Simon Bestwick

You’re about to read an interview held between HHHB and Simon Bestwick, one of the new crop of authors already being touted as a writer people should watch (see Joseph D’Lacey’s interview for confirmation). As per Simon’s answers to his – and our – first question, he is a man of great loves and great passion who I first met back at F’con 2009 and created a friendship with over various conventions ever since. If you ever feel the world is a fair place and is filled with people getting their just desserts, may I recommend a reading of both this interview and Simon’s Facebook profile… the man’s discoveries will soon put you right.

Enjoy

1.

Sum yourself up in 10 words.

Short. Loud. Passionate. Lovable (honest!) Loves whisky, women and song.

2.

Sum your enemies up in 20 words.

Bigots. Bullies. Fundamentalists. The Pope. The Tories. People who won’t take responsibility for their actions and play the victim card.

3.

When did you first discover your love for words?

Very early on, even before I learnt to write. My parents would read to me- bedtime stories, Ladybird books on dinosaurs, underwater exploration, you name it- and I’d be trying to make my own stories up. There was always a big element of performance about it and so I grew up wanting to be simultaneously the writer, the director of the film and the leading man- all the different elements kind of blurred together for me.

4.

Was there an actual moment that caused you to try and make writing your career?

I started writing in my teens, penning three fairly awful novels between the ages of 14 and 17, usually based on the idea that one day I would make them into blockbuster movies, which I’d star in. When I went onto college I wrote screenplays and stage plays. When I left, though, I found myself doing a shitty office job. I realised if I wanted to call myself a writer, I’d have to actually write and get something done with it. And so I started to write short stories, or trying. After a lot of false starts, I finally wrote the first one I was happy with- ‘Once’- on Boxing Day 1996. After that I wrote one a week. I sent the first four stories to Unreal Dreams, one of the small press mags that proliferated at the time, and within a week three of them had been accepted. And that was the start of it.

5.

You’re very political and often use Facebook as a means of highlighting examples of atrocious acts against people and their rights. Is it difficult to keep these out of your writing or do you prefer to embrace them and use them as inspiration?

I’m not as political as I often feel I should be- I should be out there going on marches and demos and what have you. But I only have so much time and energy. I do what I can when I can. Facebook is one way of drawing these things to other people’s attention. But yes, writing is another. Also, these also connects with matters that, as a writer, are pretty close to my heart.

I think horror is very concerned with morality. Ultimately you’ve got to ask the big questions- what is good, what is evil, what do I believe? That’s when you start becoming a real writer. So the things I regard as evil find their way into my work

There was a time we’d simply say Christianity was the acme of ‘good’, but I don’t think we can anymore- certainly not in the way we could have, say, a hundred years ago. There are many different faiths in Britain now, and also many more people would openly state they have no religious faith.

We can all agree that rape and murder and child abuse are pretty appalling (although only one of them is forbidden in the Ten Commandmenta, you’ll notice.) But when we get beyond that, we’re into more complicated territory. Most Abrahamic religions characterise the majority of sexual impulses as sinful, even if they’re expressed between consenting adults and cause no harm, whereas bigotry and the oppression of women either don’t feature or are actually considered praiseworthy. So here are ‘sins’ which, to me, aren’t sinful and ‘virtues’ which are. At that point, you either develop a deeply twisted morality or you have to start working on your own definitions of good and evil (and that’s as true for many Christians as it is for atheists.)

Also, there are so many different versions of Christianity out there. There are benevolent ones, which share a majority of values with secular humanists, and then there are some that I would characterise as actually evil- homophobic, misogynistic and spreading active falsehood (creationism, condoms causing AIDS, etc, etc.) Some of the worst cruelty, violence and hatefulness out there right now is coming out of religion- Christians who protect child rapists and intimidate the victims into silence, but who seem to think gay marriage is the ultimate threat to humanity, Muslims who treat women like domestic animals you’re allowed to fuck- all of whom then claim they’re being persecuted when they’re called out on it, and accuse atheists of having no morality! (Disclaimer: I know plenty of Christians and Muslims aren’t like that, so I’m not making sweeping generalisations about all religious folk here.) The worst of it is that most of these people genuinely think they’re doing the right thing. Nobody sees themselves as the bad guy.

One thing I tried to do in The Faceless was to write a novel without villains- there’s a supernatural threat and it’s destructive as hell, but I never thought of it as evil; its destructiveness is a by-product of its own suffering.

I try not to preach in my work anymore, but I think my writing pretty much embodies my values. The Song of the Sibyl, the (so-far) unpublished novel I wrote in 2010, is set in a plague-ravaged world where two major powers are rising- insane devil-worshippers and armies of religious fundamentalists. Both are equally appalling- the characters I’m interested in are caught between the two and have to try and survive, but also to keep some sane, humane values alive in an environment that hates them.

6.

What programmes influenced you most as a kid (not Doctor Who!)?

Blake’s 7 springs to mind, if only for the bleak brutal ending of that last episode- it gives you exactly what you didn’t think you wanted, but that’s why I still remember it thirty years on. I loved anything that smacked of SF or horror and lapped it up. The BBC drama The Nightmare Man– which my parents wouldn’t let me watch! But I caught the very last episode, or some of it, and picked up the series on DVD when it was released a couple of years ago.

Also, of course, I grew up on the most terrifying short horror movies ever made- 1970s public information films. They were devised specifically to scare the living shit out of kids so they wouldn’t do stupid shit that might get them killed- and by god, at least in my case, they worked. I grew up scared of nearly everything- which probably explains why so much of my work falls into the horror field…

7.

Standard questions:

What are you working on right now?

A collaboration with Gary McMahon- we’re writing a short story called ‘Thin Men With Yellow Faces’. We also have plans for a novel called Witchland, although when we’ll have the time to write that remains to be seen. I’ve also got a new short story I want to write, and some fairly major surgery to perform on The Song of The Sibyl to get the damn thing into its (hopefully) final form, after which I’ll try to flog the fucking thing to a publisher. And then I want to write a new novel…

What are you reading?

Conrad Williams’ debut anthology, Gutshot. I have a story in there- ‘Kiss The Wolf’- but I’ve been having fun reading the other stories. There are some brilliant tales by Gary McMahon, Joel Lane, Adam Nevill, Stephen Volk, Zander Shaw, Amanda Hemingway and many others (the ones I’ve mentioned are just the ones I’ve read so far.)

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

Authors- William Shakespeare, Ramsey Campbell, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Alan Garner, Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness- need I say more?), Joolz Denby, Simon Louvish, John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), Joel Lane, Stephen King, Derek Raymond, Conrad Williams, Joe Lansdale, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock (for the sheer sweep of his imagination, the exuberance with which he mixes up genres and the intelligence he brings to bear on his subject matter), J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, A.M. Burrage… I’ll stop there. I’ll realise tomorrow I’ve missed at least three vitally important authors out.

For the desert island:

Ulysses by James Joyce- because I still haven’t got around to reading the damn thing.

The Therapy of Avram Blok by Simon Louvish- because it’s a brilliant, demented, freewheeling, hilarious and dark novel. A mixture of Swift, Roth and Vonnegut, maybe, comes close to describing it. You’d have to read it yourselves.

Pray For Us Sinners by Joolz Denby- a great collection of poems and short stories by one of the best writers of both in the UK. By turns sad, funny, profound, moving, thought-provoking, and with a beautiful lush turn of descriptive phrase.

The October Country by Ray Bradbury- because it’s one of the greatest short story collections ever.

And Shock 3 by Richard Matheson, for the same reason. Bugger- I was going to add one of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski books as well, because I find them the perfect fun read…

8.

Which individual – fictional or otherwise, historical or present day – would you like to:

  1. Be for 24 hours Any of the passengers or crew on the R101 airship, as long as the 24 hours ran out just before 2.00 am. on 5th October 1930. RIP.
  2. Go for a drink with Mary Shelley. She was a remarkable woman- brave, liberated and every inch her husband’s intellectual equal.
  3. Punch Jeremy Clarkson/any member of the current Government/Jimmy Carr.
  4. Ask 20 questions William Shakespeare. Especially if I could go for a drink with him afterwards too.

9.

In ANGELS OF THE SILENCES, you write from a woman’s POV. Did this come naturally or are you someone who needs to dig deep to make this voice convincing (whichever it was, it worked!)?

First of all, thanks! I’ve always liked writing female characters- The Song Of The Sibyl is told entirely from one woman’s viewpoint, and three of the main characters in The Faceless are female- so it’s nice to know I’m doing it properly.

If I’m any good at it, I owe a lot to my younger sister- when she was 17, 18 years old she went through a phase of being very, very feminist. I only scratched the surface of all the theory she was studying, but it did have the effect of giving me some idea of (literally) how the other half lives. Joan Smith’s book Misogynies, in particular, was a real eye-opener

Ultimately it’s all about character. It’s always worth asking if the character has to be male, or white, or straight, or able-bodied, or whatever. It can be very fruitful to eschew the obvious choices- it takes you places you mightn’t have gone otherwise, and it’s not as if there’s a critical shortage of white male heterosexual protagonists, is there?

Angels came about when a friend and I caught a bus out of Manchester and a group of ‘moshers’ piled on- teenage rockers, goths and emos, basically. We got chatting to them and they were a really nice bunch of kids, the kind that make you feel quite optimistic about the rising generation- bright, friendly, articulate- and there were a couple of girls who basically became Emily and Biff. The first page or so of Angels is pretty much drawn from real life. I wanted to write a story about the two girls, and the story worked itself out from there. I just remembered how the two girls and the other kids had talked and used that for the narrator’s voice.

10.

Congratulations on finishing THE FACELESS. Anyone who follows you on Facebook will know how hard it was for you. Was the journey worth it? What can we expect?

The novel’s set in a fictional Lancashire town called Kempforth. Kempforth’s based on various old mill towns that lost most of their young men in the First World War and haven’t been quite the same since- Accrington’s the best-known example. There’s often quite an isolated feel to places like that, with miles of hills and moorland separating them from other towns. In the case of Kempforth, people are starting to disappear and these strange, cloaked figures called the Spindly Men are being sighted all around the town. The book follows different characters- the police detectives investigating the disappearances, a fake medium who grew up in Kempforth and starts getting real messages from the dead calling him back home, and the local librarian who knows about some of the town’s darker secrets, including a very scary abandoned mental hospital called Ash Fell. Basically, between them they’re going to find out what’s behind the disappearances and the Spindly Men. And it’s not going to be very nice. (But you probably knew that already.)

Looking back, I made a lot of unnecessary work for myself on it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year it’s that the outline is your friend. I even outline short stories now, and it makes it so much easier to write them in the gaps between longer pieces. If I’d applied that approach to The Faceless on a chapter by chapter basis, I’d probably have finished it in half the time and to the same standard of quality. As it was, I only had the sketchiest of outlines for each chapter and here was so much going on at any one time that each chapter became a huge, sprawling mess. I was measuring progress solely by word count, rather than stopping to cut things down and find the right style to get everything across clearly and concisely. Result: a 160,000 word first draft that I had to boil down to 100,000 words or so, putting the style in last! It took me more than a month over my deadline. I won’t make that mistake again- I’ve got Gary McMahon to try and keep up with here…

I hope it was worth it- trouble is, you can spend so much time on a project you lose any critical perspective whatsoever. By the end of it, I felt like I’d got the different elements of the book to come together. At worst I hope it’s an honourable failure. You’ll have to judge for yourself when it comes out in February!

11.

Who, where and what inspires you to write?

Story ideas can come from anywhere- other stories, films or television, new articles, other people’s experiences, something you see from the window of the bus. Sometimes it’s a way of expressing a reaction to something- ‘The Slashed Menagerie’ was written as a black satire on war and the class system, for instance. You can write anywhere- although I prefer to use a keyboard, I’ve done stuff longhand- and virtually any setting can inspire a story. As to who: Shakespeare, because he had to write to make a living- and he succeeded- but also managed to create some of the finest literature in the English language in the process. Other playwrights like Edward Bond, Howard Barker, Sophocles and David Rudkin. Oh, and Gary McMahon. The rate that little ginger fucker churns novels and stories out inspires me to raise my game…

12.

Which writer – or writers – pisses you off most? (Personally it’s Mike Gayle and Tony Parsons who seem to be paid a fortune for writing benign crap)

Dan Brown. Someone gave me a copy of Digital Fortress for Christmas one year- I managed ten pages before giving up- my brain would have melted otherwise. I don’t think of myself as a literary snob, but jesus- Brown’s writing stinks to high heaven. I gave The Da Vinci Code a try and by struggling heroically made it halfway through before watching the film instead, which was no work of genius but at least spared me the godawful prose. He’s good at one thing- I’ll give him this- he can keep teasing the reader with the promise of some big secret which he then spins out for the duration of the book. Having cracked it, though, you never need to read the damn book again; I expect that’s why you find umpteen copies in every charity shop…

Oh, and Jeremy Clarkson (again!)- not that I’ve read any of his stuff, but I’m assuming it’s of a piece with the rest of his cuntish existence.

13.

Which celebrity do you wish you could step back in time to sterilise the parents of before they consummated?

Pretty much all of the current crop. As New Model Army’s Justin Sullivan once said, the cult of celebrity is irrelevant to music, and to everything else. The point of fame used to be achievement- you were famous because you’d done something worthy of note- discovered a cure of a horrible disease, saved your country from invasion, written a great novel, made a great film, given a great performance. And I think that focused people- if you wanted to be known, you had to put your energy and concentration into learning how to do something and do it well, usually to the point where doing it well becomes an end in itself and the fame secondary. Now, people just want to be famous and thanks to the godawful vapidity of 24 hour TV culture you don’t have to achieve a bloody thing- just get videoed sucking off your no-mark boyfriend and leak the sex-tape. (Two words: Kim Kardashian. And you have no idea how much I hate myself for knowing who she is.) Ideally I’d just like to go back and prevent the birth of whichever twunt came up with the idea of reality TV. Every time I glimpse a few minutes of that, it’s like watching the last days of Rome at double speed.

14.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a writer – specifically someone wanting to write horror? What do you feel is the best advice you’ve been given – and the worst?

First of all, write. You need a work ethic. When I started out I wrote a story a week, which is fine if you’re writing short stories. Now it’s more a case of writing every single day, whether it’s a novel, short story, novella, script, outline, pitch, whatever. This day will not come again; when it’s over, have something to show for it. A deadline is one of the best spurs to creativity that I know, but you won’t get work commissioned unless you can show you can produce good work in a professional way. So you have to be your own harsh taskmaster.

Second, you have to push yourself as a writer. At first it’s enough just to produce. But then it becomes about not repeating yourself. If you are telling the same story again, can you tell it better, more effectively, than you did before? If so, do so. If not- maybe you’ve mined that particular seam out and it’s time to try something else. Is there anything that keeps recurring in your stories, any techniques or motifs that are always showing up? If so, can you write a story without them? See the note on characterisation above as well- does this character have to be the same gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation as you? What do you believe? What are you writing about? What are you saying, if anything, in this story? These are hard questions- uncomfortable, even. But these are how you grow as a writer and develop whatever talent you’ve got to its fullest extent. As with the above, only you can push yourself in this way.

Third, read. And read widely. Not just within your preferred genre (if you have one) but outside it. There are only two kinds of writing- good and bad. Read the classics of the genre and read the classics, full stop.

Fourth, you have the freedom to write about anything you want. Don’t restrict yourself; you can set a story in any time or place, write from the viewpoint of any character. But there’s a responsibility that comes with that: the fiction you’re writing is someone else’s reality. You have a responsibility to get things right. Don’t fear research: it’s your friend and you can dig up stuff that will give you more ideas. The worst advice for writers is ‘write what you know.’ You have an imagination. Use it, together with your experiences and knowledge and any necessary research, to go wherever you want.

Fifth, learn to wear two hats, artist and business. As a writer, your only concern when writing is to produce the best piece of work you possibly can, nothing else. But when it’s done, get the best possible deal for your work. The small press has changed a hell of a lot since I started out, but it’s still an essential proving ground for new writers in terms of getting your first acceptances and building a name for yourself. But don’t be afraid to try the biggest, professional markets first. You might be pleasantly surprised!

Sixth, have a hide like a rhino to deal with rejections and bad reviews, but at the same time you have keep yourself open to new experiences and emotions. This is a tricky one. I’m still working on it.

15.

Would it upset you if you found your book in a charity shop? Propping up a table? Used as a bar mat?

Yes to the last two. In the first case, I’d just tell myself the previous owner a) had no taste or b) had died.

16.

Who are your literary heroes?

Shakespeare. Michael Moorcock. Harlan Ellison- immensely productive, prolific authors whose work nonetheless has a high quality threshold, and manage/managed to make a living doing what they loved.

17.

Who is your favourite newsreader?

Don’t have one, I’m afraid. I don’t watch TV.

18.

Other than writing and your human rights / political endeavours, what do you when you’re not working?

Spend far too much time on the internet. Watch DVDs. Try to get myself out of the house and have a life!

19.

When do you write? Early in the morning? Late at night? Weekends only?

For the last few years it’s been early in the morning before heading off to work a late shift, but my hours are about to change back to a regular 9 to 5. That’ll mean going back to the system I used before- get up early, write for half an hour before going to work, and then write a bit more before my shift starts, more in my lunch hour, more during my afternoon break, etc. Hemingway said you could write anywhere if you had pen and paper and could get people to leave you alone. To me, that’s the best approach- you sit down and you write whenever you have a moment to do so. Even if you only have five minutes, that’s long enough to write a paragraph or two.

20.

With THE FACELESS soon to hit the shelves, will you still remember us mere mortals when the big time comes?

I should bloody well hope so- last time I checked a book deal doesn’t make you more than human. The good thing about the sf/fantasy/horror scene, though, is that it’s very informal and friendly- it’s not conducive to airs and graces, which is another reason I really like it.

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