Conrad Williams Interviewed by David McWilliam

Posted by David McWilliam on January 17, 2011 in Interviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Conrad Williams is the author of seven novels: Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished, One, Decay Inevitable, Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation; four novellas: Nearly People, Game, Rain and The Scalding Rooms and around 80 short stories (a number of which appeared in his collection, Use Once Then Destroy). He has won the International Horror Guild Award (2007, Best Novel – The Unblemished) and several British Fantasy Awards (1993, Best Newcomer; 2008, Best Novella – The Scalding Rooms; 2010, Best Novel – One). He lives in Manchester with his wife and three sons.

Readers can download a copy of Conrad’s short story ‘Slitten Gorge‘.

For more information visit Conrad’s website.

When you decided that you wanted to write fiction professionally, what was it that drew you towards horror as a genre?

I didn’t decide to write professionally. Being paid to write stories was something of a happy bonus; a bit of a shock, actually. There was a point when I was very young – but already in love with the idea of creating fiction – when I didn’t realise people received money for writing. My first payment for a short story was £5, back in 1988. I have a photograph of the cheque…

I was drawn to horror from an early age. I derived a profound pleasure from being scared. I loved ghost trains. I loved to read the Pan Books of Horror, and the Peter Haining edited anthologies of ghost stories. I was also drawn to the gorier passages in my parents’ book collection. I remember reading the opening five pages of Jaws when I was very young, and later, scenes of decapitation in a novel called Amok (1978) by George Fox, about a Japanese holdout soldier. And I also loved sneaking downstairs to watch old black and white horror films. I’d sit on the landing and be able to see through the crack in the door of the living room. I’d have to beat a hasty and stealthy retreat whenever I heard one of my parents stirring from the sofa. Early films that influenced me were King Kong (1933) – so much so that I begged my parents to buy me a plastic kit of Kong that glowed in the dark (I actually found the thing, here), The Haunting (1963), Psycho (1960), Night of the Demon (1957) and the Basil Rathbone series of Sherlock Holmes films, which were anachronistic and propaganda led, but blessed with superb atmosphere and frightening villains, such as The Hoxton Creeper, who dispatched his victims by breaking their backs with his bare hands. Broadly-speaking, I’m attracted to the way good horror, in books and film, builds tension. I’m also drawn to the idea of ordinary people being placed in extraordinary circumstances.

There is a cinematic quality to your prose that imbues even your most intimate stories with a strong visual quality. Have you consciously adapted techniques from cinematography or do you think that your style might have been unconsciously influenced by the language of film?

I think anybody who is a writer in this visual age cannot fail to be influenced by it. I love film. There’s a part of me that is envious of scenarios such as that enjoyed (endured?) by writers such as Raymond Chandler, who was lured to Hollywood and locked in a room with a typewriter to produce pages for a film. I’m sure it would be a nightmare, but there’s something quite heroic about it too. I enjoyed watching the documentaries that accompanied the films Apocalypse Now (1979), ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’, and The Shining (1980), ‘Making The Shining’, in which you see, respectively, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick on set, bashing out rewrites.

I tend to visualise my narratives at the same time as trying to fashion something out of sentences. It’s a weird, syncopated practice. I will, if I’m stuck, go off somewhere quiet and think about what happens in a sequence of scenes, playing them through my head like a storyboard. Maybe that bodes well in terms of a book-to-screen scenario. I’d like to think so.

Which writers influenced your early work and how has your continuing reading affected the novels you choose to write today?

When I was starting out, the horror shelves in my local bookshop (a WH Smith in Warrington) were filled with Stephen King and James Herbert. So I started with them, and favoured King. He produced a strong sequence of early novels that included Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978) and The Dead Zone (1979). For me, his following work never quite lived up to that amazing quartet, although It (1986) and Misery (1987) are later flashes of brilliance. After them I discovered Ramsey Campbell and I consider him a huge influence on my work, not least because much of it is set in the north-west of England, where I am from. Through Ramsey I learned about MR James, one of the few writers who can terrorise me. I liked Clive Barker’s short stories, but not so much his novels, although I did enjoy The Damnation Game (1985) and Weaveworld (1987). And Peter Straub is a criminally underrated writer who is as good as anyone in the field. His novel Koko (1988) is a first-class example of a book that transcends its genre. However, it is away from the more overt horror writers that I found my greatest influences. The writers I turn to time and again are M John Harrison (key works for me: The Ice Monkey (1983), Climbers (1989), The Course of the Heart (1990)), Christopher Priest (The Affirmation (1981), The Glamour (1984), The Prestige (1995)) and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian (1985), No Country for Old Men (2005), The Road (2006)).

The Road gave me the green light, I think, to write my own post-apocalyptic novel. I had notes going back ten years regarding such a novel, but I felt that my lyrical style might get in the way. But McCarthy showed me that it was possible to write about the most monstrous events in way that is almost poetic. The Road is both the most beautiful and the most devastating novel I’ve ever read.

From London Revenant (2004) on through much of your later work you repeatedly use the city of London as the setting for a range of horrors. Can you tell me why the city holds such allure for you as the locus of so many of your narratives?

Much of that is simply down to the fact that I was living there while I was writing. But of course, London possesses its own resonances, history, punch. It carries some weight in the way that, say, Warrington does not. London becomes another character in a story. People know it, so you can play around with a reader’s perceptions of the city in a way that you can’t with a small, relatively unknown town.

There was something about being an outsider in London that appealed to me, too. I lived in London for 13 years and I was all over the place. I moved a lot. I lived in west London, south London, north London and eventually bought a flat in Stamford Hill. I never felt at home, though. My flat was subject to a quite violent burglary (entry was forced through the ceiling) and I never felt comfortable living there after that.

And London tires you out. Getting anywhere takes time and effort. Travel in the city can be horrendous. People don’t talk to each other. They avoid contact. I owned my flat for four years and didn’t even see the people who lived in the flat next door to mine. There’s a tension in you that you only notice when you get out of the place. Much of that barely reined-in panic is what I’m chasing whenever I write a London novel. The city has its own list of horrors that you have to address as a writer if you want to locate something there. It’s unavoidable.

When I wrote The Unblemished, I deliberately subverted the genre’s tendency to have horrors uncoil in a sleepy seaside village™. The novel starts in some rural backwater, but very quickly the focus changes to London. Because, of course, if you’re a hungry predator you go where the meat is. You don’t plan world domination from a seaside café in Bognor.

That said, the new novel, Loss of Separation, is set in a sleepy seaside village™ on the Suffolk coast…

The Unblemished (2006) is a mythological contemporary apocalypse narrative that follows its protagonists on their descent into a form of Hell on Earth. One of the central characters, Bo Mulvey, comes to possess the map that will lead him and his fellows into the heart of the malevolent power that seeks to visit a terrible revenge on London for past wrongs against it. This is a twisted cathedral, built with the flesh and bone of the construction workers integrated into its fabric: ‘The walls had taken on some of the physicality of the dead that adorned them. They writhed, muscular, torsional, lubricated with lymph’ (p.194). The repeated motif of bodies in agony and towering flames made me wonder whether you were intentionally drawing on representations of Hell and, if so, what do you consider to be your influences from art, film, and fiction?

I’m an atheist, but I don’t have an agenda. There was no intention of mine to make any sacrilegious links. It was all about building an atmosphere. What more impactful, visual setting could you have than a cathedral? Of course, it’s a profane act to use human beings as the cement that keeps the place together, but I was writing about monsters and I wanted my monsters to be serious badasses. Clive Barker is the go-to guy for your Hell on Earth fix. But I do like a devil. I loved Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart (1987), and The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and The Devil’s Advocate (1997) were hoots. Like some other horror writers, I’m drawn to Francis Bacon’s paintings, as well as the work of a Polish artist, Wieslaw Walkuski, whom I approached for permission to put one of his paintings on a book cover of mine (Nearly People). Some of his work inspired the creation of the Mowers that appear in that story. I also like John Virtue’s grimy, impressionist takes on the urban landscape. There’s Hell, or a taste of it, in all of this. But I’m not really looking to make any direct references.

When he accepts ownership of the map, Bo unwittingly allows an alien presence into himself that grants great power, but is also the catalyst for horrifying changes. The ambiguity of these transformations is summed up by the phrase ‘His body screamed with possibilities’ (p. 91). However, the quote from Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) at the beginning of Part II, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake” suggests that Bo’s gifts may come at too high a price. It strikes me that the best transformational body horror is disturbing precisely because of the confusion it brings: experiences most could never dream of, but also alienation from one’s body that threatens dissolution. What are the attractions of body horror for you as a writer? What questions do you feel it can ask about being human?

My fascination with the body and its scarlet treasures tips a nod to Barker, and David Cronenberg, of course. Loss of Separation has its fair share of body horror too. I’ve long been interested in scars and many of my characters carry them. It’s because the body is so beautiful – inside and out – a miracle of biological engineering. I visited Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworks exhibition in Brick Lane some years ago and was knocked out by it. It was stunning to see the body flayed like this, to understand how its many layers all hang together. I was awed. He’s a bit of a showpony, Hagens, but I thought his representations reflect his love of the human body. I have no truck with his detractors. If you don’t want to see him perform a public post-mortem, don’t watch. If you’re shocked by him arranging his consenting models in a pose of sexual intercourse, go and read the Mail. I’m fascinated. I want to know how the body works, what it does, in all its moist glory. How can you not be interested in your own flesh and blood? If it wasn’t for people rooting around up to their elbows in cavities, we’d all still be falling off our perches aged 30.

I think the whole idea of transformational body horror has some connection with a widespread belief among those of a religious bent that this is not all there is. There is a constant looking to what will come next. That the body is not merely a pile of flesh and offal when you die. That you transcend this piffling vessel of skin and become something more rarefied. In Buddhism too, and I’m describing this simplistically, there is the belief in improvement, of rebirth or samsara as they call it: that you start off as a maggot or a flea or a footballer for Manchester Utd, and you change over time, sloughing off various skins, improving, regressing, until you reach nirvana. It’s comforting to some people. I suppose the whole idea of alienation, of not recognising, or not wanting to recognise, the skull beneath the skin, is key to much horror fiction.

Though there is certainly more at work than is at first apparent, The Unblemished ostensibly deals with the taboo of cannibalism, which seems to have somewhat fallen out of favour as a trope of horror (though this may be changing given the positive reception of your novel and the recent film We Are What We Are (2010), directed by Jorge Michel Grau). What attracted you to the figure of the cannibal as monster? Do you think that this speaks to a primal horror similar to that of incest?

I suppose I’m just creeped out by the idea of someone checking you out in terms of how your arm might look, basted and blistered on the barbecue. There is something primal about it. And if you go back far enough, our ancestors will all have indulged. There’s that unspoken question: ‘why not?’. If you’re happy to tuck into pork or beef, why do we draw the line at cats, dogs and squirrels? I suppose that’s one of the reasons why The Road is so frightening. We are only an apocalyptic event away from grinding salt and pepper over each other’s feet. We’ve lost that hunter-gatherer impulse. We’ve been pampered to the point of coma. BOGOF. Nectar points. Every Little Helps. The amount of food that gets scraped into the recycling bins after dinner is frightening. The melting of the polar ice caps, the release of all that trapped methane; the violent flare-up of a dying star in the neighbourhood; Korea or Iran or India and Pakistan playing atomic tennis… and I’ll no doubt see you in the queue for the lame, the old and the newborns. That’s what’s scary. People are capable of anything, under their double-breasted jackets and their monthly direct debit to Oxfam.

The influence of Clive Barker’s lyrical body horror is apparent in the way you portray monsters and the fear of losing control of one’s own body. In 2009 your admiration for his early work became more overt when you contributed to the Hellbound Hearts anthology, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan, which invited established authors to return to Barker’s Hellraiser mythos and deliver a new take on what was a defining body of work in modern horror. How did you become involved in the project and what did you hope to achieve with your contribution?

The simple answer is that I was invited. I wouldn’t normally get involved with projects connected to the creations of other writers, but this was too tempting to resist. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (1984-85), The Damnation Game and The Hellbound Heart (1986) had a great impact on me. I loved how he described his profane visions with erudite, poetic language. Barker is in a class of his own. He doesn’t write like anybody else: he’s prolix, elliptical, explicit. Darker than black. In another universe, or another time, he might be anathema to the publishing industry. But The Hellbound Heart, and the concomitant film, Hellraiser (1987), turned his name to gold. It came at a good time for him. Eighties Britain was all about excess. You can have it all, and Clive gave us everything, red, raw and shocking. I had great fun inventing my own Cenobite – The Diploë – and dragging my foul-tempered detective around the wintered streets of Manchester. ‘The Cold’ is meant as a love story (albeit skewed, impossible), as well as a horror story. I wanted to apply that Barker template, as I see it, to my own effort. There’s bleakness and gore, but there’s human warmth there too, if you dig deep enough.

The father-son relationship in The Road provides an intimate dynamic through which McCarthy is able to hammer home the enormity of the apocalypse that has left the novel’s world an ash-covered wasteland. A similar relationship is at the core of One, as protagonist Richard Jane makes his way south through a ruined United Kingdom, hoping to find his young son in the surreal, melted landscape of a world that has been even more radically transformed. Whereas The Road deals with the fear of loss, One shows the torment presented by hope as it leads to despair when it looks as though Jane will never be reunited with his son. Why did you feel compelled to write about this broken character and his nostalgia for a past that cannot be reclaimed in your own addition to the canon of post-apocalyptic fiction?

I always wanted to write an OMOHO – One Man On His Own – an acronym invented, I believe, by my creative writing tutor at Lancaster University, Alan Burns. He argued that it was impossible to do so. I very quickly came to see that he was right. He talked about his debut novel, Europe after the Rain (1965), as an example. That novel is a kind of post-apocalyptic story too. He said he wanted to write about a man picking his way through the devastation of the continent after the Second World War. But he needed his protagonist to have a purpose, so he had him looking for his sister. Suddenly you have a story, and one with great emotional impact. A man fannying around alone in the ashes is no story whatsoever. When I realised that, and when I came to write One, I knew I had to write about a father and his boy. I wrote about the worst thing I could imagine, being separated from the person you love more than anything or anyone else at the moment of a terrible natural disaster. What’s frightening is not the cataclysm itself – not the heat that flays the skin from your bones, nor the countless bodies lying in drifts along the street, nor the monster’s wet breath rattling behind the door – it’s the *not knowing* that’s the killer. My protagonist, Richard Jane, walks hundreds of miles to find out if his five-year-old son made it. And he can’t find him. Ten years on he is still searching. Because that’s what you do. You fear the worst, but you need to know for sure.

On the radio recently, there was a phone-in about Madeleine McCann. Her parents have just launched a petition calling for a full review of the case. It’s been nearly four years since Madeleine went missing in Portugal. The subject of the phone-in was: How long is too long? When should you give up? When should you seek closure? It was a waste of however many hours it went on for, in my opinion. You can argue and you can reason all you like; Kate and Gerry McCann will never stop searching for their daughter until she’s found. Simple as. Words such as ‘likelihood’ mean less than nothing here. You don’t have children if you think the McCanns are wasting their time.

The nostalgia you talk about is nothing of the sort to Jane. He believes his son is alive. He believes they will be reunited one day. His memories of his son are what keep him going. It’s his coping mechanism. There would have been no story if he didn’t cling on to that hope. Otherwise he would have killed himself, with his mate, Stopper, on the oil rig at the start of the novel.

I absolutely agree that the thought of losing the people closest to your heart is far more terrifying than the prospect of dying yourself; which brings me neatly on to my next question. There is a pervading sense in much of your fiction that the horror experienced by many of your characters stems from the damage caused to their sense of reality by traumatic experiences. Since the inclusion of the illness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, there has been a growing interest in the subjective experiences of trauma victims from academics and writers (as well as many others). Are you interested in theories of trauma, such as fractured realities, and if so, how does this inform the way you write about human suffering?

You must be on to something because my latest novel, Loss of Separation, is all about a guy, Paul Roan, who is trying to come back from a traumatic incident. He’s the victim of a hit-and-run and he’s been in a coma for six months. When he revives, his body is a complete mess. He’s scarred and broken and limping. What it meant for me was that I was able to present his narrative as being unreliable. When the weirdness starts, you’re thinking, is this real, or is this coma fallout? I’ve never been involved (touch wood) in a serious accident. I’ve never even broken a bone. So it’s quite difficult to get under the skin of a person so reduced. I do know people who have suffered bad accidents, or undergone invasive surgery, but a lot of it is down to trying to empathise.

With Blonde on a Stick (2010) you have moved, seemingly effortlessly, from horror into the noir thriller. The assurance with which you play with the conventions of the private investigator as protagonist, for example, betrays a deep love of the genre. Could you tell me about the crime fiction you see as an influence on your work and how the idea came about for you to switch genres for this novel?

I grew up among policemen and women. My parents met in the police. My brother worked for 25 years in the Metropolitan police. I was given a very early clue as to what was right and what was wrong. My dad is one of those people who thinks that littering, for example, should be punished with a long prison sentence. Thankfully, I’ve not taken after him in that respect. But I’m very interested in crime and criminals and the reasons why people do bad things. I didn’t want to write a straightforward crime story, a police procedural, or a flawed genius. It borrows the tropes of those genres – smart-mouth PI, femme fatale, dark secrets – but I wanted the protagonist and the antagonist to be linked by more than merely cat and mouse. My PI, Joel Sorrell, is a man whose life has been destroyed, but who has damaged and is damaging other people while he comes to terms with his own loss.

The influences that led me there draw upon film and TV as well as books. We watched a lot of police dramas in our household while I was growing up. The cosy stuff, such as Softly, Softly (1966-76), Z Cars (1962-78), and Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76), and the loose cannons such as Shoestring (1979-80). The Detective (1985) and Edge of Darkness (1985) were brilliant drama series that still resonate with me, many years after they were broadcast. Later, I was a big fan of Cracker (1993-96), and criminally underrated BBC series The Cops (1998-2000), which lasted just two seasons. I’ve tried to engage with the American police series, but it doesn’t grip me quite as much, possibly because the characters and locations are so alien. I’ll persevere with The Wire (2002-8), though, as I’ve heard nothing but good about it.

I was obsessed with James Bond as a teenager. I watched the films religiously and, one summer, when I was about fourteen, I read all the Ian Fleming novels, one after the other. The sad thing is that the last three novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), You Only Live Twice (1964) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (I’m not counting Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966) which was a collection put together by the publishers after Fleming’s death) were the best of the bunch. If he hadn’t died in 1964 (he was only 56), he would have produced even better novels, I’m sure. Derek Raymond was a superb crime writer whose five Factory novels are among the bleakest and funniest books I’ve ever read. I would never have written Blonde on a Stick without discovering Raymond. David Peace’s Red Riding quartet was phenomenal. He’s the writer I’m keeping my eye on more than any other at the moment. He’s a serious talent. Russell Celyn Jones wrote a superb crime thriller called The Eros Hunter (1998) that is worth tracking down.

I’m not sure I have switched genres, however. It’s always been in me, at some level, whether purely as a result of my influences, or deeper than that, in the marrow, like the horror. Blonde is as dark as anything I’ve ever written.

Lee Horsley, an expert on crime fiction, has identified a trend in recent years of horror and crime increasingly bleeding into one another, making it very difficult to categorize some novels as distinctly belonging to either genre. Is this something you have noticed and, if so, how did this affect your approach to Blonde on a Stick? What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of bringing your skills as a horror author to bear on a noir thriller?

She’s right, and she’s not the only one. You only have to look at the book covers to see a blurring of boundaries. With the rise of the serial killer novels, especially after Harris’s Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1989), there was a crossover into horror territory that still exists today. There are a lot of crime novels, especially serial killer novels, with grungy, horror effect covers. It was something Adam Nevill, my editor at Virgin, noticed and attempted to tap into with the cover of The Unblemished, which wouldn’t look out of place on the crime shelves.

I think the skills of the horror writer are interchangeable when it comes to noir. Suspense, atmosphere… the same building of tension exists.

From what you have told me Loss of Separation (due out in 2011), a novel ‘about a disgraced airline pilot convalescing at a beachside home after a car accident’, it seems that you are telling a more intimate kind of horror story than in your recent novels. Could you tell me a little more about Loss of Separation and how it differs from your previous work?

It is more intimate (the story is a first person narrative, with two or three other main characters). But it’s also pretty intense (I hope). I’ve had the novel on my mind for ten years. I was living in Southwold, Suffolk, when I saw an article (I can’t tell you what it is, it would give the whole novel away) in the Guardian that shocked and disturbed me. As soon as I read it I knew I wanted to write a novel about it, but I was sure that either there already had been a novel written dealing with this subject matter, or that someone would do it before long. It seemed too good an opportunity for the horror field… but maybe nobody wanted to go near it. It’s pretty grim. That said, I understand a film came out in 2000 with a similar set-up. I haven’t seen it, and I’m not going to give you the title, or its stars… Anyway, the idea sat in my mind all through the Noughties and but for a few false starts, it didn’t announce itself as the next project until early last year. I think in terms of tone and mood, it sits happiest alongside my first novel, Head Injuries (1998). The book is out in March.

Once Loss of Separation is finished, what are your plans for 2011 and beyond?

I have plans for a sequel to Blonde on a Stick and I’m sketching out a new horror novel, something that would lead on from my stories The Owl and Rain. I’d also like to do something in the YA field too, albeit pseudonymously. I have a new collection of short stories coming out with PS Publishing and I’m putting the finishing touches to an anthology I’ve edited, a book of weird West stories called Gutshot.

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