Graham is magnanimous and more than willing to talk about writing and publishing, and has long been a supporter of other writers in the field. In fact, he will talk your ear off given half the chance. I was thrilled that he was willing to take some time out of his busy day to answer a few questions for Suspense Magazine.
So, where did it all start?
I was writing fiction from an early age. I loved the novels of Jules Verne like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and H.G. Wells like The War of the Worlds, and wrote my own adventure novels and bound them in cardboard. At the age of 10 or 11, I discovered Edgar Allan Poe and loved the stories of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and blazing dwarves. I started writing my own short horror stories to read to my friends during break time at school. Some of my friends met me years later and told me that I had given them nightmares. I wrote a 250-page novel (by hand) about giant supernatural crabs when I was 12 (which I still have). When I was 14, I wrote a 400-page vampire novel that has been lost.
I was expelled from school was I was 17. Expulsion was the making of me, though, because I then got a job as a trainee reporter on my local newspaper. In those days, local newspapers were staffed by retired Fleet Street men (national newspaper reporters). They taught me how to write a tight, compelling news story that would grab a reader’s attention—how to write vividly and concisely—but more than anything else, how to interview people. I quickly learned that most people are bursting to tell you their innermost secrets, particularly since you are sympathetic and you listen carefully to them and ask the most penetrating questions. They will tell you things that they would never tell their friends or their families, because you are a stranger.
When I left the local paper at the age of 21 and was appointed deputy editor of a new British Playboy-style magazine called Mayfair, I was called on to interview the girls who appeared in the center-spread every month. Most of the men who met them simply “gawped” at their breasts, but I always made a point of talking to them about their ambitions and their love lives and whatever made them unhappy. Out of that experience, I developed a question-and-answer sex feature in the magazine called Quest, which purported to be conversations with couples about their sex problems. I wrote it all myself, but almost all the content was quoted pretty much verbatim from real girls.
I left Mayfair after three years after a spat with the editor and joined Penthouse the following week as deputy editor. Not long afterwards I was appointed executive editor. Penthouse had recently been launched in the U.S. at that time, so I got to travel frequently to New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. There I met several publishers and it was suggested to me by Howard Kaminsky from Warner Paperback Library that I write a sex “how-to” book in the same anecdotal style as Quest. That was how I came to write How A Woman Loves To Be Loved by “Angel Smith”. It was hugely popular (especially since Angel looked gorgeous on the cover) because few sex books had been written before in such a conversational style … most had been either medical or prescriptive. I’ve written 29 manuals over the years.
How did your earlier career with men’s magazines and writing sex manuals inform your fiction writing?
My experience as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and a writer of those manuals gave me an insight into the motivations and problems that ordinary people cope with every day. I think that lends my novels a sense of reality. Most of my characters are ordinary people who have to face not only grisly demons or supernatural threats, but the problems of dysfunctional relationships or tedious jobs. Even in my more fantastic novels, like the Night Warriors series in which people have to fight supernatural threats in other people’s dreams and nightmares, the basic characters of the protagonists are completely ordinary … such as John Dauphin, who is extremely overweight but can’t resist Cajun food!
You’ve experimented with many genres throughout your career. How has working in various genres enhanced your work overall?
I think I made a commercial error when I first started writing horror novels. I wrote The Manitou in a spare week that I had between sex books, because my wife Wiescka was still working then and I was twiddling my thumbs at home. A few months after I had written it, Andy Ettinger my editor at Pinnacle Books said the bottom had fallen out of sex how-to books and he didn’t want any more. I reminded him that he still had a contract with me, so I sent him The Manitou as a substitute for How to Turn Yourself On. (You couldn’t make it up, could you?)
The Manitou sold enormously well, probably because it was so unusual and few writers had ever published a scary novel about Native American demons before. Bill Girdler, the movie director, picked it up at LA airport and made a movie out of it with Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, and Burgess Meredith. (You couldn’t do a remake with the original director and the original cast now, they’ve all gone to higher service.) With The Manitou selling so well, I wrote The Djinn, The Revenge of the Manitou, and other horror books. But then I turned to my first big historical saga Rich, about a family of oil tycoons. I found this enormously interesting and engaging to write—full of passion, greed, betrayal, and lavish food. It was successful, but the error I made was to pause in writing my horror novels when I should have kept up the momentum, the same as Stephen King did after the published Salem’s Lot. I did well with my historical novels like Lady of Fortune and Maiden Voyage, which made the New York Times Bestseller List. But it took me several years to build up my horror audience again.
The trouble was, I never thought about “genres” … in fact, I didn’t really know what it meant until I started having serious talks with book wholesalers. I always wrote what I wanted to write, which included disaster novels like Plague and Famine and the most recent one, Drought, which are always incredibly entertaining to write. I love writing humor, too. I started writing crime fiction when we were living in Cork, in Ireland, because I had never read any novels set in Cork. It really is the most extraordinary, characterful city you could ever live in, with its own slang and its own traditions.
Your latest series, the Katie Maquire crime novels, are set around Cork. Setting is a big deal in your novels. When you decide on a novel’s setting, how much does it play into the plot? In the character development? I guess I’m asking the chicken or the egg conundrum—does setting come first for you?
With Cork, the setting was certainly integral to the first novel I wrote about Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire, because it the city is part of her character. You couldn’t be born and brought up in Cork without affecting who you are, because the inhabitants tend to be close-knit. The residents on the south side of the River Lee, the southsiders, are very dismissive of the northsiders (or “Norries”, as they call them). Even the residents of Middleton, a whiskey-distilling town only nine miles away from Cork City, are referred to as strangers. The woman next door used to call Wiescka and me “blow-ins.”
But the background makes for an entertaining scenario and strongly affects the character development, especially in Cork, “The Rebel County,” which is still deeply republican. There are still IRA splinter groups there, and there are memorials in the countryside to members of the IRA who were casualties of British forces in the 1920s, where people still pay tribute.
I don’t always choose the background before the story, but most of the time the story lends itself to a particular setting. In Ghost Music, I chose New York … in fact the same house where the Cosby TV show was supposed to have been set. In The Red Hotel, I chose Baton Rouge. In Prey, I chose the house on the Isle of Wight on England’s south coast where Charles Dickens used to stay and write. I really believe the setting is critical. It grounds the characters in the place where they live, which gives them an extra depth and solidity. There is an added bonus for readers who actually know the places to recognize somewhere they have visited. I don’t see the point in inventing place names or restaurant names or even people’s names. The senior police officers and other characters who appear in my Katie Maguire books are all real people. (I have been trained in libel, so I know what not to write about them!)
When it comes to writing fiction, how much does research play into your work?
A huge amount, especially with crime novels, because the story has to feel authentic even if the basic premise is bizarre. I do an enormous amount of research, thanks these days to the blessed Google, which allows me to walk down streets that I have never visited and scan the menus of restaurants in which I have never eaten. Also, of course, I need to know all about the latest forensic advances. In my last novel, Living Death, the knife that was used in a vicious attack is reproduced by scanning the victim’s wound and then 3-D printing a copy of the knife so that it can be identified. Some 3-D printing materials give such a precise copy that you can see every nick and scratch on the original blade. However I never include all of my research in the novel itself. That would be boring. The most important thing is to sound like you know what you’re talking about.
I understand you also often write poetry. How does this add tone and perhaps rhythm to your fiction writing?
I have written poetry all my life and I think it is absolutely critical to understanding how to convey feelings and emotions in the simplest and most evocative way possible. To me, writing should be like music … you should be able to read it without being conscious that you are reading. That means a very precise choice of words and a rhythmic flow that never interrupts the readers’ suspension of disbelief. I always encourage new writers to write poetry because it teaches them about the construction of language, like taking an automobile engine apart and putting it back together again so that it runs smoothly. I don’t keep a diary. But when I look back over the poems I have written over the years, the feelings that I have experienced are all there, as vividly as if I were living them all again.
And of course you write short stories. Many writers think writing short stories is tougher than writing novels, mainly because stories require greater focus and “tightness.” What do you think?
Short stories are a hard discipline, like poetry. They have to evoke strong emotions simply and quickly. They have to have a story that moves you, surprises you, or horrifies you. I like writing them because sometimes I have an idea that would not have enough substance for a full-length novel or even a novella, but which I think will be highly provocative. There can be problems. I have recently written a Katie Maguire short story, “The Drowned,” principally written for promotional purposes. But I started to get so involved in the plot and the characters that it could easily have developed into a full-length novel. On the other hand, I once wrote a story that was only half a page … a woman is walking back to her hotel from the Louvre in Paris and steps into a puddle, which turns out to be infinitely deep and she disappears and drowns.
I have deliberately written several extreme short stories to test readership tolerance, but more than that my own skill. The more disgusting a story is, the better it is to be written. The classic example was “Eric the Pie,” about a young boy who believed that “you are what you eat” and started to eat everything from insects to young girls. That story appeared in the first edition of a new horror magazine called Frighteners which led to it being banned by the British wholesalers. Then there was the “Sepsis,” which was published as a chapbook by Cemetery Dance. This will shortly be followed by “Cheeseboy,” also published by Cemetery Dance as a chapbook, which is about a young Irish boy who is bullied at school.
Your dialogue rings true, which tells me you spend a good deal of time perfecting it. What’s your strategy when you approach writing dialogue?
Dialogue is critical, and makes all the difference between a novel sounding false and sounding real. You cannot quote real people verbatim because strangely it never sounds believable. You have to develop a way of conveying the meaning and the rhythm of somebody’s speech so that it reads as if you can hear them talking. It isn’t at all easy and I have spent all of my writing life trying to improve my dialogue. I will often rewrite a character’s speech several times in order to make it sound authentic. Some readers have been baffled by the Irish slang in my Katie Maguire books, but the Corkonians really speak like that and most of the time it isn’t too difficult to work out what they mean. I was a little worried that the Irish might think I was taking the piss out of them by using phrases like “what does have to do with the goose and the grass on the side of the mountain.” But when Pat Kenny interviewed me on Dublin radio, he assured me that I was “spot on.”
Your books often contain graphic violence, scenes that make your readers want to turn away. Yet the violence and horror scenes are never gratuitous and are integral to the stories told. How do you orchestrate violence in your plots in such a measured and effective way?
As with scenes of sexual activity, I write scenes of graphic violence simply and straightforwardly using ordinary words and I don’t use euphemisms. On the other hand, I don’t try to make them more horrible or more dramatic than they would be.
I have studied the techniques of music hall comedians for many years, and the best of them have a knack of involving their audiences and getting them provide their own laughs. They did this by being suggestive rather than explicit, such as Max Miller’s old joke about meeting a beautiful girl on a narrow cliff path on which there wasn’t room enough for them to pass each other. He said that he didn’t know whether to back the way he had come or toss himself off. Then of course he would admonish his audience for having filthy minds, which would increase the sense of conspiracy between them.
A woman once complained to me about the bloody beating to death of young girls in Family Portrait. However I pointed out to her that I had written nothing much more than that they were “clubbed to death like seals.” Her own mind had created the bloodiness.
The torture and killing of a human being is a horrible and bloody business, but I think writers or both horror and crime fiction have to face up to the reality of it. Small children are being blown to pieces in Syria even as I am writing this, and nothing I could possibly write could ever be as grisly or as tragic as that. I have no time for so-called “cozy crime” like Agatha Christie in which the bishop gets beaten to death with a badger in the bathroom.
Is there anything you’ve begun to write that was so dreadful or horrifying that you had to back off?
No, never. As I say, the cruelty and murder and torture that is happening in this world even while you are reading this is far more terrible than anything that I could invent. Yet these days, it merits only a small article at the bottom of page 5 in my paper when 500 people drown in the Mediterranean trying to escape from the bombing and the beheading.
Is it true that you wrote your first novel, The Manitou, in a week?
Yes, but the first version was only 120 pages long or so. When it was published in the United States I rewrote the ending because originally Misquamacus, the resurrected Native American, died from Vietnam Rose venereal disease, which the host girl Karen Tandy had contracted from her boyfriend. It was a nod to The War of the Worlds in which the Martians all die of the common cold, to which they had no resistance.
Now, considering the film version of The Manitou. If you could go back in time, what would (or could) you have done differently during the production of the movie? Would you have attempted to write the screenplay, for example?
I think for its time it was pretty good, although Bill Girdler was a bit too influenced by Star Wars for the finale. I don’t write screenplays. That’s a special talent in itself, and besides I am too fussy about controlling the weather and the characters’ clothes and all the other ambient details. I have friends who are great at screenwriting—Fred Caruso, who produced The Godfather, wrote a terrific script for my novel Demon’s Door. And Michael Halperin, who wrote Masters of the Universe, wrote a great script for Prey. Neither of them yet have been filmed, but we always live in hope.
Any movie deals in the future?
I have had 10 books optioned for movies by heavyweight studios like Universal and Phoenix and Gold Circle, and some of them have almost made it to the screen. The stumbling block is usually finance, especially with horror movies that require a lot of CGI. Jules Stewart, Kristen Stewart’s mother who runs Libertine Films, optioned Walkers recently, but that went phutt! as well. But you have to be philosophical about these things. I have two deals in the offing which I can’t talk about just yet.
I find William Burroughs’ writing largely impenetrable. There seems to be this omnipresent sense of alienation in his work. Yet I get the impression that he was instrumental in some way with your own writing. How do you believe Burroughs benefited your work?
When I was growing bored with Shakespeare at school, I discovered the American Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Burroughs. I found that they spoke to me in a way that accorded with the way I was feeling, and I loved the direct way in which they conveyed their feelings to their readers.
I read William’s notorious novel, The Naked Lunch, when it was first published in the UK, and immediately “got” it. There is a sense of alienation, you’re right, but there is also an acute sense of observation and a wonderful cynicism and a great subversive sense of humor. William said what he wanted to say and was never restrained. After I had read The Naked Lunch, I wrote to him in Tangiers and we began a long correspondence. We discussed his intersection technique and cut-up technique, which involved taking sentences and cutting them up and rearranging them so that they took on new meanings. I wrote several cut-up poems and these hugely all helped to improve my handling of language and emotion. I fully appreciate that many readers can’t get a grip on intersection writing, but it certainly did my writing a great deal of good.
In conjunction with William, using the intersection technique, I wrote a novella called Rules of Duel, which many years later was published by Telos Books and is now available on Amazon as a paperback or a digital book. Some readers may find it baffling but to me it vividly brings back London and the south London suburbs and what life was like in London in the late 1960s. I visited him regularly and what he wanted to say was what I was feeling. Get it?
I suspect largely because of your late wife Wiescka, your books have found a particularly strong audience in Poland. How did that all come about?
One afternoon in 1989, I had a crackly indistinct phone call from a Polish publisher called, Tadeusz Zysk, who said that he wanted to publish The Manitou in Poland. I don’t know how he originally got hold of it. You have to remember that Poland was still communist in those days—very poverty-stricken and authoritarian. Tadeusz said that because the zloty was not convertible with foreign currencies, he couldn’t pay me for publishing The Manitou, but if we visited Poland he could give me icons or possibly sausages (kielbasa). I was dubious about this, but although Wiescka was Polish she had been born after the war in a displaced persons camp in Cologne in Germany and she had never been to Poland. She very much wanted to go, and so I agreed. During our first visit we met some really good people, although Warsaw was pretty grim. The tallest building was the Soviet-style Palace of Culture which had been given to the Poles by the Russian and which dominated the center of the city like a vast wedding cake. We visited Katowice, where the air was yellow with sulfur fumes, and we were driven in a clapped-out taxi from Katowice to Poznan in a dense fog by a drunk, tired driver. At one point, I made him stop the taxi and get out, so I could slap his face and wake him up.
Once the communist government had fallen, however, Poland rapidly improved, and now Warsaw is crowded with gleaming new hotels (taller than the Palace of Culture) and wonderful restaurants. The Manitou was the first Western horror novel published in Poland after the end of communism, and Magia Seksu was the first nonmedical sex book. I visit Poland at least once every year now, and have been to Bialystok in the east and Gdansk in the north and Poznan in the west and Wroclaw in the south, and made good friends everywhere. I’ll attend the Katowice Book Fair in late September and also signing books in Krakow and Wroclaw. I also support a children’s orphanage in Gorzec, near Strzelin, and a charity that rescues child prostitutes.
My great-grandfather was Polish, and came to London in Victorian times to become a theatrical impresario. (Maybe that’s how I inherited my interest in music-hall comedians.) But of course my heart is in Poland because of Wiescka, who tragically died in 2011. It is difficult to describe, but when I am in Poland I feel as if I am at home. Wiescka always used to read my books as I wrote them, chapter by chapter, and point out any errors. After she died, I found it difficult to start writing again. But a young woman who worked for my publishers, Marysia Raczkowska, agreed to read my next book if I sent it to her chapter by chapter by email. That book was Community. Marysia is an attractive young woman, and I will always be grateful to her for kick-starting me again.
Do you have any unfinished work in a bottom drawer somewhere? Do you ever lose enthusiasm for a project, abandon it, and move on to another?
The only unfinished book I have is If Pigs Could Sing, which is the story of two brothers who became famous country singers. Their grandmother always supplied their distinctive falsetto backing but when she died they discovered that pigs could sing, and they used a chorus of porkers instead. They became so rich that they could employ a man solely to pick the pineapple off their pizzas. I showed the early chapters to my agent Richard Curtis and he was bewildered to say the least. You can read the opening chapters in the Fiction section of my website www.grahammasterton.co.uk, but I don’t know if it will do you any good.
Considering your productivity, I can’t imagine you ever suffer from writers’ block. What advice would you offer writers who can’t get a running start?
It certainly helped working for newspapers and magazines. You have to write every day if you feel like it or not, and your brain is trained to see stories in events which most people don’t recognize. I always thought Writers’ Block was a grim downtown apartment building crowded with people staring at blank PC screens. But seriously, if you can’t get a running start, then I’m sorry to say that you’re probably not a writer. Writing is obsessive … you can’t help yourself doing it. I have been helping a young woman, Dawn Harris, to write her first novel, Diviner. But I know Dawn has what it takes because she simply cannot stop herself from incessantly writing down notes and comments and ideas and stories.
How do you handle criticism?
I don’t read it. If a book is selling well, what’s the point? Anyway, those who pick holes in your books on Amazon, for instance, are only as tiny percentage of the whole readership, and are atypical.
How do you handle praise?
I appreciate it, of course, and I love meeting readers. I was recently on the panel of judges of a horror movie festival in France, and did quite a lot of book-signing there, and everybody was so friendly. I particularly enjoyed the company of the other members of the panel—Jack Sholder, who directed Nightmare On Elm Street 2; John McNaughton, who directed Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer; Fabrio Frizzi, who writes horror movie scores; Nicholas Vince, who played the Chatterer in Hellraiser; and Catriona MacColl, who has appeared in many Italian horror movies, who was a darling.
But writing is my job, and, even though I enjoy praise, I’m supposed to be good at it.
What’s your definition of success?
Success for me is writing a book so readers come to me and say “I was living it. I was in it.” I was also gratified when several women emailed me to say that they found it difficult to believe the Katie Maguire books hadn’t been written by a woman. I think that’s when all those years of getting to know girls at Penthouse paid off!
Any rituals before you start a writing session? (I’m assuming sacrificing virgins is not in the mix.)
I make a mug of horseshoe coffee (so-called by American railroad tracklayers in the early days of the Union Pacific because it was strong that you could float a horseshoe in it). I answer all of my emails and check out my friends on Facebook on Twitter. Then I start writing and carry on writing until 4 or 5 pm. After that I go to the pub and annoy my friends.
What’s the most intriguing or imaginative novel you’ve ever read?
I still have my copy of The Process, which the late Brion Gysin gave me in 1970. It’s the story of a black college professor crossing the Sahara and has some of the most illuminating writing, although I still haven’t quite managed to finish it.
One of the best-crafted novels I have ever read is The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. How he turns the readers’ sympathies around during the story is masterful. First you despise Captain Queeg, and then you realize that he was right all along.
Poe or Lovecraft? (I know, that’ a tough one.)
Haven’t read either of them in a coon’s age. I like both of them, but mainly Lovecraft for that taking the wrong road and finding yourself among sinister houses, which is a bit like where I live. And Lovecraft’s great sense of hysteria at the climax of some of his stories. I also unashamedly pinched his Great Old Ones for The Manitou and most of all Brown Jenkin for Prey.
One last question, just for fun. What would you consider your favorite addiction or vice?
I am incapable of keeping my mouth shut, which can be a serious problem. I was barred from St. Lukes Tavern in Cork because I asked one (very genial) Irishman if he would stop coming out with so many “fecks” in front of my wife. The gingery Tipperary barman said it wasn’t my place to be telling the other customers what to do, so I told him to feck off and I was subsequently barred.
I do have a bad habit of making disparaging remarks about people (“breathe in, dude!” to men with fat stomachs and “don’t like yours much” to men with ugly wives.) The trouble is I was brought up to have a clear BBC accent and it can carry across a crowded room even when I am speaking quietly. I am trying to behave myself. Unfortunately it is the curse of a writer to be observant and critical.