Ginger Nuts of Horror
This interview was first published on my old site on 12 June 2011.
Adam Nevill, is a writer who first came to my attention, by judging a book by it's cover. By sheer chance I noticed the cover to Banquet of The Damned had a picture of the ruined St Andrews Cathedral. Coming from St Andrews I love to read books that are set in my hometown. Thankfully the book did live up to the cover, and since then i have had a fabulous time reading Adam's work. Adam has a rare gift for writing horror, a gift that transforms his books from horror stories, to truely upsetting and unnerving tales that will chill you to the pit of your very soul.
Hi Adam, how are things with you?
Good, but at max’ capacity.
You went to university in my home town of St Andrews, how was your time there?
Great, thanks, despite living/existing/surviving on three thousand pounds. But the creative writing master’s degree was essential for me as a writer. I made some lifelong friends too. And took a year out from the world to read and write and think, which I’ll never regret.
There’s a lot of people out there reading this who will have one question on their mind, did you meet Kate and Will?
No. I was Sep 97- May 98; he matriculated in Sep 98. Quite glad, because as a doorman of the student club, I dreaded him turning up without an NUS card flanked by SAS bodyguards. We weren’t allowed to make any exceptions.
What was your favourite drinking hole? It was the Tudor, Ma Bells, and Kate’s for me?
As a mature student with very little money, I’d have to say the kitchen of our flat with a case of budget beer from Safeway. As a treat, I would buy a pint a week at The Westport.
How would you describe your writing style?
My own, that just comes out and gets rewritten repeatedly into something else that I hope isn’t guilty of overwriting, incoherence, clichés, auto-didactic dialogue, and other wincey flaws.
Who were you literary heroes?
I’d say “are” my literary heroes. There are so many. But M R James, Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, James Ellroy, Martin Amis, Ian McKewan, Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, William Gay, Saul Bellow, Anais Nin, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Richard Ford, Daniel Woodrell, Shirley Jackson, John Fowles, Somerset Maugham, H G Wells, M John Harrison, Alan Warner, Ramsey Campbell, I stand upon plinths and pedestals carved in marble.
I hear you used to write erotic novels under a pen name, how did this come about?
Something I had an urge, a compulsion to write. I read Anais Nin when quite young and she had quite an impact on my imagination. It is also a genre that required deep psychological elements and a fetish aesthetic that appealed to me as a writer, and erotica was a great way of cutting my teeth as a writer, and maintaining morale when starting out.
So why the move to horror? It doesn’t have a great reputation in the UK. It’s often seen as the ugly brother of science fiction and fantasy, to genres that already have connotations against them.
I didn’t move to horror; I began writing erotica and horror at around the same time, in my early twenties. My erotica was just published first (all but two of those books were erotic horror too); there was a market for erotica in the mid-nineties but there wasn’t for new horror writers. I finished Banquet for the Damned in 2000; it was first published in 2004. I finished Apartment 16 in 2008; it was published in 2010. See the pattern? But I write what I feel compelled to write. As a result I am a horror writer, have been for sixteen years. Being a horror writer might bite me on the ass again, but for now it’s actually an advantage out there.
I’d also say erotica is the most derided genre of writing, followed by horror, then romance before you even get to sci fi and fantasy. What does that say about me? I specialise in the forsaken, the outcast and the damned. I really don’t care; I write what I am urged to write. I liked what Iain Banks wrote recently in the Guardian that sci fi is not for dilettantes; same goes for horror. If the current horror trend goes vertical, it’ll be amusing to see the pilot fish attaching themselves. “Oh I’ve always loved horror”. Yeah yeah yeah.
Same reputation goes with music; I love heavy metal, but it has drawn more fire than anything I like or do. But what can I say, I like my rock hard. There are a great many purist pedants out there, who only admit to liking things that are considered acceptable by a consensus; they make my boots twitch. Think for yourself, be honest, or STFU.
You also used to work as an editor. Do you think that has given your writing a boost?
Yes, quite literally. At Virgin, we did a paperback edition of Banquet for the Damned after I began a horror list (Virgin published my previous nine novels which is how I came to be an editor of fiction there). Though that didn’t have anything to do with the Pan Mac deal; Banquet’s sales were too modest to attract a bigger publisher. People still persist on calling Apartment 16 my debut too; it was actually my eleventh published novel. In terms of having a much better idea of how publishing and the book trade works, my time in publishing has been invaluable.
Banquet Of The Damned was your debut horror novel, can you tell the readers what it’s about?
Many things – witchcraft and occult murder in a top British university; being an outsider; friendship; being unexceptional but having to become exceptional to save lives. And it’s a story about a tall thin thing that stands up beside beds in the middle of the night.
It’s set in St Andrews, what drew you to set the novel there?
Very affecting Baroque, Gothic, mediaeval town with a bloody history, and natural beauty in spades: it seemed possible to me that if anywhere, the supernatural was possible there.
Did you use any of the rich history of legends, ghost stories and folk tales of the town?
Not the obvious ones, but I did research Scottish folklore and occult history. I wanted to avoid women in white dresses at windows and carriages on cobbles in the middle of the night. I preferred to draw upon the more distant pagan-Catholic fusions of evil; a Pictish God turned witches’ familiar with a penchant for stalking and devouring its victims.
How easy was it getting the novel published?
It wasn’t. Every literary agent at the time rejected the letter of introduction, without reading a word of the book. And they took two years to send the rejection letters to me. Every one cut another strip off my soul. Ramsey Campbell and Peter Crowther were responsible for its publication in 2004.
Your second novel Apartment 16 is a haunted house story? Was this something you had always wanted to write?
Yes, in a way. I worked for many years as a porter in exclusive, ancient apartment buildings in London. These were bizarre and fascinating places that were bound to work their way into a horror story. Like with St Andrews, there are some places in which the supernatural seems plausible.
How would you say Apartment 16 differs to other haunted house novels?
Like many haunted house stories it’s haunted by an aggrieved individual, it is a place where something terrible happened, and the building is a personification or manifestation of an abiding evil force, none of which is new, though it might be for new readers unfamiliar with the canon of haunted houses (always worth thinking about – we reinterpret for new generations, which is more useful than writing silly stories by trying too hard to be original). But the story is different in that it came from me, from my experience, my own grotesque aesthetic, and whatever is unique to my voice. I’m happy with it being my addition to a tradition. But there are elements to the entrapment, incremental madness, and central mystery that are different to anything I’ve read, though I haven’t read everything. I watched The House of Laughing Windows recently, and it could be argued that it influenced my ideas in the book, though I’d never seen it before. I did pick it up in a video shop once and was told by the guy behind the counter: “it’s shit, mate.” It’s actually brilliant.
You have garnered a reputation for being one of the more literary horror authors. How hard do you find it to strike the balance for a good story that moves along, and a well written story?
I work very hard at it, Jim. Most of my influences and probably most of my reading has been outside of horror – though don’t get me wrong; I’ve read a great deal of horror too – but the compound interest on so much varied reading has enabled me to blend the popular with other approaches. Irrespective of the actual style, in terms of if the actual story works, I listen to my inner reader. He’s the boss. I’ll never please every reader, but I don’t kid myself. I don’t try to be overtly populist or literary, but I want to write books that resonate. It might sound odd, but the actual stories themselves, when they are up and dancing, make me write them in a certain way.
Your third novel is due for release can you tell us about it?
The Ritual is a story of psychic terror in the wilderness. In cinematic terms, I’d pitch it as Blair Witch meets Deliverance. In literary terms I’d pitch it as The Willows meets Deliverance.
What lessons have you learned throughout your career? Is there anything you would differently a second time around?
1. Read the canon of whatever you want to contribute to. Read, read, read.
2. Practise the craft, but seek instruction from better writers and good teachers; find a mentor. Otherwise you’ll never get to the next level. Most important thing of all: learn how to rewrite and edit your own work, to cultivate your inner reader.
3. And learn to go deep, to really get into your own zone, because that is where your voice and unique contribution will come from. You can learn about structure and plotting and syntax and dialogue from reading good writers; but that special ingredient that is all your own, must also be cultivated and harvested. I often read books (usually from successful authors) and I think: was this writer even transported once in the writing of it? These novels are always overtly trying to succeed as a plot with twists, and ticking boxes to what subjects are popular, but they’re totally unaffecting as pieces of writing. Why get into this game, if that’s the end result?
Second time around? Using hindsight, after the success of Apartment 16, I wish I’d written more horror novels and short stories between 2000 and 2009. By the time Pan Mac (my publisher) came along in 2009, I’d spent thirteen years writing just three novels. Wish I’d not worried so much, or been too anxious about the future – though what do you know at the time? Regrets are irrelevant. But I turned years of my thirties into a vapour of angst. I suppose I could have struck a better balance between earning a living and finding the freedom to write too at times, instead of too many all or nothing stints, that ultimately helped my writing, but burned through my fuse box.
I see your name mentioned alongside many of the genres UK royal family. Folk like Tim Lebbon, and Sarah Pinborough. Do you guys keep in touch? Would you say there is any friendly rivalry between you guys?
I’ve come to know a great many people in the community of British genre writers, book collectors, publishers and avid readers since 2004, when I was welcomed with open arms after PS published Banquet for the Damned. Tim and Sarah I’d class as friends, not rivals. I wouldn’t say there’s rivalry either, but if one of us in the British scene gets a deal, I think the rest of us are better motivated in our own work. I’ve often been encouraged to knuckle down and get something finished after going to a convention and seeing others launch their books, or after hearing about a deal they have struck. It’s infinitely preferable to not knowing other writers, or even people who can even see the point of writing at all, and I was in a void like that for years.
So what does the future hold for you?
Immediate future, my fourth and fifth novels of supernatural horror, both to be published by Pan Macmillan in 2012 and 2013 respectively. I’m in the fourth draft of the next novel. If there is anything left of the book trade in 2013, I hope there will be many more collaborations between me and Pan Mac too. I have ideas for novels filtering and percolating constantly; they’re like planes at Heathrow, all stacked above each other and waiting to land.
Thanks for having me!