Hello folks, today for your reading pleasure we have an interview with author, musician and artist Mark West
GNOH – Hi Mark, how are things in your neck of the woods?
Very good thanks Jim, hope they are with you?
GNOH – Could you tell our readers about yourself?
My name’s Mark West, I’m 42 years old and I write horror fiction – that sounds like I’m a contestant on Blind Date or something, doesn’t it? I was born and brought up in Northamptonshire and spent my formative years in a little town called Rothwell, where I now live with my wife and young son. I work as a Finance Manager (not a bad job and I get to travel occasionally to fairly glamorous places), but my real passion is writing. I’ve been doing it since I was about eight, when I was creating stories that expanded on “Star Wars” or featured me in “The Six Million Dollar Man” and I’ve never really lost the love for it. I discovered the small press in 1998, had my first acceptance in 1999 and then embarked on my first horror novel in 2001. Although I’d always been interested in horror – and wrote a batch of shorts in the late 80s – during the 90s I wrote two novels that were mainstream, contemporary dramas. Now, in 2011, I’m happy with what I’m doing having re-discovered the spark (thanks, in part, to getting some great support from my fellow writers and also through joining the Northampton SF Writers Group, which has really boosted my confidence – and thanks, Ian Watson & Ian Whates, for taking me on).
GNOH – You’ve used Rothwell, the town where you grew up as the basis of your fictional town of Gaffney. Have any of your old acquaintances from there met untimely ends in your stories?
Once I’d discovered him, I read pretty much everything that Stephen King put out and something that I really took away from his fiction was a sense of place. Horror fiction, by its very nature, assumes that the reader will be willing to take a giant leap, literally into the unknown and in order to get them there, you need to root everything else in the everyday. Part of the way that I like to do that is by creating a realistic environment – a town that people can recognise. I started using Gaffney in those aforementioned 80s shorts, but once I’d started writing horror again, in the late 90s, I paid more attention to the town. Wherever it features – short stories, my novelette “The Mill”, my novel “In The Rain With The Dead” – I’ve tried to keep everything consistent, so the cinema is always on Russell Street and the big park is always called The Common and the Rec has a little brook at the bottom of it. I like that it’s my place. In real-life, as you quite rightly point out, it’s an amalgamation of Rothwell, nearby Kettering (where we lived when I first created the place) and other little bits and pieces as necessary (Northampton, Leicester, Nottingham), but all of which gets incorporated for further use.
As for killing off any of my old acquaintances – well, not that I can think of, off the top of my head!
GNOH – What were you doing at RAF Wildenrath? My dad was based there for four years.
My best friend Nick was based there, in the early 90s. I’d been reading a lot about film-makers and bands, who went off to exotic places to edit/hone their material and thought it might be nice to try the same thing. Nick and his then wife invited me and my new girlfriend (now wife) out there, in December 1992 and we had the greatest time ever – Christmas markets, wintery weather, the excellent facilities of the Wildenrath site – and I managed to edit my contemporary drama novel “The Loved One” at the same time. Back then, I used Q&A Write – on a PC at work – so I printed the whole ms out and took it with me and edited by hand (probably one of the last times I ever did that) and it felt really good. The novel never got published though.
Did you live out there?
GNOH – Yes I did for about four years. To be honest I never really strayed from the base.
GNOH – So why horror?
Why not? I like to read across a wide range of genre – contemporary drama, horror, crime fiction, thrillers, biographies – and I can use a lot of these whilst writing a horror story. For example, I can write something like “The Mill”, which is dark and bleak and basically an examination of grief – where the supernatural is key to the tale, but not the main focus – or I can write something fun like “Giving Blood” about a vampire in a blood donation clinic and it’s all of a piece. For me, the strength of the horror genre is that it allows me to examine real life, to pick on things that people do suffer – like crippling grief – and work through it, whilst also giving me licence to pull in the supernatural if need be, or go in a completely different direction. I wrote a novella called “Drive” which I reckon is a horror/thriller and yet nothing supernatural happens in it at all, but I think anyone who reads it will call it a horror tale. And hey, there’re worse things than being called a horror writer…
GNOH – And the love of The Three Investigators?
When I was in the second year of junior school (so I’d have been about eight), I found a hardback version of “The Secret Of Skeleton Island” and devoured it. It was fantastic – spooky and exciting, about American kids and their adventures and featuring a terrific ghostly presence (the picture of which used to freak me and my sister out enough that we daren’t go upstairs after looking at it). When I discovered the book was part of a series – and with my library card in tow – I started to explore further, then began to purchase the books and it got better and better. I stopped collecting them after book 30 (published around the time Alfred Hitchcock, the lads patron, died) and although I’ve read a few post-30 books, they don’t hold the same magic for me. I think, at the end of the day, they were simply good books – Robert Arthur, who created the series, was a noted mystery writer and edited a lot of the Hitchcock anthologies. The other main writers, Dennis Lynds (writing as William Arden) and M. V. Carey (Mary Carey), were both very talented (Lynds was also a noted mystery writer) and that quality showed through. The stories were generally well constructed, well written and had a great sense of place and history (another lesson learned by me) and they still stand up today. I can say that with a level of authority because, starting in mid-2008, I re-visited the first 30 books and posted my reviews up at a blog – (see http://mewtti.blogspot.com/, if you’re at all interested).
As an aside, when it came to naming the characters in my novel “In The Rain With The Dead”, I turned to Robert Arthur and used Jones, Crenshaw, Andrews and Arthur as the surnames of the four major characters.
GNOH – Author, musician or comedian?
Author. I still write little comedy pieces, though neither myself or my sometime-comedy-partner have ever had the balls to stand up and perform, so it’s just for personal entertainment really. Actually, here’s an amusing thing – in my experience, certainly the horror writers I’m friends with, they’re some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Stuart Young, in particular, should be writing comedy and I keep telling him that, though he never listens – but read his blogs, follow him on Facebook, the bloke’s a genuine comedian. With the music, I decided to teach myself guitar – I’m a competent rhythm guitarist, but that’s as far as it goes – and when I realised a friend of mine – Mike – also played (and he’s very good), we put together our band, Passionfish. He wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics, we did a few gigs but neither of us had any great ambition in that direction, so it petered out. Now, when we see each other, we play a little and our children sing along with us, but that’s about it. The writing, though, that’s never gone away.
GNOH – What style of horror would you say you write?
I try not to tie myself down to one style, choosing instead to write each tale in the manner it wants to be told. I used to revel more in the blood and gore style of things – certainly, some of the stories in my collection “Strange Tales” are a lot bloodier than I’d make them now – but I like to think I’m more subtle now. I do still use shocking violence, often to create an effect, because I think it has more of an impact if it is out-of-the-ordinary.
GNOH – Do you have any rituals or quirks when you write?
None, really, that I can think of. I never work longhand, because my handwriting is so difficult for me to read back (it’s working in Finance, that’s what does it) and I like to note things to the extreme before I start but otherwise, I sit down at a keyboard, either in silence or noise, sometimes I listen to music, sometimes I don’t and I crack on.
GNOH – Who is the woman on your website and the cover of Strange Tales?
That’s my wife, Alison. When John B Ford picked up “Strange Tales” for Rainfall Books, I asked if I could have a go at the cover art – I’ve always liked that kind of thing and I decided I’d like to have a go. I was working with a picture of Julianne Moore, testing out various effects and settings on the photo-software I was using at the time and found this bleached out look that worked brilliantly. Alison, quite rightly, pointed out that I couldn’t use an image of Julianne Moore and volunteered her services and the picture, for me, worked so well that I’ve kept it as the Strange Tales icon ever since.
GNOH – I hear you also do art and design, is there no end to your talent?
It was all by accident. As I said, it’s always been something I was interested in, but my drawing ability is worse than my singing ability – and that’s bad – so until technology had progressed to allow me to create photo-montages that I could manipulate, I was stuck. After the relative success of the Strange Tales head, when Chris Teague accepted “In The Rain With The Dead”, I offered to come up with something again and, wise man that he is, he agreed on the assumption that we both liked the final image. I had a good idea of what I wanted – the woman, the cinema, the ouija board (which are all key elements) and I got cracking. Chris liked the image, so when I was involved with “We Fade To Grey” (which featured my story “The Mill”), I offered my services again, as I did when Rainfall Books published “Conjure”. Just recently, however, people have approached me to ask for cover art, which is very nice – I did the headers for the Pendragon Press PDF at last years FantasyCon, I’ve done the cover art for the upcoming “Alt-Dead” anthology edited by Peter Mark May and I have a couple more that are due out over the next year or so. I enjoy it, it’s a nice – and different challenge – and has its own rewards.
GNOH – What do you think makes a good story?
Good writing, great characters, realism (even the most far-flung sci-fi needs to make you believe in it), good pace.
GNOH – How attached or detached to your work are you by the time the final draft is handed in?
I have a peculiar relationship with my own work, to be honest. When I first get – and work through – the original idea, it all seems so full of life and promise and I begin writing with great hope and expectation. About halfway through the draft, doubts set in and I usually have an internal battle as to whether I should keep going or not and then, by the time I get to the end, I usually love it. I try to put projects to one side for a while, to get pre-readers assessments and to give myself space from the piece, so when I go back, it’s hopefully a bit of a surprise as to what’s there. So by the time the final draft is handed in, I’m usually very attached to it and find it difficult to switch off. That’s also part of the reason why I very rarely re-read my own stuff, because I know I’ll find clumsy bits that I could fix – if only it wasn’t in print!
GNOH – If you could write a story based in any other authors world, who why and what would you do?
Apart from my excursions into the Star Wars universe in the late seventies, it’s never really occurred to me to write in another authors world, to be honest. I’ve had cameos from the odd character of another writer (one of Gary McMahon’s pops up in my “Lost Film” novella), but other than that, nothing.
GNOH – How do you think the publishing world has changed since your novel In The Rain With The Dead was first published in 2005?
Well, the Kindle revolution has taken place basically. Back in 2005 (which makes it sound much further back than it really is), book publishing was all about the physical entity and that’s what made it all the more exciting for me. Chris at Pendragon accepted the book in 2004 and I did my final draft just before Matthew was born, in the May of 2005 and then it was published in October (it was launched at the FantasyCon that year). Part of my excitement was actually holding the thing – the thrill was getting it published, make no mistake, but being able to hold this beautifully produced, glossy paperback with my name and cover art and title on was overwhelming. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be excited if it was happening today, but there’s a massive difference between looking at a file on an electronic reader and the tactile experience of a book.
The other problem we’re seeing now is what we saw, at the turn of the century, when PublishAmerica and iUniverse and whoever else got going – with Kindle and Smashwords, people can publish what they want with absolutely no barrier between them and the reader. Nobody has proof-read for them, nobody has edited them, nobody has properly designed the artwork and a lot of times, it’s a real mess. Self-pubbing in physical books got a bad rep, because there were so many bad books created through it and I think we’re going to have the same with a lot of electronic titles too. Certainly, people are publishing through it (as I am) and some good material is being released but all of that is work that has been edited, revised and proof-read.
GNOH – Could you tell us about In The Rain With The Dead?
Absolutely. In late 2000, I’d had several short stories published and was just starting night school classes for my professional qualifications and so I decided to write a novel. I’d had a few ideas, spent a few pleasant weeks working on the notes and then on December 29th, started writing. 250 days later, on September 4th, I finished the first draft. I was pleased with what I had and revised it a few times, got some pre-readers to take a look and, crucially, mentioned it to Chris Teague at a Terror Scribes gathering. That makes it sound a bit easier than it really was, doesn’t it?
“In The Rain With The Dead” is, essentially, a love story between Jim Crenshaw and Nadia Jones, starting when they were in their teens and then picking up a decade later. Their separation is forced by the death of a close friend and, ten years later, another death brings them back together when they meet at the funeral. Unfortunately, there’s also a demon called Magellan, who catches sight of Nadia and decides he wants her for himself.
The novel got pretty good reviews and it sold out for Chris – which was always my barometer for success – and I was very pleased with it. The romance worked well, without being soppy and the violent sections were extremely unpleasant and it was everything I could have hoped it would be.
A couple of years ago, I decided to re-visit the novel for possible submission to Leisure Books in the US. They wanted a 90k word manuscript, the published novel was 102k words and so I went back and cut it down (there’s one murder, at the end of the published novel, that on reflection is perhaps a step too far so I took that out) and sent it off. Unfortunately, Leisure Books subsequently went down the tubes so if anyone’s on the look-out for a 90k horror novel, give me a shout!
GNOH – You recently republished your short novel Conjure with Generation Next Publishing, what drew you to such a new publishing company?
I’d worked with Stephen James Price before, briefly, when he was involved with publishing my collection “Incidents In Quiet Places”. When he left that company and started Generation Next, we stayed in touch and I mentioned the novel to him. “Conjure” is a lot shorter than “In The Rain With The Dead” and very different stylistically (very little blood and gore, a lot more atmosphere and supernatural tinges) and I really liked it. It was published in print by Rainfall Books who did a brilliant job on it, but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it didn’t get all that wide a release and I felt it deserved that. So when Steve asked about “Conjure”, I offered it to him (and re-designed the cover too) because I enjoyed working with him, he was honest and above-board and he did what he said he would do.
GNOH – Can you tell us what Conjure is about?
It’s about Beth – who’s newly pregnant, stuck in a job she doesn’t like and mourning the loss of her cousin – and Rob, who win a trip to an east coast seaside resort called Heyton. Their trip coincides with the accidental release of a centuries old evil, a witch who wants to take revenge on the town for her murder.
I wanted to write something removed from the style and tone of “In The Rain With The Dead” (partly because I wanted to experiment, partly because of a dreadful family loss) and this is what came out. I moved the action to a little seaside town I’d used before (in my short “Empty Souls, Drowning”) and had great fun in setting it up and I tried to make it as important to the story as Beth and Rob and Isabel Mundy, who so wants her revenge.
GNOH – Does this version differ from the print version from Rainfall books in 2009?
No changes whatsoever, except for the interior illustrations. I produced seven for the print edition, but these were left out of the Kindle version.
GNOH – You have a blurb from Brian Keene, how important do you think blurbs are?
The “Conjure” cover blurb is from Gary McMahon and I was very pleased and proud to get that. The Keene quote came from the very early days of the Horrorfind website (this would have been 2001 or so), when he took my story “The City In The Rain” and I was thrilled. Now, I’m not so sure what kind of effect a blurb has – though they’re always nice to have – but with those two, I was very chuffed.
GNOH – On a similar note, how much do reviews affect you?
I’ve been pretty lucky, all things considered. “Strange Tales”, my collection from Rainfall Books which was published in 2003, got some good reviews overall, even if certain stories didn’t and Peter Tennant, at Black Static, called me a ‘talent to watch’. “In The Rain With The Dead” got some good reviews (but it was gory and that put people off) and the worst one put me down in comparison to Dean R Koontz (though the same reviewer also slated Ramsey Campbell), so I wasn’t too bothered. “Conjure” had pretty good reviews across the board and, interestingly, the biggest complaint has been the length, rather than anything in the story.
I think reviews affect everyone, regardless of what they say and if you take the good reviews, you have to take the bad. But that’s part of the process – we write the stuff because we want people to read it and most of those people have an opinion.
GNOH – so what’s next?
Hopefully more writing – as I said before, I’ve got the bug again and I’m really enjoying creating new material. I’ve got some ideas for a new novel, that I’m looking forward to working on and if people ask me for a short, I’m keen to try and get back into them.
Coming out, I have a short story in a three-writer-collection (with Steve Bacon and Neil Williams) which will be a Kindle release and I have a story in Peter Mark May’s “Alt-Dead” anthology (for which I also did the cover art), that’ll be released at FantasyCon this year. Looking further ahead, I have a Spectral Press chapbook and, hopefully, “Drive” will find a home (it’s close!). I’m also looking for a publisher for my “Lost Film” novella and, of course, don’t forget, there’s the 90k version of “In The Rain With The Dead” that’s looking for a new home!
Thanks very much, Jim, I’ve really enjoyed this!
GNOH – Many thanks for taking the time to give such great answers Mark.
Marks books can be found here