Author and Scriptwriter

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

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Lowdown with... Stephen Hargadon

Born in London, Stephen Hargadon now lives and works in the north of England.
His short stories have been published in a number of places, including Black Static, Structo and Popshot magazines, the Irish Post, and on the LossLit website. His non-fiction has appeared on (including a well-received article on the joys of secondhand bookshops).

He has recently finished a novel.

1. Tell us three things about yourself.

i) These are the objects on my desk: a watch with a black face and orange hands; a brown leather wallet; a white notebook containing a short story set in Stockport and the beginnings, perhaps, of a novel; a tape dispenser in the shape of an audio cassette (must buy some tape); a lamp; a small black notebook (unused); an ovoid paperweight with purple spiral motif, bought from an antique shop in King’s Lynn, a pleasingly chaotic warren of a place, overseen by two old ladies, where I also found an attractive edition of Angus Wilson’s The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (as yet unread); a passport; scissors; coffee stains; two memory sticks; a wooden cigarette box incised with geometric patterns; a paperclip; a twenty pence piece; a white pen.

ii) I like watching films. Who doesn’t? I’m not quite as hardcore a cineaste as Marshall Tito who, I believe, watched a film every night. I used to like finding films by accident on TV. I saw The London Nobody Knows as a child. It quite gripped me – James Mason was an attractively menacing presence – and I wanted the film to go on forever: the filth and decay, the street drinkers swigging purple meths, the men ruined during the Depression, the grotty yards where the Ripper performed his foul operations, all this lingered in my memory (although for some reason I mistakenly rechristened the film The Secret Places of London). Later in life, the glib omnipotence of the internet led me from the film itself to the books and drawings of Geoffrey Snowcroft Fletcher. (His atmospherically illustrated works, including Pearly Kingdom, London After Dark and his masterpiece, Down Among the Meths Men, are well worth reading.)

One of the increasingly rare pleasures of watching TV is to stumble on an old film, a film you’d never seen before, an oddity, a treasure. I remember seeing an American film, The Baby, late one night on the BBC – perhaps the last thing before the screen was plunged into darkness. Such a bizarre, creepy film – with a sickening twist. It stayed with me. I’d look at the listings for years, hoping that The Baby would reappear, if only to convince myself that it hadn’t been a ghastly, half-drunken hallucination. Of course, it wasn’t. And I now own the film on DVD. You can look up everything on the internet. Instant information. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush – a kooky 1960s coming-of-age drama set in Stevenage – was another film that thrilled me when I first saw it by accident on late night TV. The second time I watched it, a few years later, I couldn’t see what had occasioned my excitement. It was just another vaguely zany 1960s romp, albeit one with an alluringly mundane setting. I now have the DVD, of course. I can watch it whenever I want, which is hardly ever. There’s a good scene in it where Denholm Elliot’s character is describing wine at a dinner party. He’s plastered. He sloshes the liquid around his gob, then says: ‘It greets the palate like an old friend …’

iii) At the moment I’m reading August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien. It the first time I’ve read O’Brien. I think I’m in for a treat. The opening chapter is a perfect thing – it could stand alone as a short story, ambiguous, funny, sharp. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

2. What was the first thing you had published? 

‘World of Trevor’ in Black Static 40.

3. Which piece of writing are you proudest of? 
 I can’t say that I’m particularly proud of any one piece over another. Yes, I have a residual affection, perhaps, for certain stories. But I don’t feel pride. I very rarely re-read my stuff once it’s found a home: I tend to see faults and blemishes, wrong turnings, botched gambits, although occasionally I’m surprised by a phrase or image, as if it’s been put there by someone else. I have a soft spot for old Trev because it was the first thing of mine to appear in print: a thrill, for sure. I wrote successive drafts in longhand. Then I typed it up, revising, refining. ‘Through the Flowers’ (published in Popshot Magazine, issue 14, with a brilliant illustration by Kate O’Hara) is another story for which I have a certain fondness – at least that’s how I think of it in the cosy saloon bar of my memory. Should I be forced to read it again right now I might well shake my head in dismay, or at least flinch every second sentence. And there’s ‘Just Browsing’, an essay on second-hand bookshops, which was my first venture into non-fiction, a mode I’ll certainly explore in future.

For me, the finished thing, the completed text, is not as interesting as the act, the process of writing, the way in which words spark more words. Once it’s done, it’s time to move on. I can only hope that the reader enjoys what I’ve produced, that he or she experiences the same strange, complex thrill that I’ve feel when reading a good book, a kind of yesness. I suppose my deepest loyalty is always to the last thing I’ve written or to the thing I’m working on at any given time. The important thing is to finish the wretched thing before it becomes a bore to write (and probably to read).

4. … and which makes you cringe? 
All of it and none of it.

5. What’s a normal writing day like? 
I spend many days in an office, among voices and computers. It’s not too bad. I suppose I’m always writing. There’s always a section of the brain working on something. Everything is material. Every moment, every sensation: floating spores of thought, the pollen of memory. (Careful, look out for that lamp-post.) I carry around a small notebook (it bears the logo of the Monk Bridge Iron and Steel Co Ltd, Leeds, 1922) and the slimmest pen imaginable, a Japanese marvel, thinner than a matchstick. The problem with notebooks is that I have so many of them. They multiply. They hide in bags and pockets. They lurk on shelves like awkward, scruffy adolescents among proper books, books with the author’s name on the spine, books that were perhaps once notebooks themselves. My notebooks refuse to give up their secrets when I need them most. They contain odd lines, quickly caught, my handwriting stretched and loosened to the point of indecipherability, flattened by the speed of thought. There are snatches of dialogue, obscure epiphanies, many dark doodles, emphatic squiggles and underlinings, sinuous arrows pointing at words that mean nothing to me now. In some respects I’m not very organised. But it’s worth making notes: sometimes, when I skim through my notes and can’t find what I think I need, I’ll find something else that I’d forgotten about, a bright fragment, a useful quip, a callous aside. I’m not too fussy about where and how I write. I started a recent story on the morning train next to a fat businessman who was scrolling through inanities on his phone. The first line just came to me on the platform, in the milky blue of a suburban dawn. I didn’t know if the line would turn into a story. I still don’t – it’s not finished. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of catching the voice. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. A writing day is nothing special. You sit down and write. You get on with it.

I need peace and quiet if I’m editing or re-writing. It depends. Sometimes I listen to music but mostly I prefer the sound of the world around me, its creaks and sighs. There’s no routine. A mug of tea or coffee. I switch between keyboard and longhand. The change can freshen things up. I try to write something every day. I always start a new piece with pen and paper. It’s the only way. Often, it’ll be a snatch of dialogue that sets me off, less often an image. I don’t tend to plan things in minute detail. No graphs. No spreadsheets. No diagrams or intricately engineered story arcs. I need room for things to develop. That’s part of the fun. The words spark and fizz as you write. For me, there is no other way. Sometimes a story can die in my brain once I know the ending. If I don’t finish the thing while it’s still fresh and new, I could lose interest, I’ll roll off and fart. After I’ve put a fair amount of ink on paper I switch to the screen. I work on a basic laptop. I don’t use anything like Scrivener. I am a one-fingered percussionist. I bash the keys. I’ve got it down to an art, I can go at a decent speed. I don’t have a daily word target, although I keep an eye on how much I’m churning out. I might aim to get to the end of a chapter or to work out a scene. But I’ll stop when the writing becomes sluggish, when the connections don’t quite work: that’s when I’m tired. I write during the day. I don’t burn the midnight oil. Although sometimes I wake up and jot down a thought or two.

6. Which piece of writing should someone who’s never read you before pick up first? 
Well, I suppose the best place to start is to find anything that’s been published, online or in print. There’s not exactly tons of stuff out there: my published works are not likely to buckle your shelves. Go to my website: you’ll find a few stories there. Most of my published stories have appeared in Black Static, so that’s a pretty good place to start. People seem to like ‘The Bury Line’ (Black Static 42) and ‘The Visitors’ (Black Static 45). I like ‘The Mouse’ in Structo 15.

7. What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a novel. Now I need to find a home for it, which is a job in itself. I’ve a couple of stories on the go – I’ve always got a story on the go – while others haven’t yet found an outlet. In fact, my notebooks contain about 20 stories in various states of disrepair. A novel is stirring. It is set in Manchester. I’ve written a few sections. It’s like tuning a radio. There is feedback and interference. The neighbours are making a racket. But mostly the new novel remains a possible world of certain images and unresolved dialogue. At this stage, it’s no more than a flavour, a smell, a feeling, a dream, a portly man with desire in his eyes, a man who sits next to you on the train. There will be dirty carpets and brick walls. There will be pale faces and whorled turds, chicken sandwiches and an impossible love affair. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work.