Today I am more than honoured to have Reggie Oliver over for an an interview. Reggie is a modern master of the ghost story as well as being an accomplished playwright. It has been a while when I felt this nervous in an interview. Hopefully I didn’t brick it too much.
Hello Reggie, before we carry on I have to say that this is a great honour to have you over here for an interview.
The honour is mine, Jim, I assure you. (Does that make sense?)
You describe yourself as a Liberal Platonist Anglican, and an Independent Libertarian, could you explain what you mean by these?
In a way it’s a way of saying that I am a floating voter, like Alexander Pope:
But ask not, to what Doctors I apply
Sworn to no Master, of no Sect am I:
I have, though, a strong attachment to the Church of England, most of my mother’s male ancestors having been Cof E Clergymen. I love its great spiritual tradition: King James Bible, Book of Common Prayer, Metaphysical Poets, Abolition of Slavery, Stanford in E Flat, Jumble Sales etc.
My Platonism I derive from a study of Plato at University and a strong belief in his essential notion that beauty and goodness, or “the good” as he put it, are metaphysical realities. Keats expressed it perfectly in a letter thus:
“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their Sublime creative of essential Beauty.”
You have been a professional playwright, actor, and theatre director and author; can you remember where you got the performance bug from?
My mother was an actress, my father, a journalist, very keen on the theatre. I was taken to a lot of theatre, including Shakespeare, from an early age. Annual visits to Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre had a particularly strong effect on me. I was very struck by the darkly sardonic Captain Hook, always my favourite character in the play and I wanted to be him. When I went to see my mother perform in the repertory theatres which proliferated in those days (late 1950s, early 1960s) I was always fascinated by the interaction between illusion and reality: backstage all greasepaint, canvas, teacups and stage weights, from the front bright lights, opulence, drama and glamour. The fact that the glamour was only the thinnest of carapaces made it all the more exciting and mysterious.
Do these different outlets of creativity feed different facets of your creativity or do they fulfil a more basic need to just be creative?
I think they have one source: the desire to tell a story with drama. Though I have also always written prose fiction, my great love has been play writing. I am fascinated by the fact that a play, like a piece of music, is something that happens in time and therefore relies more than prose in a book on rhythm and shape. It has immediacy. I tend to write my stories as I do my plays, in scenes. I watch them cinematically running in my head. The fountainhead of my creativity, such as it is, is drama.
You graduated from Oxford University in 1975. Oxford and Cambridge have long history of fostering and developing artistic talent did this happen to you?
It did, but I was still comparatively directionless in those days. I knew I wanted to act and write, but beyond that I was unsure, something of a dilettante. I wrote and acted where I could, but did not take advantage of opportunities as I might have done. Others around me, in particular my exact contemporaries Andrew Motion and Mel Smith both of whom I knew well, seemed fully fledged artistic animals, already using Oxford’s prestige and connections to establish their careers. It was only quite late in my time there when a friend who was a composer suggested I write a musical with him, that I began to focus. That musical, an adaptation of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson was put on at the Oxford Playhouse with some success.
Your play Imaginary Lines was directed by the great Alan Ayckbourn, how did the play come to be directed by him?
As an actor I auditioned for Alan for a rather odd, but charming musical by Sandy Wilson called His Monkey Wife based on the John Collier novel of that name and got the part of Dennis Tickler. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working for Alan (who directed) up in Scarborough, even the dancing. Alan knew I wrote plays as I had sent him a couple of things before and he had nearly done one of them. At the end of the run he casually asked me to send him a script. After His Monkey Wife I was rather badly out of work and in despair began to write a comedy based on a weird triangular relationship that had existed on a theatrical tour a couple of years before between myself, an actress and Sir Anthony Quayle. It was about the way love produces illusory and imaginary expectations of the other person and how these deluded expectations can lead to sad (and funny) misunderstandings. I did not use a theatrical setting, however. I wrote it in a fortnight, sent it to Alan and he accepted it for his next season by return of post. Interestingly, the play he was writing for that season, was on vaguely similar lines and was called Woman in Mind, one of his best works.
What was he like to work with?
Alan, Sir Alan as he has deservedly become, is one of the easiest and best people to work for and with. He has no ego to speak of and is simply interested in getting the best performance of the text possible. In his own theatre especially he has an unrivalled understanding of what will work and how it can be made to work. Above all, he trusts his texts, his designers and technicians, and his actors. Trust is perhaps the most essential and yet the most underrated quality in a great director. If you trust your writer, you will allow the writing to shine through, rather than try to disguise it and tart it up with tricks and devices.
Were there any points during its production that you felt like saying “Alan, no that’s not right, I want you to do it this way”?
Never, because of that trust. I think one line was cut and he asked me before he did cut it. He introduced one or two effects and bits of “business” (ie things for the actors to do), but they were always enhancements of what was there already in the text, and I put them all in as stage directions when the play was published.
To date you have written over 50 plays, if a big West End Producer handed you a blank cheque to put on one of your own plays, which one would you choose?
As it happens a big West End Producer has just taken up a play of mine which is a fairly free adaptation of a Feydeau Farce. But what I would really like to see produced is my most recently written play. Called Love Unknown, it concerns the strange Platonic love affair between M. R. James, and James McBryde, a young undergraduate who later drew illustrations for James’s first book of ghost stories.
Who would be the ideal leading man and woman be?
Stephen Fry as M. R. James in Love Unknown
In the French Farce: Griff Rhys Jones (in my view one of the greatest farce actors this country has produced and rather wasted on those interminable television travelogues he does) as the errant husband, Joanna Lumley as his equally errant wife.
Let’s talk about your writing, when asked what sort of stories do write, how do you answer? Horror, ghost stories, supernatural fiction, or just plain fiction?
I am a great admirer of the so-called “metaphysical poets”: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw and others, so, rather pretentiously, I would like to call my stuff “metaphysical fiction”. In other words it is fiction about what goes on in the metaphysical or spiritual realm and how it interacts with the so-called real world. But I know that would never catch on. I very much like the term used by Robert Aickman, the last great writer of this kind of fiction of the 20thcentury. He called his tales “strange stories”. The term is both ambiguous and exact. He was expressing in his writing a belief which I share: that life is strange, that “there are more things in heaven and earth…” etc. If the writer of this kind of fiction can be said to have a social function it is to express the strangeness all around us, and thereby to allow others to embrace the reality of life’s strangeness.
Do you consider the term horror fiction to be a dirty one?
No, I rather like it, especially when it is permitted to encompass such masterpieces as Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness and The Turn of the Screw. I very much like being again in the latest volume of Best New Horror, and in the much acclaimed A Book of Horror, both edited by the redoubtable Steve Jones (whom God preserve) of Wimbledon. My one reservation is that horror is by no means the only emotion I wish to evoke in my stories: it could be terror (rather a different thing), it could be profound unease, or a host of other cognate feelings. The word “horror” can sound limiting and may make readers, who associate the word purely with gore and rotting corpses, shy away from something they might otherwise find stimulating.
You must get bored being asked this question, but I never knew that Stella Gibbons was your Aunt. Cold Comfort Farm, has been a favourite of mine ever since I read it for my Higher English exam. How much of an influence and guidance was she on your writing?
Actually I have never till now answered this question directly. I have read just about everything Stella Gibbons wrote (some 30 books, including volumes of poetry and short stories, as well as novels) and with pleasure, but I have not so much been influenced by her writing as the person she was. She was, first and foremost a dedicated professional writer and loved to talk about books and the craft of writing. I gave her to read an early novel of mine and she commented on it in great detail with enormous care and kindness. Two general pieces of advice emerged from that critique which I have always kept at the back of my mind. Firstly, that one should try to maintain a balance in fiction between empathy and objectivity: one should feel for and with one’s characters, but also keep a distanced eye on “the big picture” so to speak. Proust and Tolstoy in prose fiction and Shakespeare in drama provide examples of the perfect balance between objective and subjective. The other piece of advice was that, when describing characters, one should focus on just a few physical details and mannerisms. A complete inventory from hair colour to shoe size merely confuses the reader. Yes, sure, you may “know” that her mother came from Lithuania, but keep it to yourself unless it’s strictly relevant. It is surprising how many reputable writers ignore this counsel.
How do you go about the actual process of writing, I imagine you sitting down in a leather chair at a huge desk in a room brimming wall to wall with leather bound books, with a brandy in one hand and a pipe resting in an ash tray.
No pipes, brandy or leather chair, but otherwise accurate. I work straight on to the PC and then print out a first draft which I scribble all over. I don’t think I am particularly disciplined because I don’t need to be. I love to write: it’s the other bits of life, like paying bills and washing up that I have to be disciplined about.
Do you plot out the stories fully before sitting down to write them, or do you go with the flow of the story?
I keep an ideas book (now a file on the PC) where I put the original germ of the idea. I have a vague feeling once I start writing of the beginning middle and end but I don’t want to work it out in advance too meticulously or the excitement of writing is lost. In intervals between writing I like to go for walks – I live in rural Suffolk – and in the course of them I often talk out the story: bits of dialogue, the odd descriptive phrase. When I get back from the walk I put them in. Quite soon I construct an ending. My story becomes like a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing. I fill in the gaps and connect the elements I have already written. A painter working on a large canvas usually operates in the same way: overall composition sketched, then detailed work on main foreground, then background.
I must admit I am relatively new to your writing, having only read a couple of stories in anthologies, and your two collections Mrs Midnight, and The Dracula Papers. However I I was blown away by these stories, for the readers of this blog who are not familiar with your work, would you say these are a good place to start reading your work?
A very good place to start. My writing style has not changed radically in the ten years I have been producing “strange stories.” My first volume, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini has recently been re-issued, with new illustrations, by Tartarus, and a reissue of my second volume, The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler follows shortly, also from Tartarus. These are also good starting points.
One of my first thoughts on reading Mrs Midnight, was, “wow, who is this Reggie Oliver, and what have they done with the Reggie Oliver I imagine in my head”. I’m referring to main protagonist of the story, who for me came across as brash and a bit of an arrogant idiot. A character who was very believable. Who did you channel to write this story? Or is this a side to Reggie Oliver that has always existed?
That’s really me being an actor. Whenever I played parts in the theatre, I always felt most comfortable in roles that were least like me. Of course, I could always find some grain of myself in them and that something was liberated when I played them,. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has always seemed to be a profound fable about the human psyche, in particular the idea that Dr. Jekyll in some strange way enjoyed being Mr Hyde who was on one level everything he despised. He found it liberating. I enjoyed being Danny Sheen in the story, precisely because he was not like me, though like a lot of show business people I have known. But I could connect to him on some levels because I shared his love of showbusiness, his ambition, his cynicism and his hatred of pretension.
And on that note, how much of you do you put into your stories?
I often use an “I” narration, but the “I” is never exactly me. I think the “me” that is in the stories is often the actor me, jumping around, trying to look at the world from a slightly different perspective. For example, I often write from the point of view of a “believer”, but sometimes from the point of view of a sceptic, but that is because I am both. I am a sceptical believer, a believing sceptic, and, like Pope, I refuse to be tied down by a particular dogma or creed whether religious, philosophical or political. What remains, I hope, that is me in the stories, is the sense of wonder and curiosity.
Short stories seem to be the medium of choice for you, is there a reason for this?
It happened that way. Back in 2001, I found myself in need of taking a new direction in writing. I wrote some “strange stories” the first being “Beside the Shrill Sea”, I sent them off and found them being accepted for publication. Then someone asked for a collection so I wrote more. I have written novels, but the truth is that many of the novels published today are really bloated short stories. A short story can express more concisely what most writers say in a novel.
What do you think makes for a good short story?
Maugham, a considerable writer of short stories, divided them into two types: the story which delivers its effect primarily through incident, the other which delivers through mood or atmosphere. Maupassant, Kipling, Saki and Maugham himself are masters of the first kind; Chekhov, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood, Katherine Mansfield are supreme in the second. The short story is essentially a one movement piece: there can be no subplots; it is best to confine it to one principal location. It has concentration, and if you can deliver both atmosphere and incident welded into a single unitary whole, then you really have achieved something. Examples? Off the top of my head Robert Aickman’s “Ringing the Changes,” Saki’s “The Open Window”, Rudyard Kipling’s “The Wish House”, and Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), arguably still the greatest short story ever written.
Do you think a short story needs a resolution, lately I’ve read a number of short stories that end so abruptly it seems as though the publisher has forgotten a few pages?
A short – or indeed any – story does not necessarily need a resolution, but it does need a shape. In other words it must have a beginning, middle and end. Ambiguities are fine as long as they are intended. It is important in any kind of fiction that you should take your reader on a journey; something has to change. You should leave your reader still wondering and wanting more, but also feeling that they have witnessed some sort of enlightenment. If the ending is so abrupt that readers feel that the journey has barely begun, then they have been short-changed.
Will we see another novel from you?
Ex Occidente has been promising to publish a novel of mine for over three years. This year, I do believe, it will happen. The title is Virtue in Danger. It concerns a cult and the strange things that happen when the leader of a cult dies. I am also working on the second volume of The Dracula Papers.
A great deal of your stories are based around the theatre and the performing arts, is this a case of write what you know about, or is more a case of your natural love for such things percolating through your subconscious?
Yes, write what you know about is not bad advice. I have read many novels and stories set in the theatre and they always strike me as being very unconvincing and full of boring stereotypes. I wanted to project my own impressions. But more than that: in the theatre illusion and reality are always interacting and this is something fascinating to write about. Shakespeare was perhaps the first to see the stage as a poignant and profound metaphor for life in all kinds of ways. That particular metaphor is not yet exhausted.
Now I am very interested in your story The Skins, a haunted pantomime horse? I take it this is a pastiche story?
I’m not sure that it is. Having played King Rat in the pantomime Dick Whittington, I myself have been “in the skins” as they say. (But I have never been the back end of a horse or cow.) There is a curiously intense claustrophobia about it. I also wanted to write about a husband and wife double act and the strains that a partnership of this kind in show business places on the relationship.
How do you go about selecting the stories for your collections, and do you spend much time getting the running order correct?
I do spend time over the running order. In Mrs Midnight, for instance I wanted to start with something strong and hard hitting, so I chose the title story. I wanted to end with something comparatively short but more elegiac and reflective so I chose “Minos or Rhadamanthus.” I selected my stories for a recent volume Shadow Plays on the basis of which stories, according to reviews, had most effect on the readers. I have occasionally omitted a story I have written from a collection, but it is rare. I write from the first deliberately and primarily to satisfy myself, not a market.
How do you think your writing has developed over the years, can you see a natural progression of style as the years have passed?
This is difficult to assess. I think in general it has been a case of simplification, striving a little less after effect, using suggestion rather than emphasis: in other words trusting the reader a little more. There: you have trust again coming up.
You’ve started to release your anthologies in a more affordable and a wider available format, will we see your whole back catalogue released this way.
I hope so. Tartarus has done a magnificent job and will do through the sequence. I have done, and will do, many new illustrations for the sequence, so there is something there for the collector as well. In addition, I hope more new volumes of stories will come out. I already have enough tales for a sixth volume, possibly to be called Flowers of the Sea.
I love the production values of Mrs Midnight, how much input did you have in the look of the book?
I made a few small suggestions, but I trust Ray and Rosalie who run Tartarus absolutely. They have great taste and judgement. Both are writers of considerable talent and, in addition, Ray has excellent graphic skills.
I love the understated, and almost antique look of the book, it looks like a book that should be on a bookshelf did this tap into your love of physical books?
Very much so. I wanted it to be accessible as regards price and yet be a collector’s item. I would not call my style old fashioned but I think that the pleasures I have to offer are “traditional”.
You describe yourself as a book accumulator, rather than a book collector, what’s the difference?
I’m an eclectic. I do not systematically collect a particular author, and I don’t at all go in for first editions. I will buy a book on a whim, a recommendation, sometimes on a good review. I have also inherited a lot of books from my parents, and, in particular, from my Aunt Stella, and these I value and read as much as those I have bought myself.
What is your take on e-books? While I love the idea of carrying a library of books in my pocket, I could never imagine living in a house that isn’t full to brimming of books.
I bought a Kindle recently, mainly so that I could read a novel by my friend Paul Bentley that is only available on Kindle. It is a historical novel with the delightful title of The Man who Came After Hyacinth Bobo and is well worth the trouble. Since then, I have bought other titles to read electronically. It’s a useful thing for long journeys and holidays when you wish to travel light. But I will never regard it as more than a convenient substitute for the real thing. I will never fall in love with my Kindle.
What is your most prized book in your collection?
It’s a book called Epithalamion. It’s a sequence of poems by Ida Graves with woodcuts by her then partner Blair Hughes-Stanton. It was published by the Gemini Press in 1933. I found it for sale in a book dealer’s catalogue and bought it for £300 which seemed a fortune to me then. It is a beautiful thing, leather bound, printed on Japanese vellum (whatever that is) number 4 in an edition of 50. Words and engravings are beautiful, sensual, deeply erotic and perfectly complement each other. I knew Ida Graves towards the end of her life (she died at the age of 98) and she was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. She was still writing and publishing poetry in her 90s. How I came to know Ida and what she told me about her erstwhile friend Stella Gibbons is a rather interesting story and is told elsewhere in the biography of my aunt.
Reggie, this truly has been both a pleasure and an honour, talking to you, do you have any final words for the readers?
In reading as in writing you should trust your own taste and judgement. It is just as good as anyone else’s and far more reliable than the dictates of fashion.