Mark West

Mark West is a Jack of all trades, master of most. Publisher, author, friend, father, husband and anything else you care to mention, Mark has been in the industry for a number of years, suffering the ups and lows every writer with his / her salt goes through. Not only has he come out the other side, his work has intensified in quality and quantity. You cannot read him without feeling the strings being pulled on your heart – before it freezes with fear! So let him lead you into a false sense of security. Let him make you like him. Let him convince you to read his work. Let him scare you rigid!

Take it away, Mark:

1. Sum yourself up in 10 words

Dad, husband, son, brother, friend and writes a bit too

2. As you know, I recently read and reviewed THE MILL, a story I found very reminiscent of Susan Hill at her best. My only issue was that I thought it too short. I wanted to know more about the protagonist and his wife. Do you have any plans of expanding that world? Of revisiting and perhaps revealing something you hadn’t yet discovered?

You know, until I read your question, it had never occurred to me that either a) I might like to revisit the world or b) that someone else might like me to. So thanks for that and, interestingly enough, the themes in “The Mill” do tie in nicely with something else I was working on, so maybe you could be onto something here. And if I am, you’re getting a mention in the acknowledgements!

3. You have a number of publications available in digital format. Do you see this as the way to go for aspiring authors desperate to get their voice heard?

I have my doubts about digital, to be honest, depending on the quality of the product. When I first got into the small press, the magazines were slowly dying out and people were publishing on websites and then PublishAmerica came along. Back then, Brian Keene was running Jobs In Hell and I was part of that crowd and saw people desperate to get published – and go with PA – and then discover that it was a terrible mistake. They didn’t edit, they didn’t market, they took on anything and very soon there was a terrible stigma to the name. My fear with e Books is the same – just because people can publish, they are publishing. The problem is, most of them don’t understand about editing, or presentation, or cover art and their work stinks. When I was researching for my own little digital imprint, I stumbled across a site which ‘promoted’ self-pubbed e Books and it hurt my eyes. On the other side, you get people who are out there working hard, doing some terrific stuff and that’s good. PenMan Press, the imprint I set up to publish “ill at ease” with Steve Bacon & Neil Williams, was worked on as professional a principle as we could manage – copy-edited, proof-read, good cover art and the reviews, thankfully, have backed up what we did. My own digital work has come out through Tim C Taylor’s Greyhart Press and he’s a stickler for making his books as good as is humanly possible, so I’m happy.

However, to answer your question, e Books are definitely a way for new writers to get their voices heard. But they have to be careful that what they present is very, very good indeed.

4. Standard questions:

What are you working on right now?

What are you reading?

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

As I write this, I’m working on notes for a ghost story and I’m currently reading “A Cold Season” by Alison Littlewood. Listing my favourite authors would entail me coming up with a comprehensive list and then thinking of a load more to add to it later, so I’ll do my 5 desert island books instead (in no particular order):

IT, by Stephen King; Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon; Throat Sprockets, by Tim Lucas; Skywalking, by Dale Pollock and a Three Investigators mystery.

5. What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done – or witnessed – at a convention?

It was at Fantasycon in 2006 and, unfortunately, featured me. I’d been to see Clive Barker interviewed by Paul Kane – Barker had blown me away, in the mid-80s, with his Books Of Blood – and left the room with a throng of other people. I was following a man and we somehow got hemmed in behind some people who were having a chat – there was a stream of folks coming towards us and we couldn’t seem to get out. The man turned me and said “Busy here” and I said something like “yeah, well, he’s a popular bloke isn’t he?” The man looked at me, as if he was waiting for me to say something else, then turned back. The thing was, he looked familiar – leather jacket, wild hair, slightly shorter than me – but I just couldn’t place him and it didn’t click until a few hours later when somebody said to me “Oh, I saw you talking to Neil Gaiman earlier…”

6. You’ve written God knows how many stories and novellas (60+?). Surely you must have a favourite?

Oh I do. My favourite short story is one called “Empty Souls, Drowning” which is a painful, bleak little piece set in my favoured seaside town of Heyton. It originally appeared in Enigmatic Tales and was re-printed in my Strange Tales collection and I think it’s a wonderfully dark tale. I’m also very partial to a story called “Speckles”, which originally appeared in Sackcloth & Ashes, before going into the collection. Of my longer stuff, I like all that’s been published but “The Mill” is probably my current favourite,

7. After reading your story in ILL AT EASE, I couldn’t stop chuckling. The humour and horror were perfectly balanced and I thought you had created something rather wonderful. Will the second ILL AT EASE collection be in the same vein or will you head off in a completely different direction?

Thank you, I appreciate your kind words – and also that you got it! The interesting thing is that the three of us worked independently, so we didn’t know what the other was writing until we read the draft – only to discover that we shared a lot of themes. I think the second collection will go the same way – we’ll be working with writers we like and trust and let them get on with it and see which direction we head towards.

8. You’re standing on the X-Factor stage. In front of you are Louis Walsh, Simon Cowell, Gary Barlow and Vernon Kay. You have one bullet left in your six-shooter. Who takes it?

Simon Cowell – I really don’t like the concept of The X Factor and everything that it has extended into, to be honest and I blame him for it. I know that talent/variety shows have been with us for generations (I was aware of Opportunity Knocks though I don’t remember watching it much), but it’s moved into a new area now. As someone who is creative – and has been lucky in getting his work out there – I know how hard it is to have your talent and dreams mocked and that’s part of what The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and whatever other moronic thing he’s involved with has taken to new levels. You take someone, who might not be any good, but they have a dream and a passion and then you rip the shit out of them. “I’m only being honest,” he’ll say and whilst that’s true, you don’t have to steamroller people into the ground. I’m not sure when it happened, but a lot of these ‘reality’ show judges seem to have mistaken honest and constructive criticism for barely disguised character assassinations. Awful – and just because you’ve had hit records, it doesn’t make you a musical genius (Zig & Zig, for example).

So I’d take him out because Louis Walsh would then just suffocate in the vacuum, Barlow would go back to Take That (and, let’s be fair, he’s a good songwriter) and Kay would go back to bothering listeners of Radio 1 (not me!) and various Free View channels.

9. What has been your proudest moment (in your writing career as opposed to normal life)?

Getting my first acceptance was wonderful – it was a little after my thirtieth birthday (my goal was to be published by the time I was thirty) and I was over the moon (“As Quiet As It Gets”, if you want to know, to Sci-Fright magazine). The novel getting accepted by Pendragon Press was also a big deal too.

10. Can you remember your first publication?

I can indeed – it was my short story “27:32” which appeared on the Enigmatic Press website in July 1999. My first print publication was a little later, in October 1999, which was “Back Above The Clouds” (written in a burst at work after a particularly boring meeting) and published in Paul Bradshaw’s “The Dream Zone”.

11. How does it feel to hear someone has liked your work? That when you switch onto Amazon, you see five gold stars next to your name? And what about the single stars? Do they make you want to reach for the six-shooter again?

It’s a tremendous feeling, it really is – something that you’ve created, that you’re worked on until you were as happy as you could be with it, has made its way out into the world and someone else has connected with it. What’s nicer is that, like most writers, I always assume that people won’t like what I do, or will see through the smoke and mirrors, so when someone gets in touch to say that you’ve moved them or scared them or made them laugh or cry, it’s a real surprise. I’ve been very lucky, in general, with reviews and have only had one stinker – the reviewer complained that I was like Ramsey Campbell and should be more like Shaun Hutson, so I’m not sure what she was actually looking for (for the record, I don’t think I’m like either).

12. What should someone who is able to write a lot do when they can’t get their work out there?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic answer and I wish there was. When I got into the small press, there were loads of magazines around and I was lucky to find a market for most of my short stories. Since my block, I’ve tended to concentrate on longer pieces and only generally write short stories when I’m asked to. My advice would be to keep trying and read across the market to see what’s there. Sorry, not much help there, was I?

13. You’ve been told THE MILL is going to be filmed but Jordan is to play the main female lead. What do you do?

Check the contract to make sure I get paid come what may, then walk away as quickly as I could. If she’s playing Nicola, I’d cut down her part but if she was playing Saskia – well, then we’d be in trouble.

14. What would you have as your last meal before walking the green mile?

Something that took me a long time to eat!

15. Who makes you angry? Does that anger feed your desire to write?

Loads of things really get under my skin – intolerance, rudeness, twats driving too fast or too slow on the roads – but few things get me angry (and I have quite a temper, so I try to keep it under wraps). Like most parents, I find news of child abuse very difficult to take and just want to be left alone in a room with the perpetrator; otherwise, cruelty and abuse. I very rarely write out of anger, since it gets me all riled up and makes it hard to work.

As an aside, the demon Magellan in my novel “In The Rain With The Dead” was a really angry bugger and when I was writing him, I listened to Eminem constantly (and it worked, I think). Unfortunately, I now can’t listen to Eminem.

16. Do you have a particular writing regime? Up at 6, writing by 5 past… that sort of thing?

No, nothing at all. Which means that I’ll go for ages, weeks even, without writing something (though I’m usually working in some way, be it notes or running through ideas in my head), then have a burst of creative energy. Some people say you should write everyday, some people say you shouldn’t, I say write however works best for you.

17. I believe you’re working on a new novel at the minute – standard question: what is it about?

Non-standard question: what do you intend to do once you’ve completed it? Publish with a small press company or take a pop at the big boys?

I have two ideas – one that involves a group of kids in the 80s who discover something in the woods, that comes back to haunt them in their 40s – and another about a house that isn’t what you think it is. The latter idea is the one I mention above, that might work with elements of “The Mill”. Once it’s done – or even, once I can put a pitch together – I fully intend to have a pop at the big boys. Aim high, always.

18. Sensuality and love of the female form fills your work. Does this mean you’re a fan of erotica or simply someone who is in touch with his female side (as some people used to say – though why I’ve no idea!)? Or perhaps writing like this helps you to appreciate the women in your life?

Nobody has ever mentioned this to me before, but on reflection, it’s absolutely true. I do like sensuality (I remember reading Clive Barker, back in the 80s and being surprised at how much of his work revelled in it, even when things were bleak) and I like the female form, so since most of my heroes are me with a different name, that’ll come through. As for erotica, if it’s done right, I like it a lot but there’s a fine line and I often cross it – where there’s a love scene in most of my first drafts, it’s essentially just pornography, which I then have to go back and rework.

19. What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

I wrote a horror story for a class project when I was 14 or 15 and my teacher scrawled in my book that it was terrible and that I should forget about ever trying my hand at writing. She’s still at the school, as I discovered last year and I’d love to waltz into her class one day with all of my published work and say “ta-da!”.

20. What do you find is the worst thing about being a writer? Is it a lifestyle you would recommend?

The worst thing is rejection – it does get easier to deal with, as time goes on, but it still bloody hurts. As for lifestyle, I still have a day-job but would gladly trade for that of a full-time millionaire writer, living in a country mansion.

21. Can I ask a postscript question: You mentioned your writer’s block. Are you able to talk about this without risking the rebirth of its wrath? I’m not going to ask about what caused it, but I am interested in knowing what you did to overcome it – or do you still wear that particular monkey on your back?

I’ve never been particularly prolific, in that I never ever got into the habit of writing each and every day, so it took me a while to figure out something was wrong. Just before my son was born in May 2005, I revised “In The Rain With The Dead” for publication (it came out in October of that year) and “Conjure” (which didn’t come out until 2009) and anticipated taking a little while off as we adjusted to parenthood. My wife suffered quite badly with the baby blues and although Matthew was a wonderful baby, it’s still never easy. After a couple of months, I decided I needed to get back into the saddle and write something and started working on a haunted house story. I made notes, tonnes of notes, thousands of words of notes – they came very easily – but whenever I started the story itself, it’d fall over. I’d read stuff back and it would be flat and painful, or I’d not know how to move it forward and the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I put the haunted house story aside, began noting another tale, but couldn’t make that work either. This went on and on, until I was eventually having trouble writing the notes and by then I was starting to panic. The novel had come out and was doing okay, I knew I should be getting more stuff out there, but that just added to the sense of unease. In the end, it was Gary coming to me and asking for a story that gave me a commitment and a deadline and that helped a great deal. I still haven’t overcome it properly – it takes me ages to write stuff now and although I’ve weaned myself from making too many notes, I still do put down more than I need – but I do write now, which pleases me, though not as much as I’d like too.

22. Oh, and one other, similar to something I asked Simon Kurt Unsworth: which piece of furniture do you think you could live with made out of human skin and bone?

The skin and bone furniture – I’d go for a coat/hat stand.  You could have the shoulder blades making up hangers for coats and put skulls on the top as a kind of funky hat rack.  What do you reckon?

Cheers, Shaun, what a cracking set of questions!

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