Snapshots: Stephen Volk interviewed

Whitstable by Stephen VolkQ: Just published by Spectral Press is your new novella, Whitstable, a creepily disturbing mixing of fact and fiction that pays homage to the Hammer House of Horror and the Gentle Man of Horror, Peter Cushing. Why Hammer? Why Cushing?

Because the idea centres around a young boy who needs a monster-hunter, and to me a monster-hunter is Van Helsing – and Van Helsing is Peter Cushing! It’s really as simple as that. The idea of the boy came first, a boy who is the victim of harm of the most despicable kind, and the only way he can assimilate it and deal with it is through the metaphor of fiction. Of the horror films he watches. The only kind of evil he understands is the vampire and the only hope he can expect is that of a vampire-hunter. The surface lore of the story is all about the horror genre I love – but underneath that, it is about real horror, the horrors of real life.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have become so excited about the story if it wasn’t about my favourite actor and my favourite film company. I grew up on Hammer films, and in many ways their mythos has informed everything I’ve wanted to write since – it certainly contributed to my wanting to become a horror movie writer. When I saw names such as Tudor Gates or Jimmy Sangster on the screen, I always thought: how brilliant would it to be to have that job, to dream up stories like this and be paid for it? So I was happy that my idea for “Whitstable” allowed me to indulge in my passion for the films of that era and, more importantly (if I got it right) pay an incalculable debt of gratitude to Peter Cushing, the actor who made many of those films so vivid and unforgettable.

Q: Given that this story centres around a rather well-known actor, did you feel constrained by needing to stick to the facts and the desire to pay tribute to Cushing, or was it more the case that fiction freed you to do so?

I knew I had to go as far as possible to get it to feel right. I knew I was putting him in a fictional situation, so there was a point where research runs out and my imagination or skill has to take over – and that is the fun of it, and the challenge. To worry about whether people might pick holes in this or that detail would completely stymie me, so I tried to forget about that. First of all I had to please myself and feel I’d done a good job. A case in point (spoiler!) is that I was wondering how Cushing could defeat his nemesis. I found it impossible that he would kill or be violent to the antagonist: it simply didn’t feel in character, even in fiction, to do that – and I felt desperately that even though this is fiction, it had to be plausible. The good thing is that the solution to this was much more fitting to the story – it really added another layer, which is that Cushing finds the strength to stand up to this monster, and in doing so, destiny takes over. Fate takes a hand. He doesn’t cause the ending physically, but somehow that seemed better, to me. Like his moral strength had nevertheless vanquished the enemy.

Q: How important is sense of place to you in your work?

I think in most stories specificity is important. Well, authenticity is important. If you are trying to convince the reader or viewer that something weird or outlandish really happened, the trappings of real life are often useful to give a feeling of realism, in a way. If somebody lights a Silk Cut rather than a cigarette. All those touches – not to belabour them, obviously – add to the feeling this could happen.

Beyond that a sense of place also helps with the symbolism and theme. I’ve always found off-season seaside towns evocative, even ghostly, in their dry, slumbery atmosphere. This was excellent in Don’t Look Now, of course – somehow making the place itself otherworldly. And in “Whitstable” – look, the place is the title, even! – the image of the bereaved man looking out to sea seemed fundamental. There’s something about the constant nature of the sea and our fickle, fragile lives. And then, of course, I thought about the industry there of fishing and fishermen. I didn’t want my “vampire” to be a nobleman or toff, or office worker, or weirdo with pervy glasses – I didn’t know what he could be without it being a cliché. Then I described him as a hippie, very much of 1971, in contrast with the fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned Cushing, and I thought Cushing would probably observe that he looked like Jesus Christ (as people often said of John Lennon). Then, bingo – the connection with being a fisherman was complete. Les Gledhill became the exact reversal of the Saviour that Cushing felt had abandoned him. The themes all came together, largely by thinking about the place.

Q: Official publication date is 26th May, but I believe the hardcover edition has already sold out. What kind of response has Whitstable received?

To be honest it has been beyond my wildest dreams. It got 5 out of 5 stars in SFX magazine and an amazing review in Starburst. I’ve girded my loins for a bad one but there simply hasn’t been, touch wood! I’ve even had some tremendous feedback from people who knew Cushing and are experts on his work – David Pirie, Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey, to name a few. They’ve all been massively encouraging. But of course it was vital for me to get input from people like that to reassure me I’d “caught” the great actor convincingly. I’m happy to report that, to a man, they reported I had. Director Mick Garris and critic Kim Newman have also said they love it. I feel a bit humbled by the positive response, to be absolutely truthful.

Q: What brought you to horror fiction?

Growing up with Hammer, with comics, with Famous Monsters of Filmland. Gravitating to Pan and Poe and Stephen King. I think it is a familiar route, except for some bizarre reason I didn’t particularly want to be a novelist, I wanted to write movies. I picked up a paperback of the screenplay of Westworld just after it came out, and that was my Bible. I actually loved the screenplay form. I loved seeing films in my head. The only way to do it.

Q: As well as prose fiction, you’re a successful scriptwriter for TV and film. What makes an idea a book or short story, rather than a TV or film proposal and script?

A short story is a succinct idea with a definite voice that you can bite off as whole, I find. You know how to do it. A film is simply a drama of definite length with dramatisable action and good roles. A TV show is a proposition – a set-up with open-ended possibilities: an engine that can run and run. The format, the way it works as a drama, is everything – and that can take months or years to work out. Even Call the Midwife, which you’d think would be a no-brainer, was in development at the BBC for ages. That’s what people don’t realise about TV when they watch it, and it works or it doesn’t work. It takes bloody forever!

Of course, some ideas are perfectly suitable as a film or a novel, so there’s malleability sometimes. One idea that I’ve just had turned down by a broadcaster I might turn into a proposal for a series of books – I don’t know. You can waste an awful lot of time re-circulating ideas and sometimes it’s better just to ramp up new ones. But you don’t want to waste that perfectly good idea just because that one person didn’t get, either.

Short stories for me are “instant gratification” – and I do it for love, certainly not money. I can tell a story exactly as I want it, and it gets in a book. That is a very welcome contrast to films, which take five, ten years to get into production – if they get produced at all. I can spend a year on a TV script and even then only six people will ever read it before it’s rejected and that’s that. So it’s very soul-destroying at times. I write short fiction because I’ve got to write stories and I have to get them out there, and getting a story accepted in an anthology, as happened today, can be just as much of a thrill as having a big screen movie released. It sounds insane – but it’s true!

Q: What has scriptwriting brought to your prose fiction?

Planning. And not planning! I’m punctilious about organising my thoughts on a screenplay because a script is about concision – less is more. It’s about structuring the scenes and what happens within the scenes, and that is 99% of the work. Thinking, not typing. So I bring a sense of structure to story writing, I think, and a sense of dialogue and subtext, which you would expect.

Paradoxically, though, what I like in writing fiction is what you don’t do in screenplays which is the voice, the voice of the story or the tone of the narrator, be it first or third person. I also enjoy that fiction can meander – you can go “off piste” with little thoughts or big thoughts, but in film it is all about the spine and forward motion. Then again the reverse is true and I like to think that the freedom I have in fiction filters back in to my scripts, and I’ve learnt there are no rules – break them, divert, do whatever the hell you like. They can’t shoot you for it.

AfterlifeQ: What are the highlights of your writing career to date?

Wow. Tough one. Most enjoyable moments? Walking along the South Bank after the premiere of Gothic at the old NFT. Felt I was walking on air that night. Felt like it was all taking off (…but of course it wasn’t!). Being with Lesley Sharp and everyone at the Royal Television Society Awards when she picked up Best Actress for Afterlife. That was very special. And of course, the night I collected a BAFTA for writing the short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans. I stood on stage between Sean Connery and Sigourney Weaver. I’ve never been so excited in my life! Unless you count going to a party at Carrie Fisher’s house in LA and lining up for barbecue chicken next to Harrison Ford, Danny De Vito and Jack Nicolson! That was pretty nuts!

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m head down in a new series for BBCTV. Early days yet. But I’m very excited about it. And quite a few spinning plates with TV and film companies, including Playtime, a script I’ve written with Tim Lebbon, and Telepathy – which I hope will get its financing confirmed at Cannes and be filming later this year. On the fiction front I’ve stories coming out in a Professor Challenger anthology soon, in Beyond Rue Morgue (Titan), in Terror Tales of the Seaside (Gray Friar) and in The Burning Circus (BFS Publications). I’m also hoping to hear news soon about a second collection, my follow-up to Dark Corners. Which is very exciting.

Q: Describe your typical writing day.

Yikes. Must I? I’m a chronically slow starter and mornings are useless (unless I’m on a deadline) – paperwork, noodling, the inevitable emails, and coffee. Afternoons, I get stuck in, but I’m at my most productive in the evening and night time. If I had no family or social life I’d probably work from 4pm to 2am. But a lot of writing happens when you’re not writing. You’re never off work because problems and ideas are always percolating. They come together when they need to. I get panicky if I haven’t sat at my desk for a certain number of hours, but the work always gets done. Though doing 10 pages a day on a script is different kind of work than working on a treatment or outline, which is different from rewriting, which is different from writing memos or notes or having meetings, or pitching. There is no typical day!

Q: What would you draw attention to from your back-list?

The best of my drama is probably Afterlife. The best of my fiction is possibly “Whitstable”. But others might tell me differently. In terms of “back-back” list I’d like the old BBC series Ghosts to be released on DVD – I wrote two of those, and they weren’t bad. Is Network TV listening?

Q: Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?

I’ve just read Joel Lane’s collection Where Furnaces Burn, which is marvellous. I loved Mark Morris’s latest collection from PS too. And of course Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairytale. And Stephen Gallagher’s The Bedlam Detective. One of the joys of joining the community of writers in the independent genre press or via the BFS (British Fantasy Society) is that I now count all the above people as my friends. I’d also like to plug Pain Cages, a great collection by Paul Kane, for which wrote the introduction.  And for no personal reason other than it’s brilliant, I’d recommend Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson.

Q: If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?

First of all, if you are a genre writer interested in Horror, SF or Fantasy, join the British Fantasy Society. Then, I’d say:

Perseverance + Talent = Luck

You can’t do anything about your innate Talent (you’re either a storyteller or you aren’t) but you can work on the Perseverance part. And make sure when Luck comes along you are ready for it because you’ve been working your arse off!

Whitstable by Stephen VolkMore…

Stephen Volk is best known as the creator of the TV drama series Afterlife and the notorious 1992 BBC “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch. His screenplays include The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, Ken Russell’s Gothic and The Guardian directed by William Friedkin. He has been a finalist for the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards, and his short fiction has been selected for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror and Best British Mysteries

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

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