Ginger Nuts of Horror
MJ Wesolowski is a horror/crime author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, his short stories have been published in Ethereal Tales magazine, the Midnight Movie Creature Feature anthology (May December Publications), the ’22 More Quick Shivers’ Anthology (Cosmonomic Multimedia) and the 'Short Not Sweet' anthology (Iron Press/Red Squirrel/Tyne Bridge Publishing).
His debut novella ‘The Black Land’ a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published by Blood Bound Books in 2013.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I am a former chef and former teacher from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. I taught cookery in mainstream education before teaching English in pupil referral units for permanently excluded and vulnerable young people, which was immeasurably more satisfying.
I currently work for New Writing North as a group leader for Cuckoo Young Writers, a free creative writing group for young people age 12-19.
My first ever book, written and illustrated by myself at age 11 was entitled 'Attack of the Killer Flytraps' and whilst my writing style has possibly matured since then, my themes and content certainly haven't! I still like nothing better than monsters, myths and ghosts!
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Reading is my other massive passion, but both activities are pretty sedentary, so I like to break it up with kickboxing and football (playing as well as watching...I say playing...attempting to play is a better description!)...I actually also write for a Newcastle United Fanzine under a pen name.
What’s your favourite food?
It has to be Turkish or Lebanese; I'm lucky to live in a city with some outstanding restaurants and takeaways of both nationalities - stick me in front of a plate of hummus and flatbread and I'll be happy for the rest of the day!
Who would be on the soundtrack to your life story?
It would have to range from some 80s misery; the Cure and the Cocteau twins, to an angry teenage spattering of Marilyn Manson, a touch of Aussie bleakness - Woods of Desolation, Austere, Germ etc. to some real Scandinavian-style evil - Beherit, Gorgoroth, Clandestine Blaze, Taake, that sort of thing.
Tell us a dirty little secret?
Remember Scatman John? Ski-ba-bop-ba-do-bop?
I have his album.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
In terms of writing, not to stop, to apply yourself. I had a few years in the wilderness where I had ideas, copious notes, fragments, the starts of stories but I never managed to finish anything. Finishing stuff is hard but I think it was Neil Gaimen who said 'Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finish.'
That is so true.
Characters often find themselves in situations they aren't sure they can get themselves out of. When was the last time you found yourself in a situation that was hard to get out of and what did you do?
I think when I decided to give up working in mainstream education. It was a good, well-paid job but I was ultimately unhappy doing it. There were pupils with problems, behavioural, emotional, that I felt I wanted to reach out to but couldn't in a class of 30. It was hard to justify to myself that I wanted to get out of a 'safe' situation and work with the 'naughty' ones which carries its obvious risks. Moving to work in PRUs with excluded pupils was a massive choice and a risky one, but I just did it, took that plunge. Never regretted it for a moment.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto, The Dead School) is an author whose style just seems to 'fit', I can be lost in one of his books in seconds like a comfortable old sock. He has an uncanny way of reaching directly into my heart and pulling me any way he chooses. I think I've read everything by Stephen King who is, of course, the master of the genre but I also really enjoy stark realism like John King (The Football Factory) and David Peace (The Red Riding trilogy). I read a lot of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and HP Lovecraft too.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley was absolutely magnificent; a real slow-burner with such a permeable sense of menace throughout. It reminded me of a film like The Kill List.
The last one that disappointed me was actually Stephen King's last one, Revival; I found I just couldn't forge any sort of emotional connection to it which was a shame as I thought Mr. Mercedes that came before it was one of his best!
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
That's such a hard question. I think the novel that has equally scared me, inspired me and just as importantly really rendered me emotionally was It by Stephen King. I have such a special place in my heart for that book.
My favourite ever horror film is The Haunting (1963) an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, that film is black and white with no special effects but remains scarier than anything that has come after in my opinion.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would it be?
The idea of the vampire as a smooth Don Juan or buxom seductress. I always preferred the more feral Count Orlok type creature - something to be really feared.
Which fictional character would be you perfect neighbour, and who would be your nightmare neighbour?
Living next door to the two protagonists from Lovecraft's The Hound might be a rather unpleasant experience, or at least fodder for a Channel 5 documentary! (Around the walls of this repellent chamber were cases of antique mummies alternating with comely, life-like bodies perfectly stuffed and cured by the taxidermist’s art, and with headstones snatched from the oldest churchyards of the world. Niches here and there contained skulls of all shapes, and heads preserved in various stages of dissolution. There one might find the rotting, bald pates of famous noblemen, and the fresh and radiantly golden heads of new-buried children.)
But I reckon Hannibal Lecter would lend you his lawnmower (so long as you were polite about asking.)
If you could kill off any character from any other book who would you chose and how would they die?
Many Eastern European 'vampire' corpses were found with iron rods through their chests, stones in their mouths or heads removed so there was no chance of them coming back. I don't think many would be sad to see the sparkly Twilight protagonists meet the same fate.
And if you had free range what fictional character would you like to write for?
It would have to be Pennywise. I love his mythology, this ancient, prehistoric almost Lovecraftian starspawn - there's so much we don't know about him and I'd love to write about those lost early years, terrorising Derry!
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
I'm not really in a position to comment, I think there's some magnificent writing out there but like any scene, it's diluted with lots of not-so-good stuff. I personally find it hard to 'discover' new horror to read as it's not a particularly trendy genre; for example, Crime is huge right now and major publishers have the money and resources to push those new voices. My experience of horror is that finding the real gems is more of a word-of-mouth thing, which isn't necessarily bad...just difficult sometimes.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing horror fiction right now?
I don't think there's a 'threat' to the genre as such; trends are cyclic, we've seen shows like Game of Thrones raise sword and sorcery from the underground and become 'cool' and soon it'll be horror's turn. I just hope there's enough good writing out there so when that light shines on us, we've got something to be proud of.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
Carsten Stroud (author of Niceville) and Elizabeth Hand (author of Generation Loss) have both been complimentary about my blog on Twitter. I still think their accounts must have been hacked!
One of my early short stories was singled out from an anthology for being 'quiet' and thus most effective. I have also read that my work 'creates menace through suggestion and a superb malignant presence. This is “bump in the night” horror rather than graphic, and all the better for it.'
These compliments mean so much to me as I don't consciously set out to have a particular 'way' of making horror, it just sort of happens naturally, or unconsciously. The fact that people appreciate what I do is enough for me, I'm still bowled over by such nice reviews.
Luckily I've not had a bad review, but I think that's because not enough people have read my stuff yet!
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
It's still finishing things. I find the last few chapters or the last few paragraphs slow down and become somewhat cumbersome. I think it's a confidence thing, believing in your story as its own entity. I think that's always going to be a struggle for me.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
Zombies. I hate zombies. No, in fact, I don't hate them, I'm just sick and tired of them. There's so much room for anything else in horror to be written about and we've stockpiled enough zombies to last us another few millennia
What do you think makes a good story?
For me, there has to be strong emotions other than fear. You are only scared when you really connect with a character. If a character is well written you know them inside out and character-driven stories are always the ones that stay with me. I'd take slow-build, subtlety over grandiose, epic events any day.
How important are names to you in your books?
Names are really important. I have a mate who's a film maker (Benjamin Bee) and we often text each other potential names for characters to get them just right. It's amazing how we assign certain characteristics to certain names. When I was a teacher, there were certain names who you couldn't help thinking they could be potential trouble!
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
A desire to read. I think that you can really tell when a writer watches more TV and films than reads books. Other than that, there's nothing you need except determination...and a very thick skin!
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
It was actually a musician friend of mine who said to me once, 'Let the writing do the talking.' I went through a stage of wondering whether I should be really pushing my own promotion on social media, my blog etc, trying to rack up the 'likes'. I know you're supposed to and kudos to those who do it well but that's not me, I'm really uncomfortable promoting my work. If people like my writing and buy a book after looking at my Facebook site or reading a blog post, great, but I have never in my life read a book because its author has posted a link it on my twitter timeline or because they have so many 'likes' on Facebook. That isn't to say people who do that are wrong but personally, I don't want me as a person to come across even equally to the actual writing. I'm not very exciting! The writing's the thing I want to push. I want to let that speak rather than me if that makes sense?
What is the most demeaning thing said about you as a writer?
Nothing...that I know of...yet...but let's see what happens when this interview gets posted, eh?
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
I've talked about social media and I do post occasionally but I have found that actually going to workshops, talks, writing events and talking to people face to face feels much more genuine. I was humbled when Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðadóttir asked me where she could get a copy The Black Land when I met her at an event!
Who is your favourite character from your book and why?
I've always tended to side with the monsters and the baddies, even as a little kid. There is usually some sort of malevolent evil stalking my stories and it's always the emergence of that which I most enjoy writing.
How about the least favourite character? What makes them less appealing to you?
I found writing a forensic psychiatrist in my full-length novel manuscript more difficult than unappealing, only because I had to do so much research to make her sound authentic...I'm not that smart and writing a character so out of my intellectual comfort zone is always difficult.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
I feel that, as a writer, I'm learning all the time so each thing I write is intrinsically better than its predecessor. However, I have a novella I completed not long ago that has been rejected six times so far. It's set in a forest in Sweden and leans a lot on Scandinavian mythology which is a huge passion of mine... I really like it...even if no one else does yet!
I have one full length horror/crime manuscript that is currently in the hands of an agent, I can't really say much more about it than it's the longest and best thing I feel I have written to date.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
Oh, plenty. I once wrote a dreadful adaptation of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' when I was about 15 - set in modern times with characters called Johnathan Harper and Nina Murray, with an introductory quote of some Cradle of Filth lyrics...it was truly horrific! We've all got to start somewhere though.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
I feel my latest published short story 'Ellie Hill' in an anthology called 'Short Not Sweet' (Iron Press/Red Squirrel/Tyne Bridge Publishing) encapsulates how my writing has developed and matured in recent times.
What are you working on right now?
I have just completed the first draft of a crime novel which I will start drafting again in a few weeks. It is a first for me to write something potentially 'outside' horror, yet there is plenty of mythological darkness that has permeated the story....a leopard doesn't change its spots!
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
Would you like some of this delicious hummus I brought along just in case?
Oh yes, please put it in my face!