I write to escape.
I grew up on a West of Scotland council estate in a town where you were either unemployed or working in the steelworks, and sometimes both. Many of the townspeople led hard, miserable lifes of quiet, and sometimes not so quiet desperation. I was relatively lucky in that both my parents worked, but I spent a lot of time alone or at my grandparent’s house.
My Granddad was housebound, and a voracious reader. I got the habit from him, and through him I discovered the Pan Books of Horror and Lovecraft, but I also discovered westerns, science fiction, war novels and the likes of Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Alistair MacLean, Dennis Wheatley, Nigel Tranter, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. When you mix all that together with DC Comics, Tarzan, Gerry Anderson and Dr Who then, later on, Hammer and Universal movies on the BBC, you can see how the pulp became embedded in my psyche.
When I was at school these books and my guitar were all that kept me sane in a town that was going downhill fast. The steelworks shut and employment got worse. I -could- have started writing about that, but why bother? All I had to do was walk outside and I’d get it slapped in my face. That horror was all too real.
So I took up my pen and wrote. At first it was song lyrics, designed (mostly unsuccessfully) to get me closer to girls.
I tried my hand at a few short stories but had no confidence in them and hid them away. And that was that for many years.
I didn’t get the urge again until I was past thirty and trapped in a very boring job. My home town had continued to stagnate and, unless I wanted to spend my whole life drinking (something I was actively considering at the time), returning there wasn’t an option.
My brain needed something, and writing gave it what was required. That point, back nearly twenty years ago, was like switching on an engine, one that has been running steadily ever since.
It’s been a slow and steady progression, from UK small press pay in copies markets for much of the nineties, to getting a novel published in the USA in 2001, then starting to hit the pro short story market, and finding a home for novels with the higher end small presses in the States. I’ve now got 20 novels, 4 collections and over 300 short stories in print.
As I said before, I write to escape.
I haven’t managed it yet, but I’m working on it.
What do you love about being an author?
I didn’t chose writing, it chose me. The urge to write is more of a need, a similar addiction to the one I used to have for cigarettes and still have for beer.
For me it’s mainly inspiration. I wouldn’t write at all if the ideas didn’t present themselves in my head. I find I get a lot of ideas clamouring for attention all at once. I write them down in a notebook that never leaves my side, and sometimes one of them gathers a bit more depth, and I get a clearer image. At this stage I find myself thinking about it almost constantly, until a plot, or an ending, clarifies itself.
Once I’ve written down where the story should be going it quietens down a bit. Then, if I find myself still thinking about it a couple of days later, I’ll probably start writing the actual story. At any given time I have about 20 ideas waiting for clarity, two or three of which might end up as finished works.
That’s the inspiration part. And that continues when I start putting the words on paper.
There is also a certain amount of perspiration, especially in writing a novel. But I find if it feels too much like work, I’m heading in the wrong direction and it usually ends up in the recycle bin.
If you could have dinner with any literary character, who would it be and what would you eat?
William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki.resonated with me immediately on my first reading many years ago. Several of the stories have a Lovecraftian viewpoint, with cosmic entities that have no regard for the doings of mankind. The background Hodgson proposes fits with some of my own viewpoint on the ways the Universe might function, and the slightly formal Edwardian language seems to be a “voice” I fall into naturally.
Carnacki likes a drink and a smoke, and a hearty meal with his friends gathered round. This dovetails perfectly with my own idea of a good time. And although I no longer smoke, witing about characters who do allows me a small vicarious reminder of my own younger days. I wish I had Carnacki’s library, his toys, but most of all, I envy him his regular visits from his tight group of friends.
So that’s where I’d be, in Chelsea with Carnacki, more than willing to listen to his tales of adventure into the weird places of the world while drinking his Scotch, eating his roast beef and vicariously smoking his cigars.
If your book was to be made into a movie, who would you cast as the leads?
I’ve got BERSERKER coming later this spring, and I’d love to see the movie of that.. Vikings vs Yeti in an Arctic mountain landscape on the side of a Russian sea loch… what’s not to like? A dream pairing would be Alexander Skarsgård as Tor, our hero, with his dad Stellan Skarsgård as the ship’s captain.
As a horror writer, what scares you?
Sickness in the family. Supernatural beasties are all very well, but real horror comes when you come face to face with pain and misery that are piled on to such an extent that death seems a welcome alternative. I’ve seen too many friends and family riddled with disease, cancer, madness or addiction. They’re all far scarier than any ghost could ever be.
If you had a time machine, which era would you go back to and why?
I have a deep love of old places, in particular menhirs and stone circles, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time travelling the UK and Europe just to visit archaeological remains. I also love what is widely known as ‘weird shit’. I’ve spent far too much time surfing and reading Fortean, paranormal and cryptozoological websites. The cryptozoological stuff especially fascinates me, and provides a direct stimulus for a lot of my fiction.
But there’s just something about the misty landscapes and old places that speaks straight to my soul. Bloody Celts… we get all sentimental at the least wee thing.
So I’d go to Orkney, during the mound-building, menhir raising years. I’d love to see Maes Howe and the Ring of Brodgar going up and discover why they were built as they were.
What life advice do you wish you’d been given sooner?
Start early. I was too timid, too unsure of myself, and generally too drunk to get going before I was 33. I now feel like I’m 10 to 15 years behind the curve, and might not have enough time left in me as a writer to get everything done that I want to get done. If you’ve always wanted to do something, get to doing it now. You might never get the chance again.
If you were a supernatural creature, what would you be and why?
It would have to be something to do with the sea, as that’s where my heart has always been. The Creature From the Black Lagoon maybe, or maybe a silkie or a merman. Or Great Cthulhu, dreaming in Ryleh. It might be cool to wake up and terrorize the puny humans for a while.
Where do you write best?
These days everything is done on a sofa in a study overlooking a Newfoundland seashore, with a laptop on my lap. Prior to 2007, I did most of my writing on a Palm Pilot on ScotRail trains while commuting across Scotland.
What was the last book you read, and what were your thoughts on it?
The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon. Gary impresses me greatly. He’s got the ability to put what he imagines on the page while still leaving a great deal to the reader’s own imagination. He’s also not afraid to let his feelings bleed out onto the page. Despite that, he has a smooth, readable style, and is growing in stature as a writer with every passing year. I believe he’s going to go on to be huge, and good luck to him.
If you didn’t write in your genre, which other would you prefer and why?
It’s all about the struggle of the dark against the light. The time and place, and the way it plays out is in some ways secondary to that. And when you’re dealing with archetypes, there’s only so many to go around, and it’s not surprising that the same concepts of death and betrayal, love and loss, turn up wherever, and whenever, the story is placed. Genre is secondary to that, which is why my work already encompasses science fiction, fantasy, several varieties and horror, weird westerns and crime.
But if I was to write anything else, I think it would be a straight western. I was brought up with Gunsmoke, the Virginian and John Wayne movies. Westerns are deep in my soul.
Where can fans find you online?