An Interview With Simon Maginn
It’s rather a special day here at Ginger Nuts Towers, as I have been given a chance to interview Simon Maginn. Simon has always been an author I have admired greatly. So when Simon contacted me and asked if I would like to do an interview with him I jumped at the chance.
Hello Simon, thank you for stopping over for a chat. How are things with you?
Hi Jim. Thanks very much for having me, and a big ‘Hello!’ and a firm, manly handshake to all your readers. Things are fine, thanks.
Could you give the readers a little bit of background information on yourself?
’m 50 years old. I live in Brighton, my adopted home town, with my partner of twenty years, Hugh. I’ve been writing novels for 18 years, first horror/psychological thrillers, then comedy, now – well, I’m not sure, frankly. I’ve just released my first novel, Sheep, as an ebook. I’m a difficult, solitary, argumentative beast. I play the piano a lot. Best left alone. Never approach from behind.
If you were given the chance to spend a year on Desert Island, all expenses paid with a nice big salary, what three books, films and albums would you take with you?
Films: 2001. Blade Runner. Brief Encounter (I know, I know…)
Books: Gormenghast Trilogy (Mervyn Peake).The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene). The Spire(William Golding).
Albums: Complete Bruckner symphonies. Complete Bach keyboard music. Complete Scarlatti sonatas (harpsichord, not piano).
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
For horror, Stephen King (surprise surprise). For comedy, Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen.
You seem to have a sort of love hate relationship with the horror genre, after four books you stopped writing horror novels. Were you a fan of the genre before you started writing in it? And what caused you to stop writing in it?
Tricky one this. It only became clear to me much later, but what had happened was that I had fallen in love with Stephen King. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen for a writer that way before or since – and so that made me think I must love horror. But I don’t: what attracted me to Stephen King was the non-horror elements; the sense of place and time, the extraordinarily immersive way he has about him, the immediacy and truthfulness of the descriptions, the depth and delicacy of the characterisations and so on. So The Shining, for example, I regarded as a brilliant piece of US fiction, with some supernatural bits stuck on: the supernatural elements I just regarded as a regrettable lapse of taste. A story such as Apt Pupil (from Different Seasons), with nothing supernatural at all in it, struck me as perfect. So when I set out to write a horror novel, it was Stephen King I was thinking of, but a Stephen King without the supernatural, without the fantasy.
For a few years I read other horror writers – it would be irrelevant and impolite to name them, but Shaun Hutson was, I think, the low point here – and none of them came close to what Stephen King could do in terms of emotional power. I had read a fair bit of horror by this time, and I was amazed at how ineffective much of it was. Is anyone truly frightened of vampires, werewolves, zombies, giant crabs? The books I read seemed like elaborate fairy stories, grotesque and fanciful to be sure, but not remotely frightening: a million miles away from the real fears that I and everyone I knew had – fear of the dark, of failure, of loneliness, fear of ruin and shame, and strongest of all, for me anyway, fear of madness, my own and that of others. Fear of the self. The same fears, of course, that drive The Shining.
I wrote my four books, and I was aware as I was doing so that I was moving, quite quickly, away from Stephen King-land, and was evolving my own voice. I was also moving further and further away from anything that could be considered mainstream horror. By the fourth book, Methods of Confinement, I was really just writing slightly creepy novels. No supernatural, no fantasy, just stories. But I was still being marketed as horror, even though regular horror readers would find little or nothing to please them. In marketing terms I had become a bit of a problem, and sales reflected that. After book number four had bombed like all the others, I just gave up. There didn’t seem to be any place for me within horror, and I didn’t seem to be able to get away from it. I felt trapped by it. I got out.
You have also stopped reading the genre, have you ever been tempted to dip your toe back into the waters?
No. That fantasy element is always there, and it just doesn’t appeal. But I read a cracking ghost story recently – Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. Beautifully written, brilliantly imagined, mesmerisingly slow, and deeply immersive. Or Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd: dark and silky and strange, with an undertow of genuine evil. I’ve read some bits and pieces of horror recently: Simon Strantzas (Nightingale Songs) is a fine, subtle writer, I think, and I’m a huge fan of Christopher Fowler. Ramsey Campbell is in a league of his own. But any suggestions would be most welcome, of course.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ (Dr Johnson.) I’m not aware of any motivation. It’s more like a bad habit. It just keeps on happening.
And how would you describe your writing style?
It changes. At the moment it’s almost ridiculously compressed – everything is getting shorter and shorter. I’m struggling to get the one I’m writing now up to a decent minimum of 50,000. I seem to need fewer and fewer words. Which would be fine in short form fiction, but novels do require a certain duration.
I try always to be concrete and visual. I see things first. I’ll get a sequence of pictures, then try to figure out how to get from one to the next.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I’m a big fat plotter. I endlessly plan and replan and write lists and make storyboards and so on. The one I’m writing now, for instance, has been brewing for nearly fifteen years. I’ve got postcards all over my bedroom floor with notes about it. And I still can’t get it right. I might have to give it another fifteen years. See what happens.
Research is often seen as the bane of a writer’s life, how bogged down do you get with research? And do you get the research out of the way before you start writing, or do you write then sort out the details later?
I love the research! I recall digging about in the University of Sussex library for something back in the 90s, and stumbling on a little pamphlet from 1853 produced by the Poor Law Commissioners about the problem of burials within towns. It immediately changed everything I was thinking about the book I was researching. I love libraries. I love finding things out, and then telling people. I’m researching the 1930s for the one I’m writing now, and it’s been an astonishing experience. I’m probably a frustrated academic at heart.
Pen and paper, or computer for the first draft?
This will be hard for some of your readers to believe, but my first three novels were all written longhand, then laboriously typed up on a manual typewriter, with an ‘e’ key that stuck. Editing was cut and paste – literally, with scissors and glue and sellotape. My manuscripts looked like field dressings from a particularly bad-tempered war. I didn’t get a computer until about seven years ago. Now I do everything on computer, although I often need to see things on paper as well.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write?
No. I need music on, though. It feels as if I need to drown out some internal critic who’s perpetually saying, ‘Give it up. You’ll never get anywhere. You’ll never be as good as [insert name here].’ Music clears the synapses somehow and lets the thing happen. I’m currently listening to a lot of Ravel and a lot of Bruckner. Bruckner makes you feel like a colossal marble statue of yourself.
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
I get it how I want it to be. Then an editor comes along and we have a big row.
You have been in the writing business for rather a long time, and must have seen some dramatic changes over the years. Apart from the rise of E-books, which we will talk about later, what do you think was the biggest change that affected you?
Oddly, I’m not very aware of these changes. I don’t think the basics have changed at all. You want to write something, you try to make it new, make it beautiful, make it the best you know how, then someone tries to sell it for you. (Usually they fail.) I don’t think that’s changed.
You also must have had some personal up and downs over the years, could you tell us about the biggest high and the lowest low you experienced over the years?
Hmm. Biggest high: getting a phone call from an editor at Transworld in 1992 asking me for the complete manuscript of my first novel, Sheep. She’d pulled my sample and synopsis off the slush pile (they don’t do that anymore), and I don’t think I’ve ever been more amazed or delighted, by anything.
Low point: not being able to sell my third Simon Nolan novel (Whitehawk: it finally came out in 2010 on Revenge Ink, thanks to the force of nature that is Amita Mukerjee). I gave up writing completely for about eight years after that. As far as I was concerned at that point, I’d been forced into retirement. I felt bitterly angry at the whole world, and that isn’t a great place to be.
But every page, every line, can be a triumph or a disaster. I go from euphoria to despair in the space of a few minutes. Stephen Volk (The Awakening) said recently: ‘Sometimes as a writer you feel like a giant made of iron. Then someone pulls the plug out of your ankle and your soul goes glug, glug, glug, glug and you are empty.’ That’s pretty much how it is.
How have you kept yourself motivated over the years?
I’m not sure it’s a question of motivation – it just keeps happening. I’ve given up any number of times, but then something happens and I’m off again. I don’t feel I have all that much control over it as a process. I’m usually up all night, and you’ve got to do something.
Your debut novel has just been re-released as an E-book, what are your feelings on E-books?
I’m not an ebook reader. I like physical books. But as long as people are reading, I don’t think it matters about the platform. Whether or not it’s any kind of radical new business model, though, is too soon to say, but it certainly makes self-pubbing an option when it wasn’t really before.
One of my biggest bug bears about E-books is the fact that now anyone and everyone seems to think they are an author, do you think the levelling of the playing field so to speak has been a good thing?
Actually, the book that dismayed me most recently was by ‘one of our biggest selling authors’, a major name. It was terrible: it was stuffed full of adverbs, characterisations were glib and thin and clichéd, and the story was predictable and stupid. People kept emoting in the most absurd and unbelievable way. And the writer used ‘rue’ as an intransitive verb (‘Yaddya yadda yadda,’ he rued.) Just calamitously poor writing. Huge seller, incredible reviews. Amateur or pro, anyone is capable of bad writing.
It’s been 18 years since Sheep was first released. Did you go back and read the book over again?
Ah yes, I did. I had to, to proofread for the ebook.
How did it feel going back to it, did you recognise yourself as the young writer who had written this book?
It was like finding a photo of yourself at a party twenty years ago. Jesus, did I really look like that? And what in God’s name is my hair doing? But it was surprisingly lovely to meet myself at that distance. It was like reading a writer who doesn’t know there are rules, who has no idea at all of what he’s doing but is just doing it anyway. I’m much more cautious these days. In some ways I wish I could return to that younger me, but he’s left the building.
Have you rewritten any of it? And if not why not?
I debated with myself about this. There’s plenty I’d like to change. But I decided not to. It is what it is. Let it be. I just took out a few adverbs, and changed one word – ‘evasive’ became ‘elusive’.
Could you tell the readers what the book is about?
No. Oh alright then. Rather than give a plot summary, though, I’d rather say what I think it’s about.
Fear erodes reason. Fear corrodes everything it touches. It doesn’t matter what the fear is, what it is a fear of, it warps and distorts and deranges. Sheep is about that. It’s also about religion. I wondered: what would happen if someone invented a new one, using the Bible, but mixing and matching bits of text to create a murderous new rite? Thematically, it’s about contamination: of land, of livestock, of food and of minds. That’s what it’s about.
Plot summary: family go to Wales to renovate a farmhouse over the winter. Sheep start being found, mutilated, torn open. Who is doing it, and why, and what will they do next? The destruction of the beasts has begun…
Sheep was turned into a film, how did you feel when you first heard that your book was going to make it to the big screen?
I felt big and important and wonderful and sexy.
How closely does the film stick to your novel?
The script went through enormous, major changes at the last minute, to the extent that nothing recognisable remained of my story. One or two of the visual elements that animate the book survive, and the sheep are still there, but the narrative connecting it all together is entirely new. The film is its own thing now, with its own fanclub. I’ve had people tell me they loved the film, but were then disappointed in the book, because it’s nothing like it. I don’t feel it has much to do with me, to be candid. I was angry about it for a while, but being angry gets tiring. And writers spend far too much time bitching about things like this anyway, I think. It’s a tough industry, get used to it. Bank the cheque. Walk away. Be happy.
The producers changed the name from Sheep to The Dark, why did they do this?
No idea. Fear of the dark is one of the themes in the novel, but not in the film. I’ve had innumerable people tell me that Sheep is a terrible title, though. I hadn’t anticipated that people would think it was about killer sheep. It just never occurred to me. And as for the inevitable sheep-shagging jokes…
Did you have any input into the screenplay?
How happy are you with the film? What do you think they got right and what do you think they got wrong?
It’s handsomely made and it has a certain charm and energy, I think. The landscape photography is stunning, the sheep are brilliantly deadpan, Abigail Stone lights up the screen whenever she’s on, there are a couple of heart-stopping moments (a scene where people are throwing themselves of a cliff with their suitcases, for instance), and for the first forty minutes or so I think it’s excellent. Then it all gets a tad confused. Much running about and screaming and impossible-to-understand plot moves. I’ve seen it three times now, and I still don’t get it.
Do you have plans to release your other Simon Maginn novels as E-books?
Funny you should ask, because I do indeed. I intend to release all four Simon Maginn novels, purely as an archive. Virgins and Martyrs is next.
Do you have a favourite of these books?
No. I really don’t. Sheep has been the one that got all the attention, and made me some money, and of course it was my first and everything. But I’m enormously proud of all of them.
You have also written a novella with Gary Fry, how did this come about?
Bit of a funny one. But basically Chris Teague of Pendragon Press asked me if I was doing anything, and did I fancy writing a novella to go with one he already had from Gary Fry? I’d never done one before, so I thought I’d give it a shot. The result is Rattus, a claustrophobic, solipsistic nightmare of a story. I like the novella as a form: the length suits me. Gary’s story is sensational.
The readers of this blog are most likely to know you as Simon Maginn the horror author, however what many, myself included, don’t know is that you are also Simon Nolan. What was the reason for the pen name?
Well now. Back in 1996, when my fourth Simon Maginn novel had bombed, I got angry. I was drinking and drugging and shagging a lot at this time, and I thought I’d write about that. It came out fierce and funny and filthy. It was a tremendous release. And we got some of the best reviews I’ve ever seen: seriously, if I’d written them myself they couldn’t have been any better. So I decided to become that for a bit. A new name just went along with a new style, new kinds of material, a new agent and a new publisher. And I love being a first time novelist. I’d have a new name for every book if I had my way. Be a first timer every time. That’s what I say.
Are you happier as a writer of “raucous urban comedies”?
I love doing them. I don’t know how many more of them there are going to be, though. The thing I’m working on now is back to serious, though not horror/psy thriller. Not sure what it is, to be honest. I think it might be (whisper it) a novel.
But surely writing comedy is harder than writing thrillers?
Couldn’t say. Very different from each other, that’s for sure, but again the basics are the same. Make it new, make it beautiful. Make it the best you can. All you have to do is make yourself laugh, basically. Like an odd form of self-abuse, in a way.
So who makes you laugh?
In books: Evelyn Waugh, P G Wodehouse, Rachel Cusk, Michael Frayn, Caroline Blackwood, Stella Gibbons. I’m a big sitcom fan: I love Big Bang Theory (some of the sharpest and best comedy writing around at the moment, I think). I loved Twenty Twelve, IT Crowd, Father Ted, Green Wing, Lead Balloon, Grandma’s House, Pulling, Getting On. Rebecca Front, Mitchell and Webb, Tamsin Greig, Olivia Colman, Hugh Bonneville, Eddie Izzard, Alexei Sayle, Jack Dee, Simon Amstell. This could turn into rather a long list, thinking about it…
Of your three comedies, which one would you recommend to the readers of this blog, who are interested in finding out about the other Simon?
Whitehawk (Revenge Ink, 2010). ‘Cold Comfort Farm meets 1984 on a housing estate in Brighton.’ It’s about a government initiative to try to make people behave rationally.
Do you have any future projects you can tell us about?
Someone just optioned my number three novel, A Sickness of the Soul, for TV, so I’ll get back to you in a decade or so on how that’s got all fucked up. I’m up to my neck in a new novel, which just needs, you know, writing. I’ve got the fourth Simon Nolan out later this year (Irrational Exuberance: a kind of anti-romcom, again on the wonderful Revenge Ink). And as I mentioned, I’m intending to release Virgins and Martyrs as an ebook later this year also.
Simon, thank you so much for popping in for a chat, it has been fascinating talking to you. Do you have any final words for the readers?
I love you all, madly.