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 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 Litro.co.uk (including a well-received article on the joys of secondhand bookshops).
He has recently finished a novel.
To support this wonderful Kickstarter click here for the full details
Hello Stephen, Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I’ve had stories published in a number of places, online and in print. But Black Static is where my work has appeared most often – they’ve published nine of my stories, the most recent being ‘Langwell Sorrow’ and the first being ‘World of Trevor’ back in 2014. In fact ‘World of Trevor’ was my first story to be published anywhere – so, in terms of writing, I’m something of a newcomer, a stripling, although my face and hair suggest otherwise. I have an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University. have yet to publish a book. I was born in Ilford, Essex, and now live in the north of England. I’ve done a variety of jobs over the years, most of them with ‘assistant’ in the title. I’ve recently finished writing a novel.
You have a very interesting viewpoint with regards to your fiction, “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” from this would it be fair to say that you write because you have to write, is writing something that you have to do?
I’d like to say I write because I have to write. That’s what most writers say. And certainly the process of writing, of being led by the words, of trying to harness them into something new and unique, something true, well, it’s a peculiarly absorbing task, occasionally rewarding, often frustrating. It’s a kind of involved daydream – which makes it sound easy, as if it’s a question of waiting for the words to arrive. Of course it is not easy at all. You hunt for the words. Sometimes they want to be found. Do I have to write? Probably not. The truth is that I spent much of my adult life not writing. Hours, days, weeks went by without a word being written on paper. I seemed to get by. I muddled through. I got drunk. I always wanted to write. But who doesn’t? There were plenty of words and stories in my head. Tomorrow I’ll write. Tomorrow I’ll be a different person. The urge or need to write – if indeed it was truly there at the time – came out in other forms – in booze, mostly. (Or rather drink thwarted or perverted the impulse. That’s another story, one I’m going to write.) The pubs are full of mumblers. I was a mumbler. Now, I suppose, I mumble on paper. If I stop writing I know I will not die. It’s not like breathing or eating or sleeping. But I know that if I stop writing something bad will happen.
With this in mind, if you don’t have any particular favourites, how would you go about selecting stories for a career spanning collection of your own work?
I don’t tend to read my stories once they’re finished. I don’t re-read the ones that are published. There’s always something I want to change. But I suppose I do have favourites. And others that I am not so keen on (it’d be rude of me to name them). As for a career-spanning collection – I wish. Although I’m silver-haired, and no longer lean, I’m still in my infancy when it comes to writing. But I have enough stories for a decent collection. Perhaps a collection of weird or dark tales. A lot of my stories seem to go down that route.
You have been shortlisted for a number of prestigious awards do you think these awards once they have been announced have any lasting impact on an author?
Well, I was shortlisted for the Observer / Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism earlier this year. That was a treat. Burgess is one of my favourite writers. I never made it to the prize giving. Storm Doris was on the rampage, up-ending dustbins from Maidstone to Morecombe. All the trains to London were cancelled. I went home and watched a film instead as Doris ransacked the back garden. So I didn’t even get to see myself lose. In 2016 I was a runner-up in the Irish Post writing competition, another surprise. The Irish Post is a paper I remember from childhood. I suppose such things boost one’s confidence. They have a certain utilitarian value. I’m not sure about lasting impact. You write a story. Someone thinks it’s good. Someone else gives it an award. Someone else thinks it is rubbish. The story itself remains the same.
Your stories have been described as ‘strange beasts: wise, witty, and wonderfully dark. Each one is a thing entirely of its own kind, capable of surprising as much in the first reading as in the second and third.’ Do you always set out to write a story that ticks these boxes, or have you ever been tempted to write a more basic point A to point B type of story?
I’m always tempted to write a nice, simple story, full of good clean fun. I don’t know what happens. I don’t set out to write ‘weird’ or ‘strange’ stories at all. That quote is from Helen Marshall, who taught me briefly while I was studying at Manchester Metropolitan University. We had a couple of good chats about writing. When I start a story, I’m not always sure where it’s going to go. I start with a line of dialogue, perhaps. Or a situation, a voice. Perhaps I have an idea of how it’ll end. But the journey can change everything. Sometimes, as I get deeper into a story, there’s a click, a moment of recognition, and I know how it all comes together. Then it is almost a race to get the thing finished, before the arrival of boredom, before the thing goes flat. That click can be a moment of danger. If you suddenly realise what you’re writing about – ah, this story is all about this or that – well, that’s the point at which all the magic, all the ambiguity can be written out of the story.
You wrote a fascinating article for Litro on the joy of second hand book shops, where did your lover for them come from?
I’m not sure, really. There was a secondhand bookshop in Ilford, where I grew up. Edward Terry. The E in Edward, I seem to remember, was missing from the sign above the door. But I didn’t visit it as a child. I suppose a love of secondhand bookshops goes with a love of reading. It springs from the same place. In a new town or strange place, my head is always turned by the sight of a dusty old bookshop. Once upon a time I used to ogle pubs in the same way. You never quite know what you’re going to find in a secondhand bookshop. I do like them, even if they’re disappointing.
And what has been your most prized discovery from a second hand bookshop?
I was thrilled in my early twenties to find BS Johnson’s Christy Malry’s Own Double Entry in Edward Terry. It wasn’t a particularly rare edition, a King Penguin. I’d heard of this writer. He written a novel in a box (and that was the book I really wanted to find, forgotten and unappreciated in a bargain bin). I was always on the look-out for his stuff. This was in the days before the web. You couldn’t click a button and order a copy. Finding books was often a matter of chance. Collections were built slowly. You read what you could find. Or afford. I think it was a Saturday afternoon when I found Christy Malry. I went to Valentine’s Park with a couple of beers and read most of it in a sitting. Asian lads played cricket on the grass. The internet has changed how I browse in secondhand bookshops. I no longer hunt for favourite authors with the zeal I once had. I’m jaded, I suppose. Or lazy. I know it’s all there on the internet. I was in Whitby recently and there’s a little bookshop down one of the twisting side streets. I found a book called The Romance of Essex Inns, generously annotated in pencil by a previous owner, a good find. That’s the sort of thing I look out for these days.
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?
It’s not something, I must admit, that I’ve been aware of. I don’t really see much value in being wilfully or deliberately ‘weird’. I don’t tend to think of writing – or my writing at any rate – in terms of genre. I suppose my imagination tends towards what could be called the ‘weird’. I recently read a story by Krzhizhanovsky, ‘Quadraturin’. A man lives in a poky room or bedsit. He is sold a tin of paint, ‘an agent for biggerizing rooms’. He coats his room with the substance. His room grows and grows … He becomes lost within this expanding room … It’s a great story. Weird, phantasmagoric, absurd. But somehow true and believable, mundane, real. Life is weird. Thoughts are strange. It is inevitable that words arrange themselves into weird or strange stories.
One of your stories has been selected to appear in Shadow Booth, how did you come to appear in the anthology?
Dan Coxon invited me to submit a story. I didn’t know him, I hadn’t met him. It was nice to be invited. I think he knows my work from my stories in Black Static. It came out of the blue. I was happy to contribute.
Can you tell us about some of the themes of the story?
It’s set in an office. Spreadsheets feature strongly. Being glib, I could call it a story about a haunted spreadsheet. Stare into the spreadsheet for long enough and the spreadsheet will stare into you. I suppose it touches on the strangeness of office life. The strangeness of exchanging one’s time, one’s life, for money. The conversations, the routines. The politics, the petty ambitions, the loneliness, the fear, the daydreams, the boredom. It’s a kind of chunnering but inescapable horror.
What has been a major influence on your writing?
That’s hard to say. I really don’t know. I have authors I admire, authors I like to read. But I don’t know if they’ve influenced me. Influences come from many directions.
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?
I suppose most people think of films when they think of “horror”. They think of monsters, ghouls, Dracula, zombies, psychopaths, buckets of blood and glossy guts, screaming women and flashing knives. In terms of fiction, “horror” is perhaps associated, rightly or wrongly, with a kind of cheap thrill, with producing a shock or a jolt. I don’t think labels are particularly helpful. If something’s good, it’s good. I wrote a story called ‘The Visitors’, which appeared in Black Static. I think it was my third story they bought. I read a review online, on a horror site, which said something like, ‘it’s well written but I don’t know what this has to do with horror’. I took that as a compliment. I knew I must doing something right.
What are the books and films that helped to define you as an author?
There’s so many favourite books and films. I don’t know if they define me though. The list changes. Here’s a few, in no particular order, off the top of my head, as a new day, full of softness and melting blue, fills the window in front of me. A Matter of Life and Death. ‘The Nose’. ‘The Overcoat’. ‘Interference’ by LP Hartley. The short stories of VS Pritchett and Elspeth Davie. Casque D’Or. Rear Window. Amicus. Halloween. The Baby. Bad Timing. Anthony Burgess. Down Among the Meths Men. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The London Nobody Knows. Iris Murdoch. Prelude to a Certain Midnight. Repulsion. The Servant. ‘The Daemon Lover’ by Shirley Jackson. Keats … I could go on and on …
What new and upcoming authors do you think we should take notice off?
Naomi Hamill. How to be a Kosovan Bride has just been published by Salt. Dan Coxon’s anthology contains plenty of upcoming talent while Black Static has a great track record of encouraging new writers. There’s plenty of interesting, fresh writing to be found in so many small magazines, from Gorse to Popshot. Such publications deserve our support.
How would you describe your writing style?
I find it hard to describe my own writing. But this from Anthony Burgess strikes me as pertinent: ‘Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination.’
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Editing or excising a cherished scene or a carefully worked passage is always difficult. And sometimes the words just don’t seem to flow. Or the mind is sluggish. Or tired. That’s when it’s difficult.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
It’s not really something I think about. The subject is bound up with style. I never sit down and think: I’ll write a story about this topic or that topic. It’s more vague. I start with an image. Or a line. A character. A face. A situation. It goes from there. I usually know if a story is going to be dark. That’s about it.
Writing, is not a static process, how have you developed as a writer over the years?
I’ve not been writing for very long. My face is old but my words are young. I’m not sure how I’ve developed since ‘World of Trevor’ was published in Black Static back in 2014. I’m probably more inclined, these days, to attempt stories that do not have an overtly weird or supernatural element. But often they end up being weird anyway.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Nose, eyes, ears, shears.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received with regards to your writing?
Turn down the volume.
Getting your worked noticed is one of the hardest things for a writer to achieve, how have you tried to approach this subject?
You just have to keep at it. There’s no secret. It’s difficult. When I wrote ‘World of Trevor’, it was just a story to me, a pub tale, a Mancunian pub tale. I didn’t think of it as a ‘weird tale’, although it had dark themes. It got rejected by a few literary mags. So I sent it to Black Static, not sure if they’d like it. They did. Andy Cox has published quite a few of my stories now. You build up slowly. I know there’s a few people out there who rate my stuff, who like what I write. The next step is to get a collection published. And to get my novel out there, too. Rejection and indifference – that comes with the territory.
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?
I don’t really see my characters as children. I’m a bad parent in that respect. I often forget their names.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
That’s difficult. At the moment I guess it’s ‘Langwell Sorrow’ in Black Static 60.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
I’m more or less satisfied with everything that’s found its way into the real world of readers. There are probably some unpublished things that I am happy to let rot.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, which of your books do you think best represents your work and why?
My name has yet to appear on a spine. The stories in various issues of Black Static represent my darker imaginings. ‘The Bury Line’, ‘The Toilet’, ‘McMara’s Rock, ‘Mittens’, and so on. There’s ‘Through the Flowers’, too, which appeared in Popshot Magazine (illustrated with macabre invention by Kate O’Hara).
Do you have a favorite line or passage from your work, and would you like to share it with us?
Sometimes I read a line and can’t remember coming up with it. Did I write that? But I don’t have a favourite. I do enjoy some of things my characters say. I like to eavesdrop.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
I’ve just finished The Sea by John Banville, which is very good. I loved Zero K by DeLillo. I read a short story not long ago by Angela Readman. The narrator cuts her boyfriend in two. (It’s in the collection Don’t Try This At Home.) On one level, it’s a fairy story, a ‘weird tale’ – preposterous, flirting with whimsicality – but it conveys some very real and sad truths about the relationships between men and women, about loneliness, about performing a role in life, about disillusionment. At the start of the year I read LJ Davis’s blistering A Meaningful Life. Very funny. I was disappointed by Thomas Tyron’s The Other, which I’d been looking forward to. Some wonderful writing but it just didn’t excite me. Or frighten me. I remember it as a long, hazy, sunny dream. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps I should give it another go.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
I don’t know. But the answer is silence.