>An Interview With Simon Kurt Unsworth
Hello folks, today with great pleasure I present to you an interview with Simon Kurt Unsworth, one of my favourite short story authors, and fellow Graduate of Dundee Uni.
Q. Hi Simon, how’s things?
Well, given that the social care, education and health systems of this country, things I believe in passionately, are being torn to pieces by a group of halfwit millionaires who keep telling that we’re all in this together even though I can’t see them making a single fucking sacrifice, I’m a little concerned about the future. I’ve also given up booze for Lent, which might possibly be having an effect on my normal, easygoing character but other than that, I’m great thanks.
Q. I see from your Wikipedia page that you went to Dundee University, when did you attend? We may very well have been there at the same time? I was the loud ginger idiot with a Jazzy B haircut, and always in shorts. (Note to readers I was drunk when a mate cut my hair into a Jazzy B)
A: Holy God, someone read my Wikipedia page? I think you may the first! I was at Dundee University between October 1990 and June 1994, studying Psychology – I was the skinny tall sod dressed always in black (except for the occasional addition of a flowery shirt), whose hair was pretty long and used to have strange purple and red streaks at the front, and who wore very, very pointy boots and tight jeans. I almost certainly will have been drunk…
Q. What were your favourite drinking holes?
A: Honestly, I can’t recall – partly because I used to stick at the university most of the time (being a goth wasn’t a great experience in a town where Runrig was considered alternative music!) and away from the safe and cloistered environment of the uni, things got a little…odd. Plus I wasn’t at my happiest in Dundee, so tended to be drunk a lot (far more than was good for me) so things are a bit blurry…what did the Mission say once? Names are for tombstones, baby – and that’s my attitude to bars in Dundee!
Q. Your collection Lost Places was released by Ash-Tree Press last March, to some very high praise, how has the release gone?
Really well! Feedback on the collection has been really positive, with good reviews online and by Pete Tennant in Black Static magazine (he described me as something like ‘a major new voice in the genre’ which was nice, and really unexpected). I heard last week that Ellen Datlow’s given ‘The Pennine Tower Restaurant’ (as well as another story of mine called ‘Scale Hall’ from the Gray Friar Press anthology Where the Heart Is) Honourable Mentions in this year’s Best New Horror, which is really good, and that Stephen Jones has taken ‘The Lemon in the Pool’ for his Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22, which is just fantastic.
What’s great is that the book looks fantastic, which is partly thanks to Chris and Barbara Roden’s care and attention to detail, and partly to Jason van Hollander’s cover art, and I’m incredibly grateful to all three of them. I honestly believe I couldn’t have had a book that looks or feels any better, and I can only hope people agree and that they think my content is up to the standard of the rest of the production! I’m trying not to hope for an award nomination or two, because that seems terribly arrogant, but it’d be nice…
Q. The Church on the Island was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2008, and Ellen Datlow also gave Mami Wata an honourable mention in Years Best Horror in 2010, considering Ellen’s collections are regarded as the benchmarks by which all other collections are measured you must be stoked?
Yeah – I still have to make it into to one of Ellen’s Best New Horrors, which I suspect I won’t do (the competition’s damned fierce!), but I did make it into an anthology she did called Lovecraft Unbound (with the fourth story I submitted) and that’s something I’m really proud of. The truth is, I’m still excited by any story acceptance, even when it’s anthologies that I’ve been invited to contribute to, and I hope I don’t ever lose that. I’d hate to get so jaded that someone liking a story of mine enough that they want to publish doesn’t mean anything to me.
The World Fantasy Award nomination was a total shock – I didn’t know that Ash Tree sent the books to the judges, so when I got an email about it (read in a hotel in Edinburgh, the day after my wedding anniversary, fact fans!), I nearly had a conniption fit. I kept expecting them to send another email saying, Sorry, we meant the other Simon Kurt Unsworth! Going out to Calgary for the ceremony was incredibly exciting – I finally managed to overcome my nerves and talk to Stephen Volk, and I met Rob Shearman (he was up against me in the short story category, and I went to see him doing a reading – he read a story that wasn’t the one he was nominated for, and it just blew me away. I knew at that point that I had no chance of winning, although in the end neither did Rob, although he did deservedly win for his collection Tiny Deaths). I honestly never expected to be nominated for anything, and still don’t (be nice though…), so all of those experiences were an unexpected bonus that came out of doing something I love anyway. When they called the winner of Best Short Story and I hadn’t won, I was gutted for about 5 minutes and then Barbara Roden gave me a hug and I thought, Balls to it, I’m in Canada having a great time, yes it’s disappointing but you know what? It’s also fun. In most of the pictures from that period, I have a massive grin on my face, which speaks for itself I think. Secretly, inside, the grin is still there.
Q. I think Button was the first thing of yours I read, which got me hooked, how do you think your writing has progressed since then?
I’ve got better! I’m still very proud of ‘Button’, but it comes from a point when I wasn’t as confident in myself or as clear about what I was aiming for with my stories as I am now, because I was still learning my craft (does that sound pretentious? Arsey? Sod it) – if anything, it’s from what I sometimes think of as my ‘Stephen King’ period, when I was trying to write things that might have fitted nicely into Night Shift (I know, I know, you don’t need to say it…). Now when I write, I’m either writing against specific guidelines or because I have an idea I want to play with, and I’m far more confident that I just need to be me, rather than some pale Stephen King (I should say, this isn’t in any way a dig at The King, who I consider to be one of the most important writers I have ever read – I just don’t want to be him). Like I say, ‘Button’ is still a story I think has lots to recommend it, so much so that I included it in the mini-collection Uneasy Tales (my experiment with self e-publishing), but it comes from a different place and a different time: I think my stuff now has a better connection to the emotional fall-out from situations, and I’m certainly better at handling larger numbers of characters in one narrative. I will say, however, that Button, like most of my stuff, has its heart in reality: I’ve never glued a button to myself, but I did once glue my fingers to a Walkman, and it’s from there that the story springs.
Q. The Elms, Morecambe is in my opinion the highlight of The Spectrum Collection, a very poignant and moving story, what was the inspiration for this story?
Thanks, that’s very kind of you to say, and I appreciate it!
The story came from two things, really: I had one of those weird experiences where someone (in this case, the grandmother of one of my son’s school friends) found out that I write horror stories and proceeded to tell me a ‘real’ ghost about a specter in a hotel she’d stayed in that knocks on the room doors and offers to turn down sheets but then walks away and vanishes (in a hotel I’d never heard of). I hadn’t the first idea what to do with it, but then when I was putting together Quiet Houses (for which ‘The Elms, Morecambe’ was written) I wanted to write something about a sad ghost and I remembered the story and started to think about what it might mean if you took the girl up on her offer.
The other thing is that I’m trying, as far as possible, to set the stories in Quiet Houses in versions of real spaces, and the story seemed to fit into a real hotel called The Elms, in Morecambe. It’s where my wife Wendy and I had our wedding reception, and it was a wonderful place that’s sadly shut now. I thought it might be a nice kind of tribute to hijack the ghost and replant her there and to keep the Elms alive, even if only in a story. Most of the details about the Elms and its staff are as real as I remember them, including the manager’s accent and his trick with the champagne. I’m sure that the Elms had its own ghosts, and I can only hope that they don’t mind me adding another one to their number… In a funny way, ‘The Elms, Morecambe’ set the overall tone and theme for Quiet Houses, as it was the first thing I wrote for it, so it gave me a basis on which to build the rest of the book’s structure. For that, and for the fact that its about a place I know well and which matters to me, I’m really pleased with the way the story turned out.
Q. What draws you to the short story format rather than the novel?
Mostly, practicality! I have written a novel, but it wasn’t very good (it was the first thing I wrote – again, don’t ask!) and I enjoyed it a lot, but short stories fitted better when I started attending creative writing classes – normally, homework was 2000 words a week about a theme, so I used to set myself rules: I had to stick to the theme, no matter what I actually wrote, and to the word length. It was an incredibly useful learning experience, because it forced me to think carefully about horror, about how it works. What’s horrible about baking cakes, for example? Well, nothing inherently, unless you approach it from an entirely different angle… I then found that there is a market for the kind of things I write, and again practicality came into things: I can spend a week or two on a story and it’s finished and can start being sent out, whereas a novel is going to take me considerably longer. By my calculations, I’ve had something like 30 stories published in the last 4 years, which has given lots of people the chance to read something I’ve written and hopefully enjoy it, but in the same period, I might have managed 4 novels. I might be cynical and say that it’s all about exposure, about getting my name out there, which is partly true, but the other less cynical truth is that I enjoy writing short stories. They’re fun! Having said that, I am currently writing a novel and I’m enjoying it enormously, despite the fact that it’s a slightly different discipline. In a novel you have more time and space, but you have to exercise more control, so the challenges are not the same but are no less complex.
Q. Do you think it’s harder to write a good short story, than a good novel?
You’re assuming I know how to do either! Honestly, I have no idea, but I have a suspicion that it’s got very little to do with the ‘short stories vs novels’ argument, so much as it has the way in which people write. A badly written short story is as annoying as a badly written novel – good writers understand the form they’re working in (poetry, novels, stories, plays) and they use the form to its best ends and they write well – they create good characters, interesting plots, startling images, whatever. They write well.
Q. Lost Places, Quiet Houses, do you think there is a recurring theme to your work?
Absolutely, although it’s taken me a while to realise it. I think I like to ground my writing in a real sense of geography – I used to think people didn’t like to read about ‘real’ places and most of my early stuff is set in a strange version of America, a place I’ve never been (the Stephen King influence again, I suspect). However, I’ve come to understand that people respond well to writing (any writing) when they can see recognizable places in it, see traits in characters that they have themselves or see in the people they have in their lives, when the characters’ reactions in the story are understandable and realistic, and that’s what I’m trying to achieve, I suppose. I’d also add that I’m also concerned with the ‘psychic geography’ (sounding arsey again? Double sod it, I say!) of relationships, of the emotional connections we have with each other, so that pops up in my stories a lot as well – how do we relate to each other, treat each other, etc? And how does that make us feel? I’d like to think that there’s a sense of reality about the places and people in my stories; I hope so, because that’s what I’m aiming for. God only knows if I’m managing it or not.
Q. Talking of Quiet Places, this is your new collection can you tell us a little of what to expect?
Quiet Houses is a portmanteau, seven stories with a common thread, connected together by a linking device and character. Each story is a about a place that’s haunted in some way or other, sometimes by traditional ghosts and sometimes by things that are slightly stranger. I’ve wanted to try something like this for ages, a collection where each story contributes to a bigger picture that you only get to see in the final tale, and that’s what I’m doing. It’s shorter than Lost Places, and has a different feel to it: essentially, it’s my version of one of those old Amicus movies.
Q. What made you decide to publish it through Dark Continents, a relatively new publishing House?
Bottom line: I get good vibes from them. In the past, I’d had some difficult experiences with a man who called himself a publisher but who wasn’t, from my perspective, professional in any sense, so I’m very wary now. My experience with the Rodens over Lost Places was genuinely marvelous, completely trouble-free and smooth, and I wanted to ensure a similar process with whoever I went with next. I’ve sold a collection to PS Publications, and that’s gone really well but won’t be out until 2012 so I wanted something to come out in 2011 to bridge the gap (that exposure thing again!), but I wasn’t prepared to put up with any crap – I’m too old and grouchy to be bothered with that now. When John Prescott and I first spoke, it was actually about his M is for Monster anthology, and I found him easy to work with, clear about what he was doing and, most importantly, prepared to just let me get on with things. He introduced me to Dark Continents, I suggested my portmanteau idea to them, they said yes, I felt (and still feel) like they’re trustworthy, clear about what they’re doing, prepared to make an investment and don’t talk bullshit to me, so I thought, Hell, let’s give it a go and see what happens. So far, my experience with them has been really, really good. Of course, I’ve not submitted the final draft of Quiet Houses yet…
Q. Do you have any advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of getting a short story published?
Nope. What advice can I give, really? Write the stories, send them off, listen to any feedback you get and then do it all over again. Learn patience. If there’s anything, I suppose, it’d be this: I know you think your story’s great, but if it doesn’t fit into the submission guidelines you’ve got bugger all chance so don’t waste your time or the editors by sending it. Mostly though, I’d say this: enjoy writing, it’s great fun.
Q. A couple of videos can be found on Youtube of you reading some of your short stories, how important is it for you to interact with your readership, considering solitary reading is?
Very, because I’m a damned show-off! In my professional life, I regularly train large groups of people and have done for years, and the skills I’ve learned doing that have stood me in good stead, I think. I enjoy reading my stories and getting a reaction from an audience – like anything, it’s a learning process and I’m getting better at it each time I do it. It’s interesting to hear where people laugh or gasp in a story, often in places I hadn’t quite anticipated, and the stories start to feel like a communal thing, belonging for a few minutes at least to everyone, which is a really nice feeling. I’d be lying if I said that people complimenting me on something I’ve written didn’t matter – it does, massively. I don’t write for other people, exactly, but if I did write solely for myself I’d never send it out anywhere. By submitting it, by putting it in the public domain, I’m inviting comment and I’d much rather that the comments received were positive!
You’re right that writing is a solitary process, but that’s okay – I’m happy in my own skin and my own head, so time spent in my own company is fine. I’m writing this, for example, on a train surrounded by people, but I have my iPod on and I’m perfectly happy typing away and listening to Bellowhead and Johnny Cash and BabyBird and not talking to anyone. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get out there and flutter your wings, as it were, and readings (and signings) are a good way to do it. It helps that most of the writers I’ve met are genuinely nice, encouraging people, who I look forward to spending time with, which helps with the whole confidence and belonging thing. It’s still a source of wonder to me that I’m friends with the man who wrote Ghostwatch, that I sat at a signing table next to Christopher Fowler, that Gary McMahon’s licked my ear and that Steve Duffy has drawn a small picture of an ejaculating penis in a book he was signing for me. I’m hoping that the last one wasn’t some kind of self-portrait, but you can’t ever be sure, I don’t suppose…
Q. Which other author do you admire the most?
That’s unfair, I can’t pin it down to one! Stephen King, obviously, especially his early works and his short stories. M. R. James, for whom no explanation should be required. T. E. D. Klein, who I’ve ranted about before but who everyone should go and read IMMEDIATELY, Alan Moore and Junji Ito (if you read no other graphic novel, you should read the three volumes of Uzumaki, which is a work of bleak magnificence and poetic wonder). Gary McMahon, simply for his work ethic and his constantly high quality output – I have no idea how Gary manages to write as much as he does, but man, am I jealous! Steve Duffy, just because he’s great. Larry Connolly, who does something I can’t do – writes incredibly smart stories in as little as two or three pages, talented bastard that he is. I’m a wordy sod, and have written paragraphs longer than some of Larry’s short stories, so I’m enormously envious of the ability to write short. Spike Milligan, who makes me laugh lot. For me, though, film-makers are equally important: John Carpenter, Stephen Spielberg, Hideo Nakata, these are people whose work I admire enormously and who influence me. And then there’s music…should I go on? No? Fair enough.
Q. If you could rewrite the ending to any novel, what would the novel be and how would you change it?
Oh, damn, that’s a tough one. Right, there are two answers to this: the author’s answer is, Don’t touch the fucking work, son! Once an artist has got something to the point where they believe it’s finished, it needs to stand on its own feet. I know from experience that there’s a point at which editing and suggestion ceases to be useful, not because the suggestions themselves aren’t good and appropriate but because it starts to feel that your work is being changed further than you’re comfortable with and is ceasing to be ‘yours’ and starts to belong to you and the editor jointly (side point: the point at which I felt like I could start calling myself an author wasn’t when my first story or collection was published, it was when I felt confident enough in my own skills and in the story itself to politely disagree with an editorial suggestion from an editor I respected and whose opinion I valued), so to change an ending of another work would be …well… bang out of order.
As a reader, however…well, I’m still not sure. I tend to respond to any kind of art as complete as it is, even if I don’t like it. There’s a movie called Urban Ghost Story, for example, that I liked a lot until the last 5 minutes, when the ending completely spoils it. Did I like the ending? No. Would I change it? No, because I know what they aiming for with the ending they used it, even if I don’t think it was the right way to go.
Actually, wait a minute, here’s stuff I’d probably do if I was in charge of anything: I’d have ensured that John Carpenter Bill Lancaster, Ennio Morricone and Rob Bottin were centrally involved in the making of The Thing prequel (what’s it going to be called, incidentally? Almost a Thing? Approaching Thingdom? Not a Thing Yet But Definitely on the Way?) in the vain hope that it might turn out to be good rather than something that sucks shit and sullies the memory of my all-time favourite movie. I’d have Ian Malcolm survive Jurassic Park… oh, no, wait, Crichton did that in his sequel, The Lost World.
Seriously, if I was to do anything, I’d take away TED Klein’s writer’s block, change the ending of reality to ensure that he produces new work. There. I’m happy now.
Q. What does the future hold for Simon Kurt Unsworth
I think mostly pizza, and almost certainly beer and wine and possibly some other kinds of debauchery. Oh, wait, you mean writing? Well, Quiet Houses is being launched at FantasyCon at the end of September so the priority task is to finish writing it (I have two stories and their linking sections left to complete, as well as a new ending that I need to pull together), and then I have the PS collection, Strange Gateways, out next year. In the interim, I have a chapbook, Rough Music, out from Simon Marshall-Jones’ Spectral Press probably early in 2011, and stories in Willie Meikle’s cancer-themed anthology The Unspoken and Edge Publication’s next Charles Prepolec and Jeff Campbell-edited Sherlock Holmes horror anthology Gaslight Arcanum, both due this year. I also have a story in the next edition of Black Static, and have a couple of things out for consideration, so hopefully they’ll get positive responses but we’ll have to wait and see about them – as ever, this is a waiting game. I have story commitments for at least three other anthologies that I need to write, and then I’m going to prioritise the novel as soon as all that’s done. Basically, I’m going to write and write and write and hope like hell someone wants to read what I’m producing. My ipod is fully charged, so’s my MacBook, very little can stop me now…
Many many thanks for doing this Simon. Folks I seriously urge you to click the purchasing links dotted throughout the interview. If I’m swithering about buying a short story collection, Simon’s name on the TOC will always make me buy it.