I love good public Q&As, and with the peak book and film seasons coming up in the not too distant future, I’ll be booking myself in for as many Q&A events as possible. They’re best when the questions are original and the answers aren’t rote. Here are a few of the questions I’ve been asked over the last few years by a wide variety of interviewers.
How did you become a writer? Was it always your ambition to get published?
I always wrote, probably from about the age of seven. I certainly did not have the confidence to think I could ever be published one day. Two things happened; I moved to the USA and suddenly had a lot of free time (not a lot to do there if you don’t like sports or the gym), so I began concentrating on writing short stories. And Clive Barker wrote the Books of Blood, which were hugely successful and opened the way for other authors selling short story collections. Even so, my first two books were humour books, and I built my confidence. Then the collection ‘City Jitters’ followed.
You wrote about your childhood and your family in Paperboy, and then about your young adult life in Film Freak. Is it harder to write openly about yourself and not about fictional characters?
What I found odd was how much easier it was, because it was all there to be drawn upon. I didn’t have to sit staring out of the window making things up. What became crucial was knowing what to leave out. Writers are notoriously over-focused. I had to step back and ask myself what my purpose was all the time, because the daily pull of life is largely purposeless. I did not want to write a misery-memoir, but to portray the time as accurately and atmospherically as possible. I’m an optimist and it was important to reflect that, but as I read more about how the memory works I realise that I auto-edited some of the harder times.
Did your childhood encourage or hinder creativity?
There’s a big age difference between me and my brother so I was alone during my formative years, when books become friends.
You have an unusual memory for detail in your writing. How do you remember or document everything that you may want to write about later?
It’s an embarrassing admission, but I kept diaries in the form of a sort of house magazine right through my teenage years (unlike Virginia Woolf’s they don’t involve berating the servants). Although they don’t directly report on my family, I was able to reread these and fill in the gaps. For ‘Film Freak’ I had my memories of the company, lots of documentation and the memories of my friends.
Tell us about your writing process – e.g. do you only work on one book at a time?
I try to, but lines get blurred. You’re thinking of other ideas for books that won’t appear for at least two years and copy-editing a book you’ve almost forgotten about at the same time, so it rolls forward in different overlapping time-frames. I do try to concentrate on only physically writing one book at a time because it requires a specific mindset, but you always think about others.
Who has been your greatest influence as a writer?
Dickens amazed me as a child, although I feel he’s currently slipping from fashion. JG Ballard was my great hero, Woolf, Mervyn Peake, Firbank, Forster, Waugh, Greene. Waugh especially for his still-shocking mix of darkness and humour (I’m trying to recall the novel in which the hero accidentally eats his girlfriend). The last chapter of the social satire ‘A Handful of Dust’ is in many horror collections. That’s how close he comes to crossing the line.
Then Bradbury, Poe, Jim Shepard, Barbara Kingsolver, Gary Indiana. But I read so much that you could ask me any day and get a different answer. Hilary Mantel for sheer thrilling storytelling. I’ve never known so much excitement around a single (as yet unpublished) book as ‘The Mirror and the Light’.
How does it feel to be nominated for awards for your writing? What does this mean to you?
It’s nice to win but feels rather random. Having been a juror on a number of awards committees, I know the process and see how bizarrely capricious it is. What is decided one week could be decided in a completely different way the next. The Daggers are very well-judged but many competitions hide inherent flaws.
You must have fun writing certain characters or plot-lines, e,g. the frustrated housewives in Plastic or the gory horror details in some of your thrillers – what inspires these storylines (or who inspires the characters)?
It used to be that they were planned out from notes gathered by talking to people and from books. Now the internet has made the process more organic – there are a lot of anonymous blogs put out by people in the service sector, for example – but much of the information is unreliable or tainted. Ultimately I still rely on direct contacts, my imagination and non-fiction books.
You write poignantly about the human relationships in your books. For example, your business partner Jim clearly had a huge impact on you (in Film Freak) and I was particularly moved by your portrayal of your relationship with your father towards the end of Paperboy. Can you tell us a little more about the role that these two significant men have had in your life?
What’s odd is that these two were polar opposites, the closed-off angry father and the expansive, louche business partner, and yet my father adored Jim. I’m not sure it was reciprocated. I think my father saw in this oddly brave person the man he could never be. He was always punching Jim on the shoulder and saying ‘It’s cracking to see you!’
Would you say then that you believe in mentoring?
Very much so. By a bizarre coincidence I had myself been mentored by the same person who mentored my business partner, an extraordinarily energetic, curious, passionate writer and musician, part PT Barnum, part Cole Porter. The last time I spoke to him I asked how he was and he replied; ‘I’m dying, darling, it’s fucking boring, let’s talk about something interesting.’ Curiously, his wife was an image of Victorian restraint – I always wondered what on earth she made of him.