An Interview With Stuart Young
Today folks we have Stuart Young over for a chat, as well as being an an author you should look out for, he is a wise man indeed. You’ll notice he has got me pegged straight away.
Hi Stuart , how are things with you?
I’m fine, thanks. Apart from some idiot wanting me to answer a lot of stupid questions about writing and horror and, um, hang on, who did you say you were again?
Before we get into the meat of the interview, could you please give us some background to yourself?
Not much to tell. I work in a mental health home. I write stories. I’m incredibly handsome. I don’t always take interview questions entirely seriously.
I see that you are a fan of Jackie Chan, it’s been a while since he made a decent film, what do you think was his last great film? I would have to go back to Police Story 2
Well, his earlier films tend to have better action sequences just because he still had at least two bones in his body that he hadn’t yet broken in his crazy action sequences, but those films also tend to have pretty rubbish stories and acting. Offhand, if I was picking out a fairly recent offering I would go with Gorgeous because the story is slightly slicker in execution than his earlier stuff and is a bit more coherent in thematic structure. The fights are good too; they start off a bit slow and low-key to lull you into thinking that working in Hollywood has made him go soft, that he’s not putting the effort in any more, but then each subsequent fight is faster and more complex than the one before. By the final fight with Brad Allen he and Allen are just twin blurs of intersecting motion. It may not be his best film but I think it may be the one where he created the best blend of Hollywood sensibilities with Hong Kong action and slapstick. Overall I find the whole film rather charming.
When people find out you are a writer, and they ask you what sort of stories do you write, after your eyes have rolled back down what do you tell them?
I normally fumble about desperately when trying to describe what sort of stories I do – “It’s scary stuff that’s kind of funny but also quite serious and dead realistic apart from all the bits that I just make up and all the supernatural elements which come to think of it I don’t use in all my stories and the protagonists are really sympathetic apart from all the times you want to punch them in the face and ….” This leaves the other person not only totally confused as to what I write but also convinces them that I am in urgent need of psychiatric treatment. Recently I’ve attempted to simplify things by just saying, “I write horror. Plus some other stuff.”
Do you think their impression of you changes when you tell them?
Depends if they think I really do need psychiatric treatment.
And how many of them proceed to tell you about their novel?
If they’re someone I’ve met outside of a convention then hardly any of them. If I’ve met them at a convention then nearly all of them.
What do you love about the genre?
The same thing I used to hate about it: that it’s scary. As a kid I always used to avoid horror, I didn’t want anything to do with it because it was too scary. Just seeing the covers of horror novels would freak me out. Consequently, most of my early exposure to horror came about through reading and watching SF or fantasy stuff that would occasionally be scary around the edges. Stuff like Dr Who where I’d be, “Oh, this is a fun programme about a nice man who travels through time in his police box helping people out and oh my god there’s a monster!” Or the ’50s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; BBC2 used to show loads of those old creature feature B-movies and they all used to end happily with the square-jawed hero seeing off the alien invaders and I thought this would be the same thing so the ending was a real sucker punch. Although it looks pretty tame now it completely terrified me, I was totally traumatised for the next twenty-four hours. I was only a little kid, I didn’t want ambiguity, I wanted to see aliens getting their arses kicked. Even Star Wars comics weren’t safe; while the publishers were waiting for Return of the Jedi to come out they would print all these non-canonical stories to fill the gap and some of them were pretty damn creepy. I’d be reading the comics because I wanted to see Luke and Han trade wisecracks whilst having swashbuckling adventures but would end up reading freaky philosophical fables about the limitations of imagination and the cruelty of fate, featuring amoral cosmic beings who thought it was fun to use humans for experiments in body horror.
Stories like that made me uncomfortable but they also made me think. And there didn’t seem to be any escape from the scary stuff so eventually I toughened up and started reading horror.
And what is it about the genre that you dislike?
That it’s not scary. Even though people keep telling me that it is really, honest. Some writers take five pages to describe someone getting eviscerated but I’ll be bored after five lines. And other writers try so hard to be subtle that I get to the final page and have no idea what the story was about let alone why it was supposed to be scary. So I do tend to feel a bit cheated when horror stories aren’t scary. Mainly it’s because I’m such a wimp; if the writer can’t even scare me they’re doing something seriously wrong.
Although, to totally contradict what I’ve just said I don’t think horror always needs to be scary. I remember watching the Universal Frankenstein films as a kid and not being even the teensiest bit frightened. To me they were in the same vein as King Kong; thrills, a sympathetic monster and everything going back to normal at the end. I think sometimes you need that cosy kind of horror to help people acclimatise to the hard stuff.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
I’m tempted to say Terrance Dicks because of all his Dr Who novelizations and the kiddie horror novels he wrote which were pretty much the only horror fiction I read as a kid – plus, his Baker Street Irregulars series was one of that things that got me into reading Conan Doyle. Or maybe I should say Stan Lee because he not only revitalised the superhero genre, paving the way for lots of my other big influences – Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Joss Whedon – but he also wrote lots of short Twilight Zone style strips that were heavy on irony and creepiness; one of them still haunts my subconscious to this day. But seeing as we’re talking horror I’m going to say Alan Moore. I only recently realised that he wrote some of those freaky Star Wars comics I mentioned, so he’s been messing with my head for even longer than I realised. Although he’s only written a handful of “pure” horror stories – Swamp Thing, Neonomicon, From Hell, Nightjar – a lot of his non-horror work is pretty dark. And it’s largely because of him that I’ve looked at old school horror writers such as Lovecraft, Machen and Hodgson; not to mention writers such as Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell who helped redefine the genre in the ’70s and ’80s. Swamp Thing is probably Moore’s major horror work and it’s wonderfully atmospheric, has psychological torment, supernatural terror, cosmic horror and incisive social commentary. It also inspired the spin-off Hellblazer which is where I first became aware of Garth Ennis who is another of my big influences.
How do you ensure that what you write rather than it being your influences speaking through you?
There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg thing with literary influences. Do you become interested in certain themes and stylistic flourishes because they’re the ones used by your favourite author or did they become your favourite author because they used themes and flourishes that you already liked? Often some of the “influence” is already a part of your style. When I started reading Joe R Lansdale I liked his stuff partly because of his sense of humour, partly because I identified with his protagonists and partly because the martial arts he used in the fight scenes were similar to what I was training in at the time. Now, I was already putting jokes in my stories, obviously there’s at least some identification between me and my protagonists, and I was writing the occasional fight scene, so even if I completely ignored Lansdale when I wrote there would still be similarities in what we were doing. Of course with Lansdale being a Texan and me being British the obvious thing to do is set my stories in Britain to create an immediate difference between my work and Lansdale’s. In fact, I think the only time anyone commented upon the Lansdale influence was when I set a story in America; it was Louisiana rather than Texas but that was still close enough to give the game away.
At the moment I’m really getting into Charles L Grant’s stuff and again there are similarities between his work and what I’m already doing. So I’m hoping to take certain things that he does much better than me and incorporate them into my stories without anyone noticing. Of course now that I’ve told everyone that’s what I’m going to do all the reviews will be, “Ah, you can see him ripping off Grant again.” Even when it’s a story that I wrote before I started reading Grant.
What would be your desert island book?
Probably an omnibus of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series. I’m not sure how many of the novels are featured in the official omnibuses so I’ll just make up my own by taking the entire series to date and supergluing them together in one huge super-omnibus. Of course knowing me I’ll end up supergluing all the pages together and won’t be able to read the books, which is a shame because they are excellent stories blending crime and supernatural fiction to engage in an incisive enquiry into the nature of morality and compassion. Plus, there are some really funny jokes.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
One of my friends as a kid was a huge Dr Who fan and wanted to write the novelizations. I thought this was a great idea and started writing too. Apart from being good fun I thought the writing would lead to fame and fortune and everlasting happiness. Obviously I am an idiot.
And how would you describe your writing style?
A spidery D’Nealian script which is completely unreadable. Wait, you mean my prose style. I aim for deceptive simplicity; keeping everything moving along with pace and clarity but hopefully with some hidden depths. In theory this surface clarity allows me to layer in different levels of complexity, so a story that at first glance appears very straightforward may actually contain a certain amount of ambiguity. And I like playing with tone, for example bouncing humour and horror off each other to stop a story becoming too one-note and samey.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I never used to care about plot, I’d just make things up as I went, but somewhere along the line I became a big fan of plotting. I think it’s a very underrated skill; people tend to only notice it when you get it wrong. Or, at best, they think it’s just a case of stringing a few set-pieces together which is a gross oversimplification of what can be done with plot. It’s not just about moving the narrative forward, it’s also about revealing aspects of the characters’ personalities and unfolding the themes the story is addressing. And doing it in such a way that it feels natural and unforced rather than artificial and structured. Some of the plots I’m most proud of are the ones where people didn’t even notice the narrative structure because they were too caught up in the story. Although the egomaniac in me gets a bit miffed that I didn’t get any credit for all the hard work I put in. I want praise, dammit!
How about research is something you do a lot of?
I don’t particularly enjoy research unless it’s about a subject I’m already interested in. My natural inclination is to just read a magazine article on the required subject then fake my way through the rest. Unfortunately sometimes research is called for. Lots of research. Sometimes the research takes so long that by the time I’ve finished it’s all out of date and I have to start again.
Another annoying thing is when I spend ages researching a story only to find that one of my favourite authors is about to publish a novel dealing with the same subject. These coincidences happen more often if two or more authors are interested in the same subject matter. A few years back Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles made me think it might be fun to try writing about something from a kind of New Agey mystical perspective, so rather than copy him I used Robert Anton Wilson’s non-fiction books as research only to later find out that Wilson was a big influence on Morrison. And Alan Moore. And probably a bunch of other people who I’m desperately trying not to rip off.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write?
I dance naked around the living room praying to the Dark Gods of the Cosmos. Nothing to do with the writing but it helps me relax.
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
The bulk of the editing is done once I’ve finished the draft. If I see a big mistake as I’m writing I’ll correct it there and then. Of course sometimes even though I know something’s wrong I can’t think how to fix it straight away so it’ll just get a big mark next to it to remind me to go back to it.
How do you know when the story is finished? Is there a point at which you know you can’t improve it anymore, or is it the scream of the approaching deadline that signals the end?
Deadlines play a big part in it. Word counts do too – “I know I should elaborate upon this plot-point but I can’t fit it in unless I rewrite the entire story. Again.” That’s where leitmotifs come into play; it’s not just about being pretentious, it’s about finding an economical way to unify the various plot strands. In a pretentious manner.
You’ve garnered some great cover quotes for some of the biggest and finest names in horror fiction. People like Brian Keene, Gary McMahon, and Tim Lebbon. How did you actually get these quotes, did you know these guys beforehand, or did you send them books out of the blue and hope for the best?
Gary reviewed The Mask Behind the Face and liked it; I didn’t meet him until afterwards. I met Tim at FantasyCon and Brian at the World Horror Convention and they were both kind enough to say nice things about the stories I sent them. The fact that I kidnapped their respective families had nothing to do with it. Similar thing with Mark Chadbourn and Mark Samuels. With T.E.D Klein I knew someone who corresponded with him and asked for an introduction; he asked to see Mask and liked it, so when the book was reissued as a WHC edition a few years later I asked him if it was okay to use his comments.
This makes me sound much more slick and professional than I actually am. I’m really pretty rubbish at networking and self-promotion. Despite having met Joe Lansdale three times I have yet to convince him that I am anything but a drivelling idiot. And I ran into Neil Gaiman at the first WHC I attended but unfortunately it was in the men’s toilets so it wasn’t really ideal circumstances to start a conversation — “So, Neil, I see that you really are Jewish.” Then when he was at FantasyCon I could not think of a single thing to say to him. We’re both standing there with British Fantasy Awards in our hands and I’m scratching my head thinking, “If only there was some topic I could use as an icebreaker.”
Is there a quote that you are most proud of?
John Connolly said something nice about Mask on his old discussion forums, but it was along the lines of “Well done” rather than something I could use for a cover quote. Still had me walking on air for a week.
Do you think these quotes help to sell books?
Not as much as I would like but I figure it doesn’t hurt to have them on the cover. I always prefer someone else to say something nice about my work rather than say it myself because everyone knows that I’m biased. I’ve seen some writers, including top-notch professionals, say stuff about their own work — “It’s fantastic! The best thing I’ve ever written!” — and then I’ll read it and it’ll be bloody awful. Praise tends to carry a lot more weight when it’s delivered by someone with some sense of perspective. Whenever I have to talk about my work I try to avoid using superlatives. If I make grandiose claims about how wonderful my stories are it’s because I’m taking the piss.
You seem to be most comfortable with the short story is there a reason as to why you haven’t tackled a novel?
The short stories I grew up on – Sherlock Holmes, Biggles, Just William – all had a strong sense of narrative, they were a sequence of events rather than a snapshot of a single moment, so I always had that sense of short stories being mini-novels. Add to that the influence of TV, films and comics where every single word counts and story structure is king and I developed the tendency to cram a lot of story into a small space. Often I look at my short stories and realise there’s enough plot for a novella and my novellas have enough plot for a novel. I’m probably going to have to unlearn some of my old habits and learn some new ones in order to write a novel.
What do you think makes for a good short story?
That it’s been written by me.
If you could go back in time and procure another author’s short story which one would you procure?
Offhand, ‘Hell Hath Enlarged Herself’ by Michael Marshall Smith.
You have published three short story collections, Spare Parts, Shards of Dreams, and The
Mask Behind the Face. How did you come to choose the stories for these collections?
It was a very precise and exacting process involving all the manuscripts and a large hat.
Do the three collections differ stylistically from each other, or would you say they each give a broad spectrum of your work?
Shards of Dreams is the one that’s most different because it’s mainly SF and fantasy, along with some out-and-out comedy stuff. Spare Parts and Mask are more similar to each other in theme and style, although Spare Parts is slightly more wide-ranging in exploring different sub-genres.
In The Mask Behind the Face the protagonist is “Forced to journey into the twisted labyrinth of his own dying mind Craig confronts the warping of his psyche and the whole of reality”, is there a message to this book that you are trying to get across?
Um, not really. There’s a certain amount of stuff about perception in there, the way people misread situations and the people around them, which is something I deal with in several of my stories. But otherwise the story was just a thought experiment to try and explore certain theological aspects of Christianity that had always bothered me. Doing it through the eyes of someone suffering from a brain disease helped illustrate some of the concepts but was largely there as a way to make the story dramatic.
I take it the book doesn’t have a happy ending? What’s your view on happy endings in horror novels?
You don’t really expect me to give away the ending do you? I want people to read the bloody thing.
Anyway, I think offhand most of the horror novels I’ve read have happy endings. I don’t have a problem with happy endings in general, some great horror novels have happy endings. You can do all manner of scary stuff before you have the characters ride off into the sunset.
And if someone was to take a trip into the twisted labyrinth of your own mind, what secrets would they discover?
With a bit of luck they would find the memory of where I left my Lemon Jelly CDs. Other than that they’d scramble through the tangled mess of my hopes and dreams, my fears and insecurities and a ton of useless trivia about pop culture.
The novella won a British Fantasy Award, were you at the awards ceremony when the winner was revealed, and how did you feel?
I was totally gobsmacked. I never thought I would win – I was up against Joe Hill for crying out loud – so when my name was read out I was sure it was a mistake. I genuinely believed the wrong name had been read out and sat there for a couple of seconds to give the announcer a chance to correct his mistake.
Lately just putting the word award anywhere near The British Fantasy Society, will have people reaching for their flaming torches and looking for the caps lock button. But how important was the award to you?
At the ceremony I got totally swept up in the moment and completely forgot my usual cynicism regarding awards. Although I was pleased to win and very grateful to the people who voted for me there are a lot of factors involved in winning, including a large dollop of luck.
Do you think being able to put BFS winner in front of your name has helped open any doors?
Not really. In my experience there’s this weird logic with awards; publishers will make a big deal out of any awards that they win but when I submit stuff they’ll refuse to look at it because apparently they believe that awards don’t mean anything. They then go on to tell me that they would be interested in looking at my stuff if I won more awards.
It didn’t help that I fell off the radar for a while. The same weekend that I won the award I messed up my back and shoulder and could barely write for over a year. Then all the projects I had lined up to appear while I was recuperating ended up falling through or being delayed so by the time I got any new material published everyone had forgotten about me and I was back to square one.
That said there probably are ways to make awards work for you but personally I’ve not had much success. A lot of it’s probably down to me not being pushy enough. Despite the 150 times I’ve mentioned the award in this interview I actually feel a little uncomfortable talking about it. Although it’s necessary from a marketing point of view every time I mention the award I feel like an egotistical prick.
Has there ever been a time that it has felt like a millstone around your neck?
Occasionally. It’s not just the award; the reviews were really good, with everyone saying how intelligent and sophisticated the story was. So there is a sense of having to make all my subsequent stories intelligent and sophisticated which is a challenge because quite frankly I’m an idiot.
Your debut collection Spare Parts, is being re –released as an E-book by Stumar Press. How did this come about?
I asked Stuart Hughes if he wanted to reissue the book and he said yes. Sometimes it’s that simple.
Have you revisited any of these stories, or is this exactly the same book as the original version?
It’s 99% the same. I spotted a couple of technical errors in my research and corrected those but otherwise I left it as it was. We even managed to include the original interior illustrations by Bob Covington and David Bezzina.
Would you say this is an ideal place for readers who are not acquainted with your work to start?
If they have an e-reader then yes. If not then it’s not quite so ideal.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
Ask me on different days and my answer would change each time. Today I’m going to say ‘Boxes’. It’s a pretty emotional story and I got to play around with some different techniques while writing it.
Other than Spare Parts, are there any other up and coming projects that you can tell us about? I believe that you are writing a column for Matt Cardin’s The Teeming Brain?
A collection of SF/horror stories entitled Reflections in the Mind’s Eye will be coming out from Pendragon Press, hopefully some time before the next millennium. There’s a story in the Darker Minds anthology coming out soon. And one in either volume 2 or 3 of the Stumar Book of Horror, probably next year. There’s a bunch of other stuff I’m working on but we’ll have to wait and see how they pan out.
The Teeming Brain column came about because Matt wanted to revamp his website by bringing in new columnists. Matt and I share some common interests – neuroscience, spirituality, martial arts, pop culture – so I’m going to ramble on about stuff like that. Actually, some of the questions you asked me touched upon stuff I’m planning to tackle in the column so I had to resist the temptation to give you answers that would make War and Peace look like a post-it note and would also leave me with nothing to write about in my column.
It’s been an absolute pleasure Stuart, do you have any final words for the readers?
Fuscoferuginous. Mulligrubs. Psiturism. Wanweird. Just a few of the words that someone will probably use in a Lovecraft pastiche just to prove that they have an even fancier vocabulary than he did.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.