Ginger Nuts of Horror
Paul Southern is a former pop musician and academic. He has written three novels, the latest of which is Killing Sound, a YA horror set on the London Underground.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Following an induced labour some time in the 1960s (due date: Halloween night), I had my subscription to a normal life revoked by itinerant parents, who moved from city to city. Lived in Liverpool, Belfast, London and Leeds, then escaped to university, where I nearly died of a brain haemorrhage. After an unexpected recovery, formed an underground indie group (Sexus). Met the lead singer through standing on a bee. Made immediate plans to become rich and famous, but ended up in Manchester. Shared a house with mice, cockroaches, and slugs; shared the street with criminals. Five years later, hit the big time with a Warners record deal. Concerts at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Melody Maker front cover, Smash Hits Single of the Week, Radio 1 and EastEnders. Mixed with the really rich and famous. Then mixed with lawyers. Ended up back in Manchester, broke. Got a PhD in English (I am the world's leading authority on Tennyson's stage plays), then wrote my first novel, The Craze, based on my experiences of the Muslim community. Immediately nominated to the Arena X Club (the name Arena magazine gave to a select group of creative, UK-based men responsible for shaping the way their readers lived and enjoyed their lives). Wrote a second book, Brown Boys in Chocolate, which predicted the London bombings. Fell foul of the censors and subsequently gagged by the press. Got ITV interested in a story on honour killings and inter-racial marriages and was commissioned to write a screenplay (Pariah) based on my life story. ITV balked at the content. Subsequently, trod the wasteland before finding the grail again: a book deal with hip children's publisher, Chicken House. Killing Sound, a YA / Adult horror set on the London Underground, was published by them in September 2014.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I’d like to do lots of things when I’m not writing but there aren’t enough hours in the day. Writing and children are two full-time occupations.
What’s your favourite food?
Saag aloo (spinach and potatoes) with chapattis. Being a vegan, my diet is restricted to stuff that is strictly good for you. Now and again, I like to relax a little and have something swimming in oil.
Who would be on the soundtrack to your life story?
Too many to mention, really. I think The Doors would have to be on there. My brother had a compilation of theirs called 13, which I used to play when I was about that age. It had a profound effect on me. The Doors are one of those groups you can go back to at any age. There’s always something in there to admire. They were great musicians and Jim Morrison was a genius. I would also have something by Bauhaus. Listening to them got me through my adolescence. They didn’t just look ‘goth’, they sounded it, too. I would also have Kula Shaker on there. I think, quite possibly, they are the most underrated group of all time. If their first two albums had actually been recorded in the early seventies, as opposed to sounding like they had, they would be up there with Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin as legends of rock. I love Crispian Mills’s lyrics and guitar playing.
Tell us a dirty little secret?
No dirty secrets, I’m afraid. I am extremely clean. I use Simple non-soap facial wash and moisturise every day. I recommend all men do the same. It takes years off you.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would quote Charlton Heston from the original Planet of the Apes: ‘Keep flying the flags of discontent. It's the only way anything ever gets changed.’
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?
You mean dangerous physical situations that threaten your life or awkward socially embarrassing situations? If it’s the former, I’m not sure I have been tested (thankfully). I like to think I would be heroic and clear-headed and save everybody all else caught up in the dreadful thing, but I may be afflicted with some terrible cowardice. Socially embarrassing situations don’t bother me anymore. I just say what I want. Life really is too short to care what others think about you.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Again, too many to mention. I grew up with Tolkien so he will always be dear to my heart. Also, Robert E Howard. I read voraciously as a teenager – everything from James Herbert to Thomas Hardy, from Conan Doyle to Isaac Asimov. I loved Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Frank Herbert’s Dune and Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I had no idea what good writing was. It was all about the ideas. When I went to university, ‘literature’ predominated so I read everything from Chaucer to Beckett and people then started to tell me what good writing was. It was only years after I left, and I started writing myself, that I recognised what it really was. Writers I still turn to for inspiration, or a reminder on what I should be doing, are Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Joseph Heller, William Golding, Robert Louis Stevenson and Dickens.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
No book is perfect. There are always sections that lose you as well as inspire you.
What is your all-time favourite horror novel, and film?
Novel: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was thematically years ahead of its time and dealt with just about every taboo going – from necrophilia to bestiality, from fellatio to incest. I read it after watching many of Christopher ‘I hardly ever played Dracula ’ Lee’s Dracula films.
Film: Alien. There are so many horror ‘water cooler’ moments in this film. It is a masterpiece of cinema.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would it be?
Ancient evils that have suddenly been awoken.
Which fictional character would be you perfect neighbour, and who would be your nightmare neighbour?
Gene Tierney in Laura would be perfect. Sauron would be a bit of a nightmare.
If you could kill off any character from any other book who would you chose and how would they die?
See next question.
And if you had free range what fictional character would you like to write for?
I’m not really interested in writing other people’s characters. Part of their appeal is that they exist apart from me and I don’t get to know them that well.
What do you think of the current state of the genre?
Horror has a great way of reinventing itself. It taps into societies’ fears. As fear will always be a part of us, it seems unlikely that it will stay sterile for so long. My personal preference is for intelligence and atmosphere rather than body count and gore.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing horror fiction right now?
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
No. I was in a pop group for many years. Compared to music press reviews, books have it easy. Rarely does the novelist get personal insults. The good reviews are nice but they don’t mean anything.
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Every bit of it: Getting up. Facing the screen. Typing. Thinking. It’s horrible.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
What do you think makes a good story?
A great idea, well-realised and well-written.
How important are names to you in your books?
Very. They’re like baby names. They define the character for the rest of their lives.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
A large library. A computer. A chair with good back support.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
I haven’t received any and I never asked.
What is the most demeaning thing said about you as a writer?
A 14-year-old girl said I wrote ‘quite unprofessionally’ recently.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
I have left that to the publishers but, really, I think authors now have to do it all. Having 1.38 million followers on Twitter would definitely boost sales.
Who is your favourite character from your book and why?
I don’t have a favourite or least favourite character. Before it gets to print, the book has gone over fifty drafts. It’s a battle to stay sane through the whole process.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
I don’t think pride is part of the writer’s vocabulary.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, what book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?
I write in different styles – crime, pulp, underground and horror. I don’t like to be pinned down by a genre. Someone once said of Bowie that the key to his success was his ability to slip his own shadow and do something new all the time. I’d like to follow that path.
What are you working on right now?
I’m recovering from five years of hell getting Killing Sound out.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
Q: ‘Would you like to spend some time in LA and write a film script for a Hollywood blockbuster?’
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When Jodie's parents were killed years ago during one of her father's experiments with sound waves, Jodie was thought to be the only witness. But something else was released into the room that night. And its silence is deadly...