Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Lowdown with... Simon Maginn

Simon Maginn (born 1961 in Wallasey, Merseyside) is a British writer who has published five novels under his own name: Sheep (Corgi 1994), Virgins and Martyrs (Corgi, 1995), A Sickness of the Soul (Corgi 1995), Methods of Confinement (Black Swan 1996, nominated for BFS Novel of the Year) and Rattus (Pendragon Press 2010, novella) which was published alongside a novella by Gary Fry entitled The Invisible Architect of Psychopathy. A film version of Sheep has been released as The Dark (2005), starring Sean Bean. The novels are horror/psychological thrillers, and are mostly out of print. Sheep is available as an ebook. He also writes satirical comedies as Simon Nolan, including As Good as it Gets (Quartet Books 1999), The Vending Machine of Justice (Quartet Books 2001) and Whitehawk (Revenge Ink 2010). He lives and works in Brighton, UK.

1. Tell us three things about yourself.

• I have a watch with a compass and a thermometer.
• I can play the oboe (but I don’t).
• I talk to myself nearly all the time.

2. What was the first thing you had published?
My first publication was a letter to the Wallasey News when I was eight, about a trip to Knowsley Safari Park. I don’t think any publication since has pleased me more. It almost compensated for only being a runner-up in the Diddymen competition at Vale Park the previous year. I still think there should have been a recount, but I guess sometimes you just have to let things go. Hugh tells me he was once unjustly excluded from a ‘make a picture with vegetables’ competition because he’d used butter beans, and ‘they’re not vegetables’. Oh yeah? Not vegetables? What are they, then? Fish? Owls? The kind of argument you can find yourself rehearsing at pretty much any hour of the day or night. 

3. Which piece of writing are you proudest of?
I think probably my first novel, Sheep. It’s an obvious choice, since it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that’s had any kind of commercial success, but that’s not why I’m proud of it. I recall writing it longhand in bed at night, then typing up the pages on a manual typewriter with a sticking ‘e’ key. (NB: for younger readers, there was a time before computers, a time of paper and correcting fluid and howling darkness and pain.) I averaged about three pages an hour, type and curse and Tippex and type and curse. The finished manuscript looked like a field dressing from a particularly bad-tempered battle zone. Hugh made photocopies for me, illegally, at work. I picked random names from Artists and Writers Yearbook to send it out to, knowing precisely nothing about any of them. Transworld eh?, I thought, sounds kinda science-fictiony, and my book was horror, which is close, so what the hell. I’m proud of the attitude behind it perhaps as much as the thing itself, the sheer intensity of blind naive optimism, forcing it out into the world. I’m much more circumspect now. 

4. …and which makes you cringe?

Nothing. Not a damn thing. I stand by every ridiculous word.

5. What’s a normal writing day like?
Long, complicated answer, but I’ll know if you just skip to the next question… Until last year, I had lived my whole life with a condition called DSPS (Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder), which is a circadian rhythm problem. With DSPS you are awake until 5.00 AM or so and no good to anyone until noon. You are permanently jet lagged, as if you are in the wrong time zone. All the time. For many, the night hours are when they feel most alive, most creative, buzzing. It’s a chronic and not very treatable condition, thought to be genetic, and most people with it find it impossible to live ‘office hours’: ‘nightwalkers’ is a term often used. So I would write from, say, midnight to 5.00 AM. I came to love those long, silent, dark hours. Then twelve months ago, I changed some medication I take for something else, and, to my profound astonishment, my DSPS just melted away and I was nodding off in front of Newsnight and waking up at 6.00AM. This at age 54. It’s quite difficult to explain how fundamental this change has been. My whole life had been constructed around the DSPS. I’ve never been employed, for instance, except for short bursts in my twenties: few employers are sympathetic to a worker who is persistently late and sleepy. I was lucky, I managed to carve out a way of making a living, and I just accepted that I was operating to an entirely different schedule from everyone around me. I didn’t know about circadian rhythm disorders until a few years ago, but I knew it was something I couldn’t change. I expected to go to my grave with it. And yes, I’d probably be late for my own funeral. So the last twelve months have been something of a revelation. ‘Lunch’, for instance: the word has never had any meaning for me - ‘lunchtime’ would be the time I was waking up, bleary and irritable and nauseous. (I’m from the North West in any case: it’s dinner.) But now I get it. I now write early in the morning, which feels unnatural and strange, until ‘lunch’. I was used to the cover of darkness, the whole world asleep and softly breathing: the night watch. Now I have to share the world with all you noisy, clamorous go-getting daywalkers, and everything is too bright and glaring, and I must learn your quaint ways. Such as ‘lunch’. I’m not a regular writer at all, though. I go for months without writing a word, or wanting to. There are years between the novels. It takes me a very long time to work out a story, and for most of that time there’s no ‘writing’ going on at all. Then there’ll come a day when it’s time to start getting it all down: by that stage, I pretty much know what’s going to happen and so the writing is easy (apart from the despair and self-loathing, obviously). I wrote a novel in two months once. 

6. Which piece of writing should someone who’s never read you before pick up first?
It’s got to be Sheep again. It’s by some distance the gentlest of my books, and the one that people have consistently said they like the best. I was very much under the spell of Stephen King at the time (sound familiar?), and the tone and atmosphere of Sheep is borrowed wholesale from The Shining. It takes a fairly standard trope - family recovering from tragedy go to new place which turns out to be BAD - and, I hope, gives it a new spin. It’s twenty-one years old this year and I can still recall the thrill of writing it, as the words fell into place and this impossible thing, this novel, this world, started to twitch into life under my fingers. 

7. What are you working on now?
Another rather along answer, I’m afraid. Hey, no one said this was going to be easy… I wrote four horror/psy thriller novels in the 90s, then I stopped for a bit. Then I wrote three comedies. Stopped for a bit. A novella about rats. (You will observe the laser-like precision of my career planning.) Then I thought, I know, a tetralogy of novels set in Brighton, where I live, in the late 1930s - ’36, ’37, ’38 and ’39. They would be dark detective stories, with the clouds of war gathering. The first of these, ’36, was greeted with something like rapture by my agent, who emailed me excitedly late on a Friday evening to say he’d just started it and couldn’t wait till Monday to tell me how much he liked it. We got that close to a sale to Orion, and had some of the most extravagantly complimentary rejections I’ve ever encountered. One editor said it was ‘the kind of book that wins awards’, and he would ‘watch with interest’. No one would actually buy it, though. Would it be fair to say it’s dead in the water?, I asked my agent finally, and he conceded gravely that yes, that would be an accurate assessment. Belly up. So I started on the next, obviously. ’37. Agent was noticeably less enthusiastic about the sample and synopsis, and when I submitted the finished book he rejected it wholesale. We had a bit of a barny, and I went off and sulked for two months. I recall thinking, sod it, I’ll just stop. ‘The publishing industry is an arse I no longer have any interest in crawling up’, was how I put it to myself. But of course you don’t just stop, the machinery is always cranking and clanking away in the background. Just as well try to stop secreting ear wax. I’ve often found anger to be a very helpful motivating force. I wrote a novel once, purely because I was so enraged with the publishing industry - it did no business, but got the best reviews I’ve ever had. And now I was angry again. So I stripped the story out completely and reimagined it from top to bottom, much in the way a film maker might ‘open it out’ (and if you ever hear those words from a film maker, run don’t walk). I consciously gentled it, changed the outcomes for the characters, tried deliberately to recall that long gone voice from twenty years ago which had written Sheep. Sample and synopsis. I was ready for it to be rejected this time, I was in fact ready to leave my agent (he’s my fourth, you can overdo these things), but instead he said it was ‘terrific’, and so finally we get to the answer: I’m writing a dark detective story set in Brighton in 1937. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is a touchstone. Not just because it’s also set in Brighton in the late 1930s, but because for me it’s one of Greene’s finest works, an astonishing book, with a central character you will never forget. Greene said of it that he’d started out writing what he thought was a gangland drama, and then found that it had morphed into something much darker than that, a study in human evil and innocence. Greene’s genius is to make you feel for Pinky, the teenage psychopath who is at the centre of the story. There’s a scene, straight after the grimmest and most appalling wedding scene you’ll ever read, in which Pinky strides up to the reception desk at the fancy Metropole Hotel and demands a room: the clerk is snooty, there are no rooms. We’re made aware of Pinky’s itching resentment and hatred of everything around him, his sense of himself as a mocked and despised outsider. We’re aware of how shabby he is, how crude and primitive, but we also feel his rage and shame and defiance. My money’s as good as anyone’s! Greene knows us so well, he knows we’ve all felt outclassed and humiliated, and so he plants our tender, wounded heart into this vicious youth, and shows us ourselves. My admiration for Greene knows no bounds, really. My story has nothing obviously in common with Greene’s, but he’s there in my ear, whispering, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be borrowing some atmospherics from him. I can’t think of many better footsteps to tread in. It’s going well, so far.

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