Ginger Nuts of Horror
As part of Ginger Nuts of Horror's support of the Kickstarter for Tales From The Shadow Booth, we have teamed up with some of the contributors for a series of exclusive interviews. Today Ginger Nuts of Horror welcomes David Hartley.
Writer, performer, optimist, vegan, rabbit enthusiast, PhD student. He writes strange stories about strange things for strange people and read them out loud on various stages in Manchester and beyond. His tales tend to be short, sharp, and weird, and more than a little unsettling. His favourite authors include John Wyndham, Ursula Le Guin, JG Ballard, China Mieville, Alan Garner, Adam Marek and Iain Banks.
His fiction has been published in numerous places including Ambit Magazine, Black Static, Structo Magazine, Shooter Lit Mag, The Alarmist and two Boo Books anthologies; After the Fall (2014) and We Can Improve You (2015). You can find links to lots of his fiction on the Stories page.
Hello David, Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Hello! I’m a writer, performer, and PhD researcher based in Manchester. I’ve been writing weird little tales for about ten years now and can often be found haunting the various spoken word stages of the rainy city.
On your website you mention that you took part in an apocalyptic arts event in Preston Bus Station, you have to tell us more about that.
This was an amazing event, and such a joy to be a part of. For the uninitiated, Preston Bus Station is a bit of big deal in certain circles. For Prestonians, depending on your perspective, it’s either a big archaic eye-sore and dangerous place to be at night, or it’s a stunning example of Brutalist architecture. It’s been threatened with closure and demolition for many years but various architectural campaigns have kept it alive. Back in 2013, the Preston arts collective They Eat Culture put together this one-off live performance event inside the bus station with this apocalyptic theme – the fate of the station seemed to be fixed on destruction at that point. It was a promenade event with various performers, including a choir, an MC, a poet and me doing a madcap Choose Your Own Adventure story next to the men’s toilet. The station itself was still open and operational while the show was happening so my audience was a combination of paying customers and bemused commuters. It was a freezing cold March evening. I was wearing an A-board with ‘THE END IS NIGH’ written on it. It was one of the strangest but most brilliant events I’ve ever been involved in. The bus station is still standing.
Performing live is something that you appear to love, what is it about the live venue that you find so appealing?
Live performance has always gone hand-in-hand with my writing and I’m never too far away from the stage. I love having the chance to inject a bit of theatricality into my stories, to bring them alive in front of a room full of people. Storytelling is one of the most ancient arts and we’ve lost a little of that by hiding behind typewriters and keyboards. Also, reading a story or poem at a spoken word night can do wonders for your evolution as a writer. You get a real sense of what works and what doesn’t, and how to make your pieces sound good, not just read well. Throw a bit of theatre in there, with accents, props, even costumes, and you’ve suddenly got a room full of people hanging on your every word. There’s no greater feeling. Plus, it really helps to sell books!
Your PhD thesis sounds fascinating, what was the main factor in you specialising in portrayal of autism in science fiction?
My older sister Jenny is autistic so it’s always been a major part of my life. I’d stored autism to one side as a writing theme for quite a while but last year I felt ready to start tackling it, so I turned it into a PhD. The sci-fi side of things came naturally as I rarely write anything outside of SF&F. I’ve discovered that there’s a real appetite for this particular combination as it has never been seriously explored before – or at least not in any great depth. And yet autistic people themselves are often huge fans of sci-fi and fantasy. There’s something really fascinating about our culture at the heart of all this so the PhD is my way of trying to dig that out…
Out of all of the instances of autism in science fiction, which one do you think came closest to “getting it right” and which one has annoyed you the most?
Weirdly, the answer is the same for both of these questions. There’s one major sci-fi novel about autism: Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark. In many ways Moon really nails what it is like to be autistic in a non-autistic world and the principle character, Lou, is a fascinating hero, complexly imagined and very believable. He works for a tech company who give him the opportunity to undergo experimental brain surgery to cure his autism and the novel becomes about how he battles with the decision about whether he should or not. It’s all very interesting and compelling, but then the ending is a massive let down for me which I think sends out completely the wrong message. I won’t spoil it, but I found it utterly deflating. Perhaps that was always Moon’s point, but rather than making me think, or chilling me, it just made me feel overwhelmingly sad. I think it was a misfire.
Far and away the best depiction of autism, for me, is Abed Nadir from the TV comedy Community. Not only in the way he is depicted, but also in the way he has powerful narrative agency for many of the best episodes of the show. Autistic characters rarely achieve any real agency – Abed is the stand-out exception.
Your stories have a diverse range of themes from haunted bath tubs, time travelling libraries, and an insect crime scene. Are you more comfortable writing in the fabulous and the bizarre?
Yes, absolutely. The fabulous and bizarre excite me far more than the mundane and realistic. There’s some deep magic in the thrill of leaping into the fantastic and strange where you can throw normality around and make it deviant and vibrant. For me, I think a lot of it stems from my exposure to my sister’s autism. Her unusual perspective on life has always made me see things from a quirked angle where reality is not so fixed and obvious. One of the worst things a person can do is chase normality because there is no true version of normal. Autism shows us this, if we listen.
There is a move from the more literary side of the writing world into writing about the weird, traditionally this has been the domain of the lowly genre writer. Why do you think they are doing this?
They’ve perhaps finally realised its power and potential - something that genre writers have been well aware of for a long, long time! And with the frenetic nature of the modern world, where it feels impossible to get any kind of firm grip, where identity and reality are continually shifting and fracturing, sometimes at an alarming and dizzying rate – well, the weird is perhaps the only natural response.
One of your stories has been selected to appear in Shadow Booth, how did you come to appear in the anthology?
The editor Dan approached me and asked for a story. I think he’d read a very dark tale of mine, ‘Pigskin’, which appeared in issue 55 of Black Static (TTA Press) and we took it from there.
Can you tell us about some of the themes of the story?
My story for Shadow Booth is one of my animal-based stories. I’ve been writing about animals for many years now – it’s one of my main thematic preoccupations. I’m a vegan and a bit of an animal rights advocate so my thoughts often run to the mistreatment of animals, which very quickly turn into dark and disturbing stories. This one, ‘Betamorphosis’, is a reversal of Kafka’s classic tale and features a cockroach who is turned into a video game character. It’s a comment on the RoboRoach – a real thing where engineers have captured and modified live cockroaches by grafting a chip onto their heads. The chip allows the engineers to control the cockroaches with a remote device – all while the insects are still alive. That sort of thing triggers all my animal welfare alarms and the story came quite naturally after that…
What has been a major influence on your writing?
I’ve already covered most of them above – animals, nature, autism, the theatre. Music also has a big influence I think. I often listen to music when I write and I think it really helps with me striking the right tone and rhythm. I have a long, long playlist of ambient electronica which helps transport me to the strange and distant lands of my weird worlds. Plus another playlist of dramatic classical and energetic EDM for when I need to write fight scenes or chase scenes! Music, for me, acts as a form of silence – it blocks out everything else and makes me focus right in on what I need to be doing. Along the way, it sets the right mood.
The term horror, especially when applied to fiction always carries such heavy connotations. What’s your feeling on the term “horror” and what do you think we can do to break past these assumptions?
It does indeed carry a lot of difficult imagery – fear, gore, terror – but I think things are changing. Horror films are having a good run of things at the moment and becoming more sophisticated in their exploration of what actually scares us, rather than just making us jump or squirm. I’m think of films like Get Out and Raw and Under the Shadow.
It’s curious, I never really intend to write ‘horror’ stories as such but they often become quite horrible – and if they do, I tend not to temper it down. Horror still has something very profound to say and if a writer is skillful enough to remove the schlock but keep the shock, a bit of sophisticated gore or terror can take the reader to some important philosophical places. So, when people ask what sort of thing I write, I do now tend to include Horror alongside SF&F as one of the genres I work in.
What are the books and films that helped to define you as an author?
Oh, there are loads. Main ones: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley for teaching me how to shock and surprise, Elidor by Alan Garner which instilled a love of magic and how it can terrify, and pretty much everything and anything by China Mieville who is something of a god. Films: Blade Runner, Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, Chungking Express by Wong Kar Wai, and a clutch of films about unstable identity which came out around the turn of the millennium: Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix and so on. I’m also very much influenced by video games, particularly the Zelda series.
What new and upcoming authors do you think we should take notice off?
Aliya Whiteley springs to mind. Her two novellas The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives, and a number of her short stories, have made her a real one to watch. She’ll be massive. She’ll be winning prizes all over the place, just watch.
How would you describe your writing style?
Fidgety. It never really sits still. I sit down, splurge it out and let it play and dance around while I try to pin it all down into something that makes sense. I’m not particularly interested in writing to rules or specific structures. I write until I get a proper feel for the tone and direction of the story (and that can take many drafts or mere minutes) and then think if there’s anything strange I can get away with in terms of voice or the framing. It doesn’t always work but it keeps things fresh and interesting!
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Editing I think. I’m bad at going back to a story that hasn’t worked and fixing it up. I tend to just ditch it and move on to something else. I really have to love the idea at the core of the story for me to go back to it again and again to get it right. I’ve got files full of abandoned half-stories which I’m sure I could whip into shape if I had a little more patience.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
There are certain areas which have been done to death in short fiction. I’m sure there are ways to approach these topics in fresh and interesting ways, but I think they just need to be set aside for a while because, frankly, it’s getting kind of boring. So, it’s unlikely I’ll ever write about the following: a) love affairs b) getting drunk c) taking drugs d) rich people with money being sad e) cafés
Also, I sort of made a pact with myself right at the beginning to never write a story where the main character is a writer (King’s Misery springs to mind). It can be done well, but it’s usually a bit self-indulgent and it always suggests to me that the author has lost a bit of imagination.
Writing, is not a static process, how have you developed as a writer over the years?
For the first few years of writing I just chased ideas and wrote about anything I could think of. This was good – it enabled me to experiment and get a ‘feel’ for sitting at a keyboard and hammering out the words. After a couple of years of this there was a turning point: I started writing about topics I had a passion for. More than that: things I was angry about. Writing then became a catharsis for dealing with injustices – for me it was writing about animals that turned me into a proper writer and made me realise that I wanted to carry on and push it as far as possible. I wrote a furious story about a robot dog which was picked up by a literary magazine. I’ve chased that fury ever since. And now I’m trying to write novels with the same drive.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Patience. Achievements in writing don’t happen overnight. You have to be patient with your own brain as it works out how it wants to write. You have to get into this strange relationship with the creative core of your subconscious which absorbs the world and stores it while you get on with normal life. Then you need to set it into a comfortable nook while you start crafting together the words. All this takes practice and patience, but it comes.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received with regards to your writing?
My dad, who is also a writer, said that you know when you’re a writer when you realise you’ve got this nagging little voice in your head saying; hey, do some writing. An instinctual impulse to write which sits inside your chest like an imp, poking you into anxiety if you’ve not written anything for a while. It can be irritating, but it’s there for life, and it reminds you that you can’t get away from it: you’re a writer. Might as well embrace it, right?
Getting your worked noticed is one of the hardest things for a writer to achieve, how have you tried to approach this subject?
Live performance helps a lot here because it’s an instant way of showing you and your fiction off to a ready-made crowd of people. It also opens doors. If you make yourself good at live reading, more opportunities for it will always come along, exposing you to more and more people.
But there’s a bigger point here: say yes to opportunities. Leap at creative endeavors when they come along and chase them down if you don’t have any. They may not always pay in actual money, but they always pay back in good faith and experience.
To many writers, the characters they write become like children, who is your favourite child, and who is your least favourite to write for and why?
Tough question. I never really get all that close to my characters. Although, at the moment, my PhD novel is become a very personal endeavor. I’ve written my sister into the book and I’m very conscious of getting her ‘right’ and doing her justice. She’s becoming a really fun character to write because she goes against many of the conventions of narrative. She doesn’t talk or act in the way a ‘normal’ character ‘should’ in a book. I find this sort of thing deliriously exciting.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
I had a short story called ‘Shooting an Elephant’ published in Ambit Magazine a couple of years ago. It’s probably my best story and I’m immensely proud of it. This was another result of furious anger at human treatment of animals – in this case; big game hunting. It’s a ferocious tale about violence, masculinity, terror and performance. It’ll need another airing soon no doubt.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
Oh there are many. Failed experiments that I’ve left languishing in abandoned files. Fortunately, I’m part of a very brutal writing group who happily and cleanly kill off stories which JUST DON’T WORK DAVID. I recently wrote a story that tried to set the Channel 4 programme First Dates in a labyrinth with minotaurs. A delicious idea, but it just didn’t go anywhere and I had to put it to sleep.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, which of your books do you think best represents your work and why?
I think my collection Spiderseed which came out last year. It collects together a bunch of my flash fictions from the previous few years, including many which I’ve honed in live performance. It will introduce readers into how my mind works and what I’m trying to do with form and tone. Also, it’s got some really brilliant illustrations in it by fine artist Emmy Ingle.
Do you have a favorite line or passage from your work, and would you like to share it with us?
The opening line of Pigskin: “Pig was born with skin made of bacon.” I’ve always been happy with that. I’ve always been very keen on getting the opening lines of stories right – often they are the very first thing that comes into my head and the stories spin out from there.
The opening line of Betamorphosis was exciting to write too: “When Gyrx Gyrxsyn awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous Lara Croft.” – buy Shadow Booth to read on!
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
I very much enjoyed China Mieville’s Last Days of New Paris about the various figures from surrealist art coming to life during the WWII. It’s even better, and more bonkers, than I’ve made it seem.
I read a lot of non-fiction nature books and there was one which everyone got super excited about a few years ago – and I hated it. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a biographical account of the author taking on falconry while dealing with grief. I thought it was middle-class animal abuse dressed up in beautiful prose. Macdonald is a fantastic writer no doubt, but I really, really felt for the poor bird dragged through it all. No-one else seemed to care. I’m currently trying to write a riposte called B is for Bird.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
This set of questions has already been very thorough! I’m struggling to think of something else…
Ok here’s one: What do you do to get through writer’s block?
Answer: writer’s block is a very real thing. In the short term: long showers and long walks usually help. Putting my body and mind in a totally different situation sometimes helps to keep everything continually refreshed. Also; eat well, stay active, don’t stay up late. Basically: look after yourself, be kind to yourself.
And if it lasts for longer, days on end, just allow yourself a break from writing. It will come back, as long as you’ve still got that imp lodged in your chest giving you a poke. Your brain will sort things out and when you get back to it, the writing will soon flow true again.