AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMON MARSHALL JONES
Today folks I would like to present for your reading pleasure an interview with Simon Marshall Jones, former record lable owner, and now owner and editor of the rather splendid Spectral Press
GNOH – Hello Simon, how are things with you?
Very good thanks – keeping out of mischief, anyway.
GNOH – Could you please tell a little bit about yourself?
I’m the owner/publisher/editor at Spectral Press, also a writer, house editor at Dead Tree Comics/Alternating Reality Books of Seattle, columnist for a couple of web-based ‘zines, an artist, also a book and occasional CD reviewer, as well as an even more occasional blogger. I’m also very heavily tattooed. Up until the end of 2009 I ran a record label as well, dealing in the more esoteric forms of music. I started writing fiction at the beginning of 2010, but eventually realized that I am a better editor/shaper of other people’s work than a writer, so that’s what I’ve stuck at ever since.
GNOH – You have had a pretty shitty time of it in recently how are things holding up for you?
In the wake of launching Spectral Press, things have definitely been looking up within the last six months. Before then, yes, I did experience a few hiccups, money and health issues mostly, but life has an odd little habit of balancing the lows with the highs, plus I’ve never been one to be too pessimistic about anything for too long, or to rest on my laurels. It’s far too easy to stay cocooned in a comfort zone, but nothing worthwhile ever gets achieved that way, which is one of the reasons why I launched Spectral Press at the beginning of this year.
GNOH – I see you like to build scale models, what is the appeal of these for you? Is it the fact you can completely lose yourself in the building of it?
I build scale models mostly because my wife won’t let me have a real tank to play with…. =D
Okay, being serious, it was something I did as a young lad, and I remember enjoying it immensely. So, when I realised that I needed to do something to relax of an evening and at weekends, it was a natural thing to slip back into a hobby that I already had some skill in, albeit those skills being somewhat rusty. I COULD read to relax, I suppose, but I deal with words all day, so I needed an activity that took me away from them. So I chose to get back into model-making, specifically tanks and armaments between the years 1915 – 1950. It’s just an area I’m interested in, so the model-making is just an extension of that.
It’s had one unexpected benefit, however, completely unlooked for. Fourteen years ago, my left hand’s dexterity was compromised by a stroke – and since I’ve taken up the hobby again that dexterity has improved immensely, and little-by-little some of the strength I lost is returning. I’m hoping that, eventually, I’ll get back most of it back – I reckon that, at present, I have about 85 – 90% of what I used to take for granted, and anything which helps it along, even if it’s just a slight improvement, is to be welcomed.
GNOH – I see that you are also an artist, how would you describe your painting style?
I’ve always drawn and painted as far back as I can remember, so when it came time to choose a career, I decided to study art. However, the thing that really fired my ambitions, the incentive to actually become an artist, was my discovery of the work of HR Giger in the mid-seventies through Bob Guccione’s OMNI magazine. I’d always been a fan of surrealism (Magritte, Dali, Ernst, etc), sci-fi and fantasy art (Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, Chris Foss and Jim Burns, etc.), but encountering Giger’s artistic vision was like having an earth-shattering revelation forcefully thrust upon me. His paintings were organic, horrific, frightening, nightmare-inducing and quite simply beyond anything I’d seen up until then. Above all, it truly personified the word unique.
As a consequence, I began using the airbrush exclusively, the instrument which Giger himself wielded in order to bring his imaginings to such clear and realistic life. I admit my style is directly influenced by his but necessarily, I’ve also introduced my own elements into the mix, such as ideas of social, political, ideological, religious and physical bondage (including fetishism), as a subtext to underline that we are all in bondage to something in our lives, whether it be a job, a mortgage or a way of life. It’s an inescapable reality, no matter how free we think we are. My art isn’t something that would sit comfortably above most people’s mantelpieces, however, and those who see it either love it or hate it – there’s no sitting on the fence.
GNOH – As a book reviewer do you subscribe to the theory that behind every reviewer / critic, there is a frustrated author trying to break out?
I’m definitely a frustrated writer, but I can only speak for myself – I have so many ideas in my head but I just don’t appear to have the knack of transposing the words effectively to paper. I can create whole worlds in my head, but whenever I start to write them down they lose whatever lustre they appeared to have when ensconced in my head. Reading how other authors manage to conjure up their creations with such practiced ease and with such verbal economy only serves to heighten my secret jealousy, not assuage it!
GNOH -Do you prefer being called a reviewer or critic? Do you print bad reviews? Personally I try to steer clear posting a damning review of a book. I’ll rather email the author and say thanks for letting me read the book, but I didn’t like it and I’m not going to publish the review?
I prefer being called a reviewer, but the core of the matter is that I just like writing about books and reading. When it comes to negative reviews, I take the line that all writers, from those just starting out right up to seasoned campaigners, want to improve or get even better so, even if I dislike a book, I will offer constructive criticism in amongst writing about what I feel are the failures of the book. Yes, I know that for many their latest novel is often a labour of love, but if an author is at all serious about their work then helpful criticism can only aid them in honing their craft. Destructive criticism, however, doesn’t do anyone any favours, least of all the reviewer.
GNOH – You owned a record label, is that correct or am I getting confused again? If so what type of music did you put out?
Yes, I did indeed run a record label, between 2008 and 2010. I’ve always been interested in music that challenges people’s concepts of what music is – I’ve always considered what others would think of as noise is ‘music’ in its purest form. For instance, as I type the answers to this interview rain is pitter-pattering on the roof my office and to me, it’s one of THE most beautifully musical sounds anyone can ever hear. So, Fractured Spaces Records dealt in very obscure, wilfully non-commercial forms of music, such as dark ambient, harsh electronics, industrial noise, death industrial, glitch and avant-garde, amongst other genres. Despite the fact that, ultimately, the music biz isn’t for me, that truly underground scene was, and still is, an incredibly thriving hive of creativity and activity, and furthermore, testament to the idea that music needn’t be constrained within narrow boundaries or definitions as promulgated by the mass media.
GNOH – What lessons did you learn from running the record label? Were these lessons transferable to running your publishing company?
Absolutely I learnt a thing or two from running the label – first and foremost, that working within the music business was definitely not for me. One of the other lessons I’ve taken on board is not to rush things, as I did by releasing too many CDs in too short a time, inevitably leaving me with a great deal of unsold stock. There’s nothing more demoralising than seeing stacks of boxes full of unsold CDs gathering dust in a storeroom…
As far as Spectral is concerned, I only publish what I can afford to, and on a sensible schedule. Having said that, I also try to get the best out of every element, from the stories featured right through to the printers. Even if people are only spending £3 for a chapbook, they expect and demand value for money. Readers will soon leave in droves if you present them with a shoddily photocopied and hastily stapled-together production. This is why I am grateful for finding Neil Williams, whose graphic design skills have indelibly contributed to the look of Spectral. Without that, and the careful attention to detail at every stage, I doubt whether the imprint would be as successful as it is.
GNOH – What is the appeal for you of horror and alternative writing. And just what do you mean by alternative writing?
The best horror and alternative writing (if by that you also mean contemporary fantasy and science fiction, for instance) goes straight to the heart of the human condition, despite what the literary snobs and naysayers will tell you. A work like Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, goes far beyond being mere ‘space opera’ – it’s about the mechanics of internecine political maneouvring and machination, kingmaking, the nature of both political, temporal and spiritual power, and the nature of the consequences of the use and abuse of those powers. Horror (and crime fiction), too, by its very nature, delves into areas of the human psyche that very few of us are willing to go, the heart of darkness that resides in all of us. Horror will often address issues that are seen to be taboo anywhere else, and a good writer will do so in a way that avoids the obvious while making you stop and think.
Humanity has always used the imagination to mythologise what it sees around itself and to find ways to explain the world. It’s what lifts us out our narrow little orbits and sends us soaring into realms not accessible any other way. Plus, the need to be told a story is still very strongly engrained within us all, no matter how sophisticated or intellectual we may deem ourselves. I don’t think it’s an accident, therefore, that genre writing often commands a fiercely loyal following that more literate works or writers can’t. And just because one reads genre fiction on a regular basis, it doesn’t mean a lack of intellect and taste on the part of the reader – as well as China Miéville I also read Umberto Eco, and the vision of both is as valid as the other.
GNOH – Who are some of your heroes of the genre?
There’s really only one ‘hero’ of the genre I have – Clive Barker. He was the one who opened up the horror genre for me, and emphasized that horror had infinitely more places to go than hack and slash or even supernatural fiction did. His Books of Blood were a revelation, in particular his short story In the Hills, the Cities. Then came Weaveworld, followed by the absolutely stunning Imajica, and I suppose that was when I finally realised that fantasy and horror could be mixed, thus freeing both from self-imposed restrictions and conventions.
GNOH – Have you ever actually met any of your heroes? Did they live up to the expectation. The only author who I have had the honour to meet face to face was David Gemmell, who more than lived up to my expectations?
Clive Barker is the one person I have yet to meet – and all I want to do is to sit down with him and talk over a cold pint of beer. Maybe even persuade him to let me have an unpublished short from his Books of Blood era for a Spectral chapbook…
GNOH – So what made you decide to set up Spectral Press? And what made you go down the route of doing limited edition chapbooks?
I have to admit here that Spectral Press is the product of a moment of complete and utter madness. I’d just returned from FantasyCon 2010, where Nicholas Royle had thrust a couple of copies of his Nightjar Press chapbooks into my grubby little hands for review, and when I had time to actually stop and read them, it just struck me as being the perfect format for displaying the short story work of writers. So, not long afterwards, the idea for Spectral press germinated in that tattooed head of mine.
I chose the limited edition route simply because I didn’t have access to a great deal of capital, not in the immediate aftermath of the record label ceasing trading, anyway. Additionally, 100 seemed the most sensible, aesthetically-pleasing and balanced number to go for. Additionally, the format was pretty much set from the very beginning.
GNOH – The chapbooks are very high quality, and are well worth the money, how can there be a profit margin on these books?
In all honesty, there isn’t much of a profit margin with the chapbooks but, again in all honesty, making a big profit isn’t why I set the imprint up. For me, it’s all about the story and wrapping it up in an equally high-quality presentation. There are some great storytellers out there and I just thought it would be a great idea to bring them on board, get them to write something and then to publish them as beautiful little artifacts in their own right.
GNOH – This may seem like a stupid question, but how did you go about setting the company up?
It is a stupid question…. NO, I’m just kidding!! =D
I contacted writers to see whether they were interested, and received an amazing response which completely bowled me over. I then had to solve the question of funding the project, and so I came up with the subscription service. Again there was a brilliant response (and remember, I was more than something of an unknown quantity then). I searched for, and found, an excellent local printer with whom I now have a great working relationship, and who knew exactly what it was I wanted. Not only did they deliver, but they exceeded all my expectations. And that, truthfully, is how I started it all.
GNOH – Did you have a list of authors that you wanted to publish, or did you put the call out for submissions?
I did indeed have a list of possible authors I wanted to publish, as I established from the very beginning that I wanted the imprint to be invite-only. Why? It was mainly because I was already familiar with all these author’s works, but also because I didn’t want to battle my way through a potential deluge of submissions. I’m not afraid of hard work, but there’s still a limit…
GNOH – How did you decide on the order of publishing? Was it first come first serve?
It’s mainly just when someone who’s agreed to write for Spectral sends something in – nothing more than that.
GNOH – The series was kicked off by What they Hear in the Dark by Gary McMahon. You set the standard very high with this one, are you concerned about keeping the standard up?
That’s my main priority – I’ve already established a small reputation for both a high-quality product and sensibility, which I need to maintain. I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist, it informs everything I do, particularly when it comes to Spectral.
Having said that, in terms of stories, I also want to take a bit of a risk here and there, perhaps by featuring an author who has a very different slant on what constitutes horror or supernatural fiction. What I fear most, next to loss of quality, is stagnation, or just churning out the same thing every time. There’ll be stories covering the whole spectrum, from the ‘traditional’ to the surprising – I think it’s an absolute necessity to do so. I won’t succeed every time, but that’s not a weakness, it’s a sign of a willingness to push boundaries, I think.
GNOH – How much editorial control do you have over the stories? Have you asked for rewrites etc?
I’m quite a particular editor, because I know exactly what I’m looking for in a Spectral story. I would also class myself as a firm but fair editor, only asking for rewrites if I think they’re absolutely needed. However, I am lucky in that I work with some great writers, so heavy editing is totally unneeded – just some fine-tuning, that’s all.
GNOH – So far the stories have been what can be classed as quite atmospheric horror, is this going to be the background theme to the series, or can we expect some real splatter fests from you?
I prefer atmospheric stories to splatter fests, but that’s just a personal preference and definitely not any kind of judgment on those who like splatter and gore. If the context of whatever the story is demands a bit of the red stuff, and it works well within that context, then I’ll definitely go for it. My main prerequisite is the stories us implication and suggestion to provide the chills, rather than all-out, in-your-face material – but I will never rule it out completely.
GNOH – Can you spill any beans on some of the upcoming authors?
The next chapbook, Volume III, is Cate Gardner’s Nowhere Hall. Her work is more akin to Dark Fiction rather than pure horror, and the stories are often disguised with a disarming whimsicality that completely contradicts the nasty undercurrents flowing beneath – one of my favourite writers, in fact. Then we have Paul Finch, whose work has graced both the small and big screens as well as print, in a medieval tale of misplaced hubris in King Death. Following that we have World Fantasy Award-nominee Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Rough Music, then up-and-coming writer Alison J. Littlewood with The Eyes of Water, followed by Mark West’s What Gets Left Behind and, at the end of next year, something from zombie-apocalypse maestro Wayne Simmons. Other authors you can expect chapbooks from include Simon Bestwick, Terry Grimwood, Paul Kane, Stephen Bacon, John L. Probert, Thana Niveau and a whole phalanx of other notables of the scene.
GNOH – Which author would you most like to publish?
Actually, there are quite a few I’d like on board, but here’s my dream wish-list: Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Conrad Williams, Tim Lebbon, Lisa Tuttle, Sarah Pinborough, Dennis Etchison, etc., etc… a man can dream, can’t he?
GNOH – I’ve heard rumblings in the ether that you are going to set up a Spectral Pulp imprint, which will hark back to the days of Ace Paperbacks. Tell me it’s so, I am a huge fan of pulp writing.
This is definitely one possibility – at present my main focus is building Spectral’s presence in the genre and establishing a solid reputation for it first. Once I’ve done that, however, everything else flows from it and it’ll achieve a momentum of its own.
By the way, I collect all those old Ace paperbacks myself, especially the SF and Fantasy ones.
GNOH – So what does the future hold for you?
In the immediate future, I’ll be concentrating solely on the quarterly chapbooks (harking back to what I said above about not rushing things), but I AM already planning some expansions to the lines of books available. In early 2013 I’ll be launching Spectral Signature Editions, handsomely bound volumes of single author collections in limited numbers and also in a VERY limited edition. The first one will be Simon Kurt Unsworth’s. There are other ideas being explored, but I won’t say anything about them until something more concrete has been worked out. Suffice to say, though, that they’re very exciting developments – certainly I think I can say with some confidence that Spectral has a potentially great future ahead of it!
I highly recommend you check out the Spectral Press Chapbook Series, they are extremly well made, and more importantly they are extremly well writtin and rewarding reads
Click Here for Subscription Details