Joseph D’Lacey

What follows is a fascinating interview I held with one of the best horror writers around.

Author of MEAT, GARBAGE MAN and THE KILL CREW, Joseph D’Lacey was presented with The Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer at the 2009 BFS awards. With front cover blurb from Stephen King and a contract with an exciting new publisher (Bloody Books), to the layman Joseph’s horror career seemed to be heading for the stratosphere. But the world’s dwindling economy cares little for talent and Joseph became an unfortunate victim of the recession’s rampage. Over the following interview, this exciting author kindly answers questions regarding his career, his name and violent tendencies. Hope you’re as impressed as I am by the man and his opinions. If you’re not, you need to see someone.

1. Sum yourself up in 10 words (including clarification on what I can call you next time we’re in the pub: Joe, Jose, Joseph etc.)

Husband, father, writer and lover of the land, named Joseph.

2. You’ve gone through a bit of a shit time recently, what with your publisher going under and separating with your agent. How have these events affected your confidence? Do you still feel like the man who won the BFS award for Best Newcomer?

I can’t pretend these things have been easy but, in all honesty, I can say that they’ve allowed me to reassess, to take stock. They’ve galvanised me, in fact. Because, even without the things people might expect would make a writer feel ‘real’, I see myself and what I do more clearly. I can be honest about who I am and why I’m here. For years I felt like there was always something to prove and that everything was at stake. Now, I don’t care so much what people might think of me and, in publishing terms, I’ve got very little left to lose! It really doesn’t feel so bad.

As to the Best Newcomer award, I’ll always be proud of it – especially as I’m unlikely to win it again!

3. How are your digital publishing endeavours panning out?

I’ve got a lot of options and still don’t know how to proceed. The way things have worked out for me – not being published until I’d written my sixth novel – means I have a stack of intellectual property to play with. Whether I do that through an existing e-publisher, set it up myself or do a bit of both I’ve yet to decide. Something I find impossible to predict is how a traditional publisher might react if e-book rights aren’t on offer for a title they show interest in. *Since answering this question Marc Gascoigne, founder of Angry Robot Books tweeted this ‘Don’t know about agents, but Angry Robot wouldn’t buy a novel that’s already out there as an eBook.’*

I don’t mind if I’m never published in the ‘traditional’ way again but I want to ensure that anything I do publish will bring in a living wage. My two most recent novels – also unpublished, as you’d imagine – have the potential, I hope, to sell well in print and in electronic formats and both ‘books’ will be set before commissioning editors in the usual way. What I consider to be my back-catalogue, on the other hand, which amounts to six novels now, I could see myself releasing as e-books only to begin with and perhaps move to self-published print if the demand is there. Still everything to play for at the moment.

4. Standard questions:

What are you working on right now?

I’m chipping away at a novella, the working title of which is These Dreams of the Dead. It’s a diarised descent onto madness with many zombie influences, scenes and references.

What are you reading?

I’m reading Islington Crocodiles by the wonderful Paul Meloy. His language is laser-focused and his dark precepts remove you to dreamlike worlds that intersect with ours. Inspiring, transporting stuff.

[For those of you who haven’t yet read Islington Crocodiles, shame on you! It’s an outstanding collection from a very rare talent – SH]

Any favourite authors/books – and what are your 5 desert island books?

I have been thoroughly entertained and bowled over by Margaret Atwood, AA Milne, Larry McMurtry, Douglas Adams, Patrick Tilley, Roald Dahl, Stephen Donaldson, James Herriot, DBC Pierre, James Clavell, and Iain Banks – probably many others too. Horror influences include early Stephen King (especially his short fiction and novellas), Richard Lewis, early James Herbert, Graham Masterton and early Clive Barker.

Desert Island titles:

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary. And four very long, very good books (recommendations welcome) that I’ve never read before – wouldn’t want to be bored before I even started! I’d need a cave full of paper and a trunk full of pens too. Whatever happens, don’t begin the air-sea rescue mission for two or three years, please; I’ve got a massive backlog of ideas.

5. You’ve impressed – amongst others – Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. Does their backing mean much to you or do you feel it best to impress yourself first and others as a consequence?

I didn’t know Ramsay Campbell had read any of my stuff! But if he likes it, well, that’s just brilliant. The Stephen King quote means a hell of a lot to me, of course, but I’ve never set out to garner praise from the great and good. That’s almost as crazy as writing a book and thinking it’s going to be published…

The most important thing is to get the story down the best way I can. I take pride in my work – though I’m sure I have blind spots like any writer – and I try to hone my skill with each new thing I write. The best story, the clearest, most evocative language, and the idea itself as unsullied by my touch as possible. I still have a lot to learn; otherwise I’d be bored and looking for something new to turn my hand to.

6. Out of all you’ve written, which do you feel is your best work?

I would guess it’s the apocalyptic fantasy I wrote from October ’09 – October ’10 (though, the writer isn’t always the best person to ask). In the novel, a boy from the present and a girl from the future journey in search of a dark nature-spirit. The creature they’re trying to find is a figure of modern myth who may be the saviour of our planet or the final incarnation of evil. The world’s future rests on their success or failure.

As you might have guessed, the book remains unpublished.

7. Do you write to music or do you prefer having a film on the background, picking up inspirations as you write?

I’ve never tried writing to music. I certainly couldn’t have any kind of dialogue in the background as it would drown the words I’m reaching out for. Abstract sounds – traffic, vacuum cleaners, construction work – none of that bothers me but I think music and talk would prevent me from cutting a solid groove and staying in it. I need to hear the story.

8. If you could punch anyone with no consequences, who would it be and why?

Hell. I don’t have enough arms.

Honestly, though, I don’t think I’m ‘that kind’ of angry. If I punched anybody I’d probably feel very bad about it very soon afterwards and I’d rather live a life free of regrets. That said, I despise injustice, bad justice, foul play, arrogance and avarice. I don’t like the corporate stranglehold we’re all under – many of us without even knowing it – that disguises itself as democracy. When you combine today’s staggering technology with concentrations of wealth and power, it’s very bad news for the 99%. There are plenty of institutions out there which require something far more profound than a simple punch.

9. Which of today’s many excellent horror writers impresses you most?

Adam Nevill, Gary McMahon, Conrad Williams, Simon Bestwick and Paul Meloy to mention just a few. I doubt I’ll ever catch up with all the authors I ought to read.

10. Best hangover cure?

Come on. Only a fool would stop drinking long enough for such a question to come up.

11. MEAT and GARBAGE MAN are both novels steeped heavy with opinion and conscience – MEAT so much that you are now a vegetarian! Do you feel it important to use your skills as a writer to highlight inequalities in the world such as the crumbling environment and the state of modern abattoirs?

I think it’s a mistake to weigh down fiction with a message. It needs to fly. The most important thing is to deliver a good story. That might seem an oversimplification but it’s often beyond my grasp – despite making conscious effort to bring ‘good story’ to every tale. If you set out to preach, what you’ll write is propaganda and propaganda’s no fun to read.

MEAT and GARBAGE MAN were inspired by ecological – possibly even ethical issues – but it was the stories they gave rise to that fired me up as the author. If I’d been beating the reader around the head with some agenda, I’d never have finished either novel. They were thrilling, horrifying and fun to write and I hope that readers come away with similar feelings.

I’m not saying I don’t care about the treatment of animals destined for our tables and I’m not saying I don’t care that we’re running out of space for our rubbish. But those two themes gave rise to stories that I loved writing. (You know, when I wasn’t hating it…)

On the other hand, if, having read one of my tales, someone thinks or acts differently – as I have done because of my research – that can only be a good thing: I am concerned about an issue, I find a story in that issue and I write it. Something of my concern must come through to the reader in order for them to have a response and that’s great – I know people who’ve become vegan after reading MEAT, for example – but it isn’t because I set out to ‘convert’ people. I see it as a bonus that a story might have the effect of changing or raising a reader’s awareness. I don’t see it as an aim.

12. What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a writer – specifically someone wanting to write horror?

  • Write a lot.
  • Allow yourself to make a ton of mistakes.
  • Try everything: how-to books, courses, retreats, workshops, enforced solitude, discipline, free-writing, diary-writing, non-fiction writing, poetry, whatever. Explore widely in order to find yourself – you might be like other writers but you won’t be the same.
  • Be honestly self-appraising – where does your work fit in the bigger picture? What do you want to achieve? Be realistic but aim as high as you dare.
  • Attend conventions to enjoy and be inspired by the company of other writers. Knowing there’s a ‘tribe’ is tremendously empowering and you’ll meet all manner of kindred spirits.
  • Listen to advice from those with more experience but ignore it if it doesn’t ring true – some people take greater pleasure in being right than they do in helping you to succeed.
  • At all times, define success in your own terms.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Don’t share work in draft form unless it’s an exercise or assignment – get it as good as you can first.
  • Following on from that point, don’t deplete the power of your ideas by talking about them before they’re complete.
  • If you genuinely feel you have something to offer, never give up.

13. Which annoys you more: pointless celebrities in the bestseller charts with books they haven’t even written, or publishers blatantly ignoring genuine talent for the sake of a quick buck?

I think it has to be the latter. If publishers weren’t interested in such books they probably wouldn’t see the light of day. One has to consider the influence of booksellers, of course – they’re the ones dealing with readers and ‘directing’ what sells – and of course the influence of the reading public (zombie hordes) who spend money on such books instead of, say, stocking up on bottled water and dried goods in preparation for Armageddon.

14. What future do you see for the publishing industry?

Blimey. Hold on while I polish my crystal ball…

People will always enjoy stories; either reading them or hearing them told. So, assuming the apocalypse holds off a little longer, there will still be publishers. The electronic rush will continue, peak and settle and both e-books and print books will sell side by side. People like technology and convenience but they also like the weight and presence of an artefact. I can imagine a situation in which most readers store pulpy or fun books on their reading tablets/touch-pad computers and their precious favourites in hardback on the shelf. Some people will never read an e-book and some people will decide never to read a print book. But it’ll all even out. Publishers will suffer as established authors realise they can make better royalties on their own. Not all authors will do it, but plenty will now that there’s no mid-list – writers need to make a living just like everyone else. The form publishing contracts take will have to be reworked to better suit all parties. And agents will take a hit too because frustrated writers – and there are plenty of those, right? – will bypass them and self-publish, and many of them will succeed. It’s an uncertain time but I think good things will come of it. That said, some of those who are slow to change their view will be left behind.

Books, however, in whatever form, are here to stay. Without stories, without the mirrors they hold up and the journeys they help us to make, we’d all be screwed. Stories and lives go hand in hand. As long as there are people, there will always be books.

15. If you could be anyone – living or dead – who would it be, and why?

I’ve spent most of my life wondering who I am and why I’m here. For many of those years I neither believed in nor particularly liked myself. Discovering and accepting what I am has been quite a challenge. Now that I finally enjoy being me and doing what I was born to do, I wouldn’t change it. I can always be someone else next time around.

16. Do you support a particular football team?

I do support no particular football team.

17. If there are no consequences, what would you like to do to the person constantly interupting you when you’re in the zone?

Fortunately, my zone is about four miles away from the kinds of people who would continually interrupt me if it wasn’t. That said, I do have a rusted, but still quite sharp, African spearhead on my shelf. It’s the size of a machete would work quite well as a way of maintaining a creative, meditative silence.

18. Despite being a vegetarian, could you kill?

If the circumstances arose, yes, I could kill.

19. Boxers or briefs? Thongs or big pants?

Briefs. Thongs. The flesh, tightly wrapped.

20. What’s your guilty pleasure?

I don’t get to indulge it any more and haven’t for some years but if I had the time and the money, I would buy a computer dedicated solely to games. Huge screen, best graphics card, killer sound-system and all the rest. And in front of that machine I would experience a very guilty joy indeed. I was never what you’d call ‘good’ at it but there aren’t many things that have given me greater pleasure!

Joseph D’Lacey, thank you very much.

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