Ginger Nuts of Horror
Today folks we have Andrew Hook, popping in for a chat. Born in 1967, Andrew has had over 90 short stories a couple of novels and his own publishing house under his belt.
Hi Andrew, how are things with you?
Things are good thanks. It’s going to be a busy year for me as a new addition to the family will be appearing at the end of April. At the moment I’m converting my long-term writing room into a nursery!
You describe yourself as a writer of Slipstream Fiction, can you please tell us what you mean by that term?
For me, it’s fiction which picks from other genres but harnesses them to a more ‘literary’ style without being pretentious about it. In a nutshell, fantasy without elves, science fiction without science, and horror without vampires. It’s more of an everyday kind of weirdness. I haven’t set out to write this genre, it’s more that I discovered the stuff I was writing fit into that definition. This initial discovery came about in the mid-90s when there was a mini slipstream movement in the UK independent press, with Chris Kenworthy’s Barrington Books anthologies and the emergence of The Third Alternative magazine (latterly, Black Static) at the forefront of this movement. However, that was just my point of entry – I’m sure you could argue slipstream existed long before that and other writers will have other definitions of the term. For my writing, though, it fits as comfortably as an old sock, so I stick with it.
And who would you say are some of the best examples of Slipstream writers?
Some of these writers might well argue they are nothing of the kind, but I would include work by Haruki Murakami, Jonathon Carroll, and Nicholas Royle. And in the independent press: Nina Allen, Allen Ashley, Tim Nickels and Douglas Thompson.
Do you think that as consumers we get too caught up in genre titles?
I think people know what they like and stick to it. That can also include me. And genre labels are an easy way to identify what you are going to like. However, when writing I also feel that genre labels can be restrictive and suffocate creativity. I guess they’re fine as indicators, but reading across a broad spectrum is just as much fun.
What have been the biggest influences on your writing, both within and outside the genre?
My main influences have been reading from an early age and then discovering punk and surrealism when I was a teenager. I’m sure it was these that drove me to be creative, to have confidence in my abilities, and to strive against society’s conventions in the process. So these combined contributed towards the urge to write. In terms of authors: Nabokov, Kafka, Tom Robbins – these were the three main authors who had ideas which I think have gone on to influence my work. Themes of identity, individuality, immortality, and the way the outer world works around the inner world of ‘self’ are at the heart of many of my stories. Also, I’ve a passion for French New Wave cinema, and several stories have spring-boarded directly after watching Jean-Luc Godard movies in particular. In terms of genre, watching BBC 2 black and white horror/SF double bills back in the 70s were no doubt an influence. In fact, I’d say predominantly my genre influences come from films rather than books. And recently, my partner’s dreams have had guest roles too!
You first got into writing in 1987, thanks to the Governments Enterprise Allowance Scheme. What prompted you to take this route?
I’d given up a job to go travelling for a few months and when I came back I knew I didn’t want to start working again. I’d had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to write – as did the friend I’d been travelling with – and somehow we heard about the scheme and it seemed a good time to do it. As I was living with my parents funds weren’t a major issue and it bought me time to write without technically being unemployed.
Was there an application process for it? And if so, did you ever get any funny looks from them when you said you wanted the allowance to write?
It was basically a scheme to get the jobless off benefits and to start their own businesses. I think you had to have a grand in the bank – borrowed from my folks and paid back immediately after the application was successful – and then you got £40 a week for one year which must have been higher than the jobseekers allowance equivalent at the time. I can’t remember any funny looks – probably because I had a naïve and unrealistic expectation of how well I was going to do and that enthusiasm carried over into the people I was dealing with. In retrospect, my knowledge of how publishing works must have seemed quite comical – I’m still waiting for that overnight success!
Did they put any stipulations on what you had to do?
Once the application was successful, I think someone visited me for a chat about halfway through the year. Other than that, I was left alone to get on with things.
Looking back at it do you think it was worth doing? And did you learn any valuable lessons from it?
Well, it bought me a year to write during which I penned two novels. Looking back I can see that they would never sell, but I think the opportunity to write them gave me the impetus to keep going and effectively sluiced a lot of cliché out of my system. At that time, if I’d been trying to write whilst also working I think it would have been harder to continue. I’m glad I did it, because it also got me out of the rat race for a while. It certainly gave me a kick-start and I know other writers who also benefitted (I believe Mark Morris started that way too).
Does writing come easy to you? And I don’t just mean the process of coming up with ideas. Can you sit down and focus on the job, does the story flow out of you in a useable form, or do you have to fight for each sentence?
Nowadays it comes easy. As I tend to write short stories, once a rough idea of what I’m going to do forms in my head then I can write a fairly polished draft in one sitting. Other than changing a few words and sometimes tinkering with the ending, that’s done. When it comes to novel writing it’s harder, but once I’m in full flow the words tend to come - in fact, writing novels I do exclusively between telephone calls from the public in my call-centre day job. I generally don’t need to do a lot of editing, and the first draft is often spot on.
You say that you prefer writing short stories over novel length ones. Why is this?
Immediate satisfaction. I’ve written short stories that have been accepted – and in some occasions paid for – within 48 hours of writing them. A novel takes a minimum of four months for me and is a lot harder to place. Plus I think I have a short-story brain – it’s easier for me to conceive and write them.
So what makes for a good short story?
The exploration of a central idea or concept which can be dealt with succinctly with the minimum of pivotal characters. Generally, for me, short stories are more plot than characters whereas in novels the emphasis tends to be the other way around.
And what would be your favourite three short stories of all time by other authors and your three favourite short stories by yourself? And why?
That was a bit of a struggle. Partly because I find it difficult to remember specific stories, but conversely also because there are so many to choose from. Eventually I’ve gone with those that have stuck in my mind for years even though I’ve never re-read them. These are “The Return of the Moon Man”, by E L Malpass (a humorous story about a rocket which falls on Welsh farmland), Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” for it’s intricate hypertext, and Kafka’s “Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor” – another funny piece about a man who arrives home from work to find two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down in his living room. It’s how Blumfeld interacts with these balls which makes the story so bizarre, and the concept seems much more modern than the time it was written.
In terms of my work, I’ll always have a soft spot for “Pussycat” (my first published story), “Your Golden Hands” (this was published in PostScripts and is one I usually pick for reading events as it’s quite descriptive and powerful), and “Vole Mountain” (first published anonymously in Nemonymous) because others have also said it’s one of their favourites.
You have something like 90 short stories published to date, where do you draw your inspiration from?
It can come from almost anything. Sometimes a piece of dialogue, or a story title, or a news item I’ve seen, or a general feeling. I can’t interact with the world in any way without being susceptible to story ideas. Generally I must have a title before I can do anything else, and usually a couple of ideas I’ve had floating around then connect with that title. It’s a little magical, to be sure. For example, the most recent story I wrote (“The Quickening” to be published in Shadows & Tall Trees, which is – in fact – my 100th accepted story) was based on three separate things which came together. The title itself is a term sometimes used in pregnancy when the first foetal movements are felt. I liked the sound of it and Google also suggested the word has been used as an indication of the end of the world. At the same time, on my way to the day job, I started noticing people who were limping. Each day there appeared to be someone new. I liked the idea that incidences of increasing ‘limpers’ might be linked to some event. And finally I’d had an idea for a while of someone finding a foot inside a shoe. These three ideas suddenly congealed together in my mind, and “The Quickening” was the result.
With this number of published short stories, you must have, just by the law of averages, knocked up a fair few rejection letters. How do you cope with them? Can you brush them off, or do they linger on your mind?
I brush them off. As soon as a story is rejected I send it out somewhere else almost immediately. I might swear a bit first, but that’s it. Rejection letters for novels tend to be harder to deal with because there’s more riding on an acceptance than there is a short story. If it’s a positive rejection with some detail then I might re-read it a few times, but at the end of the day it’s still a rejection and being “close” is no better than being “miles off” when it comes to a submission. You just have to knuckle down, resubmit, and wait for the acceptance.
What’s your biggest nit pick with rejection letters?
Well, none really. I guess my biggest nick pick with submissions, however, is when you don’t get a reply at all!
Which story are you most the proud of getting published and why?
Again, it’s difficult to pick one above any others, because by the time it’s accepted and then published I’m already a few stories down the line. If pushed, I guess I’d say “Bigger Than The Beetles” which was my first story to be taken by PostScripts as I consider that a major genre market to have broken into. They’ve since taken another four stories.
Have you ever framed any acceptance letters?
Nope. For me, the satisfaction of a shelf full of publications that I’ve appeared in is enough.
You have written several novels, what was it about the concepts of these stories that made you expand them to the novel length?
Its how the idea presents itself to me. It will be evident quite quickly whether it’s an idea for a novel or something which can be dealt with in a short story. So they weren’t short stories ‘expanded’ to novel length; they were novel length in my head to begin with.
Moon Beaver, was your first published novel. Can you tell us what it’s about?
Moon Beaver is a comic satire about an individual against the Company, about searching for immortality and meaning in a consumerist world. Other than the immortality fantasy element and musings around losing track of time I guess it’s not necessarily a genre novel, and is heavily influenced by my reading of Tom Robbins at that time. Moon Beaver is the main character, a trippy female who believes she can remain young by constantly travelling (“if you lose track of time, then time will lose track of you”), who picks up a guy and takes him around the world until he realises that her personal vision is less than satisfactory.
You finished writing it in 1999, and it was published in 2004. How relevant do you think the themes of “self”, that the book deals with are today?
It took a while for the book to get published, and eventually was picked up by ENC Press in the States who were the perfect publisher for it. I think the themes of ‘self’ are just as relevant as they ever were – perhaps even more so now that we’re so willing to give ourselves up to technology – and whereas the Company might now have been replaced by the hive-mind of the internet, the same concerns of what it is to be human – and mortal – have remained. Incidentally, this title remains in print as an e-book from the same publisher.
Have you ever considered doing a follow up?
Nope. Partly because I feel I addressed all I wanted to within that novel, but also because my writing style is quite different nowadays. It would be hard to get back into that mindset. It’s been 14 years since I wrote it and whilst the core beliefs are still something that I hold I think it would only be worth revisiting those characters if they had lost those beliefs. Unlike them, I’ve moved on.
And how did you come up with name?
I was working for the Norwich County Court at the time. There’s a firm of London solicitors called Moon Beevor. I couldn’t help but use it!
This year should see the publication of Slow Motion Wars, a collaborative effort with Allen Ashley. How did the two of you work together?
I’ve known Allen for a while – initially by name only as we were published in similar magazines from about 1994 onwards, and then we met at a convention and became good friends. Both of us had several half-story ideas kicking around which we’d never completed, and someone else suggested we should collaborate as our styles and outlook were similar in some aspects of our writing. So, we wrote one story, “Abattoir Girl”, as an experiment, and then continued and wrote just over a dozen stories together. Either Allen or I would start the piece, then we’d email back and forth writing sections at a time until it was completed. It was quite an organic experience – we created a third voice between us – and now I can’t often recall who wrote which section. I’m looking forward to the book appearing (from Screaming Dreams sometime this year) as it’s suffered a few setbacks with other publishers’ en-route. Also, that collaborative period ended a few years back, so it will be great to see it formally concluded with this collection.
You have also written a zombie novella, And God Created Zombies, does this follow the traditional zombie rules?
If we’re talking about the George Romero rules, then yes. My zombies don’t run and are disposed of in the conventional manner. If zombies win any battles then it’s by sheer numbers rather than skill. Other than that, the entire novella turns the conventional reasons for the appearance of the zombies upside down – but I can’t reveal more with giving away the denouement.
Sarah Pinborough wrote the introduction for it, how did you go about getting her for this?
I’ve known Sarah for a few years and contacted her about it. She was happy to do the intro – in fact, it was the first time she’d been asked so she was pretty chuffed.
“Pon the Oldenguine” is described as “one part fictional biography of a former television impresario who claims he’s been hounded out of media history, and one part biography of the journalist commissioned to write his story. Where the tales merge, there is madness.” So who did you base this on?
No one specific, but this novella is based on several ideas and true events that myself and some friends have been knocking around for years. We had so much material that was worthy of getting it ‘out there’, but we’d had never done anything with it other than rehash the ideas whenever we met. I thought it was time to redress the balance. It’s a piece of nonsense, in some respects, a surrealistic romp, a comedy, an alternative reality, and either highly fantastical or simply the truth – depending on how you choose to believe it. Basically, the main character claims he used to work for the BBC but all the programmes he was involved with have disappeared. He’s an unreliable narrator in the most extreme sense of the term.
What are your feelings on the media?
It’s there for entertainment. Sometimes it entertains, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m finding less and less to watch on TV nowadays, and prefer films and books. As far as the news goes, the older I get the less importance I attach to it. Very few news items directly affect us and I find the public’s obsession with their “need to know” is incongruous with what anyone really needs to know.
Have you found a home for Bobbing For Reality?
Not yet. To be honest, I’ve stopped looking for a home for it. It’s not a bad novel, but I’ve moved on. This question is a reminder that I need to update my website and remove all mention of it! I’ve written two more novels since then which I’m much more hopeful about.
Would you consider self publishing it?
That’s not something I’d be interested in doing. In this instance, whilst I think it’s publishable I’d prefer it to be picked up by a mainstream or independent publisher or not at all. My success rate with novels is considerably less than that for short stories. I’ve written seven in total with one published (albeit the two most recently written I’ve only just started to market). There’s probably a reason for that, and self-publishing it would no doubt make it evident.
Last year saw the release of Nitrospective, can you tell us about this collection?
This is a collection of twenty-one stories written over the past few years. It includes originals as well as some previously published in PostScripts, Midnight Street, Zahir, Morpheus Tales, and anthologies from NewCon Press and Nemonymous amongst others. It’s a mixed genre collection, so some SF, horror, and crime, all with that essential slipstream twist. It’s my fourth collection of short stories and – I feel – the strongest so far.
As well as being a writer you also set up Elastic Press. What prompted you to do this?
I had had about forty stories published back in 2002 and for me the next stage was to get some of them together in a book. There were few publishers at that time doing single-author collections (cheap digital printing being in its infancy), and so I decided to expand that gap in the market. I realised there were several small press authors like myself who were in the same boat so knew there would be interest. Whilst it started off as a hobby with initial titles selling no more than a couple of hundred copies max, one of our last titles – Chris Beckett’s “The Turing Test” – pushed 2000 copies and is still selling regularly even now.
The press won a number of awards, however you closed the doors in 2008, what was the reason for this?
Because I felt I’d taken it as far as I could. As you say, we’d won numerous awards, but I was still working a full-time day job and the fun aspect was dwindling. I wanted to stop before I lost that enthusiasm. Not only that but for the first four years I could balance my writing and publishing, however during the last two years of the press I barely wrote at all. I’m a writer first and foremost, and decided that it was time to get back to doing what I wanted to do the most.
So what does the future hold for you?
Currently I’ve almost enough stories to start looking for a publisher for another collection. For the past three years I’ve endeavoured to write one new short story a month and am maintaining a high success rate (out of the eleven stories I wrote last year, eight have already found a publisher). Also, I’ve just written the second of two crime novels and am currently looking for a mainstream publisher/agent for those. Getting lots of positive feedback but no bites at the moment. Fingers crossed though, because in terms of novels those two books are easily my strongest work to date.
Many thanks for popping over for a chat Andrew, before you go though, you get to turn the tables on me. Would you like to ask me one question, on any subject?
This was such a comprehensive interview that I feel like I’ve been grilled, so my question would be: what do you most like grilled?
Without a doubt it has to be a good cheddar cheese with Wostershire Sauce.