What was the first story that you ever felt compelled to tell, that you had to write down?
I have to say I started writing as a kid, just a little boy, and I had a chaotic upbringing. I was raised by my grandparents in a chaotic household, so I think looking back in retrospect I used reading and writing as a way of escape, as a way of creating an alternate world. There was a lot of yelling and that.
I remember reading a lot of ghost stories. I enjoyed those; I always enjoyed the supernatural – I would go to the library and read supernatural stories. I wrote little short, mystery stories, puzzle stories; I was probably ten or eleven, so I was compelled in a way because I was trying to create an alternate reality.
Absolutely. You can’t get away from that. You think you can. You think you’ve purged these things. It’s always strong in you to purge these things and get them out. You think you’ve got them out,and then you look back and you can’t explain it to anybody because it’s not autobiographical, but there are autobiographical elements in there.
You’re always trying to purge something, and always trying to make something right that was wrong. It’s a lifelong struggle, is what it is, because you’ll never make it right. It’s certainly there.
It’s interesting you talk about “making it right”; a lot of people talking about trying to understand something, to make sense of what happened…
I do understand it; I already understand it. I do understand the motivations of the people: my grandparents were both strong-willed, they were always in combat with one another. I understand it, it makes sense but it was not right. I’m always trying to make peace with myself.
The Matthew Corbett stories are a world away from what you originally made your name for; what was it about them – the period? the character of Matthew himself? – that has driven you to write about him so much?
I felt at one point that I had covered all the bases in horror fiction: I’d covered the werewolf, the vampire, the ghost story, I’d done most everything, and I thought, “I want to do something a little different.” I liked that period, and I liked the idea of putting together a mystery in that period, so that’s what I did in Speaks the Nightbird.
It wasn’t really meant to be a series: it was just going to be a one-shot and then I was going to do something else. But as I thought about it, I really liked the character, I wanted to build the character and see where we could go. So I created the idea of Professor Fell, and the idea that Matthew got involved in this fledgling early detective agency, and with that going on, I thought I could really make a series out of this. That’s how that began, but it didn’t start out to be a series.
I liked the idea of growing the character, from being the clerk, having spent time on a pig farm. He’s a very intelligent young man, and in his own way, a very worldly young man. I’ve just finished the fifth book, and we’re leaving the New World and going back to the Old World. The rest of the series is going to take place in England; there’s a sequence in Russia, and we’re going to go through Europe. There’s a lot more to go with the series, so that excites me – I’m sticking to one character and watching him grow and evolve. That’s very interesting to me.
I like the period; I like the costumes. I like doing the research – it’s ongoing, and there’s a lot of it.
A few years ago – and I really don’t understand this – I got an award from a science fiction group for Speaks the Nightbird. I thought that most people don’t know that period very well and it could very well be like fantasy or another world. It seems as distant to people today as life on another planet, or another reality. I can see where people who enjoyed fantasy would like these, because they’re so far off the beaten track of what people know today.
It’s certainly moved in that direction in The Providence Rider, so I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s going to become a little more strange as it goes along. This is hard to explain: I do want to keep it rooted in reality, but I want to make the series more strange. The last book I finished a few weeks ago, River of Souls, is more like a phantasmagoric nightmare – it takes place in a couple of days. Once Matthew gets on the track of what he’s after, you never really see daylight again. It’s day but it’s always dark – it’s a nightmare, an endurance test for Matthew.
I’m trying to make it a little more strange, not necessarily supernatural; there may be supernatural elements in it, I’m not quite sure, because it’s evolving, but I’m trying to make it a little bit more out there.
Genre boundaries have become so blurred in recent years…
I’ve been known for doing horror and whatever but I’d rather people would say, “This is a good book”, not “a good horror novel”, or science fiction or fantasy or whatever. It’s just a good book that has a universal theme, a universal meaning. Genre to me is a limiting concept, but you’ve got to have genre – publishers love genre – but it’s always seemed to me like a box. You get put in that box and it’s very hard to get out of it.
Harlan Ellison has a lot to say on that subject…
The thing about him is he’s such a passionate man. He’s so passionate about his work. But if you don’t have passion in your work, what do you have? It’s a very difficult job: I don’t think people understand how difficult writing is, because it’s such a solitary work. You’re so inward; you’re creating these worlds. You’re taking quite a risk to create anything.
It seems to me that if you don’t have passion, a lot of passion for your work, you’re going to run into trouble. What else do you have except passion for your work? And he certainly has it in spades!
You can never deny the passion that is behind it…
And none of it is ordinary.
He couldn’t write ordinary if you stuck a gun to his head…
That’s exactly right. That’s what the deal is: some of it is difficult to read, but all of it is challenging, it’s thought-provoking. It’s how it ought to be.
That’s the deal. Many other writers have trunk novels, a couple of novels they did before they broke in. The first book that I ever did broke in and was published. So I kind of learned how to write in public. Some of the things I’ve written I’m not very proud of, because either I think I’ve cheated or I think I didn’t have the full power to write what was needed. It’s not that I’m ashamed of those books, because those books stand as what they are, but I feel I’ve gone on so far.
There was one point where I said I didn’t want these early books to be republished, but I was convinced that my loyal readers and people who really enjoyed my work really wanted a complete collection, and I thought, “I’m glad of that. Let’s go ahead and do that.”
But I feel that I’ve gone on a long way – and sometimes that I’ve got a long way to go. Sometimes when I’m writing something, I think I can’t come up with the words to express this – yet. I don’t know this how to express this correctly – yet. You yourself are still a work in progress, you’re still learning.
Have you gone back and reread the early books?
You know, I haven’t. I’m so self-critical: if I go back and reread anything, I think, “Why did I write that? That dialogue is awful!” I tend to look more at the mistakes, or what I term as mistakes, than the good things. I know there are a lot of good things in these books, I know that, I understand that, but I tend to look at the things that make me go, why did I do that!
But that’s human nature: we see the black spot on the white piece of paper…
That is my thing: I see something that I wish I’d changed or hadn’t done.