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Other People's Toys
interviewed by Patrick Hudson
Kim Newman is a well-known film critic and a writer of idiosyncratic fantasy and horror. He'll be familiar to many as a regular pundit on TV and radio shows about horror and science fiction movies, and from his extensive writing on the subject in books such as Nightmare Movies and the BFI Companion To Horror, and in magazines including Empire and Sight & Sound. Since the 1980s he has been producing brilliant, original short stories, such as Famous Monsters, The Big Fish, Where The Bodies Are Buried, and The Original Dr Shade, most of which are collected in the anthologies The Original Dr Shade And Other Stories, Famous Monsters, Seven Stars, Unforgivable Stories and the upcoming Dead Travel Fast.
Kim Newman in Dublin, Ireland - October 2003.
The series of alternate world tales written with Eugene Byrnes is collected as Back
In The USSA. His novels include The Night Mayor, Life's Lottery (which
unfolds in the form of a choose-your-own adventure), Jago, and the series that
began with Anno Dracula. As Jack Yeovil, he has written for the Games Workshop
and Black Library series of War Hammer fiction (which have been recently re-issued)
and a trilogy of Dark Future tales, published in the early 1990s.
This interview took place in London in the autumn of 2004.
What's the first piece of genre culture that really struck you.
Well, I was born in 1959, so I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. It seems to me that kids just getting into genre at the moment probably feel that it's there all the time - there's a whole TV channel devoted to science fiction now. But back then, although there were many things that now seem really seminal and important there wasn't that much of it, so maybe what we had seemed that more precious.
I'm of that generation that grew up watching Gerry Anderson's shows and Doctor Who. Star Trek came a lot later, it didn't actually debut in Britain until the later 1960s after it had been cancelled in America, and as a consequence I'm still not that up on space opera. But I remember things like The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
I remember the first film I was ever taken to see was The First Men In The Moon, the Ray Harryhausen/ H.G. Wells film with a script by Nigel Kneale (he's a friend of mine now). It could have been anything, but I look back on it now and it obviously had a big influence on me.
Was it something that you grew into with repeated exposure, or were you ready to find it?
Oh, absolutely, although as a child you don't have a choice as to what you're taken to see. My parents must have thought I'd like it.
It's difficult to over-estimate the influence in the 1960s of the space programme. Everyone watched the moon landing, even things that are probably really boring now, like launches that went on for five hours, things that are insupportable now. There was a sense - and probably there still is in the mainstream media - that it's all science fiction, H.G. Wells and flying saucers and fairies and all that wishy-washy kind of stuff. But because of that sense, it meant that interest in outer space did actually bring about a science fiction boom.
Obviously, quite early on I was one of those kids who read. I'm not sure what the first science fiction book I read was, it was probably something embarrassing like the novelisation of Doctor Who And The Daleks by David Whitaker. The other candidate for that would be - I think it's called 'Biggles And The Blue Flame'. Most of the Biggles books are kind of Boy's Own thrillers, but this one is set in a Shangri-La type place and it has giant insects in it and invisible people and lots of other weird stuff. It must have been a late series book when he [W.E. Johns] was doing other things but, oddly, I think it was the first Biggles book I read. I read all the others afterward, and I was a big fan of them when I was eight or nine.
I know I read H.G. Wells very early, and to this day I think that for really complicated books it's amazing how well The Time Machine or The War Of The Worlds read to an eight- or nine-year-old. I also remember at my primary school we had a teacher, I think it was a substitute teacher, who read The Sea Raiders out loud, the H.G. Wells story about jellyfish. I remember thinking that this was a terrific story. He had this big blue book The Complete Short Stories Of H.G. Wells, and I ordered it from the library and read it. I must have kept it for months and months because it was a big, thick book.
Obviously a lot of the stories are like that or Empire Of The Ants, but there are some really scary stories in there, things like Pollock And The Poroh Man and The Cone, which is a really gruesome, horrible horror, things that are really upsetting, and I remember feeling uncomfortable [laughs]. And there were lots of social realism things in there that I didn't get. I have subsequently tracked it down and I have a copy of that book, but that was one of those things that left a big impression on me. I can't say enough about how good H.G. Wells was when he was good, and how he now tends to be straitjacketed into one sort of set of ideas of what he was like.
It's interesting that you mention Biggles, because I was having a conversation with a friend earlier in the week about the relationship of these old genre heroes to the superhero comics, and how -
And I've got to say how that also was big for me when I was about nine, 10 or 11. In fact, the first critical decision I ever remember making was deciding that I was going to read Marvel Comics rather than DC Comics.
At that time DC Comics had what I now look back and think of as actually rather classical, pleasing art, that Silver Age Green Lantern and The Flash stuff. But their flagships titles, Batman and Superman, were in a really bad period, endless stories about Lois trying to get Clark to reveal his secret identity. My grandmother gave me two things that I think she would actually deeply disapprove of [laughs], but were big influences on me. She gave me a Fantastic Four comic and some Mad Magazine paperbacks. To this day I'm probably still influenced by both of those things.
But, I remember what appealed to me about Marvel as opposed to DC wasn't the art - partly because I was mostly looking at black and white reprints - but the complexity of the storylines. I remember even expressing this, as a really precocious eight-year-old: what I liked about the X-Men or Daredevil or Iron Man was that not all their problems were to do with fighting bad guys. I was really taken by this thing about Iron Man: on the one hand he was a superhero in this great golden armour, but he was also walking around in an iron lung that was keeping him alive. I thought that was a really great concept.
Looking back on it, what Stan Lee did was to take all this stuff you liked about superhero comics and put it into this soap opera format. What was brilliant about that from an industry point of view is that it meant there was a reason to read the next one, whereas once you'd read one Superman story that was more or less it.
But it feeds into what's now a problem with comics, it's very hard to dive in.
Oh yeah, I feel that's true for a lot of genre stuff now, that there is no entry. When I was reading Marvel comics, I realised that the Fantastic Four was only four years old, and they'd done that thing of the characters aging along with the strip, and so Spider-Man had left school and gone to university. The thing is, after I stopped reading comics, which was about 1971 or 1972, that was when Marvel had to more or less freeze.
Otherwise they become middle aged..?
That's right. So now, logically, Spider-Man should be coming up to retirement. I really liked Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies, and the X-Men films, but one of things I didn't get from them, and I realise that it's a subliminal thing for me, is that I associate those properties with those times.
In the way that Tim Burton's Batman films, are at once contemporary but have the feel of the 1940s, because Batman is a character from 1939, I'd love to have seen Spider-Man with a cool jazz soundtrack and a kind of beatnik attitude, because to me it's a 1960s' story. I know he's now [bitten by] a genetically engineered spider and not a radioactive spider, but there's something about the characters that worked better in that early Kennedy era. They all have that kind of a feel to them, and somehow I'd like to see that reflected more in the adaptations.
And there's a transformational 1960s feel to the comics. People are transforming from these buttoned-down 1950s' people into hippies.
Absolutely, and you can see that. In the very early Spider-Man he wears a sports jacket and all his friends have crew-cuts, and are obviously all into surfing music. Yet five years on I remember there was heavy debate in the letter columns about whether Peter Parker should grow his hair long. I remember he had a college roommate who got into drugs, which is like what happened in the 1960s [laughs]. I even remember that they had to explain that he wasn't drafted because he was a college student, so he got a deferment. Which is probably a very good thing, because that's not the sort of storyline that Marvel could have dealt with. They did send Captain America to Vietnam but they don't reprint those issues.
In fact, Iron Man is the first Vietnam War hero in comics. His origin story is that he was injured in South East Asia. I think it's even before there was really a Vietnam, I think he's an advisor.
The Quiet American. Moving on a bit, you went to college and you were quite involved in theatre and theatrical productions.
Well, not so much in college, after that and a bit before as well. In school, and in college, senior school, I was in our local youth theatre and I was vaguely involved with bands and that kind of stuff. And all through university and immediately after, I kept in touch with all the people I was involved with. One of them was Eugene Byrne, who I still write with occasionally, and a there were few other people whose names crop up in the fringes of my bibliographies.
We were a tight-knit group. It may well have been that we all met at grammar school, which was kind of like going to the trenches [laughs]. And so after university when I didn't have anything else in particular to do, I went back home and just sort of drifted in. The guy who was central to all this stuff was the guy who didn't leave - and is in fact still there. He was mostly into the music side of things. In fact, he was a bit ambitious about all that. He wanted to go from just being in a band to sort managing, putting on lots of bands and special nights and having festivals and things.
And that sort of grew into having a magazine and then to doing theatre stuff. We realised, because we'd been able to do it for parties and stuff, that you could go down to the local arts centre and give them 20 quid and hire the place for the night. And so for about two or three years, they were the primary things I wrote, things that played for two or three nights at an arts centre, some of which I'm very pleased with, some of which didn't quite work.
But all of it still feeds into the stuff I do now. Probably the less pretentious stuff was the better. The stuff that was just fun. It was about the same time I was writing my first published fiction, there are themes there that I still use.
Do you think that was an important foundry for the formation of your work, having other people read it out...
Yeah, that was partly it and also there was a real formative thing in the reason why I stopped, which was exactly that. It was not being able to do anything on my own, but always having to arrange and organise other people in order to enable the work I was doing. We had this sort of cabaret group that went around, and it was the frustration toward the end of that period that drove me to doing my own stuff. And also the sense that we were in a small town in the West Country and that wasn't getting me the audiences I really wanted. I wanted to communicate a bit more than that.
I found the discipline of working for the theatre quite good, I was particularly keen on doing things with very few scene changes or working out things like that, getting people on and off. I tried to make it that everybody in the show had at least one little moment that they could be proud of, one little line that would get a laugh, one bit of business that was a bit more than just spear carrying.
I suddenly thought of the Dracula novels, for instance, where there are a lot of fairly obscure characters from fairly risible backgrounds, and often they do have this little moment.
Yeah, that's right, that's part of it. Under other circumstances I could easily have written Anno Dracula as three-act musical that would have played two nights at the Bridgwater Arts Centre in the 1980s and never been heard of again. That sounds unlikely, but it is true, I could easily have done that.
So, yeah, in the big cast books I've done I do feel like that. I think it's not enough just to have the reference, to have the walk-on, they've got to do something. For me it's not just a sense of, "Oh look, here's someone from an E.M. Forster novel," but there has to be some kind of spin on it as well, it's got to be something that fits in.
I was always conscious that some people would read the book and have no idea who any of these people were, in which case they had to be like characters on their own, anyway. Particularly in the first book, there are a bunch of very minor vampire characters from 19th century literature. Even if you really know the stuff, it would be hard to be absolutely au fait with them. And also, to be frank, in the originals they don't have that much character, so I had to tease hints out of things like The True Story Of A Vampire by Count Eric Stenbock, and The Mysterious Stranger by Anonymous, and try and make the characters work.
It was very like, I suppose, the way that writers have recently done things like go back and say "Barry Allen, the Flash, was always a boring character, but he didn't need to be." It's one of those strange things - particularly about DC who have a run of characters created in the 1930s and 1940s - but you can go back and take those characters and make them work. Even the really embarrassing ones.
It seems to me that there is a generation of writers who come out of Britain at that time, there's you, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, Pat Mills and the 2000 AD people who started doing that.
Yeah, it's odd that I'm the one who didn't go in comics [laughs]. But you're right, and maybe because I didn't want to play with just the toys from comics, although obviously Alan [Moore] didn't either in the end, in that he got away from that. And also I've done kind of the mirror image of what Alan's done, because I have written stories with comicbook characters, or stories about comics, and I am actually interested in comics but I don't want to write them.
Why is that? You mentioned that you don't want to play with other people's toys -
Yeah I do! I love doing that!
Is it the medium?
No, I've got no problem with that. When I say I don't want to write them, I mean obviously I would if there was a reasonable reason for it, if ever I had an idea that worked better that way. But it occurs to me that the main reason I'd want to work in comics isn't for any particular love of the graphic medium or wanting to elevate it, but because I'd kind of like to play with - I don't know - The Spectre and Deadman. For me, what's great about comics are the established things, and just the whole genre of the superhero. You know, I'd love to do a superhero novel, I keep kicking something around, but if I want to do it, I'd rather write prose.
Is it the collaboration aspect?
I don't mind that, I've collaborated a lot, I've written books and fiction with several different people - Eugene [Byrnes], Neil [Gaiman], Paul McAuley - and I enjoy doing that. And I've done script work, which is essentially collaborative, even if you don't think it is at first.
I don't know that much about art, as it were, but I'm sure I could get my head round it; I have a reasonable background in that. Maybe it's because I go back to when I was being a lyricist: it didn't matter how good the lyrics were, if the tune wasn't any good you're screwed. It's interesting that you mention that great run of British comics writers, but you would never have heard of any of them if they hadn't worked with people who could draw really good pictures. The thing is, still to this day, a really good comic is something where the art is terrific. You can actually have a really good comic with a crap script. But if you've got terrible artwork, it doesn't matter.
That's very true. Let's go back to the 1980s, though. You were living in the West Country and journalism called...
No, no. I became a freelance writer because nothing else was happening [laughs]. This was the early 1980s, I'd graduated, I did work in the West Country but I moved to London quite early on and I would commute back to do the various creative things I was doing, and applied for loads of jobs that I didn't get. I did that for about two years while essentially being on the dole.
During that period I got a tiny foothold writing about film, I did things like write production notes for film societies, very little but it meant that I wasn't just sitting around. During that time I did an enormous amount of work on various things, and certainly I improved greatly as a writer - I wrote a lot of movie reviews for the fanzine that we published and wrote some fiction for that. At some point, in late 1982, I simultaneously started selling nonfiction professionally to the Monthly Film Bulletin and City Limits, and at the same time I wrote the first stories of mine that eventually sold. Interzone was the first paying fiction market, and at about that time I know I sold to Fantasy Tales.
Within six months of me starting to sell stuff, I sold a book. It was my first book, Nightmare Movies. Of course, I sold it to someone who went out of business the week after it was published. But they also put me on a retainer to write a whole bunch of books so I was able to get off the dole through that and I wrote a whole bunch of books about film that never came out. Hack stuff. 'The Films of...' type stuff. I did one on Marilyn Monroe, and one on Dustin Hoffman. And I did a book on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that probably would have been very useful if it had come out then, because no one had written about them. And I wrote a first draft of the book that eventually came out as Apocalypse Movies or Millennium Movies [yes, it's had two titles].
So, that kept money rolling in. Then Neil Gaiman and I sold this thing Ghastly Beyond Belief, it's quite an obscure book now but it's a collection of quotations, it's a sort of funny book. It was one of these cult success books, but it never earned out its advance - everybody loved it but no one wanted to buy it. To be honest, that's still the case [laughs]! When you consider the positions that both Neil and I have attained in our respective fields, there's still no interest in republishing it. But it was a book that got both of us... I won't say a lot of friends but some friends, and maybe some enemies, in the field as well.
A foot on the ladder.
Yeah, both of us got a bit of visibility. I'd sold to Interzone around then and Neil was doing some work for games related things, I think he had stories in some gaming magazines and stuff. And we also, with Eugene, had started writing funny articles for porno magazines. That was what Neil was basically earning a living from, interviewing celebrities for porno mags - you know the boring articles that go between the pictures of naked girls [laughs]. We'd all been influenced by Mad Magazine, and so we wrote a lot of what we thought was hilarious funny stuff. We did that for a while and we always wanted to move into the field of writing humour books, but we never really got it together.
And then in 1989, you published The Night Mayor.
That's true, but there was one other biggish thing I did before that, Horror: 100 Best Books, which I co-edited with Steve Jones. It is a collection of one hundred essays by writers on their favourite horror novels, or horror books.
It was part of series.
Yeah, that's right, but all the others were written by one guy. We had a hundred contributors, which was really difficult, and there was this awful thing of getting all the signatures for the limited edition and all this stuff. But it was really interesting experience, and one of the things that I wouldn't underestimate is that I had some contact with a hundred great writers, including some people who were towards the end of their careers. It meant, for instance, that I met Robert Bloch, and John Blackburn, who was nearly dead when he wrote his piece, or Ron Chetwynd-Hayes, people like that who'd been around for years, who Steve sort of knew. Also I met younger people as well who were just coming in.
Yeah, Clive was one of the first people we had. I'd known him for a while. And also it meant that I did actually get sit down and spend an hour talking to a whole bunch of interesting people. I don't think it did anything for my career in publishing, but it did something for my social career and we won a Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Association.
Do think winning the award was helpful for you then?
It didn't happen for a couple of years after. The book came out in 1988; it must have come out in America in 1988 or 1989. So I didn't get the award until 1990 - I remember going over to accept it - by which time I'd already published one novel under my own name and a couple of other things.
Actually, I don't think any of the awards I've ever won have ever done anything for me [laughs]. No one's ever said, "You shouldn't have won it, it was rubbish," but I'm not one of those people who it says on the cover of my books 'Winner of the Bram Stoker Award!' I've even seen people who've written 'Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award' on their books or even long-listed, which is obscene because four votes will get you long-listed.
There's the British Science Fiction Award which I got for a short story; there's an International Horror Critics Award; A Dracula Society Award up there; and a British Fantasy Award. And I must say no one's ever asked me about them until now. Maybe it's because I see too many people who win one minor award and then write 'Award-winning author' on their CVs for the rest of their lives that I don't want to push it. And most awards are corrupt in one way or another, so I don't complain when I lose, but I don't gloat when I win [laughs].
The thing that cured me of thinking of myself as an award-contender is the year that Anno Dracula came out. The thing about the British Fantasy Awards back then was that you didn't know who was on the nomination list until you turned up at the event. I actually thought I had a pretty good chance that year: it had gotten loads of reviews, it had been short-listed by some big, major American awards that had never even heard of me before, and frankly it was a crap year [laughs]! Ramsey Campbell hadn't written a book that year, Stephen King had taken some time off or something, and so I was really stoked, I thought "I should work on my acceptance speech for this." Turns out I wasn't even nominated. And after that, I thought "To hell with this I'm not taking this seriously anymore."
Right, because that novel was a major breakthrough.
That's right. I remember, AN Other writer phoned me up shortly after I'd made an American sale on that book and sort of advised me to basically rewrite it once a year for the next 10 years, but I didn't do it. And even when I did the sequels I didn't do that. I don't know if the publishers would have preferred me to rewrite it, but I know that if I had it would have killed the whole thing. However, whenever I've sold film rights on it, which I've now done twice without anything ever happening, they always want sequel rights but they never want to buy the rights to the sequels I wrote [laughs].
Anyway, that's the way it goes. I suppose it forced me to accept that I'm not that sort of writer.
The production-line type.
Yeah, or you hit on one thing that works well, that Anne Rice sort of thing. There are other people who have done stuff like that. And particularly, oddly enough, in the field of writing vampire stories.
Sure, well, let's talk about that now, what is it about vampires you think that appeals to people.
I don't know, they're just kind of cool, aren't they [laughs].
Yeah, they are cool, but there's more to it, surely?
Well, for me seeing the Bela Lugosi Dracula was a kind of seminal moment, probably the thing that committed me for life to genre. And reading the Stoker book when I was young. I think what I like most about it is that it's such a wide and multivalent field. There're all kinds of different things you can do with it. I don't just want to only write about vampires. I know there are people who only read vampire novels and only write vampire novels, and I can't quite get that, although I do think there are lots of interesting things to do, and I'm not ruling out going back and doing more.
It's also interesting how the vampire thing feeds through into other strains of popular culture, for instance goth music.
That's a style thing, isn't it? In Anno Dracula I did try to write about that type of culture. There's a subplot about the people who dress up and wear lots of black. One of the things I tried to do in that book was find things that were appropriate to the years in which it was set, but still relevant to the year in which it was written.
Do you think it's something that is tied the Victorian romantic movement? I get the feeling that in many ways we're still living in that romantic era.
Yes, I wanted to write about that. The realisation that there was a connection between people in goth nightclubs and Aubrey Beardsley-style decadence. I also have to say that it was a book informed deeply by the 1980s. It was the realisation that the Poll Tax riots were exactly the same as the Bloody Friday riots. It was the time that Margaret Thatcher was going on about Victorian values. I gave a friend of mine a copy of the book, and we were talking on the phone when he was about halfway through and he said "This is about Margaret Thatcher, isn't it?" and I thought, yeah, probably it is.
So that wasn't a conscious thing, it just fed into it?
It was always going to be a 'state of the nation' book, and there are specific bits of satire there, but I think that's true of most books with period settings, let alone alternate period settings.
Do you think that when you have subsequently revisited the story, it's been with an eye to current times? I mean when you get to Andy Warhol's Dracula, which goes back to that Studio 54 New York disco era, is that saying something about contemporary club culture?
Yeah, that's right. Although I've got to say that I don't really know that much about that sort of thing, I always preferred the nightclubs in Casablanca. What I want is Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano in the corner and it being quiet enough to talk [laughs].
But, the thing about Andy Warhol's Dracula and that whole series of stories - that I promise I'll turn into a book in the end, but it seems to be endlessly delayed - is that they're all about the idea of Dracula and they're all about people who for one reason or another associated themselves with the idea of Dracula. Orson Welles and Andy Warhol - his nickname was 'Drella' and he drew pictures of Dracula, but unfortunately they're not very good or they'd be on the cover of the book. And there was the Udo Kier film that he had a vague relationship with, and then Coppola, of course, and all these other people who kept having interesting intersections with Dracula all their lives.
Of those probably the Warhol one is the most complicated in the set of relationships. Even ethnically he was very close to Dracula, he was a Ruthenian. I remember when I was writing that, a filmmaker friend of mine said "Oh yeah, now I see it, he used to hang around with women who got thinner and thinner and then died."
In terms of film options, has there ever been anyone particularly interesting or amazing attached to it?
Nope. My problem with film people is that I tend to attract impecunious types, people who want really cheap options [laughs]. I've done a certain amount of bargaining, I've said "I'll let you have it for not much money providing I write the script," and as you'll have noticed, almost none of them have got made. But I've got something that's almost certainly going into production in the next couple of months, that's a commercial project rather than an adaptation of my own work. And yeah, all that's been fun and interesting and I've met some very nice people and some very nasty people. Tony Scott was attached to it for about two minutes, which I was in two minds about.
With this particular project, I actually turned down a whole bunch of approaches because I realised that in order to make it you need a lot of money. And if you've got a lot of money you need to be able to put a lot of money down to buy the rights. In the end, I haven't made a hugely profitable deal on it, but it strikes me that if it's to get made they really need a lot. I've written some things, which are what I think of as small British films, but this is a big cast, a period setting, and fantasy effects. The thing that adds big money to it is big characters, the kind of -
You need a big actor.
Yeah, that's right. What they used to say in the 1950s is "your book's full of Kirk Douglas-type characters," and it is. Most of my stuff isn't, most of the people I write about, you'd be lucky to get Colin Firth [laughs]. But Anno Dracula is big, and there are all sorts of demands on that particular project that there aren't on other some of the other things I've written.
Let's talk about the relationship between your film work, your nonfiction, and your fiction. Obviously, you write a lot about the same people in your fiction as your nonfiction. So, which comes first?
Neither. It's this odd thing of me selling fiction and nonfiction at about the same time. I know that, in a business sense, some years I earn more from one than the other, and it goes up and down and it's good to have two things going on.
I know that for fiction, probably I polish the prose more. But actually I polish the prose on my nonfiction as well, particularly if it's due for a book. The thing about writing for newspapers or magazines is that you know you'll be subbed or fiddled around with, so it really isn't worth getting something that you're are absolutely perfectly happy with in the way that you would be for a story. Certainly, many of the fiction things I've written have grown out of the ideas for the nonfiction.
So, for instance if you're working on something like The Films Of Marilyn Monroe, then an idea for a story might come out of that.
Yeah, that stuff happens quite a lot. And people say things like why do you write so much about movies or music or whatever, and I say it's the same reason that Arthur C. Clarke writes so much about satellites - because he spends a lot of time thinking about that stuff. That's where your ideas come from.
Is it a two-way traffic, does you fiction feed into your criticism?
Oh yeah, I doubt if I'd be able to do the kind of in-depth stuff I can without having a background in writing fiction, too. If there's anything that marks me out that's probably it.
I think you've carved out a niche all your own there.
There are a few others. John Brosnan did it before I did. John could easily write for Empire, he could probably write for Sight & Sound if he had to. And in his fiction he's shown wide interests, and whatever, and there are a few others. Anne Billson who I like as a writer - although she hasn't been terribly prolific lately - also came into film criticism at the same time I did. Neil also. I don't know if many people have done it subsequent to us. There are a few people on the fringes. I really like Simon Louvish, who I think is a really interesting novelist and a screenwriter, but who also does these major showbiz biographies. It's not that unusual.
A writer I really like is Jonathan Coe, who has written books about film and biographies of writers and stuff like that. Jonathan is probably my age or a bit older. All his books I read I think, "Oh my God, I lived through all that!" and he has a very similar background and career trajectory to me, although I suppose he's gone into a more literary area. But his interests are quite close to mine.
I suppose one of the things that must have been floating in the back of our minds when we were teenagers was the kind of writing you got in the music papers in the 1970s, Charles Shaar Murray, for example, people who would have listened to John Peel and all that sort of stuff. Also, it gave me the notion that critical writing could actually be a contribution.
I think that the Internet has significantly changed the landscape of critical writing.
These days anyone can see a film, write what they think about it and post it on the Internet. For free. And from my point of view those people are scabs [laughs]. How would anyone feel if anyone came and did their job for free?
Now the fact is, most of them don't do it terribly well, so that's why I'm still in business. Actually, that sounds terribly arrogant, there is probably some really good writing out there. But if you check on something like the Internet Movie Database where people just post their thoughts, a lot of it's illiterate and a lot of it's ill informed and biased in all sorts of ways. But this is chaos, and that's what the Internet's all about. There are all kinds of voices there.
And that's what the brand of Empire or Sight & Sound does, it gives the reader a confidence in the review.
Yeah, I suppose so. I don't want to inflate either of those, both of which I love dearly and work for still, but I also know the pressures of bringing anything out monthly. There are certain compromises - layout, and all these kind of things. I think magazines are very design led these days; it's a sort of hangover from the 1980s.
To go back to talking about big characters, I was really struck by the very sensitive portrayal of Elvis in Comeback Tour, the Dark Future book you wrote for the Games Workshop. I'm not a big Elvis fan, but -
I'm not particularly, either, but it seemed like a good idea. I went and read all the books, or most of the books; I listened to the music. I didn't watch many of the films because they weren't from that period.
What I was interested in was the early Elvis. It think it was about the time that movie Mystery Train came out, and that had this strange version of Blue Moon where he didn't sing the whole song, and that struck me as being really haunting and interesting. So that was the touchstone I wanted for my imagined version of the character. All the Are You Lonesome Tonight kind of thing.
David Pringle, who was editing those books, got me a copy of the TV special [Elvis] made in the late 1960s, when he nearly comes back and then doesn't. I did look at that. The other thing is that those books were written so quickly, I didn't really have time to do that much in the way of research. I just gratefully turned it out [laughs]. There was this anal-retentive book called something like the Elvis Encyclopaedia, and it lists things like where he got his favourite shirts from, and every single thing you could possibly want to know about him, so I drew on that. A lot! [laughs]
It's a great book. Compared to the others in that trilogy, which are good books, it's such an incredible -
It's the best of that run, isn't it? Of course, there are things in all of those books I like. Because they were written so quickly, I have less vivid memories of them.
What was the process? Were you given a sheet saying, these are facts about the world?
That was more or less it on that one. It was a game that had been cancelled, so they weren't doing anything with it. I had a timeline, which was developed partly by other writers - and I was allowed to put stuff in myself - and a page of slang, and a few other very tiny bits and pieces, but in fact not very much. And essentially, I just went ahead and made it up. Subsequently there have been all sorts of hassles to do with the fact, and I sort of wish I hadn't now. I made it up but now I don't own it. They've recently been talking about re-publishing those books, but editing them so they take place in the future, because they're set in the 1990s. That would mean cutting out all the stuff I really like about them, so I kind of hope that just quietly dies.
Your War Hammer books have come out again.
Yes, that's right, but they don't date so you can do what you want with them.
Were those books written quickly?
They were all done in three weeks, yeah.
Three weeks? What were they, 60- to 70,000 words?
Seventy thousand words. What I would do was 7,000 words a day for 10 working days. Then I would take a week off. Then I'd come back and spend a week revising. I doubt if I could do that now, and 70,000 words is a lot of words. But I thought that writing it quickly helped, because it meant that I couldn't spend too much time getting the prose perfect, but I just tried to keep myself interested. And as a consequence I think those books have got a lot of energy. There's a lot of grit and character and funny stuff in them. If it had been considered it might have come out a bit more po-faced.
Do you need a plan when you're working so fast?
I tend to write outlines that are a page and half. Usually the outline accurately reflects the beginning of the book, but by the time we get to the end it's gone somewhere else. I usually know the very end, but I have to feel my way towards it.
Does that reflect your approach to fiction generally? Do you always work that fast?
I suppose I am quite a quick writer. I tend to work more slowly now, but then I suppose I tend to be lazier now [laughs]. What I'll do is write 2,000 words a day but that means I clock off at about 11 o'clock and do other things. And it is true that if you write denser stuff, it does start swimming before your eyes.
That seems like a good place to stop. Thanks for taking the time to speak to The ZONE.
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Kim Newman books:
Andy Warhol's Dracula (chapbook, 1999), Anno Dracula (1992), Back In The USSA (short stories, with Eugene Byrne, 1997), Bad Dreams (1990), The Bloody Red Baron (1995), Dead Travel Fast (short stories, 2003), Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha (aka: Judgment Of Tears, 1998), Doctor Who: Time and Relative (chapbook, 2001), Famous Monsters (short stories, 1995), In Dreams (co-edited Paul J. McAuley, 1992), Jago (1991), Life's Lottery (1999, also in e-book format), The Night Mayor (1989), The Original Dr Shade (short stories, 1994), The Quorum (1994), Seven Stars (short stories, 2000), Unforgivable Stories (2000), Where The Bodies Are Buried (short stories, 2000)
BFI Companion to Horror (editor, 1996), Cat People (BFI Classics Series, 1999), Ghastly Beyond Belief (1985), Horror: 100 Best Books (co-edited with Steve Jones, 1988), Science Fiction / Horror (Sight & Sound Reader series, editor, 2001), Millennium Movies (1999, aka: Apocalypse Movies, 2000), Nightmare Movies (1985), Wild West Movies (1990)
as Jack Yeovil -
Beasts In Velvet (1991), Comeback Tour (1991), Demon Download (1990), Drachenfels (1989), Genevieve Undead (1993), Krokodil Tears (1990), Orgy Of The Blood Parasites (1994), Route 666 (1994), Silver Nails (2002)
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