Simon Kurt Unsworth

I held this [remote] interview with Simon earlier this week (it’s November 4th as I type – the night before the most pointless (and loud!) celebration of the year, Bonfire Night). As anyone who has met Simon knows, his style is relaxed, witty, slightly opinionated (read his excellent rant over celebrities) and damn clever. Author of some cracking stories – a few of which have been nabbed by Black Static to decorate their great magazine – Simon first made a rather dynamic impression with me when I heard him read a story about a pirate (which we touch upon) at a gathering in Liverpool One’s Waterstones. Fingers crossed he makes the same impression with yourselves (by the way, the impression he made with me was so disturbing I had to punch a wall to feel normal again!)

Enjoy!

  1. Sum yourself up in 10 words

Husband, father, author, baffled, grouchy. Stressed, tired, travelling, tall, loud.

  1. If you could change one aspect about yourself – mentally or physically – what would it be and why?

Can I cheat and have two: mentally, I’d be better at talking to people, especially my wife, about important things rather than bottling things up and letting them turn into tensions and arguments that aren’t needed. Physically, I wish my facial hair grew in a uniform direction and that I didn’t get razor burn.

  1. I first saw you at a reading in Liverpool with Paul Finch and Graham Joyce where you read a story about a boy being stolen by a pirate captain on an adventure playground. Is the horror of losing a child something you find easy to write or is it something you have to get down to exorcise your demons – and is there anything you won’t write about for fearing your own reaction?

It’s not so much a case of exorcising my demons – I’m not actually too worried about ghost pirates or whatever, I’m glad to say – so much as it is a way of exploring the things that cause me the greatest worry: that something will happen to my child or wife, the two most important people in my life. Perhaps even more, I’ve come to realise that the threats to people in the stories I write, particularly children and spouses, are externalization of the fear I have that I’ll, through inaction or action, damage those people who are most important to me. It’s maybe the worst thing I can imagine, to look around and realise that I’ve hurt the people that I should be taking the most care of. Very practically, I also tend to think that if I can write about my fears in a way that communicates them well, then they’ll resonate with people because these aren’t unique to me. Well, I assume they’re not, anyway.

There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about, because at the end of the day what I write’s fiction even when it’s based on as real a set of emotions as I can mange. There are some subjects that I won’t tackle yet, not because of any moral stance but because I don’t think I’m a good enough writer yet – but I will be, one day. The closest I came to upsetting myself with what I’d written was when I finished my story ‘When the World Goes Quiet’ from Lost Places, about a zombie apocalypse. I wrote a genuinely unsettling last paragraph and last line, and then had to keep rewriting them because they weren’t upsetting enough. When I finally got them right, I remember reading the section back and thinking about how I’d feel if I was in the position I’d just put my characters in, and getting a bit choked up. I don’t mean in the middle of a zombie apocalypse – I’m ready for that, I’ve got two samurai swords and 6 months’ worth of cheap beaked beans and packet pastas stockpiled in the loft – I mean being put in the position of facing the most awful destructive choices, and then wondering if I’d have the courage to take those decisions. Mostly though, it’s not a problem because it’s just words; t’ain’t real.

  1. What are you reading at the moment and do you have any favourite authors / books? What would be your Desert Island selection (choose 5)?

Currently, I’m reading Helen Grant’s Wish Me Dead, and I’ve just finished Alan Moore’s Necronomicon. Helen’s book is excellent, and Moore’s is…well, it’s the best thing I’ve read by him in a while but it’s nowhere near as good as his earlier stuff. My favourite books are ‘Salem’s Lot, Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, the Collected MR James ghost stories, King’s Night Shift and Christopher Fowler’s Darkest Day. In terms of authors, I like the novels of John Connolly, (of course) Gary McMahon, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Kim Newman and King, although not particularly his recent stuff. To Kill a Mockingbird is simply astonishing, and J G Ballard never wrote a word I didn’t like. I’m also a fan of Willard Price’s Adventure series (certain moments of colonialism, racism or biological inaccuracies notwithstanding) because I loved them as a kid, and I think Spike Milligan’s war memoirs are funny, shocking, entertaining remarkably intelligent and moving, and should be required reading for any student of the British involvement in World War II. I think everyone should read Robert Westall’s Break of Dark, and consider no home complete if it does not contain a well-thumbed copy of Mog the Forgetful Cat.

Because of that, a desert island selection’s really difficult, you buggers! I’d have to take ‘Salem’s Lot (although I might cheat and try and get it in one of those ‘three books in one’ paperbacks so I’d got an extra two King novels to read) and Uzumaki and The Complete MR James. After that, I’m not sure, although I’d be tempted to get a couple of those 80-story St Michael or Penguin anthologies I remember from being a kid and just work my way through them. Hey, can I have a fully loaded Kindle as a single choice?

  1. What do you have on your bedside table?

According to my wife, somewhere between ‘too much’ and ‘more crap than it should be humanly possible to collect’. Normally, there’s a bunch of receipts and at least one book, opened packets of chewing gum, my watch and jewellery (a cross and a bangle that I wear when I remember to put them on) and my inhaler. Often, my phone. Coffee mugs and maybe a glass. A lamp and a radio.

Perhaps I should point out that the more important issue here: what’s on my bedside table is less important than what’s beside and in front of it. In front is a basket containing something like 30 books – which constitute my current TBR pile. It’s also become the dumping ground for any magazines I’m midway though, more receipts that need filing, post I haven’t dealt with and a mound of general crap. To the side of the table there’s a huge pile of books by my fellow Dark Continents Publishing authors, as well as overflow books from the TBR basket. Both the basket and the sidebook pile reach to just below the surface of the table and are in urgent need of sorting…

  1. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given – and the worst?

The best is, without a doubt, “Extend your hands, wiggle your fingers, and start typing” – given to me by Gary McMahon when I was procrastinating over starting my novel. As for the worst, I don’t know really – I can’t remember any bad advice, because I’m not sure it actually exists. Advice is simply that: advice. You don’t have to take it! I’ve certainly chosen to ignore some advice, often from people I respect, when it feels like the advice clashed with my own perceptions or opinions, or just didn’t fit with what I felt I was trying to do – but I was still grateful people had taken the time to advise me, even if I was fool (or sensible) enough to ignore them. I got some advice on my story ‘A Man of Ice and Sorrow’ from an editor who’s judgement I trust absolutely, recommending changes to the story – which I completely ignored. I could see the validity in all the recommendations, and could see how they’d certainly improve the story in a number of ways…but it would have also changed the story to a point where it wouldn’t have been the story I wanted it to be. So I ignored the advice, left the story well alone, submitted it to Black Static and got an immediate acceptance. See? Good advice, ignored, but still a happy ending!

The best advice I ever gave myself, incidentally, was that it’s okay to be sure about a story and to be sure it’s finished, and that it’s okay to ignore other people’s advice – the trick is to know when that point comes.

  1. Would you ever switch writing styles if it meant fame and fortune?

You mean, would I whore my immortal artist’s soul for money? Yes, of course I would, if that meant I could then spend time doing what I loved. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d like fame and fortune to find me for what I’m doing now, but if I have to meet them halfway or even over at their place, then so be it. If the world makes me an offer, and there’s the promise that if I accept it I’ll be able to quit work and still pay the mortgage and write full time, I’ll bite the bugger’s hand off… It seems to me that the best way is to look at those offers that seem initially as outside your field is from the other angle, to see if you can do something within these new parameters but that incorporates your own interests. Can you bring in your own themes? Sneak in a bit of sex or mortification of the flesh or cream cake recipes or fruit abuse, or whatever? Because if you come at it right, I’ll bet there almost always is; almost.

I say ‘almost’ because I do suspect there are limits, though: I can’t imagine I’d ever write a Mills and Boon or one of the ‘classics with added monsters’ books, no matter what the offer was, not because I have a particular problem with them but because I simply wouldn’t be able to write a good one. They’re simply so far from how I look at the world or from the things that I respond to that they’d feel completely out of reach. Mind you, if the money was good enough, I’d be prepared to try…

  1. List your ideal six dinner guests – living or dead, past or present.

My wife, Wendy: I can pretty much have a dinner party with just her and I’m happy. If I have to have other people: my son, Ben, because he makes me laugh, and I do like to see people fall beneath his unending verbal onslaught. I’d probably use the dinner party as a chance to see people I don’t see often enough, so my mate Steve and his wife, Tam. My granddad’s a great bloke and I miss seeing him, so him too – he’s not dead, it’s just a question of time! If I had to pick more exotic figures, though: Elizabeth Sladen and David Tennant, just because they’re my son’s favourite people on TV and seeing his face as they walked in the room would probably keep me laughing all day, Spike Milligan just so I could sit and be in awe, Jon Boden (vocal and fiddler in Bellowhead), Adrian Edmondson and Neil Diamond so my wife had someone to talk to.

  1. Are you someone who continually wants to edit their work, even when it’s on the shelf or in the buyer’s bag, or is it a case of: once it’s done, it’s done?

Here’s the difference between a writer and an author, I think: an author knows when something’s finished. That’s not to say that you don’t want to carry on fiddling (and I do, changing words and phrases even in final proof copy stage if I’m allowed), but you have to at some point decide, No, that’s it, and then stick with your decision. It’s a question of self-control – you have to have some, otherwise you’d never be done. I don’t like reading my old stuff very much because I see all the things I’d do differently if I was writing them now and all the places where I think my writing needs improving, and there are one or two pieces that’d I certainly change if they were being reprinted, but most of them I’d have to leave. Otherwise, you’d never finish, not ever, and down that road madness or pedantry lie.

  1. Which kids TV programme most affected you when you were younger (not Doctor Who!)?

I loved the Kenny Everett Video Show and The Young Ones when I was a kid, and I get huge chunks of my sense of humour from those two sources. I also have huge affection for Soap, Monty Python and the lost gem Who Dares Wins (the show with Jimmy Mulville, Rory McGrath, Tony Robinson, Philip Pope and Julia Hills, not the dreadful movie with Lewis Collins –although I will forgive Lewis Collins most things for being in my favourite TV show when I was about 6, The Professionals). When I was about 4, the TV broadcast those excerpts shows with truncated versions of Harold Lloyd’s movies with added voiceovers, and I absolutely adored them too. It’s weird that most of those are comedies, isn’t it? Although I do think that absurd comedy and horror often deal with very similar themes but simply look at them from opposing angles. It’s all about the unexpected, the exploitable frailties of our everyday lives, about how we or our lives fall apart… If you want some horror influences, I remember being scared by an episode of Scooby Doo when I really small! I also remember clearly a show in which an older gentleman sat in a chair and told stories – it used to be on BBC2 in the early evening, I think, back in about ’78 or so, and the stories were classic horrors. I know they did James’ ‘The Mezzotint’ and (I think) ‘The Wailing Well’, although I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the show or who was in it. I remember adoring and being hugely creeped out by the stories, though, so it has to count as an early, critical, influence. I’d love to see them again now.

  1. What historical event has affected you most?

Given that every event, no matter how small, no matter when or where it happens, contributes to the sum and progress of human history and is therefore ‘historical’, I’d have to say the time I realised that I was considering the female friend from work in ways that went beyond friendship, and by God, hadn’t she got good legs, and should I risk asking her out? Means nothing to you, of course, but it changed the course of my life, because I married her 18 months later. It probably sounds terribly selfish and shallow, but I honestly struggle to separates events from each other and from how they touch me, so I can’t really point to one thing and say ‘That’s the most affecting/important’. 911 was fucking horrible, as was 7/7 (especially wondering if my best mate was caught up in it for a while before getting in contact with him and finding he was thankfully safe), but my son’s premature birth was a far worse night for me than either of them. 911 and events like it have the power and capacity to shock and anger and upset me, but so does hearing some trust fund rich Tory shit telling me we’re all in this together whilst smilingly reducing the support available to society’s most vulnerable, or seeing us enter a war not because the Taliban were killing women in public for actually having opinions about things and for wanting a choice about their fucking lives, but because they had the temerity to support an attack on America. Everything’s connected, contextualized and perceptualised through our own filters, so history for me is about the links and connections and threads that occur in my life rather than events occurring in some kind of splendid isolation. Is one thing on the TV news worse than another thing? Yes. No. Yes. No. I end up being affected by it all to more or less the same degree, and eventually try to close off from it lest I go stark staring mad with fury and revulsion trying to process it all. In the end, I focus on my stuff and try to make that as safe as possible. Like I said, selfish and shallow.

  1. What, for you, is the best time to write?

On trains! I’m on one as I write this, travelling from Lancaster to Dorking for work. I have my iPod on (always on shuffle, before you ask – currently the Smiths, but so far today I’ve had Bellowhead, ABBA, Baby Bird, Johnny Cash, The Bangles, The Sisters of Mercy, Take That, Tom Waits, The Duckworth Lewis Method, Kylie Minogue, The Dead Kennedys, That Petrol Emotion, A-Ha, Fuzzbox, the brilliant Bad Shepherds, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, The Velvet Underground, Faust, Quiet Loner and a host of others) and I wear my grumpy ‘don’t talk to me’ face and I just get on. There’s something about the rhythms of train travel that lends itself to writing – for me, it always has. Failing that, any time really, as long as I have my Mac and a chair.

  1. Would you be upset if you found your book propping up someone’s table?

Not if they’d paid for it! Well, okay, yeah, maybe a bit…

  1. Does having the backing of a favourite author mean much to you or is it better to impress yourself first and others as a consequence?

Both, I think. Fundamentally, I write for myself or to fulfil the commissions I have, so in that sense I have to be happy with the finished product before anyone else is, but there comes a point where you have to send it out for review and comment and at that point you hope for people to like it. There are definitely authors whose positive opinion I value and whose name on a blurb for something I’ve written fills me with pride. Stephen Volk, Laurence C. Connolly, Gary McMahon, Rob Shearman, Mark Morris, Steve Duffy and Tom Fletcher have all blurbed for me in the past, and their positive comments mean something to me more than potential additional sales that their comments might generate. Those positive comments feel like I’m getting accepted into the club, somehow, although I appreciate that it probably doesn’t make much sense from the outside.

15.   What weapons would you use to kill a pointless celebrity – who is the most pointless celebrity and why?

Fuck, we haven’t got space enough to list the people I’d kill if that were my criteria!

Particular revulsion is reserved, however, for that silly cow that didn’t win the Apprentice but who now gets wheeled out to comment on any kind of issue relating to women because she can be relied upon to present the right wing non-feminist female perspective – is it Katy something? Why her? What skills has she got, besides business (which, to be fair, I’m sure she’s pretty good at – and I have no objection to her being interviewed about that). I’ve heard her interviewed about breast-feeding, parking in supermarket car parks and a host of other subjects as though she’s some kind of representative for all women. Well, let me let you into a little secret, guest bookers: she’s fucking not. Also, who the fuck are the Kardashians? What do they do? No, really, please, I’d like to know. Brian fucking Dowling? Pete Burns (one hit single and some fucking terrible surgery doesn’t make you important, Pete, trust me on this)?

Nick Clegg isn’t a celebrity – I’m not even sure he’s a human, given that one of the definitions of human is to have a fucking backbone – but I’d certainly line him up with the rest of the vacuous, primping and preening dolts and collective wastes of DNA that seem to fill the television screens and papers and magazines each day and I can honestly say I believe I’d probably be improving the average IQ and general wellbeing of the human race if I turned the rockets on them. Most Tory Politicians could quite happily join the burning throng as well, and I’d happily ladle on more kindling.

Well, actually, no, let’s just think about this: must as I dislike them, it’s not really their fault they’re celebrities – it’s the media and the people who book guests for shows and the consumers who watch and listen to them and who vote for them who give them their role, so I think to be honest I reserve most of my disgust for the massed public who give these fuckers the oxygen of publicity. People, Jordan wouldn’t exist if you didn’t send the sales of OK sky-high every time she was on the cover! OK wouldn’t exist if you stopped buying it! We get the culture and society we deserve, to some degree, and despite the best efforts of lots people, we’re at risk of becoming a society of shallow, vapid, mayfly-attentioned halfwits, if we aren’t there already. And before anyone starts shaking their fists at me, yes, I do include myself in that category of risk most of the time – I have found myself reading abandoned copies of Heat on the train or flicking idly through newspapers for whom the definition of ‘news’ appears to be ‘whose tits are bigger/smaller/sagging/perky/popping out/covered in cellulite/fake/real/just next to unsightly patches of armpit sweat’. Lowest common denominator entertainment is alarmingly attractive, and takes no effort, and yes I do sometimes indulge even as I hate myself for doing. I still don’t know who half the people in Heat are, though.

Ultimately, I don’t think any of these people really deserve killing, incidentally – if we stop looking at them and stop listening to them and stop asking their opinion then maybe they’d FUCK OFF and we wouldn’t need to kill them. Think I’m joking? Consider this: the BBC asked Louis Spence for his opinion during a serious political debate during the last election! LOUIS SPENCE! A man who by his own admission had never voted, and whose main advice appeared to be that the candidates should use their faces more – I despair, truly I do. And Boy George was once on Question Time for no apparent reason, and managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that singing and wearing makeup don’t ultimately equip you for serious debate with grown-ups or indeed, being able to string together coherent non-smug sentences. There are endless examples of this – it’s become a joke, that we don’t know who the people on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! are, in the main, but never once does anyone seem to question why. If they aren’t celebrities, if they have no discernible talent, what are they doing on our televisions? In our newspapers and magazines? I’m sure they’re all lovely people in person, but for God’s sake, please, let’s get some sense of perspective and stop before we disappear so far around the catastrophe curve that there’s no way back.

That’s it, I’ll calm down now.

Oh, one last thing: John Culshaw, who are your impressions supposed to be, exactly?

  1. If you had a bedside lamp with a shade made from human skin, would you use a coloured bulb?

Damn straight. It’d probably put it on top of a lava lamp so it changed colour every few seconds.

  1. When someone distracts you while you’re working, if there were no consequences what would you like to do to them?

Nothing, for fear of similar retribution when I distracted them! Although, if you’re saying I can get away with it unscathed, I’d maybe consider plugging them into that machine in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that shows your relative importance to the entire universe, with a comment as they go under that whatever they want, it not actually that important, is it? In the grand scheme of things?

  1. How are your shaving escapades going?

Ha! My beard and I seem to be in a state of constant low-level conflict. It never quite grows how I want it to, which is a pain, so I’m always experimenting with different shapes and widths and styles to see which suits me best. I haven’t got cool stubble and it’s not thick enough for me to grow a proper pointy bear and moustache, which is a real shame, so I’ve kind of fallen back to my long-term facial decoration at the moment, a narrow goatee. I have decided to grow pointy Victorian sideburns though…

  1. When was the last time you were nervous?

I spend a lot of time away from home working, so I get nervous every time I ring or text home in case something’s gone wrong with the house or car – which is what normally happens when I’m away (or feels like it). There’s something terribly dispiriting about trying to help solve a problem whilst you’re 300 miles away from home…

I don’t suffer that too badly from nerves, thank God, but I do get a little tense before any public event – I was nervous before doing a reading a Casterton Girls School (don’t ask) recently, and also before the event I did for Cancer Research in Morecambe for Halloween. That’s probably healthy, though, and means I’m not taking these opportunities for granted!

  1. If your work was to be filmed, who would you want to direct?

Me. Or, if I’m not available, John Carpenter as long as he promised to stop being as workmanlike and disinterested as he has been for his last few films and actually put his back into making a good job of it.

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