What is the latest situation on any screenplays?
There’s some stuff rumbling on; I’m talking to a very talented screenwriter and director about Only Forward at the moment for possible television, and he’s doing some work on that. That’s a longshot project, but they’re all long shots until they actually happen. There are a couple of movies underway: there’s a director in L.A. called Fabien Martorell who’s midway through a version of a short story of mine called Unbelief which came out in a collection of Neil Gaiman’s a couple of years ago. There’s a certain amount of interest in The Straw Men, there’s a certain amount of interest in We Are Here, and in Spares for television at the moment in the States.
It’s all rumbling on in the background. Every now and then I think that there’s enough stuff going on that one of these things must reach critical mass, and it then all fades quietly away. I dip in and out of it: it’s such a mercurial industry and no one knows what they really want until they see it. I trust that something will happen at some stage but I’m not holding my breath.
I’m a firm believer that books are not wannabe-movies. I don’t write things for them to be adapted. I try to write the best novel or short story that I can; if something else happens to it, then that’s fine. I’m a prose writer at heart; that’s what I’m really interested in.
I think there is a lot of left brain/right brain. They are quite different ways of telling stories. I think in a way I took the big lesson a long time ago: one of the earliest things I did was I spent a year and a half, nearly two years, adapting [Clive Barker’s fantasy novel] Weaveworld for television, for Showtime in the States. It never came to pass. I did three drafts; I was the sole writer on an eight-hour miniseries. It was a big job. It was a great experience for screenplay and everything else.
I think then I got the big message: the obvious difference between prose and film is in prose you tell people stuff; in film, you show people stuff. I think that’s what I took from all that time: you should show people stuff in books as well. You shouldn’t think just because you have the freedom to go on and on, that you should tell people every single thing that people are thinking, or every single thing that happened. Sometimes having a scene, and then another scene, and letting the reader fill in the bit in the middle actually helps them construct the story within their head which then makes it much more real for them.
Prose and screenplays are quite different: I think every prose writer should try writing some screen, and vice versa. To hope to achieve any kind of expertise in both is a bit of a longshot.
A lot of your books feature characters on their own, so they are having an inner monologue, whereas in the work of a lot of screenwriters who write prose as their secondary string, it’s rare to see that. There’s often dialogue, even if it’s unspoken – there are still two characters in a scene, rather than just one…
I think that’s a very acute observation; that’s how film works. There are some very good or telling scenes in any number of movies where you can read someone’s behaviour, but it’s got to be visible behaviour. You can’t just shoot a guy thinking for ten minutes. In prose I’ve got to watch this sometimes – I’ve noticed this particularly in short stories, where I’ve written a number recently where there has been absolutely no dialogue at all. That’s perfectly fine in short stories but it’s quite a different type of experience.
It’s quite a different type of writing experience as well: I’m writing a new novel at the moment and noticing the difference in the chapters where it’s all either somebody doing something or their thoughts or responses to it, versus the chapter where you’ve got two or three people interacting. They write in very different ways.
Do you find one easier than the other or are they just different?
They’re different: the ones with dialogue go much faster. I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue and I try to let it be very free, but at the same time be very conscious of making people’s personality come out from it as precisely as possible. Those chapters do tend to go pretty quickly, but the ones where you’re internal feel slower. But I think an interesting book needs a balance between the two.
Any medium should be about doing the things that that medium can do better than any other, or uniquely so.
I’ve been watching The Walking Dead, and I watched an episode in the middle of series two which was one of the worst directed I have ever seen, because clearly the director was a comics fan, and had read a lot of comics, but not seen enough good film. Everything was framed and shot and lit like a still from a comic; if you’re extremely talented, you can do that as an experiment, but it looks like shit on television because you’re taking the grammar from one and forcing it on another medium, and it just doesn’t work.
You’ve got an intriguing new project coming out in May from Subterranean Press called The Gist. It’s a story by you translated into French, and then retranslated back into English. How did the idea for this come about?
You know, I actually can’t remember… It’s taken literally about ten years for this project to happen. I started writing the story, and quickly had the idea of chasing the gist through different languages. I knew it was going to be quite an undertaking to get it organised, and so didn’t exactly push the story forward – it probably took about three years: I just added a bit to it when I felt like it.
When I finally had the text, I started trying to organise the translations. It took about a year to organise a chain of English – Italian – Polish – French – English. Which then immediately fell apart (well, slowly, but at the first hurdle) when the Italian translator failed to deliver. I was on the verge of giving up on the whole thing but thankfully Bill Schafer at Subterranean kept giving me nudges, and so eventually last year I got the current version organised – and I’m glad I did.
Did you write the original story in any particularly different way, knowing what was going to happen to it?
I was actually quite bloody-minded about not altering the voice of the story. As you’ll see, the voice is very ‘London’, and there’s a lot of vernacular in it. I wanted it to be that way partly because it was right for the story, but also because I thought it’d be particularly interesting to see how non-standard English made it through the translation process…
And did reading the new version give you insights into the characters that you wouldn’t have thought of initially?
The whole thing – both characters and plot – feels subtly different. I’ve admired Nick Royle as a writer for a long, long time – he was a big early influence and supporter – and seeing the story somewhat re-cast into his voice is fascinating. Sadly my French is only good enough to get the gist, rather than the subtleties, of Benoit’s version…
By far the question I get asked the most is when I am going to do another novel like Only Forward, but I’ve noticed recently there’s quite a lot of interest in the Straw Men too. I miss them, as well.
I’ve been toying with an idea but what I didn’t want to do was put another one together for the sake of it because I feel great affection for those books, and it would have been easy to bang another one on. But in the last year or so, I’ve started to have ideas that will take it onto another stage, and actually I miss the characters. I genuinely would like to know what’s going on, and I think enough years have gone by now that it would be quite interesting to pick that up again.
It’s not what I’m doing now but I increasingly suspect that there will be another Straw Men book before too long.
It does seem as if the things that you see out of the corner of your eye is something that fascinates you; would that be a fair assessment?
It would. I’ve always been interested in that. I was thinking about that recently – I happened to see an old 1970s horror movie, Phantasm. It’s dated but there’s some really nice stuff in it. There’s a shot that’s shot towards a graveyard, it’s 16 x 9, and something happens at the edge of frame. That was really scary. That’s partly why The Blair Witch Project never worked for me – it’s a created experience. You’re seeing it happen through a screen so you know it’s not happening to you. Also that 3 x 4 format doesn’t have those edges that you have to turn your head to see.
You’re right; on a visual and conceptual level, that has always fascinated me, the stuff that’s going on just outside your vision, that you ought to know about but catch just a moment too late.
Horror has a particular sensibility. When the BBC periodically says, “Horror is popular and we must have a crack at that”, and they bring on a bunch of people who have worked on Casualty, you can’t just do that. It’s not just television; horror has a very special sensibility, both visually and conceptually. You’ve got to understand that or you’re not going to scare people.
Did you see Joe Ahearne’s version of James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall? He got that.
Yes, Joe Ahearne is one of the people who does get that. The BBC here had an option on The Intruder for quite a long time, and there was a point when it looked as though Joe might be taking over the script. I thought that would be very cool, but for a variety of reasons that fell apart. It’s actually just been optioned by BBC Worldwide in LA who are going to take quite a different tack on it.
[James Herbert died the day before we spoke] It’s terribly sad about Jim: 69 is not very old. Jim was one of those people, like [Stephen] King, who could take a genre and put it in people’s faces and make it compelling, real and visceral. I know loads of writers who are writing now because of Jim. It’s a great loss, but what I do think is great is how much attention it’s getting. It’s easy for a genre writer – and he was unashamedly a horror writer – to be ignored by the mainstream media, but they’re on it and appreciating what he’s done.
You’re heavily involved with the World Fantasy Con in Brighton later this year…
That’s really starting to gear up now. I honestly think it’s going to be the convention to end all conventions: I think it’s going to be absolutely fantastic. The programming, the external events, the parties, the guest list – you could staff ten good conventions just from people who are turning up to the convention who aren’t on the poster. Because it’s now reached critical mass where publishers and agents are committing to bringing large numbers of people, it’s going to be quite something. Brighton is a great place to hold a convention…
Thanks to Dani Freeman at Midas PR for help in arranging this interview