: The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog.

Ghost Train - All aboard for the Stephen Laws ride!
What was the first book that Stephen can remember reading that really carried him off into its world and left a lasting impression?

"Probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. But at around the same time, when I was perhaps nine years old and had just joined Byker Library, I was being equally thrilled by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard – and, importantly, Nigel Kneale."

What authors have been his enduring favourites and what has he learnt from them?

"My God, where do I start? Richard Matheson, Nigel Kneale, Peter Straub, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Stoker, Wells, Robert McCammon, the esteemed Mr Campbell, Dean Koontz, John Farris etc... This is a very long list and could go on forever!

""I’ve learned everything I know about writing from their writing, and my love of it."

Who or what, if anything, excites Stephen about the British horror scene right now?

"I’ve been more excited in recent years by emerging British writers than ever before. For a while, I became a little disillusioned by the tidal wave of self-publishing on the internet that led to very poor work indeed. But there’s such a long list of British talent now that I’d feel rotten giving a list that might leave someone out! It’s certainly in a very exciting situation."

People speak of a North-South devide and I wonder if Stephen perceives such a division in the quantity of quality imaginative fiction (from Robert Louis Stevenson to Iain Banks… and his contemporaries such as Ramsey Campbell, etc.) and the answer is 'no'...

"I’m not aware of a north-south divide on the lines you suggest. Quality is quality, and I’ve not perceived a geographical split here."

Has living ‘Oop North’ had any effect on his own writing, though?

“I do think that ‘The North’ has had an effect on my writing... I’ve been told that there’s a ‘northern’ style in my means of expression and I’m sure that being a Northerner, my character was forged here and my creative work is reflected in some way. There’s a staccato-rhythm style to some clipped Geordie dialect which lends itself well to what you might call ‘hard-boiled’ – and although I hadn’t been aware of its use in Spectre, I was chuffed to have it pointed out to me after the event."

Jethro Tull are often labelled as folk-rock and there has been a recent increase in the folk-horror sub-genre.I am interested to know if he wold consider at least some of his work - The Wyrm comes to mind - to be ‘folk-horror’, and if so, what he sees as defining features of the genre?

“I suppose you could say that The Wyrm is ‘folk-horror’, but when it was published, it was regarded more as something in the Lovecraft/Cthulthu Mythos style – which I was happy for people to assume, although that was not my intention. You ask me to define ‘folk-horror’ but I’m not sure that I can, since it’s not a genre of which I’ve been consciously aware of, or working in. For years, I considered that I was working in a style that I categorised as ‘Industrial Gothic’."

One thing I have noticed is that horror writers – mostly - are lovely, down-to-earth people (and through my career as a rock journalist I found the same to be true of punk and metal bands – mostly). Those who the ‘wider society’ may view as ‘extreme’ seem to be the most well-balanced and happy folk there are. (I suppose horror is the heavy metal of literature.) I wonder if, through experiences of meeting and mixing with fellow horror writers at conventions, he may concur with this assumption?

“We’re not nice. It’s all a big trick. We’re secretly thoroughly evil, and the way we trap you is to pretend that we’re nice. Just before we strike,,."

"It’s interesting what you say about punk and metal bands – and the fact that horror writers are down-to-earth, lovely people. The fact of the matter is that in all the time I’ve been a published horror writer, I’ve only ever come across two writers who were unpleasant personalities – and no, I’m not going to say who they are. But there’s a clue in that last sentence, because I said ‘are’ rather than ‘were’.

"So why are writers who revel in horror, and go out of their way to disturb us, so nice? Over the years there’s been an over-analysis of why writers who revel in horror are so ‘nice’, tied in with what ‘horror’ actually is – what purpose, if any, that it serves in the writing and reading. I’ve been guilty in indulging in that over-analysis myself. The ‘niceness’ suggests that we’ve come to terms with the horror in our souls. Not so. Decades ago, I was interviewed in a magazine that called me ‘The Therapist of Horror’. Some truth in that, I think.

"Just last year at a World Fantasy Convention and during a panel debate on ‘What is Horror?’ Ramsey Campbell - a very dear friend, declared his disgust at the concept of horror being ‘therapy’. I twitched, but took that slap – and have thought in depth about it since. He’s right and wrong. I’m wrong and right. Pick the bones out of that."

Why do we like to be ‘disturbed’? Where is the beauty in horror?

"Well, this ties-in with what I just said - the analysis of ‘horror’, what it is and why it’s attractive. I go back to something I said years ago: “People like to be frightened for fun because they don’t like to be frightened for real”. There’s a line from my first novel, Ghost Train, where ‘The Ghost Train Man’ says: 'You paid to come in, didn’t you? You wanted to be scared'. The key word here is – danger. Horror literature is dangerous literature. While you’re reading it – if it’s written well, and you’re drawn in – it can be dangerous both physically, philosophically, emotionally and morally. It’s dangerous in that it can temporarily skew you while you’re turning the pages. It can make your heart pound, your blood race. Then you can shut the book and you’re back home safe again.

"Beauty in horror? Yes, of course – but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?"

His time has come - Stephen Laws is The Midnight Man
Does he subscribe to a writing ritual, regimen or a tried-and-tested process?

"I worked nine-to-five in local government before I became a full time writer. So my writing during those pre-full-time years was done - usually - after nine at night, and into the early hours. That’s stuck with me, and is the reason for the title of my short story collection: The Midnight Man. That’s always been my best time. But when I’m working to a deadline and I’ve outlined – and things are going well - it can be any time of the night and day. But everyone will have a different routine.

"There’s no one way. Just make sure you apply bum to seat, fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and write."

Presumably, he has been taking your own advice, so what can we look forward to, from Stephen Laws, in the near future?

"A bunch of short stories will be creeping out in various anthologies, I’m finishing a novella and returning to a novel project that I’d abandoned some time ago. I’m once again in negotiation on a film adaptation of one of my novels...

"I'm currently compiling 25 years of genre celebrity interviews that I've undertaken at events like the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films, together with inside stories and personal reminiscences - to be titled The Laws of Horror."

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

"Read. If you’re not reading and enjoying – you can’t possibly be a writer. I’ve been shocked to come across would-be writers who just don’t read. Incredible, I know – but true. Also, I’d thoroughly recommend looking at older work. When I need some revitalisation, I go back to the Old Masters and read them again. For new would-be writers, I’d recommend picking up some of the great old novels and paperback collections like The Pan Book of Horror Stories."

Thank you, Stephen Laws ...just a couple of final questions: 

The Secret is set in a pub – what is your ‘tipple’ of choice?

Bell’s whisky.

…and how do you celebrate Halloween / Samhain?

"We don’t. We just have a bowl of sweets ready for the kids who come trick or treating. And a cattle prod."

Well, as a Halloween bonus, you can watch Fractured Boy below, though it works equally well as a Christmas treat! Be warned, though - Viewer Discretion required as the video is full-on horror tainted with the blackest of humour:

For more info and up-dates check out Stephen Laws' official weblog

Most of Stephen Laws works are now available as Kindle editions at amazon

Thank you Stephen Laws!

Stephen Laws was interviewed by Remy Dean

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Peter David, Superhero Saviour!

Marvel maestro, Peter David talks to Remy Dean about the changing perception of comics, from throwaway kidstuff to literary award-winning genre, from subculture geek fodder to surefire box-office ammunition, from experimental indie titles to supersafe superheroes...

Hulk and Spiderman are now super-huge superhero franchises. But if it was not for Peter David’s penmanship, Hulk and – to a lesser extent, perhaps – Spidey may not have been in the running to be re-invented as the big screen cash-cows we all know and love today. They were both ‘flagging’ series when Peter David got to write for them early in his comic career back in the 1980s… and on both counts his inventive story arcs re-vitalised the titles and attracted fresh readers to the marvellous world of Marvel. 

Peter David rapidly earned a reputation as being a prolific ‘writer of stuff’ (as he describes himself) and has remained a fan favourite, because he writes like a fan who can write - with knowledge, enthusiasm and sensitivity to the characters and the worlds they inhabit. He has a flair for making potentially ridiculous characters emotionally engaging, with real weaknesses to counterbalance their unreal strengths. Real world issues are often paralleled in in his stories and his characters have to deal with everyday problems as well as more Olympian conflicts…

Peter David - Comic Convention regular
(picture credit: Luigi Novi)
Having been a major proponent of the comic genre for a long time, you must have seen the industry - and perception of comics - change a great deal, from being ‘for the kids’ to becoming a respected literary form... What or when do you see as the ‘watershed’ for this change?

“My guess would be the rise of the direct market. Once upon a time, comics were only available in ‘mom and pop’ shops and 7/11s. The rise of the direct market and the development of comic book stores not only gave rise to an older audience, but gave them a place where they could congregate and interact with other fans. This caused the audience to skew older, and as that happened, publishers began seeking projects that would appeal to older readers. As a result of that audience growth, we got Maus, and Watchmen, and Dark Knight Returns - all the various projects that appealed to the 18 and up crowd.”

As you say, Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a ground-breaker in dealing with issues and 'heavy' subject matter in the comic format. What wider issues are important to you - what gets you 'fired up' - and how do you tackle them?

“Free speech is a particular sticking point. It particularly irritates me when people who proclaim that they are liberals try to censor others in the name of political correctness. I find that even more offensive than when conservatives do it. At least conservatives are honest. They declare, ‘We want to stop this talk because we find it offensive.’  Liberals say, ‘We want to stop this talk because we're worried other people will find it offensive.’ Which is crap:  the fact is that they feel the same way conservatives do, but they're being dishonest about it. I've written both comic book stories and also columns about it.”

OK, so my literary snob pal admits Maus is worthy and has ‘literary merit’, and I can get them to look at The Arrival, and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, even From Hell… but superhero comics? Guys in leotards, big green freaks with massive muscles, men flying about wearing metal suits! How can I convince them to give that a try? (This question is asked with the healthy tone of British irony!)

“Well, I hear tell that some British guy wrote a book called Watchmen that a lot of people seem to like. And Frank Miller wrote Dark Knight. They could try those. Plus anything of mine."

Of course the scale and scope of the superhero universe is akin to the Greek Myths – from where some of the very first stories and heroes were born. I was recently watching a lecture-talk given by Stewart Lee where he talks about leaving comics behind with his childhood because he did not perceive them as ‘grown-up’ things to read, then rediscovering the format through coming across a story cycle of the Hulk written by you - respected by many as the finest Hulk stories since those of Stan Lee. Why did you want to write comics as an adult? 

“I wanted to write comic books as a kid and as a teen, so why wouldn't I want to write them as an adult?  It's like asking an astronaut, ‘Why did you become an astronaut?’  Why?  Because every kid wants to be an astronaut. Just like tons of kids want to make comic books their lives. It's just that some of us manage to do so …and some of us don't, and consequently show up on the Internet and bitch about the people who made it.”

I imagine you grew up reading comics in the second superhero revival of the 1960s… what is your earliest comic book memory and what was the first time a comic book really carried you off into another world?

“I first discovered comic books in my local barber shop, actually. They had the Harvey Comics for kids to read while we were waiting. That's where I first met Casper and Wendy. I knew so little about comic books that when Casper turned into dotted lines, I thought it was a participation thing where you were supposed to take a pencil and connect them - I had no clue that it meant he was invisible. My first superhero comics were Superman - Action Comics, and that extended from my love for the George Reeves Superman TV series. Every episode would end with the announcer saying, ‘Superman is based on the character appearing in Superman magazines.’  And I thought, ‘There are magazines?’ So I went to my local magazine store and sought them out.”

An old Superman story - from the 1960s
What do you think of the current explosion of the Superhero genre, and the huge-budget cinema adaptations?

“When I was a kid, it was all the stuff of fantasy. Hollywood FX couldn't possibly live up to the requirements of superhero films. I mean, hell, we went nuts with the - by today's standards - crummy flying effects in Superman. The growth of the genre has been amazing. The only downside is that the expectations have risen as well. You get films like Green Lantern which really weren't that bad and the fans hate them. Does nobody remember the DC live action TV shows from the seventies? Those were awful!”

Movies adapted from comics are currently the biggest genre – the sales of related titles must reflect this – from your point of view within it, how has the perception of the comics industry changed in the last couple of years?

“You proceed from a false premise:  the sales of the comics don't relate at all. Millions upon millions of people see movies. With a comic, these days if you're over 100,000 you're doing incredibly well. Yes, we get some PR boost, I suppose, but we're not selling millions of copies of Guardians of the Galaxy, no matter how well the movies do.”

Has this had any effect on the attitude of the comics publishing world? Has it pushed Marvel/DC superhero format to the forefront at the expense of indie and less mainstream comics? Or do you find the industry thrives throughout now as a result? In other words are publishers putting more money into the successful superhero genre and less into the new, cult and unusual ideas?

“Publishers put money into what sells. Untested and unusual ideas don't sell, at least not to Marvel readers. Heavily character driven stories don't sell. What sells for the most part are things tying into events. As much as readers may piss and moan about it, that's what they buy. Does that mean Marvel will never be experimental? Of course not. But the expectations for such projects are pretty low.”

What unlikely comic would you love to see given the blockbuster treatment?

Fallen Angel. But that's probably just me.”

Fallen Angel created by Peter David
with artist David Lopez
Fallen Angel is a character created and owned by you, and you have written a great many solo works, but the majority of your writing seems to be working with characters and scenarios devised by others – what do you enjoy about this challenge that keeps you coming back for more? 

“Most of my solo projects are in novels. That's one of the advantages of having ties to various venues outside of comics. I have a great deal of fun contributing to the vast tapestry that is the Marvel universe. It's nice to be a party of something that is bigger than yourself."

What do you think are the positives and negatives of both working alone on a project and collaborating with others?

“The positive is that it's the purest form that your story can take. There's you, the reader, and the story and nothing else. So you get all the credit. The downside is that you also get all the blame. The advantage of collaboration is that, if you have a quality artist, that artist can elevate the story to something far beyond what you are capable of attaining on your own."

Writing novel-style fiction and writing for teleplays, video games and comic scripts must use very different ‘skill-sets’. How does your approach differ in these varied formats? And what aspects remain constant?

“It doesn't really involve different skill sets. It's like saying to someone who's working out, ‘Wow, first you lift the weights overhead and now you're pushing weights with your feet!  How do you do that?’  You're just using different muscles. The only difference is the format in which you're writing.”

Do you have an established writing method or ‘ritual’?

“I sit and work.”

Who did you learn from - who are your writerly heroes and heroines?

Stan Lee, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King...all of whom are now friends of mine.”

What comics are you currently enjoying, and would recommend?

“I like a lot of stuff that Marvel puts out. I also enjoyed Kick-Ass and I'm enjoying Jupiter's Legacy."

You are so prolific, so you may have to be selective here, but what up-coming Peter David projects can we look forward to in the near future?

“I'm working on some Star Trek: New Frontier novellas, so it's great to be back in that venue. I'm working on various miniseries for Marvel... I'm also working on a project with Colleen Doran..."

I often wind up an interview by asking for any ‘top tips’ - in this case for the aspiring writer of comics - but you have already written an entire book on the subject! So, please feel free to share any ‘in-a-nut-shell’ pearls of wisdom that have helped sustain you in your career…

 “Read more than you write... and read my book.”

- Thank you Peter David!

Peter David re-invents the Marvel Universe
For 2015, Peter David is re-inventing the Marvel Universe in his Secret Wars 2099 series for Marvel, re-working iconic Avengers characters again, such as Spiderman, Captain America… and it may all turn out to be a little Strange… (as in the Sorceress – that was almost an in joke, for the in-crowd)

Keep up with Peter David news at his official website.

...and find out about new titles at the Marvel website.

Peter David was talking with Remy Dean

Thursday, 12 March 2015

That interview with Malcolm Pryce

... but which title should we go with? 

'Aberystwyth Now' / 'The King of Aberystwyth' / 'Aber’s Greatest Hits'... 

In this  revealing, entertaining and exclusive interview for The Scrawl, Malcolm Pryce, author of the six Louie Knight novels to date - aka The Aberystwyth Books - talks with Jane Williams about how he writes such inventive and surprising stories... about how he has made the Welsh Seaside Noir genre his own... about ice cream, hearing voices, and being - certainly not 'bonkers', but perhaps - 'crackers'?

Malcolm Pryce - the 'Welsh Wizard of seaside-noir-meta-fiction... 
Did you really start writing the Aberystwyth books because you heard a disembodied voice tell you to? Because I believed it!

The disembodied voice helped give shape to a project that had been gestating for a while. I was staying with a girl in the Philippines, in a place so remote the Lonely Planet warned you not to go there. I didn’t realise this until later.

She lived in a stone-age village without electricity or running water, or even glass windows, and while we were there, a cyclone arrived, forcing us to remain for a week or so. News spread that there was an ‘Amerikano’ in the village and for the next few days groups of people from far and wide would arrive to stare at me. First they would hand over a present consisting of a cream cracker wrapped in newspaper. It’s quite hard eating cream crackers without butter or cheese, but of course since it’s a gift you have to do it. Then they would stare at me for hours on end, the monotony broken only when another group from even further afield would turn up with some more cream crackers. Being stared at in this fashion is what is known as White Torture, or no-touch-torture, devised by the Communist Chinese interrogators during the Korean War. It can break a man within hours and leave him in state of total spiritual collapse. I don’t think the Koreans used cream crackers though. That was the bit that broke my spirit and awoke the disembodied voice, the one that said the talismanic words, ‘It’s Aberystwyth Jim, but not as we know it.’ Sometimes I wonder if the Philippinos were really coming because they had heard there was a white man in the village who could eat dry cream crackers.

Do people - Welsh ones, or ‘foreigners’ - really take offence at how you talk about Aberystwyth… Because I for one think that your local references and colloquialisms are absolutely genius. One of my favourite examples of this is from your first book the reference you make to ‘Ffestiniog Chardonnay’. I think that you have to be a local to realise how funny that joke is. Oh, and also the quote about how, “Mrs Pugh from Ynyslas had once famously had a rent rebate because the bells (of Cantref y Gwaelod) had kept her awake all night” - there are a few ‘old dears’ that I know who would actually think that was a great idea.

If anything, I think that I can read a great deal of love and understanding about Welsh society, history and the strange characters (weirdos) that live here (I am including myself as one of the weirdos).

Apart from famously being arrested for sedition by the Mayor of Aberystwyth, I haven’t really been confronted by angry critics, not been confronted by any stone-throwing mobs or anything. You are quite right, the books are part love poem to Aberystwyth and homage to the lost ‘craptasticness’ of the British seaside holiday. They are not piss-takes at all in my view, there would be little point wasting the precious few years we get on this earth doing something that was nothing more than that. Instead, the characters, though they live in an absurd universe, are real, with real beating feeling hearts. Just like us. They take the world seriously and that gives it, in my view, a genuine emotional core.

Did where you wrote the books have an effect on your stories or plot lines?

Only in the limited sense that actually being in Aberystwyth is inimical to the task of writing about the place because it gets in the way. Clearly my version is a parallel universe version that attaches to the real one at various geographical locations like the Pier, or the famous Stryd-y-Popty, but floats free of it in other respects. The real one is a bit drab really and it is better to consult the version lying in the ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, which I think is more faithful to the spirit - if not reality - of Aberystwyth.

...a 'love poem' to Aberystwyth
I think it was Hemingway who said you can only write about a place after you have left it. Draft one of Aberystwyth Mon Amour really was written on a cargo ship bound for South America (I was a fare paying passenger, one of three), and the rest were written in Bangkok, where I lived for seven years and scrivened from dawn to dusk, tirelessly chronicling the moral turpitude of the people of Aberystwyth.

If I was an A Level English teacher (the aspirational musings of a dyslexic potter), I would ask my class about possible recurrent themes within your books. The main themes that I have picked up on is ‘identity’ and self-reinvention.

Discus (tee hee) Discuss...

To be honest, I’m probably not the person best placed to answer questions like this. Some time ago now, I started getting emails from students at Cardiff university asking similar sorts of questions. It seemed there was a course on detective fiction being run there and my books were on it. I was quite surprised to discover this but, having always longed for an academic qualification after my name, I decided to enrol on the course incognito, thinking it should be fairly easy to get a qualification for expertise in my own books. But nothing could have been further from the truth, I did very poorly.
In order not to arouse suspicion I was quite hostile in my criticism of Malcolm Pryce, I called him ‘an unoriginal jejune chancer’. This made me deeply unpopular among the other students on the course because, of course, Malcolm Pryce was some sort of god for these kids. They said, ‘You wouldn’t say that if Malcolm Pryce was here now!’ It was a very lonely time. How I longed to tell them who I was!

I remember describing in one essay how Malcolm Pryce had developed a taste very early on for jam and cheese sandwiches and his grandparents, on seeing this, had taken him aside and pointed vaguely west saying, ‘Yonder is a great town called Aberystwyth where the people eat jam and cheese sandwiches all day.’ Later, when he went to live there his heart was broken to discover they had lied, so this provided the theme of betrayal that runs through his work. Or so I thought. But the tutor told me my theory was a silly fabrication. The irony is, it’s actually true.

How do you write your books? Does it involve lengthy planning and mapping out? Do you use sticky labels with words like aliens, ventriloquists, stovepipe hats, what the butler saw ‘snuff’ movies, Patagonia, vampires… Where do your stories and plot lines start? Oh, and how do you keep them ‘tame’ - not ‘tame’ as in passive and easy, but tame as in not running around in the jungle covered in your own scat and howling at the moon, people fleeing in horror, tame.

I think it was Flaubert, or someone like that, who said you should be neat and ordered in your daily life so you can be bonkers in  your work - I’m quoting from memory. I subscribe to that view. There is no madness visible at all in my working method. I don’t scribble things on notes and stick them on the fridge. I don’t mutter to myself. I wash. Igor doesn’t turn up at 3 a.m. with a plate of bread and water, saying. ‘You must eat, Doktor!’ I just sit and ponder for months on end, write down notes but never have to refer to them again. The act of writing them down somehow fixes them in the memory. During the course of the ‘thinking up’ stage, a world develops. Then one day, like a mariner too long from the sea, I will wake up and know it is time to go down to 'the harbour’… and start the real writing. That takes about six months.

I write about five or six drafts and throw away about seventy percent of the early ones. People wouldn’t believe how much manual toil is involved. It’s like moving a beach with a spoon. But it’s all quite calm. I like the idea that by closing the laptop lid it all disappears for the night like toys put back in the cupboard. In Bangkok, once, I did put index cards on the wall, and I was quite taken aback at how subliminally disturbing this turned out to be, after I had ‘switched off’ for the day.  I was living in a studio apartment - so living and writing in the same space, but even though I did not look at the cards, they had an insistent presence that bugged me. I’m pretty sure the reason is, even when you stop writing for the day, your unconscious is still at work on the project and it resents the intrusion, it needs time to do its work in peace.

The Aberystwyth adventures of Louie Knight continue...
As a quick explanation: my nickname was ‘Calamity’ when I was a little girl, because I loved Doris Day, I was a flamin’ liability, oh and my name is Jane. So, how did you decide on the characters of Louie Knight and Calamity Jane - was it THAT voice again?

I didn't decide on anything, I just wrote and it all emerged, like a face in an old-fashioned photographic developing bath -I know that image is no longer current, but I can’t think of a better one. I never sit down and create characters the way all the books on creative writing say you are supposed to: I don’t fill out lengthy forms answering specific biographical details. I couldn't tell you what any of my characters were doing on their fifth birthday. They usually emerge from the dialogue, as soon as they start talking they either become someone or nothing happens and they don’t get invited back.

When Louie went to the Pier at the start of Aberystwyth Mon Amour, I am pretty certain I had no idea who he was going to meet there, but he met Calamity and the dialogue between them just happened, and in the process he acquired a sidekick, but it was never planned or intended. It’s all like that. If anything, I don’t create characters, I grow them. How such a thing can happen is a mystery but I am comfortable with it being a mystery.

Talking is a mystery too – no one can explain how it can be possible to hold an intelligent conversation in real time, on the fly, without preparation or premeditation. It’s amazing, even very stupid people can do it. If you ever stop to wonder about that it is baffling. Where do the words come from? Clearly there is a team of homunculi inside the brain choosing the right ones, but how do they know what to say? To see just how beautiful the mystery is, consider this. I recently noticed something about Marty, Louie’s schoolmate with TB, who, as you know, had the note from his Ma rejected and was sent off to die on a cross-country run in a blizzard. I noticed last week, 15 years after I wrote the first book, that if you add the letter ‘R’ to his name you get martyr. And that, of course, is quite clearly his symbolic function in the books. I know for sure that I did not choose the name with that in mind, in fact I have occasionally wondered what made me choose that name. Why Marty and not, say, Martin?  I don’t believe for one second it is accidental. It’s the homunculi. You have to hand it to them.

Are any of your characters, other than Herod Jenkins, based on real people that you know?

No, except, of course, Louie is me…

Are you this funny - book funny - in real life? Please try not to disappoint me, she says, oh and answer honestly, you can ‘call a friend’.

I was going to answer this with a true story about a man who found my humour so wearisome he tried to maroon me on the Pacific atoll of Suvarow, but then I thought, ‘See! That’s exactly what comedy is about, you are using it as a device to avoid the painful truths of this world’.

So here’s the serious answer: On a good day, probably yes, but the days are not always good, are they? In fact, I have spent a good many of them in the past seven years in the arms of that savage god known anaemically as depression - we really need a better name, like ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death Syndrome’.

This seems to be a very common experience of people who write funny things. Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to them. There are various neurological explanations for this: the similarity between creativity, comedy and, well, madness. But you don’t really have to go that far, you just need to cast a dispassionate glance at the universe. As the old Yiddish saying goes, ‘if God lived on Earth they would break his windows’.

How much time did you spend researching your six books?

None whatsoever, I just make everything up. It’s quicker and safer because you can’t get it wrong.

You have broadened my knowledge of Wales - I thought that you were making Hughesovka up. I knew a little about Patagonia and the Welsh connection, but I had no idea how seriously this ‘Welsh Promised Land’ was taken. Also, all of your classical allusions boggle my brain - it’s all Greek to me, boom boom! Were you born with this stuff in your head or have you a team of researchers helping you out?

I think over the years I have read very eclectically, and stored a lot of strange material in the rag-and-bone shop of my heart. The team of homunculi who work there have a very good retrieval system. If I read something on prairie voles seven years ago and it would be useful they automatically retrieve it. I think that is the essence of creativity.

Have we seen the last of Aberystwyth from you? …and if not do you envisage Louie’s adventures coming to a climactic conclusion?

No definitely not, I have some good ideas in the pipeline, and have no intention to end the series. Nor will I do anything dramatic and climactic with the characters. It would feel like a cheap trick and a sort of betrayal. I’m quite fond of them and, in a sense, have the power to halt time for them, so they can live on in a permanent state of reasonable contentment.

Why doesn't Louie ‘get the girl?’

Because, like his creator, he dedicates his life to a higher calling; he is a knight in (tarnished) armour for the secular age. All private detectives fulfil this function. They sacrifice themselves for the common good and must, alas, forego the comforts of the hearth.  Marlowe never gets the girl. Nor does Rick in Casablanca. It’s the paradigm. I didn’t realise this when I began writing the series, but it quickly became instinctively evident to me. It means that poor old Myfanwy always has things going wrong for her. I think she’s in a sanatorium in Switzerland at the moment, having lost her singing voice.

...and finally. do you like ice cream?

I’m not nuts about it, it’s just OK. I used to resent the way adults automatically expected me as a kid to be crazy about it and willing to be bribed by its promise. But, of course, in my books the ice cream dispensed by Sospan is not really ice cream, it’s the Sacrament.

- Thank you Mr Malcolm Pryce!

Malcolm Pryce was talking with Jane Williams

You can learn more about the six Aberystwth novels, so far, at the official Malcolm Pryce website.

Go to the Malcolm Pryce author page at amazon to read reviews and purchase his books, including:

the new book by Malcolm Pryce - published today!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Len Deighton – In Spy Ring Writer

As 2014 draws to a close, Kim Vertue talks to Len Deighton about his long and successful writing career and, amongst other things, his 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War and its screenings and stagings this year to mark the centenary of the First World War. 

The long career of Len Deighton holds some surprises: he was a pioneering food columnist and is a respected chef, he enjoyed success with an earlier career as a sought-after illustrator and graphic designer, he is an accomplished modern historian and researcher, a film-producer, dramatist and novelist… probably most widely known for his debut novel, The Ipcress File, made into the iconic film starring Michael Caine as British spy, Harry Palmer – the 'working class James Bond’.

Len Deighton photograph courtesy of Jonathan Clowes
Len Deighton was born in a London workhouse in 1928.  His mother was a cook and his father a chauffeur.  As Len grew up, his father would let him play truant from school so long as he read - which he did, voraciously, at Marylebone public library, developing passions for art and history.

He joined RAF special operations as a photographer, an experience that would later provide primary research for some of his books. After the war he followed one of his passions and studied at the Royal College of Art.  He would work as a chef to supplement his income and this confirmed his lifelong interest in good food.  When he graduated he had a successful career as a graphic artist, designed posters for the London underground and book covers which included the first UK edition of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

First UK edition of Kerouac's On The Road,
with cover art by Len Deighton
Here his love of literature and visual art went hand-in-hand. Has this partnership remained in his creative approach? Does art inspire aspects of his writing, and does he continue to sketch as well as write?  

“Not as much as I would like,” he admits, “Drawing is so difficult and so rewarding, but I don't set aside time for it. I can never find enough time in any day to do all the things I enjoy. But yes, I can't write a scene without having it visually in my mind, even if that vision is of my own creation. I studied art full-time for six years and art, rather than literature, is the basis of all my outlook.”

The Ipcress File was his first novel, published in 1962 and an instant best seller. The film of the book made a star of Michael Caine and is still classic cold war 1960s London chic (if such a genre exists). He helped persuade the director to allow Michael Caine to wear glasses on screen which created a new brand of masculine cool. He showed Michael Caine how to make an omelette for the scene in the film when Harry Palmer first has a chance to woo his female colleague. The conversation between Harry Palmer and his boss while he is shopping in the supermarket is a great insight into how food was regarded in post war Britain and Harry Palmer as a new working class ‘foodie’ hero must have helped pave the way for Heston Blumenthal!

The Ipcress File was followed by Horse Under Water (the only one of the quartet to not be adapted for cinema), Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain - the film version starring Michael Caine was directed by Ken Russell... apparently he really did have Michael Caine leaping onto an iceberg in that  iconic fur hat.

Michael Caine stars in the Harry Palmer cinematic trilogy
As well as the ‘Harry Palmer’ novels, Len Deighton has written two Bernard Samson trilogies; Game Set and Match and Hook Line and Sinker - mainly set in the London and Berlin of the 1980s - which were also bestsellers and adapted into a TV series. When a writer invents convincing, fully-fleshed-out characters, they often contain parts of that writer’s personality, or if they did not, perhaps parts of their personality stays with their creator. Is there much of Len Deighton in the characters of ‘Harry Palmer’ and ‘Bernard Samson’?

This is something he has considered before, “I say no: but my wife, my sons and my friends say, ‘yes’.”

Len Deighton giving Michael Caine some cooking tips
on the set during the filming of The Ipcress File
The film of The Ipcress File launched Michael Caine as a new style of spy hero onto our screens and celebrated sixties London. The spy who had remained nameless in the books became 'Harry Palmer' - a 'new man' - working class with no airs and graces, but also intelligent and cultured, confident enough in his good looks to make a statement with his spectacles, a bon vivant who could win the hearts of women with his sensitivity and prowess in the kitchen. Len Deighton now lives far away, in both time and place, from that London and when he visits from his home in sunny Southern California he admits, “I find England almost unrecognisable from the days when I lived in Soho. Perhaps I have lived abroad too long.”

A theme of communication and the lack of it pervades particularly the Samson books, and it is the essential romance of Bernard that he perseveres despite the difficulties he faces.  Do such characters ever ‘talk back’, asking for a reprieve from the conflicts Deighton decides to fling at them?

“This leads to an ever-present question for all writers. Do we control the characters or do they control us? My feeling is that the characters cannot be made to do something we need for the story but that no reader will believe. At the same time, they must act within the needs of the plot and overall structure. Characters must surprise the reader with their behaviour but not test the reader's credulity. It's what the economists call the 'snake in a tunnel' - they wriggle but they can't break away.

“I will admit that writing of, thinking of, and living with the same characters day and night for nine books - or ten books counting Winter - was undeniably disturbing at times. That's why I wrote other books, with other locales, between some of the Bernard Samson books. I was afraid I might go nuts.”

Bernard’s descriptions of Berlin and his childhood there read like a love letter to the place – how important are the locales and personal experience of them to Deighton’s stories and writing process?

“I like Berlin and Berliners too. The city and its history is deeply embedded into Bernard's mind and he takes Berlin with him wherever he goes. All through the Samson books I had to describe things and places not as I saw them, but as he did.”

Game, Set and Match
In addition to the many spy novels Len Deighton has written he has crafted unique histories of the Second World War – including Fighter and Bomber. His work was highly acclaimed by historian A J P Taylor.  Bomber was dramatised for BBC Radio in 1995 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World war. The adaptation was narrated by Tom Baker and the action reported as if in ‘real time’ over one weekend within Radio 4’s schedule. It was repeated more recently in 2011 on Radio 4 Extra and it is available as an adapted audiobook on CD.

With his books becoming best-sellers, garnering critical credibility and being validated by historians, is there a single piece of writing that he sees as his greatest achievement, one that he is particularly proud of or holds any particular personal meaning?

This is a challenging question for him, “Dissatisfaction is the springboard that makes a writer end one book and begin another vowing that it will be better. Goodbye Mickey Mouse, about American fighter pilots in World War Two is one of the few books that came out exactly the way I envisaged and planned."
One of Len Deighton's personal favourites
"As for pride - I see it as a sin, but when I completed the last book of the Bernard Samson series it represented well over a decade of work and I was pleased and satisfied to have completed the massive task I had set myself back when I started Berlin Game.

Dissatisfaction can drive a writer… Does Deighton have any other advice to writers starting out?

“Every book is different and every writer is different. My advice to anyone starting to write fiction books is to be ready to devote a great deal of time to it. Write every day, even if its notes and research. I have never completed a book in less than a year and most took longer than that. If you are waking up at four o'clock in the morning wondering if it’s all going wrong, it's probably all going well.

“I have found meetings and dinner party chat drastically interrupts my writing progress, so I have over the years become a recluse - or so I am told. For a fiction book: get the research done beforehand - especially listen to the speech patterns of the sort of people you plan to write about - and don't stop to go off on a research trip. Skip forward and keep writing. John Masters taught me this and I have found it a valuable rule.”

Len Deighton also wrote the screenplay for Oh! What a Lovely War, which uses popular songs of the time interspersed with facts about the First World War to movingly portray the plight of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ at the hands of the upper classes.  The film was shot on Brighton pier, involved an impressive cast including Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, John Gieguld, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave… and was directed by the late Richard Attenborough.  In a recent interview for Radio Times, Sir David Attenborough said this was his favourite film of those his brother Richard directed. “I think probably the most imaginative film he made as a director was Oh! What a Lovely War.  Shadowlands was a very powerful film, but Oh! What a Lovely War was out there on its own – no cinema film that I know of had anything like the bravura and the energy and the invention as he put into that.”

Oh! what a Lovely War was shown earlier this year by the BBC as part of the centenary events for the First World War and Joan Littlewood’s landmark production also returned to the stage in the spring. Instead of ‘celebrating’ war, the plight of the men who had to follow orders is movingly portrayed. Does Len Deighton have faith in human nature to learn from the carnage of the First World War and the atrocities of the Second?  His established role as historian seems very important in this process.

“My father fought in the First World War trenches and was wounded and gassed to an extent that the War Office told his mother was 'severe'. He recovered - or so the Pensions Dept told him - and worked hard all his life… and I never heard him complain. The other day on TV, I watched a history professor telling us that the sacrifice of a million lives in World War One was worthwhile! I was appalled. Appalled too that he didn't know that the total casualties were far, far higher."

Sing along... Oh! What a lovely War
“I added an initial sequence to my Oh! What a Lovely War screenplay to show how the war began. I researched this energetically and decided that World War One could have been - and should have been - avoided. I later asked both A J P Taylor and Bertrand Russell their opinion. They both told me that they believed that the war could have been avoided. Of course few, if any, of the politicians and generals who started it thought it would be more than a sharp engagement over by Christmas.

“It was the writer and critic Julian Symons who told me that I was the only person he knew who loved machines - he didn't say ‘better than people’ and I appreciate that - and suggested that I should write a book about this feeling. 'Machines fighting a war without humans?' I said frivolously and, along with other influences, his remark prompted Bomber.

“I had flown in Lancaster bombers and Mosquito fighters when I was an RAF photographer so I had some background. In Central London in 1940-41 I was under German bombing every night for three months, followed by V1 missiles and V2 rockets. I knew what the air war was like. Perhaps Bomber was not the right title, because much of the story is devoted to the Germans - fighter pilots, radar operators and civilians - I spent months in Germany getting all those details right.”

Len Deighton can count Lemmy amongst his fans, who has said that the Motorhead track, Bomber, was inspired by reading the book! Bomber was later followed by Fighter

First edition cover of Bomber,
featuring detail from a painting by Turner
“When I wrote Fighter, one critic was outraged that I had included the words of the Germans we were fighting. That was the cloud-cuckoo land so many were still living in. I am not a pacifist by any means but killing people you have never met is not something to be done thoughtlessly.”

The ‘cold war’ spy thriller, An Expensive Place to Die, takes its title from an Oscar Wilde quote. After being involved with writing for the screen for Oh! What a Lovely War and overseeing the screen adaptations of many more of his novels, does this mean that Deighton still admires Wilde as a dramatist?  

“Yes, Wilde's writing endures. When very young, I learnt the Reading Goal poem by heart. Wilde's skill as a dramatist is masterful. Writing for the stage is entirely different to writing for the screen or writing fiction books. I once said that a screenplay writer is to a novelist what a taxidermist is to a lion tamer. Perhaps I was hasty in that judgement but it was prompted by the fact that few screenplays are the work of one writer - whereas many, stage plays are - and so screenplays are usually a compromise. For this reason, I made sure that I was the sole producer of the Oh! What a Lovely War movie, and made sure it was shot exactly to conform to my screenplay.”

Over such a prolonged and consistent career, how has the approach to writing and his writing routine changed? How do Deighton’s approaches to fiction and non-fiction differ?

“I have always planned - and sometimes abandoned - my outlines, and extended drafts, for books. My non-fiction works, such as, Fighter, Blitzkrieg, Blood Tears and Folly - and also the historical fiction works Bomber and Winter - required travel and talking to participants. Fiction cannot be done to such a specific schedule and its looser plan requires discipline enough to toss away days of work when writing has gone in the wrong direction."

Many writers learn their craft by reading… are there any ‘stand-out’ favourites in terms of works or authors?

“Yes…” he considers, “I admire and enjoy the works of many authors and I frequently turn again to books I have enjoyed. I hesitate to name one from so many. Writing a book of fiction is a very demanding task and I see most fiction books in terms of the way the elements have been tackled - plot structure and the way it interacts with pushing the narrative along, dialogue and characterisation. Additionally, I read many non-fiction books.”

The many non-fiction books penned by Len Deighton include three influential cook books. He was home-taught the basic techniques by his mother, who was a professional cook, and then learnt ‘on the job’ after being given a chance in the kitchens for the Festival of Britain where he had started as a cleaner… In 1965 his book Où Est le Garlic (recently revised and re-published as Len Deighton’s French Cooking for Men) attracted favourable attention when it was published to coincide with the rising sales of his spy novels. The following year, Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook showcased the graphic ‘cookstrips’ he did for the Observer in the days before food journalism had really been invented. 

These infographic style recipe recaps, are great for quick reference and are to be re-launched in the Observer Food Monthly through 2015, starting in January. He also wrote a book to guide chefs and home cooks through and his basic course in French cookery and this also used his signature ‘cookstrips’ - well illustrated infographics that contain sound sources of knowledge to the novice and more experienced cook alike. The really observant may spot some of these pinned to the wall in Harry Palmer’s kitchen in the film version of The Ipcress File - still more informative than the current plethora of ‘eye candy’ recipe books launched every Christmas!

Deighton’s cook books are entertaining and clear, a great way to demystify cooking… does he have a favourite dish to cook or enjoy?

“Very lightly cooked new-laid eggs, in any shape or form, make a wonderful dish and, since I am choosy about unsalted butter and we make our own wholemeal bread, I am simple in my tastes. But I admire and appreciate skilled cooking especially French dishes.

What other chefs or food writers would he recommend?

“I admire the chefs who have devoted their working lives to cooking and who have worked in the great restaurants. The books and words of such men as Pierre Koffmann, Anton Mosimann, the Roux brothers, Anton Edelmann, Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers... and others of the same dedication… are inspiring. To understand what I most believe, read, the autobiography of Jaques Pepin - from whom I was privileged to have some lessons. It's a gripping book.”

Finally, is there a particular ingredient or gadget that is essential in the Deighton kitchen?

“I have a kitchen crammed with gadgets few of which (apart from the dishwasher) are much used. Two or three high quality kitchen knives are all one needs. I prefer old- fashioned carbon knives rather than stainless steel ones. Oh yes, I almost forgot - my electric knife sharpener - Chef's Choice 3-blade position model - is an essential for me.”

Len, Lights, Action!
As you can see Len Deighton is pretty cool - an inspiration on how to avoid being pigeonholed, to follow what interests you or makes you passionate, and to have a perennial, compassionate regard for humanity which is at the heart of any good writer.

Thank you, Mr Len Deighton!

- Len Deighton was talking with Kim Vertue

There is a full bibliography and plenty more info at the Deighton Dossier - a comprehensive fan-run website

Oh! What a Lovely War is discussed in this episode of Radio 3’s Night Waves (BBC iPlayer)

Lots of Len Deighton books available from