Get Your Wellies on The Tide of Souls is Coming in Fast, Simon Bestwick Talks
Today folks I’m proud to have UK author Simon Bestwick in for a chat, Simon is the author of among other things The Tide of Souls and The Angels of The Silences
GNOH Hi Simon How are things down in Lancashire?
On this particular Friday evening, pretty good. A quiet evening in with a couple of good DVDs beckons once I’ve finished this; in the meantime I’m perfectly happy typing away here with a bit of Tom Waits on the CD player.
GNOH – Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’ve been writing properly since 1997, starting out in small press magazines (there were a lot of them back then) and working my way up. So far I’ve managed to get into three Ellen Datlow anthologies (Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #18, Best Horror of the Year #1 and Inferno), make the shortlist for the 2009 British Fantasy Awards (for Best Novella with The Narrows) and publish one novel, two short story collections and a chapbook. I nearly wrote ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’ there. (I hate blowing my own horn, but I suppose somebody has to.) Other than that- I’m thirty-seven and I live in Swinton, Lancashire. Along the way I’ve been an actor, a drama teacher (very briefly!) served fast food (definitely the wrong job) and now pay the bills working for an insurance company. Oh, and I can cook- I kind of had to learn, because I can’t stand baked beans. I like single malt whisky, folk, rock and blues music… candlelight dinners… long walks on the beach in the moonlight… sorry, wrong questionnaire. That’ll teach me to multi-task.
GNOH – Why horror?
It’s the genre that suits me best. As a child I loved Dr Who (of course) which merrily scared the bejazus out of me. And of course there were all those schlocky 80s horror paperbacks- Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, John Halkin. But I was lucky enough to encounter the good stuff at an early age as well. My Grandpa had a big fat book called A Century Of Thrillers, where I read Michael Arlen, along with Blackwood, Bierce and best of all, Edgar Allan Poe. I first read ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ when I was seven, eight, nine years old- I’m lousy at fixing dates- and I can still remember the chill of terror and dread when I read ‘…and darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.’ Christ. Still gives me goosebumps now. No M.R. James or H.P. Lovecraft though, oddly enough- I didn’t discover them till years later.
In my late teens, I got very snobbish and threw nearly all my horror fiction out, and when I went to University I focused more on scriptwriting, but when I graduated I didn’t get anywhere looking for scriptwriting work. Worse, I didn’t know anymore why I actually wanted to write. So fiction- short fiction in particular- seemed the best place to go.
One influence that brought me back to horror was Nicholas Royle’s Darklands anthology, which showcased contemporary horror fiction a million miles away from either trashy 80s pulp or the older, more traditional stuff. Writers like Stephen Gallagher, Julie Akhurst, Joel Lane, Philip Nutman and Michael Marshall Smith; it was a collection that showed horror could be an intelligent, literary branch of fiction, that didn’t have to be about splatter or mired in the past.
The other influence- this always raises a few eyebrows- was Shaun Hutson, believe it or not. I’d started rereading his stuff in my last year at college, when I picked up a dog-eared copy of Renegades in a second-hand bookshop in Scarborough. I was used to reading plays and film-scripts, so polished prose style was a long way down my list of priorities. I was a huge Sam Peckinpah fan and thought here was a writer whose books did something similar to Peckinpah’s films- gritty, dialogue and characters who were both appalling and compelling in equal measure, who visited places you’d never dare go in real life. That also chimed with the playwrights I most admired- Edward Bond, Howard Barker, David Rudkin. I also liked the way Hutson wove together the thriller and horror/supernatural elements in his work.
Looking back, I was probably investing his stuff with more meaning than I could reasonably claim for it now- and to be fair, Hutson has never made any pretension to writing anything other than entertainment- but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it appealed to me back then, or that it helped attract me back to the genre.
Every genre is a bit like a toolbox- its nature, its tropes, its conventions or traditions all lend themselves to doing certain things. If you want to anatomise social ills, or the nature of cruelty and violence- whether down at the bottom of the heap or at the top- crime fiction can give you very handy tools to do it with. If you want to look at where certain trends might take us, science fiction is ready and waiting.
But any of those things can take you into the territory of the horror genre. Horror is essentially about unease. Nick Royle had a wonderful description of Ramsey Campbell’s fiction as being set ‘anywhere we allow our imaginations to interpret our surroundings in terms of nightmare.’ So if you’re afraid of urban decay and crimes of violence, you can quite happily reach over into the crime genre and pinch some of their tools. Technology? Where we might be going as a society, as a species? Science fiction won’t mind you borrowing from it. But you can mix and match. Not that horror doesn’t have its own specific tools- ghosts, monsters and so forth. They can all be put to different uses- ghosts can be about the influence of the past over the present, whether it’s about the need to right old wrongs, pressures to repeat the tragic mistakes of the past, or simply the enduring power of the emotional effects people have on us- love, hatred, guilt, grief. That’s one possible use- as a writer, you can find others, I’m sure. And there’s been reams of literature written about what vampires and werewolves represent.
Of course, I’ve heard science fiction writers similarly argue that their genre encompasses all others, and thriller writers argue that their type of fiction was the first kind of story told (what, the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its journeys into the land of the dead?) so plenty of people will say I’m talking out of my arse. But I’m used to that. Ultimately, this is the kind of writing that lets me say what I want or need to say; it’s flexible and varied enough that it’s neither a restriction or a ‘comfort zone’.
GNOH – Which authors would you say have influenced you the most?
William Shakespeare. Seriously. I was lucky enough to have a great English teacher, Geoff Hardman, who could get you to understand and appreciate the language and not be afraid of it- explaining how Shakespeare’s work had to appeal to the whole audience- from the university-educated types in the balcony to the groundlings who were basically looking for broad laughs (in the case of comedy) and thrills, chills and spills (in the case of more serious fare.) So you’d have clever classical allusions, witty puns and homages to the works of Ovid and Seneca on the one hand, and knob jokes, sword fights, severed heads, scheming villains and the odd ghost on the other hand.
And Shakespeare was able to use this to create some of the finest drama- and poetry- in the English language. Not by dumbing down or selling out, but by drawing on the widest possible range of influences. Sort of like combining the experimental style and philosophical preoccupations of say, Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour with a Michael Bay blockbuster (ugh- OK, bad example.) Of course, European cinema seems to do that rather well- the French have shown themselves more than capable of that with films like Martyrs, for example.
The acting background threw up a few other influences in terms of playwrights- Edward Bond and Howard Barker write intense, stark plays that explore the extremes of emotion and ask the big questions- how do we work? How does the world we live in work? How should we live? And most of all, perhaps, was David Rudkin- his TV work, such as Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen, which is horror in the same way that David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Lost Highway are. Scarier than any Saw movie.
It’s about toolboxes again- life is complicated and if you want to ask those big questions you need as many tools as you can get. If it has commercial appeal as well, so much the better.
Within the genre itself- Stephen King, of course, is an impossible writer to ignore. Not that I want to ignore him. Ramsey Campbell has done more to uphold the idea of horror as a branch of literature than any other living author. Clive Barker’s Books Of Blood showed me that horror could function without the conventional, puritanical morality I’d associated with it and become about possibility- beautiful as well as terrible. Lovecraft for his ability to orchestrate and structure a story, together with his atheist perspective on horror. M.R. James for his economy and subtlety of language. Robert E. Howard for writing punchy, pacy stories that could still evoke an oppressive sense of dread and fear. Joel Lane, as well as a fine writer, is also one of the genre’s most insightful commentators. Clark Ashton Smith for his sardonic, decadent humour. Arthur Machen for his blending of the numinous with the everyday. And many more…
GNOH – Are there any Yorkshire authors that you have a bit of a rivalry with?
Nah. Deep down, they all recognise the innate superiority of Lancashire. J
GNOH – Could you give us an insight into your writing process?
Having had an initial idea, I jot it down, followed by any other ideas that bob up in its wake. This carries on until I can sketch out an outline for the piece and thereby con myself I know what I’m doing, which can take anything from hours to years.
Once I’m there, it’s just a case of sitting down each day and writing2500 words a day till the first draft’s finished. I take a very workmanlike approach to the whole thing- just show up at the keyboard at an agreed time and begin, basically because I know what a lazy, indolent bastard I’d be otherwise, spending my time sat on my ever-expanding arse pontificating about the great books I was going to write. It’s much easier to do that than get down to the mud and muck of actually writing a bloody novel. I can’t allow myself to get precious or ‘arty’ in my approach. That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t take what I’m doing completely seriously.
Next is weeding out the stuff doesn’t work and adding or changing what’s there so that it works better. There’s also be a long list of things to research in more detail; I often won’t know what needs to be checked up on until I’ve actually written the draft.
The final, and in many ways best, stage of it is rewriting the novel chapter by chapter, which is usually about simplifying what’s already been done. It’s a real buzz when you finally click into a frame of mind where you start to see what’s necessary and what isn’t, and when you realise just how many of those words you can do without. That’s when, if you’re lucky, you’ll find out what the damn thing’s actually about.
GNOH – How hard to you find it to give up the final manuscript once the dead line is up?
‘Art is never finished. Only abandoned’- Chekhov. Again, I try to be pretty workmanlike about it. I list the things that need fixing and then I fix them, whether it’s to do with characters, plotting, ideas or language. Ideally the end product should have a kind of rhythm, a kind of music to it, like poetry- but (the tricky part) looking natural and effortless. That’s the kind of writing I really admire, and getting it right is hard work.
GNOH – How much of you and your experiences end up in your stories?
Quite a lot, although I don’t write much that’s directly autobiographical. There are scenes in my novelette ‘The School House’ that come very close to things that did happen, but just as many of the school scenes- especially the most horrific ones- are complete fiction. The story’s narrator, Danny Denholm, isn’t a self-portrait, but there’s probably more of me in him than I’d like.
Basically, bits and pieces of myself and my own experiences get worked into different characters. It’s the actor in me, and it gives me some distance from what I’m writing about. There are basically two things you need to build a character- one is the ways in which that character differs from you, in terms of gender, sexuality, occupation, beliefs and so on, and the other is the common ground. You’re the only person you really know inside and out- and I don’t think everyone can necessarily say that much- so how you feel about something, respond to something, whatever, is the only reference point you’ve got. But if you can connect to the character you’re writing about, they’ll eventually come to life.
GNOH – Your novel Tide of Souls is part of the Tomes of the Dead series from Abaddon books. How did you become involved with them?
Equal parts luck and hard work. I went to the 2007 Fantasycon in Nottingham and in there was a magazine in the goodie bag they hand out, with an advert for the various series Abaddon were doing on the back. I remember thinking it looked interesting. At that time the only other British imprint publishing horror was Virgin Books, who weren’t taking submissions around then. So after the Con, I checked out Abaddon’s website and emailed them.
The luck was that the Commissioning Editor was Jon Oliver, who I’d met at an earlier Fantasycon in 1999 and run across on the odd messageboard since. I knew Jon- only in passing- as a fan of horror, science fiction and fantasy- but he’d read and enjoyed stories of mine in the past. I don’t know how much of a difference that made, but I was told I was fine to submit a proposal when they opened again for submissions in 2008. I did, and to cut a long story short, Tide Of Souls was commissioned.
GNOH – Can you tell us what Tide of Souls is about?
It’s about 384 pages long… sorry, couldn’t resist. Essentially, there’s a Biblical flood that swamps the whole world, with only a few pieces of high ground above the water. Millions of people drown, and then- to put the tin lid on things- come back to life and start attacking the living. The novel follows three characters fighting to survive all of this, who are brought together around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, now an island surrounded by hordes of the living dead.
GNOH Do you have a favourite zombie novel?
I haven’t read many zombie novels, but I have read some fantastic riffs on the theme at short story/novella length, like Joe R. Lansdale’s On the Far Side Of the Cadillac Desert With The Dead Folks.
GNOH – Angels Of The Silences was recently released by Pendragon Press, how has the release gone?
So far it’s been reviewed on Goodreads and Welcome to the Hellforge, which have both been very complimentary, but it doesn’t seem to have made the biggest of splashes. It looks like something might have gone wrong during the proofing, as well, because it’s riddled with typos and worse. I’m not blaming Chris Teague- accidents happen- but it’s a shame.
GNOH – You write primarily in the first person, is that not a little bit limiting?
Do I? I’d never really thought of it that way. If you look at the two short story collections, I think there’s just as many stories written in the third person as in the first.
As for it being limiting, it can be, but doesn’t have to. Tide Of Souls is written in the first person, but there are three narrators, each telling part of the story, so that hopefully gives you the best of both worlds- the narrative range of third person storytelling plus the immediacy of the first person. Since Tide, I’ve written two novels and half-completed another, all in third person. Funnily enough, the first of these- a massive bloody thing, nearly 200,000 words long in first draft- is all told from one character’s POV, which is a lot more limited than Tide Of Souls. The others switch between multiple points of view in a way that would be difficult in a first person narrative.
GNOH – I keep seeing the same UK authors mentioned in interviews, is there a sense of camaraderie among the relatively new and upcoming authors?
I think so, in the main. A lot of us are people who’ve come up at the same time, through a lot of the same routes. I’m good friends with a lot of writers of similar age to me- Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Conrad Williams, Joel Lane, Paul Finch, Cate Gardner. In his intro to Stephen King’s Night Shift: John D MacDonald’s said that he and King weren’t competing with each other for the reader’s attention, but with the hundreds of lazy hacks who’d never bothered to learn their craft. We’re all aiming for the same goals, more or less, and if one of us becomes successful it can only be good news as far as the others are concerned, because it means there are opportunities for writers like us, and it spurs the others on to catch up. Bloody McMahon’s in the lead at the moment, I’d say… (scowls.) J
GNOH – What do you think are the good and bad points of the genre today?
To be honest, I think they both come from the same source, which is the range and diversity of what the genre can do. When horror stopped being big and marketable back in the 90s and the small press kept the flame flickering, the genre split off in all these different directions- extreme horror, miserabilism, traditional ghost stories, Lovecraftian and, more recently, Ligottian horror. You’ve also got a section of the community that’s focused on a more recent, pulpy tradition- the Pan Books Of Horror, especially the mid- and later period ones in all their ambivalent glory, and of those 80s horror novels. It’s a great showcase of the range of things the genre is capable of, but I feel there’s too much sniping between the different schools. Mostly on message boards instead of on the letters pages of the old fanzines, but that just seems to help the bile and the venom flow a bit more freely. I’ve no more time for snobbery (the sneering highbrow) than inverted snobbery (the gleeful lowbrow); the writers who most interest me are the ones who try to incorporate a wide range of influences into their work- Gary McMahon again, Conrad Williams. It’s about that toolbox again. The wider the range of tools, the more you can accomplish.
GNOH – Money or integrity? Would you take a big advance to write a Mills and Boon story?
I doubt it! But ask me again twenty or thirty years down the line- I may be broke, drunk, divorced, on the skids and willing to churn out any old garbage for enough money to buy a bottle of gin. Christ, I hope not. But those are the kind of nightmares that feed into horror fiction too- acknowledging the possibility rather than denying it could ever happen is my way of trying not to tempt fate, a whistle in the dark…
In the late nineties/early noughties (I hate that word, but I don’t know what else to call that decade) I made the mistake of trying to write what I thought the market wanted (space opera and fantasy.) In my defence I was stuck in a low-paid, dead-end office job, mired in debt and I desperately wanted to escape; writing a commercially saleable novel became my Holy Grail.
It was like a hippopotamus trying to hang-glide. The result was that the writing became work in the worst possible way- drudgery, something I knew wasn’t working but kept doing in the hope I’d make it work.
Even when I stopped trying to write ‘for the market’ it took me several years to get back on the rails as a writer. Because I’d forced myself into a habit of not writing what I wanted, it was actually a struggle to get to the point where I could just have an idea and try to write it, instead of bending it all out of shape in order to suit some imagined marketing niche. At times I felt I’d effectively lost the ability to write- I hated everything I wrote- but never the urge. It was one of the most miserable times of my life. That piece of stupidity set me back as a writer by about four or five years. So now I am very, very careful in the sense that I know the kind of stuff I can write, and what I can’t.
That’s not to say you can’t write to a commission and be good. ‘The School House’ was written to a commission- to write a haunted house story- and became one of the most personal I’ve written. You take the material and you make it personal.
I want to make a living as a writer- however unforgivable a sin some people seem to think that is- but that’s because I love writing, both the process and having written. I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and if you want to live a reasonably happy life, your best bet is to spend as much time as possible doing what you love. So if a writer’s life didn’t fulfil those conditions, it wouldn’t be worth it.
GNOH – What does the future hold for Simon Bestwick?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a new novel, The Faceless, which will be out next year from Solaris, and I’m also putting a new collection together. I’ve got three stories due out shortly in anthologies: ‘The Moraine’ in Terror Tales of the Lake District, which is edited by Paul Finch and Steve Lockley, ‘Kiss The Wolf’ in Conrad Williams’ ‘weird Western’ anthology Gutshot, and I’ll be making my debut in Charlie Black’s Black Books Of Horror with a little tale called ‘Salvaje’. There’ll be a chapbook out from Spectral Press at some point in the future called Cold Havens. My story ‘Dermot’ is forthcoming in Black Static. I’ve got a couple of other novel-length projects to work on after The Faceless is finished, and I’d like to try and place a collection with an American publisher, start making an impression that side of the Atlantic. Also looking around and trying to get an agent as well. And I want to write some new short stories, and there’s a novel/novella I’m supposed to be writing in collaboration with Gary McMahon, called Witchland– when either of us has time to work on it!
Thanks Simon, it’s been great having you over for a chat.
I highly recommend you check out Simon’s work just click the links below