Welcome back for this week’s author interview! Today I’m pleased to spotlight author Simon Bestwick. Simon is the author of Wolf’s Hill, Breakwater, and Angels of the Silences, along with many short stories that have appeared in venues including Black Static, The Devil and the Deep, and Best Horror of the Year.
Recently, Simon and I discussed his new collection, And Cannot Come Again: Tales of Childhood, Regret, and Innocence Lost, as well as his inspiration as an author and his writing plans for the future.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
I honestly can’t remember how it started – I’ve been making up stories, or trying to, since I was very young. When I was at school I would turn any essay I was given into an excuse to write a story, usually horror or SF. I attempted my first novel at 14. (It was terrible.) In my late teens I decided to be an actor but retained an interest in writing, trying my hand at screen and stage plays. But it wasn’t until I left university and got stuck in a soul-destroying day job that I really buckled down and got writing fiction again in earnest. I didn’t need money or a movie camera or a cast of others to write a story. And by then I felt that if I wanted to call myself a writer, I had to actually write. So if I made a decision at any point, it was then.
I struggled to write anything I remotely liked through the back half of 1996, and then, on Boxing Day, I wrote my first proper short story, ‘Once’. After that I wrote a story a week, firing them off to the small press magazines that were everywhere at the time. And that was the start.
Oh God, there are so many favourite authors, and my list is ever-changing. Joolz Denby is one favourite – she’s an extraordinary poet and novelist (her novel Billie Morgan is utterly devastating). Another is Ramsey Campbell, who’s still producing consistently excellent fiction fifty years after he started. Joseph Roth is one I’ve recently discovered – The Radetzky March, Confession Of A Murderer, The Legend Of The Holy Drinker. Ray Bradbury for the extraordinary lyricism of his writing. Many individual books have stayed with me – Trevanian’s The Summer of Katya, Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Simon Louvish’s The Therapy Of Avram Blok. There are a lot of newer and emerging authors whose work I love too – Priya Sharma, Laura Mauro, Steve Hargadon, Helen Marshall. I also love the work of Cate Gardner, although she never likes me saying so in public because I’m married to her! Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you another list.
What can you tell us about your new collection, And Cannot Come Again?
It’s out now in ebook, paperback and hardback from ChiZine Publications. The subtitle is ‘Tales of Childhood, Regret and Innocence Lost’ – those were the themes the half-dozen stories I most wanted to include seemed to share, so I pulled the rest of the collection together around that.
It’s a bit of a retrospective, because there are stories in there from my first three full-length collections, along with previously uncollected tales and an unpublished novella that gives the book its title. I’m very proud of it – I think it’s a strong and varied selection from the stuff I’ve done. It also has an introduction from Ramsey Campbell, which is definitely one off the bucket list.
What draws you as a reader and a writer to horror and weird fiction? Do you remember your first experience with horror and/or weird fiction? Do you have a favorite book or film in those genres?
Horror and SF were always blurred together for me when I was little, probably due to growing up with TV programmes like Tom Baker-era Dr Who and Blake’s 7. Terrance Dicks’ Dr Who novelisations were some of the first books I read that weren’t specifically for children. Thanks to the local library, I also discovered huge numbers of horror anthologies and collections. Helen Hoke edited a series of alliteravely-titled anthologies (Demonic, Dangerous and Deadly was one) filled with great quality horror fiction: there were stories by Joseph Payne Brennan, John Collier, Fritz Leiber, Stanley Ellin, Robert Graves and many, many others. The Gruesome Book (edited by Ramsey Campbell – that name pops up again!) caught me with the title. Mary Danby’s Fontana Books Of Horror (the fourteenth volume, which is very hard to find, has a story called The Boorees by Dorothy K. Haynes that scared the hell out of me and is still superb.) Barbara Ireson edited anthologies like Creepy Creatures and Fearfully Frightening which included works by Joan Aiken, Theodore Sturgeon, Patricia Highsmith and so many more.
But one of the biggest formative works for me was a thick tome that belonged to my grandfather, called A Century Of Thrillers. It was my first introduction to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, among other things. ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ terrified the hell out of me, and I loved it.
As you can tell, I first encountered horror literature in the form of short fiction, which is often where it’s at its best. I went through a period of deciding genre fiction, especially horror, was trash (probably after reading far too many trashy ‘80s horror novels!) but was lured back into it by Nicholas Royle’s Darklands anthologies, which demonstrated brilliantly that you could use horror fiction to write about anything at all.
As for TV and film… I’ve already mentioned the influence of Dr Who and other 1970s and ‘80s TV programmes. There was a huge amount of excellent work done in that period (along with a lot of pulp – maybe that luxuriance, and the freedom to experiment that kind of popularity brings, is why it was such a fertile time) which has had a huge influence on my generation. You can see it particularly in the films of Matthew Holness (A Gun For George, The Snipist) and particularly in last year’s brilliant and unnerving Possum.
There were the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, The Nightmare Man, the old Hammer films I’d be able to watch on a black and white portable TV if I could stay awake late enough. I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing and John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London when I was about eleven or twelve, and was alternately terrified and awed. (In the case of American Werewolf, I also laughed out loud on many occasions. And then there was Jenny Agutter. Possibly one of my first crushes there…)
In terms of what’s out there now, the wealth of new material – good new material – is possibly as rich as what was around in my boyhood. Films that have impressed me lately include Willow Creek, Grave Encounters. The Perfection, Hereditary, Get Out, the aforementioned Possum, and many others. Books? Any of Reggie Oliver’s story collections, or Lynda E. Rucker’s. Laura Mauro’s Sing Your Sadness Deep; Priya Sharma’s All The Fabulous Beasts. Gateways To Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett. Any of the late Joel Lane’s story collections. I suppose I shouldn’t say that I’m looking forward to reading yours too, Gwendolyn, but I am!
In addition to your own writing, you also run an interview series on your blog. What inspired you to become an interviewer, and what, if anything, have you learned about the craft of writing from talking to other authors?
Partly curiosity about how other people work, partly because it was an excuse to chat to authors I like and admire, and partly out of a kind of enlightened self-interest. If you have a blog or website, you obviously want people to visit, but if all you ever do is talk about yourself and your achievements, no-one’s going to be interested. Making it as much about other people as you can is the best way to make your blog/site as interesting a place to visit as possible.
The interview I’m proudest of isn’t on my blog, however: back in 2012 I interviewed Joolz Denby about her work for This Is Horror. She still rates it as one of the best-researched and most interesting ones she’s done.
As to what I’ve learned – that virtually every writer of any worth has long periods of thinking they’re rubbish, and that everyone has different working methods. It’s about finding what works for you, putting in the hours, and not giving up.
You’ve written both short and long fiction. Do you have a preferred length as a writer? Also, how does your approach change (or stay the same) depending on the word count of the story?
It does change. With short fiction, it’s easier to dive in with only the vaguest idea of what you’re doing (with a single opening image or line or a situation or incident in mind) and winging it from there. For longer work, I usually need to sketch out some sort of outline, however vague. I have done a couple of novels where I outlined in incredibly fine detail before getting started, but generally, I prefer to keep it light, maybe outlining individual chapters as I get to them.
Up until about 2008, I was mainly a writer of short fiction, although I racked up a number of unpublished (unpublishable?) novels. Then I wrote Tide Of Souls for Abaddon Books, and my focus has tended to be on longer work ever since. I find it harder to write short fiction now; the advantage of longer work is that you can just sink into that world and write another 1,000 or however many words each day. That works on novellas too; I’ve written two this year which I think are as good as anything I’ve done.
I think on the whole I do prefer the longer work now, but I’d like to write more short stories, even so. As I said, when it comes to horror, that’s often where the strangest, best and most exciting work gets done. Novellas make a nice midway-point between the two.
You’ve been writing for a number of years now. What’s a piece of advice you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Write what you love, tell the stories you want to tell, don’t get bogged down in concerns about whether it’ll sell or not. Also: write every day. Draft, redraft, get it as good as you can, then send it out and keep sending it out when it gets rejected. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but always try and learn from them.
What projects are you currently working on?
I try to keep a few things on the go at any one time – so I’m currently rewriting a gigantic epic novel for my agent, while also typing up another novel I basically composed on a dictaphone last year (five minutes of recorded stuff at a time), and working (slowly) on my first screenplay. Meanwhile I’m working on a novella in longhand during my breaks at work. Once the epic’s been completed, I’ll be trying to start a new novel.
Where can we find you online?
I have a blog, which I really need to use more often! Resuming those author interviews would be a good start…
Finally, there’s a Patreon page, where I’m serialising a comedy/SF/horror/thriller novel called The Mancunian Candidate, plus posting stories and an occasional serial.
Tremendous thanks to Simon Bestwick for being part of this week’s author interview series!