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Stuff I Wish I’d Written

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Aidan Thorn on Matt Phillips’s Know Me from Smoke

Hi Aidan, which book are we talking about?

Know Me From Smoke by the brilliant Matt Phillips

This has been on release for the amount of time it takes to draw breath – so this is some claim to be your favourite book. Did it hit you straight away, or has it lingered and taken over your mind?

I know, right. It’s something very special. For me it has everything, it’s brilliantly written, there are characters with more dimensions than a Prodigy track, it’s perfectly paced, it has crime and heart in equal measure, it just sort of sings as a book.

Matt Phillips is a writer I’ve been following for a few years and he’s good, I really like his work, but this book stepped him up to the big leagues as far as I’m concerned. I felt it put him on a par with the greats, the Pelecanos’, the Leonard’s, the Block’s etc… and I think that’s another reason I love it so much, I’ve seen one of my peers, someone that’s with the same publisher as I am, someone that’s moving in the same writing circles that I am, write something that truly blew me away. I’ve read great books by some great undiscovered talent but this was that and then better than the most well known of authors, too.

I don’t typically like overly descriptive books, Matt Phillips has a way of making every scene in this book part of the character of the book. His descriptive work not only brings the scenes to life but it always moves the story along too. It’s just brilliant

Matt Phillips

So what’s the synopsis?

Ha, so now you’re asking, every writer hates writing the synopsis and I’m no different, and now I need to give you Matt’s, here’s the blurb from the publisher…

Stella Radney, longtime lounge singer, still has a bullet lodged in her hip from the night when a rain of bullets killed her husband. That was twenty years ago and it’s a surprise when the unsolved murder is reopened after the district attorney discovers new evidence.

Royal Atkins is a convicted killer who just got out of prison on a legal technicality. At first, he’s thinking he’ll play it straight. Doesn’t take long before that plan turns to smoke—was it ever really an option?

When Stella and Royal meet one night, they’re drawn to each other. But Royal has a secret. How long before Stella discovers that the man she’s falling for isn’t who he seems?

A noir of gripping suspense and violence, Know Me from Smoke is a journey into the shadowy terrain of murder, lost love, and the heart’s lust for vengeance.

That makes it sound good, but believe me it’s better than that

So what’s the main pull? The plot? The characterisation. Phillips’ way with language? Is it hard to quantify?

In what is essentially a short book (a little over 200 pages) there’s so much. The two main characters have their own stories, that obviously merge, but the beauty of the way Phillips writes is that despite this being written third person there’s a clear distinction in character voice depending on whether we’re with Royal or Stella and he expertly changes that voice in line with the perspectives, pressures, emotions of those characters.

There’s clear conflict in both of the main characters. Stella feels conflicted at falling in love with another man, despite the death of her husband decades before. She also feels exhilarated by this fresh new love with this man who is a mystery to her and yet familiar also. Her journey (fucking hate that word) through this book is one of growth and strength, unshackling herself from a past, and yet she is still so connected and close to it – to say much more would give the game away and I don’t want to as I want people to read this book!

Not that it’s not obvious where this book is heading fairly early on. That’s actually part of the beauty of this book. We know there has to be a moment of realisation, a moment of decision, the joy is in how Phillips gets us there.

With Royal, it’s different, there’s an attempt at growth, possibly even a genuine desire for it, but is he far too deep in as a criminal to really change? Is Stella enough to get him there? He comes out of prison and is given little hope of true reform being homed with two criminals hell-bent on staying that way, and this is Royal’s conflict, can he go against that and change his life? And even if he can, has his past damned him before he even had a chance – did he ever even deserve a chance?

As for Phillips’ way with language, the story is told in such an engaging way that it just feels like you’re being told it by a really charismatically eloquent person you’ve known for a long time. Someone whose company you enjoy. I already said, every word advances the plot, regardless of whether it’s descriptive or conversation, there’s nothing wasted in these 200 pages.

So he’s a criminal and she sounds like a respectable member of mainstream society. What brings them together? What connects them?

Royal is staying in a halfway house on leaving prison and Stella is a bar singer. By rights they shouldn’t meet and it’s probably the first sign that Royal isn’t going to stick to the straight and narrow. His parole officer tells him no drinking but his house mates, a couple of cons themselves convince him to head out for drinks with them. Royal’s arm doesn’t take any twisting. Stella is instantly drawn to him despite his friends being assholes toward her, he seems different and familiar to her.

Does Royal want change in his life with his release from prison?

Now that’s a good question, he claims to, and in his head I think he wants to, but actions speak louder than words and his actions are still those of a criminal. Perhaps a reluctant criminal, but a criminal all the same. It’s just the way he’s wired I suppose.

What does Stella see in him? I’m guessing she doesn’t realise he’s a criminal when they meet?

Apart from the obvious phyiscal attraction, she likes that he’s not like the other men he’s with, that he’s more of a gentleman and discourages their bad behaviour towards her. But most of all she is attracted by the fact that he’s both a mystery and familiar to her.

You say there’s joy in the way Phillips gets you to the realisation. At only two hundred pages, how does he manage to fill it with character and plot? Is it a character piece more than plot-driven?

Not the realisation for the reader, the reader will see it coming early. It’s the realisation for the characters. Yes it’s a character piece, but it’s also a plot-driven piece. I always say why use ten words when one will do, and Phillips is a master of using exactly the right amount of words. There’s no padding here. He writes a book here for the modern reader – we’re busy people, I don’t have time for a load of stuff I don’t need, tell me the story and tell me it well. I want every word to count and it really does in this book. It feels like he’s thought about every word. A very wise person once said, if we had more time we’d have made it shorter. There’s far more skill and thought that goes into making a perfect tight read than some thing that sprawls on and on forever and barely moves from page to page. But then I would say that, I wrote novellas.

You should read Quincunx by Charles Palliser. 1,000 pages of small print, in the style of Dickens, with the meh-est ending ever. Still, I love a deep dive.

What’s the longest book you ever read?

Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a good long read, as long as the words are useful. Take those Larsson Girl With books… I’ve read them all, they were fine, but there is a lot of padding at times. Longest books I’ve ever read – not sure because I mostly read on kindle these days. I’ve read some Stephen King books, they tend to have some weight to them. Roots by Alex Haley I remember being a big old book with some very small print. I’m not against a well written good book. It’s when I’m reading it and thinking, bloody hell there’s another 600 pages of this yet… if it’s good I don’t think about the length. It’s about the quality not the girth.

Talking of Dickens, I read A Christmas Carol most Christmases… But it’s very short, other Dickens books, I’ve read a few, and there’s often some length there.

Know Me from Smoke is defined as noir. How do you define noir?

I read a brilliant quote from a review of this book today that defines noir for me. The quote is by Bruce Harris: “Noir succeeds when the atmosphere blends with the characters, defining and directing behaviors, becoming its own powerful driving force.”

For me noir is an atmosphere. It’s also about its characters, usually people on the edge of society, people that feel like they could be sat right next to you in a bar, at the gym, in a restaurant, but not people you’d have around for dinner or meet at work. They’re the same as us, and yet different. Noir stories always feel to me like the sort of thing I might have got caught up in myself if I’d taken a few different turns at times.

Definitely. A fight that leads to another neighbourhood’s alpha males making a visit to your area. The friend who takes it a step too far and drags you all into a hell hole.

What near misses have you had?

I’m not going to pretend I’m some tough guy, I’m just a normal bloke from a normal upbringing. I grew up in a place in Southampton called Lordshill, it’s a tough place but I had a good family and on the whole good friends, and so I mostly managed to stay on the right path. But of course, like any kid growing up in that environment, there are moments when things could have gone worse. I got the shit kicked out of me the day before my Grandma’s funeral because I happened to be with the wrong crowd – I’ll never forget how angry my dad was with me for that, it hurt to know I’d added to his pain at such a shitty time for our family. I got stopped by the police because a shopkeeper pointed me out as part of a gang that had robbed her shop and mugged a kid for his shitty Argos-bought watch… I was part of that gang, but I wasn’t there when they did what they did. And that was the last straw for me and them. I saw that kid sat on a chair that the shopkeeper had grabbed from the back room of her shop, bloodied and crying, and I thought ‘fuck those guys’. I went home and never went back to them. A couple of those guys have been in and out of prison since, and I knuckled down and went another way, ended up in a great job, with great friends. If I’d have been with them when it had happened who knows which why I’d have gone. There have been many more moments I’m sure, but those are the ones that stick in the memory as the ones that woke me up and made me realise I needed to correct my path. I was hanging around with kids that carried knives – I changed that for kids who carried guitars… much more fun. About five years after I stopped hanging with those guys a kid of 16 was murdered outside that same shop my old friends had shoplifted from and mugged a kid for his watch. He was stabbed to death by a ‘friend’ I’m not going to claim that could have been me, but it certainly made me feel two things, sad and grateful.

What is noir for you? Do those near misses resonate when you’re reading it?

I guess they do a bit. I guess that’s why I read and write noir. It’s about those moments in the margins of your life. The moments you imagine things could have gone wrong and so yes it can resonate with moments from the past at times. I often read or write a character I think he or she is just like someone I know or knew.

David Nemeth recently labelled Know Me from Smoke ‘Noir as fuck.’ Where do you put it on the noir-ometer?

It’s like a lesson in noir, but not one of those smug ‘this is how you write’ lessons, just a really great and entertaining example of the genre. NOIR AS FUCK sounds about right, really.

If Know Me from Smoke is Robert De Niro, which book is Al Pacino?

The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos

Is Rival Sons, your new book, ready to go out into the world?

It is, it’ll be heading out into the world just before Santa’s sleigh in early December. Want to hear what people are saying about it…

“This nuanced, multi-layered homecoming tale packs a real kick-in-the-teeth. Powerful stuff.” Tess Makovesky, author of ‘Gravy Train‘ and ‘Raise the Blade‘.

“A really strong story with great characters. Aidan Thorn is at the forefront of the new wave of British noir.” Chris Black, Senior Editor at Fahrenheit 13

I also got a blurb from Matt Phillips himself, a great honour considering the way I feel about Know Me From Smoke… “Rival Sons is a story about evil overtaking good, how one brother can corrupt the other, and how the lineage passed to us can be more corrupt than any jailhouse snitch. In this blast of a novella, Aidan Thorn delivers––these characters know rivalry and vengeance, guts and glory, failure and worse-than-failure. They also know love and courage – well some of them do.”

– Matt Phillips, author of Know Me from Smoke, The Bad Kind of Lucky, Accidental Outlaws, and Three Kinds of Fool

It sounds cracking. Do you feel you’ve got the writing thing locked down?

Absolutely not. I barely write these days. Rival Sons was the last large project I completed. Since then I’ve completed one short that was in Switchblade issue 6, started another longer piece (novella/novel) called Docklands that I’ve wanted to do for years, and edited an old novella that I want to try out on the world. I’m not really writing at all these days, unfortunately. And I say unfortunately because, yes I do love it and literature is a passion but that said I am a very lucky man in that I also have a day job that I absolutely love, so as that’s got busier it’s meant less writing time but as much as I’d like more writing time I will never complain about getting to do something I love and care about each day.

Aidan, you’ve been great. I’ve gone and bought Know Me from Smoke. Best wishes for Rival Sons.

Thanks for the effort you put into this stuff, Jason. I hope you enjoy Know Me From Smoke half as much as I did. I’m currently reading Matt’s latest, due out soon – The Bad Kind of Luck. It’s another great read.

You can buy Know Me from Smoke direct from Fahrenheit Press, or Amazons US and UK.

You can buy Aidan Thorn’s work from Amazons US and UK.


City of Forts

“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”

– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.

Moorlands

“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”

– D.S. Atkinson

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”

– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

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Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Kevin Berg on Ryū Murakami’s Piercing

Hi Kevin, which book are we talking about?

Piercing, by Ryū Murakami.

What’s the synopsis?

In his own unique style, Murakami explores themes of child abuse and what happens to the voiceless among us, weaving a disturbing, spare tale of two people who find each other and then are forced into hurting each other deeply because of the haunting spectre of their own abuse as children.

The protagonist washes his baby, hands the kid over to the mum, and out of nowhere wonders if he could drive a pickaxe through the child.

Initially, how does he deal with this disturbing thought?

From the start, the reader should know that Kawashima is a little off. The author places you in this character’s head, allowing you to experience the depravity firsthand. Something is obviously very wrong with the dude, despite the outward appearance of “normality” we all seem to strive for in this life. He is a successful businessman, with a cozy home in the suburbs, happily married, who has achieved what can be considered a healthy amount of success. The author even goes one step further – describing a place infused with the pleasant aroma of buttery baked goods and the warmth of love – his wife reaping the rewards of a successful baking school run from the happy home. All this in addition to the new baby.

What else could he possibly need?

For me, the author sets the opening scenes up with equal parts shock and wonder. I mean, holy shit. How could a man contemplate something so heinous, so damn evil, when looking at the outline of his sleeping infant? Where the hell did that come from, and why the hell is he caressing an ice pick all sweaty and intense like a fucking weirdo?

This is a short book, so Murakami has to drop little hints along the way about the protagonist’s past. No word is wasted. Memories of neglect and abuse that led to Kawashima being taken to a boys home, and now much later he has become the man standing there in the dark looking down at a sleeping baby with an ice pick in his fist, repeating to himself that he won’t stab her with it. According to him, everything began ten days earlier in the scene you mentioned, where he passed the clean baby into the warmth of a fluffy towel his wife was holding. Suddenly a thought – a morbid sort of seemingly random idea – takes him somewhere else.

“I wouldn’t ever stab that baby with an ice pick, would I?”

Well, I fucking hope not, man. I know kids are tiring and stressful, but seriously? How about the tricks you used to deal with the pain as a kid? Alcohol is out of the question for him, but dissociation always seemed to help. This is a peek at something dark that lies within him, and the frightening thoughts about his 4 month old daughter prepare the reader for one hell of a crazy ride.

So at first, he represses the crazy thoughts. Anyone would, right? Feverish and almost overcome with the imagery and sensation of a memory that threatens to reveal itself, he does exactly what everyone else would: He shoves it down deep into the emptiness, ignoring how serious this shit really is, until he can’t take it anymore. At last, he makes a decision to alleviate the fear of hurting his own daughter by making a decision:

“There’s only one way to overcome the fear: you’ve got to stab someone else with an ice pick.”

Well obviously, dude. So he decides to leave everything behind and hire a girl from a local S&M club named Chiaki. Turns out, she might be just as fucked in the head as he is, and suicidal to boot. The story begins.

That’s a start which would have many readers put the book down and put the Hallmark Channel on.

His murderous thoughts are clearly the result of the abuse he faced as a child. But are they triggered by this safe, cozy environment he lives in now, as if he feels guilty about the safe life he has?

Definitely. Layers of it.

First, there is guilt because this happiness, a perfect marriage, exists beneath the looming shadow of a terrifying secret he has kept from his wife. Now that everything’s going so well, there is one thing she doesn’t know about him – that he has done it before. Of course he’s never told her about the time he stabbed a stripper with an ice pick, it never came up in conversation. Or that she was old enough to be his mother. Sigmund Freud would probably be ready to climax by the time this was revealed to the reader.

But that’s still later on.

Right now, and more important, is that perhaps Kawashima feels inadequate because he has been lucky enough to get away from an abusive mother and shit childhood, while others did not have the same good fortune.

I mean, why should he deserve to feel happy?

Compared to some of his friends from the boys’ home, he has done quite well for himself in life. So because of all this, yes he is safe, but he is also plagued by this desire…to hurt. In fact, he has everything meticulously planned for taking out this frustration on a random prostitute, and the girl who ends up in his hotel room is Chiaki, another broken individual who immediately fucks up all his ideas.

Don’t worry, it’s still violent.

I think in his writing Murakami shows how well someone can hide the pain that may have formed them, as both Kawashima and Chiaki have done, but that everyone has something underneath being ignored. Violent and ugly, or delicate and painful. If there was a way to acknowledge the pain beneath the mask, people would be healthier and happier.

Japanese society, and I don’t have direct experience, is known for strict social codes. Is there an impotence he feels that he has no other channels to run his anger through, so his only choice is to erupt through society’s norms?

Only been through a couple of times myself, never stayed long enough to do anything but guess at this one too. I think you’re on to something, though. Maybe ignoring the base emotions and our initial reactions allows them to grow – until we explode.

Maybe being successful is neglecting everything else.

What if a strong business, healthy marriage, wealth, and growing family – everything we work toward in life – get in the way of just being who we really are? Humans are complex creatures, with a huge range of emotions, all trying to adhere to rules that society and law and morality and history have given us to survive. To progress. And evolve.

Stripping away most of what isn’t absolutely necessary.

Until a thought sparks somewhere back in the brainstem that goes against what we’ve always been told, everything we’ve believed until that very instant. It comes from somewhere deep inside our Lizard Brain: the place that deals with emotion and the most primitive needs we’ve got, and remains unchanged. Then, if this spark grows into a thing we can no longer suppress, a need that burns so intensely it becomes all-consuming, we have to act on it.

Even if it’s as mysterious, though simple, as the desire to experience a sound you’ve been told is unmistakable:

“When you cut the Achilles tendon, the sound it makes is as loud and sharp as a gunshot.”

Really? Let’s find out.

Kawashima wanted Chiaki as a symbol on which to project his pain and anger, if I’m reading you right. So how does she affect his world view?

He doesn’t expect her to, at least at first. He’s going into this knowing when he has these days, these “episodes” of violent fantasy, he feels miserable afterward. The main question on his mind is whether he would continue to experience them for the remainder of his life. He also looks at what he is about to do as a sort of martyrdom, an act for everyone out there who has been forgotten. All the other kids like him from the boys’ home, he does this for them too. When Chiaki shows up at the door, she’s just hoping he’s into something different that will bring her libido back. Honestly, she’s bored with business lately. What neither expects to find is another tortured soul that aligns so perfectly with their own. As the thing progresses, damage is done, pain is inflicted, but she doesn’t contact her employer. Neither phones the authorities. It’s like they both just know that using the other will bring them the gratification they need, but also bring the other a sort of pleasure.

Ryū Murakami

So once they get together and find something in the other, what’s their plan?

Well, everything goes to shit almost immediately. Things are about to go down, and Chiaki excuses herself to powder her nose, where she goes a little nuts. Now, Kawashima is torn between trying to help her, and finishing what he came to do.

The “kindred spirits” grow more attached, yet still can’t trust each other, even as they each continue to learn more about the other and deal with their own shit along the way, until they end up back at her place.

There is some foreplay, some introspection, some gore, some food, some pills, some deep-rooted trauma shows up, some panic and rage, a bit more gore, and of course – piercing.

The book is short, so I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it’s a cool story. Really an interesting take on mental health, all the violence and abuse that tarnish the mask of normality everyone tries to project. At one point, Murakami jumps between their broken heads and sits you in the corner to watch them work shit out. But not like you think.

Murakami said his aim is to target a single reader and show them how to be angry. How to channel it. Do you see that throughout his novels?

Murakami is a very smart dude. Pretty sure he can see the future, too. I can definitely see his ability to stir up anger in his readers, pushing people to stop being so damn complacent all the time. Maybe there is such a thing as being too content, allowing tradition and culture to interfere with change. Indecision and indifference are the great disablers of humanity, and through his writing he uses violence, sex and anger to push readers to pull their heads from the sand. Rage is an extremely passionate thing, and if they use it to affect something for themselves, good.

Do you think culture can be a trap?

Sometimes, yes. Kind of a double-edged sword I guess. Culture can be a good thing, of course, certain accomplishments deserve to be held up high for future generations to appreciate as well. Knowledge and history are important in helping our children grow and move forward, but sometimes customs and tradition can hinder progress. I think it is important to respect how you came to be where you are, and everything around you, but not just let it all die there. Experience more, try more, learn more. Expand your own understanding, and pass this to your family and share it with those around you. Help everyone grow, without completely abandoning the identity.

Is there any humour in this dark world? Can you give an example?

I think the way Murakami does humor is a bit different, it’s the small things he can do with storytelling that make me smile. The place where I usually get the laughs is how his characters react to awful, almost unthinkable situations. He can paint a very vivid picture of pain or torture, real discomfort and horror, but the characters seem to be oblivious to it all. They are living inside gripping thrillers and extreme horror, and pages of intricate mindfucks, but they often wonder about professional baseball players, or how clean the sofa is, or where they left something, and how badly they are craving instant noodles. It’s really brilliant, because the story doesn’t stray and these tangents work so well at finding a laugh at one of the unfortunate characters. They’re not bumbling idiots, though, just seem to have other concerns, sometimes right in the middle of pretty intense moments. Brings a bit of light to the story, maybe it makes it easier for readers to handle. In Piercing, there is a perfect example of this as it ends, but again, I don’t want to ruin anything. You’ll catch it if you look. He does it a few times throughout the story, and in pretty much everything of his that I’ve read. I think the humor we can find in any Murakami story lies in word choice and characterization. It’s the observational humor, that can help you identify with a character and distract yourself from an agonizing moment.

Almost like a nod to the absurd that is every day.

Have you seen Nicholas Pesce’s film version of the book?

I haven’t, but it’s definitely on the list of ones to watch for me. I don’t want to ruin the experience I have with the book, but I’m also interested to see where Pesce goes with Murakami’s vision.

I have seen Takashi Miike’s adaptation of Murakami’s Audition, however, which I actually saw before I read the book. Really great film. Now, I’ve read it several times, along with Piercing and In the Miso Soup and the others, cementing Murakami as one of my favorite authors. Every time through one of his stories, I always find something new.

Good news, I’ve read rumors that Murakami was so impressed with Audition that he asked Miike to do Coin Locker Babies as well. Really looking forward to that project if he ever gets it out there.

Has he influenced your writing? Your books have had some wild reactions – positive and negative. Do you mine similar psychological extremes?

I think he has definitely been an influence on my writing, and the reactions might just be the best part. I want to try and push readers to experience something with my books, not everything is meant to be pleasant, though. For the first one, that was kind of the point.

One of the things I admire most about his stuff, is the ability to take readers to a place – probably the worst situation they could ever imagine – and surprise us with an observation of the everyday absurd for a laugh, then keep going forward with the pain. He can just play with readers’ brains, flipping from horror to humor and back again, finding any emotion he needs in between for a story to really hit home.

That’s fucking skill.

I think I’m getting better at finding the right mix of good and bad, and I will keep trying to push readers to feel something when they read my work.

From what I read, one of Murakami’s major themes is the alienation of youth as a result of Japan’s long stagnation. Do you have a major theme running through your stories?

Sometimes I try to point things out that might make people uneasy, I think everyone has become too comfortable with where we all are and what we pay attention to. Myself included. The first book was about how selfish and cruel people have become, each character has their own motivations, but a piece of me was in each and every one of them, too. Maybe a lot of it was to get myself right, I guess. The second was about trust and focus, how work and money and material bullshit distract us from what really matters. Again, maybe more for me since I write for myself, but I think it’s important to think about. I’m not here to change the world with my writing, maybe just entertain some people while I learn to express myself a little better and work some shit out.

Sometimes it feels like we are all guided by the opinions of imaginary friends on social media, boring reality television with romanticized versions of ourselves playing in the background, and the avoidance of anything that might offend someone. To me, we are becoming boring, and we all get a fucking participation ribbon. Wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of anyone ever, even if they aren’t real. I’ve spent too long concentrating on the unimportant, life can’t just be that for me anymore. I write what I would find entertaining, hopefully figure something out along the way, and maybe even pick up a few people that have an opinion on something.

What really matters to you?

Good question, probably be my shortest answer so far. Family is most important to me. Making sure my kids have fun growing up, try to help them be good people. When everything else works out – a roof over our heads and food in our bellies – I can concentrate on enjoying our time together instead.

How’s The Dead Girl Beside Me, your next book, coming along?

It’s moving along pretty well now I think, thanks. I’ve been taking a long break after a big move with the family, so everything stalled while we got things adjusted, and I just recently got back into the writing mode.

I’m making progress on the book, as well as a collection of 22 short stories called Ants in My Blood that will probably come out first, and a nonfiction that has been placed on the back burner for now. Just not feeling that one at the moment, so I’m stepping away from it.

Now that I’m back into the writing game I’m staying busy and having fun again, almost like when I first started. I was pretty burnt out for a while, which is why I wasn’t in a rush to come back to it all. But I read some really great stuff, watched some awesome movies, got things handled here after the move, spoke with a writer friend or two about things, and decided to keep going. It would be too easy to just give up. Right?

Once you start, there’s no going back. Ever.

What are you reading now?

I just finished a couple of great ones pretty recently: Bury the Children in the Yard from Andersen Prunty and The Rebel’s Sketchbook by Rupert Dreyfus. Both collections, but sometimes finding the motivation can only come in small chunks for me, and I enjoyed them both. I need to read Spark, also by Dreyfus, since the sequel should be out sometime soon, as well as The Big Machine Eats by Beau Johnson. Fantastic stuff, right around the corner.

Right now I am picking my way through Tokyo Decadence again, a short story collection from Murakami, which shows a different side to the author for me. Kind of mulling things over while I decide what to read next. Also reading Know Me From Smoke by Matt Phillips which is pretty good so far.

I have a bunch in my TBR, a ton of freebies and ones I bought that look good, all just waiting for their turn. This has been a great year for fiction, and I’m guessing next year will be too. I might see a book on social media and think it looks cool, or from an author I like, then I find it already sitting in my order history, buried under the countless others that found their way onto my Kindle. Like a hoarder with words. I won’t get rid of any of them, but maybe I should read through what I have before I keep piling on more. That never works.

My Kindle is a bunch of unopened Christmas presents, too.

Kevin, your answers have been meaty and full of goodness. Thanks a bunch.

Thanks for the opportunity, it’s been fun.

***

You can buy Piercing here.

You can get hold of Kevin Berg’s work here.


Paul D. Brazill said City of Forts “masterfully blends urban noir with coming of age drama. Tense, atmospheric, and haunting.”

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City of Forts

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Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Dominic Adler on Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Hi, Dominic. Which book are we talking about?

Ah, that’ll be Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins … let’s talk about that.

What’s the synopsis?

It’s a fantasy-thriller set in a Russia-that-isn’t, a place called The Vlast, where a provincial policeman has to stop the regime seizing an artefact of godly power. It’s the first part of a trilogy.

An artifact of Godly Power, like the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

It’s called the Pollandore – it’s a strange transdimensional object that channels power from the Vlast’s trackless forests… and the secret police have captured it. They just don’t know what it does or how it works.

What’s the feel of the book? Is it dark and brutal? Is it light and frothy?

It’s pretty dark – Higgins’ Vlast is based on a kinda 1940s / 50s Russia, and we see a Stalin-esque character evolve from anarchist bank-robber to dictator (like the real version). The book is very much about totalitarianism, and how individuals bend ideology to their will. People have compared Higgins with China Miéville (Perdido Street Station etc), but I’d say Higgins is more interested in plotting than China. Although there is hope in the book, it’s a thin bead of light cast against a big ol’ stretch of darkness.

Who’s the protagonist? Does he work for the regime?

The protagonist is Vasserion Lom, a security policeman. He’s sent to the big city to capture the anarchist-Stalin character (Josef Cantor) but meets a young woman called Maroussia who is strangely linked to the Pollandor. Vasserion begins to realise he’s a patsy of sorts, albeit in a game played between those who would control the bizarre angel-creatures living in the Vlast’s endless forests and the regime who wish to unlock the Pollandor’s secrets. Vasserion’s journey from cop to dissident is gradual, transformed by his friendship with Maroussia.

It’s a fucking crazy book. You just fall into this world.

It sounds nuts. What are the angel-creatures, why do they live in the forest, and why do people want to control them?

They fell out of space (obviously, right?) and humans use their flesh as a kind of power source (it’s described as being like clay). You get the feeling there’s some sort of celestial power-play going on in the universe, but one of the things Higgins does so well is get you to just accept it. The world-building is incredible – man, there’s sentient *rain* and were-bears but they just segue effortlessly into this political thriller in this not-quite-Russia. It’s why I’m so hyped about the book, it’s startling originality.

The antagonist is a kind of Uncle Joe Stalin – so he clearly wants power. Why does he want it? Does he have communist ideology, or a hyper-real version of communism?

That’s an interesting question – Cantor is like (I suspect) most dictators, in that he conflates his own personal interests with that of the nation – he effectively IS the nation. Higgins doesn’t overly trouble himself with ideological minutiae, which some people who’ve reviewed the book find annoying but I kinda like – there’s so much other stuff going on anyway. And the regime is like this ever-present, 1984-like miasma of paranoia and jack-bootery, probably like a fascist / communist / whatever state. Anyhow, I won’t spoil his cunning masterplan, as its revealed later in the trilogy and is as clever as you’d expect from this particular author.

What does the forest represent? Does it go into the fairy tale idea that the forest is primeval and deadly?

There’s definitely an element of that – the forest is pretty brutal but represents Freedom and everything that means (i.e. it’s messy). There are sylph-like creatures who act as messengers and go-betweens for the dissidents, as the Pollandor is theirs to protect. They also play a role in stopping these giant fucking angels marching relentlessly into civilization (where they’d fight and / or get harvested for their flesh).

Do the angels want anything?

I think they want to get back into fucking space, and are very angry they’ve been shot down. They’re pretty enigmatic. There’s also a clue in there, as there’s a (real world) story of Russian cosmonauts claiming to have seen ‘angels’ during the Soyuz program in the early 80s. They’d probably drunk too much anti-freeze.

The book’s main theme appears to be the horror of totalitarianism. How does the fantasy setting enhance that, if at all?

That’s certainly *a* theme. The fantasy element offers the chance of escape – the Pollandor is, among other things, a psychogeographical portal, where different futures are possible. The forests also represent a different opportunity for the Vlast – a return to its wilder, primal roots. I suppose, in this respect, the book is also about crushing modernity versus tradition, which is sharply illustrated using fantastic elements. It’s also, it has to be said, simply an intriguing genre mash-up in its own right.

You’re known as an action thriller writer whose novels are set firmly in the real world. You’re now working on a fantasy novel – what does fantasy do for you?

It’s a genre I’ve always loved in tandem with thrillers – aged about ten or eleven I’d be reading Jack Higgins and Sven Hassel, but also Mike Moorcock’s ‘Elric‘ novels and Philip Jose Farmer. As the name suggests, fantasy gives you total freedom from real-world realities, although of course the challenge is to make it compelling, to help the reader achieve suspension of disbelief. And as a genre, like sci-fi, it’s extremely broad and loves being mashed-up.

I read Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain – a great story.

A lot of fantasy, in my experience, meanders. That has pluses and negatives. What’s the situation with Wolfhound Century?

One thing that hits you, moving from writing real-world thrillers to fantasy, is word-count. Fantasy readers kinda expect 100K as entry-level, whereas my thrillers usually sit at 80K. Why is that? I suspect most of it is world-building, because you’re being introduced to so many new concepts and environments. And if thrillers are usually a slap-up meal, fantasy is more likely a leisurely banquet. Wolfhound Century doesn’t meander as such, but Higgins’ prose is beautiful (he could easily be writing literary fiction) and the pacing is just-so. I didn’t feel it dragged, in fact I devoured it, kicking myself I’ll never be able to write like that (I just couldn’t). This is probably because Higgins encases his story in many of the tropes you’d expect from a piece of espionage fiction (although if you like old Le Carre, for example, you’ll see them meandering like the Amazon!).

One reviewer said of the book that it builds its world through showing, such as giants pushing something along a street in a matter-of-fact manner, which blew him away, though nothing spectacular had happened. Is fantasy as a whole guilty of telling instead of showing like this or do I just not read widely enough in the genre?

I’ve got some strong views on showing / telling as a piece of writing diktat, (I think it overblown to a certain extent, a meta-rule that troubles writers and editors more than readers). However, where you are definitely onto something is the info-dump some fantasy writers are prone to. They’ve built this incredible world and they want to tell you all about it, which can be incredibly dull. A story is still a story – it needs to move, not be bogged down. So maybe fantasy as a genre is more likely to fall into that elephant trap. Conversely, fantasy writers who are on top of their game, just like in any genre, tease and / or suggest with their world-building (like Higgins does – he lets you figure it out naturally).

What would suit a Wolfhound Century adaptation – a TV series or film?

Given the quality of some of the stuff on Netflix, and the luxury of telling a story over a dozen episodes or so? TV.

Who’d star as the main characters?

Hmmm. Well, my Vissarion Lom is gonna be Tom Hiddlestone, Maroussia would be played by Andrea Riseborough and Josef Kantor would be made flesh by the one-and-only Cilian Murphy.

What about the sequels? Mythago Wood is one of my favourites, but the sequels didn’t hit home. Does Higgins keep it up?

A big criticism of the first book is it’s ending – it’s very abrupt – it seems clear Higgins just went and banged down a half-million word story which the publishers simply chopped into three. Happily, the rest of the saga is just as good – ‘Truth and Fear’ and ‘Radiant State.’ None of these are stand-alone stories, you’re either in this one for the long-haul or you ain’t. The last takes place in a 1950ish atom-punk setting and unambiguously ends the piece, which is very satisfying.

Incidentally, you can get all three books in one volume, called Wolfhound Empire.

I’ll have to get involved in the beast.

Dark as Angels is your new novel (out in September). What’s it all about?

As Alex Shaw blurbed me – it’s ‘Mad Max meets Die Hard’.

That’s the TL;DR… It’s a not-quite-post-apocalyptic thriller set in London, mebbe sixty years from now. There’s been a civil war, started by transhumans (as technology will allow, one day, the rich to quite literally become a separate species from the rest of us). The city’s recovering, and the protagonist, Rufus Hooker, works as a bounty-hunter in one of the ‘No-Zones’ to the east of London. A job takes him inside an anarchist commune and then it all kicks off… there are Trotskyite terror cells, fascist street militias, autonomous killing platforms and big trucks with spikes on. Probably. Rufus is pretty hard-boiled, and he has an ex-terrorist sniper called Leah as a sidekick.

Fabulous cover and it sounds cracking.

Dominic, you’ve been great. Any last words?

Thanks for having me, Jason, it’s always a pleasure!

You can buy Wolfhound Century at Amazons US and UK.

You can find all things Dominic Adler HERE.


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City of Forts

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Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Martin Stanley on James Ellroy’s White Jazz

Hi Martin, which book are we talking about?

White Jazz by James Ellroy

What’s the synopsis?

The plot of this bad boy is almost too labyrinthine to boil down. But it basically involves very bad cop, Dave Klein, an LAPD vice unit lieutenant, lawyer, and part-time mob hitman, being played against numerous vested interests (various strands of the mob, corrupt police officers) by Ed Exley with the ultimate intention of bringing down Exley’s nemesis, Dudley Smith. Meanwhile, Smith – who’s just as smart and ruthless as Exley – plays similar games with Klein. That’s as much as I can give away without spoiling various nuances of the story. This beast is as complex as elaborate circuitry and almost as difficult to navigate.

White Jazz is the kind of book which would make you think twice about reporting a crime to the cops in case it pulled you into a hellscape you had no chance of escaping. Did the book’s paranoia infect you?

The book’s paranoia is infectious. Coming from Teesside (where police corruption has sometimes had a happy home), lack of trust in the police is not uncommon. The jagged nature of the prose affected me in a considerably more profound way. It certainly infected my own writing (at least for a short while). Ellroy may not write first-person narratives often. But he should, because his prose gets under the skin with considerable ease.

One critic said, “No doubt the violence done to the English language is meant to mirror the violence done to humanity by its fellow humanity (I’m being charitable here). But we can’t really begin to care about characters who never even get to inhabit a complete sentence.”

His prose is definitely tough at the beginning, and I had a big problem with it in The Cold Six Thousand, but it works here. You say infected, you’re right – it’s like a fever. The protagonist, Lt. David Klein is a walking fever. What do you make of him?

Dave Klein is one of my favourite protagonists. Don’t get me wrong, he’s utter scum (murderer, slum lord, and all-round villain) but he’s also smart enough and self-aware enough to know this. Neither Ed Exley nor Dudley Smith possess this level of self-awareness; in their own ways they believe they are good men. Klein knows he’s a bad man, and understands sometimes it takes a bad man to catch or punish even worse human beings.

What’s Klein’s drive?

Money certainly doesn’t drive Klein, because he already has it through various illicit and illegal methods. Although he’ll take it if it’s there. Klein has the usual Ellroy tropes of voyeurism and kink (incestuous thoughts for his sister certainly count high on that factor), but ultimately I’d say he’s driven to be a solid detective and solve something big (even if nobody but Ed Exley realises it). He’s driven to make a break from Los Angeles and the grubby life he’s leading.

You said in a previous interview that you don’t need a protagonist to be likeable, as long as they don’t whine or come across as self-pitying. Klein is not likeable, but he has his dark demons to contend with. How does he deal with them?

Being the practical sort, Klein kills a lot of his problems. Self-pity isn’t a trait Klein has much use for, but his self-loathing forms anger he uses to solve some of his issues. Dudley Smith and Ed Exley he deals with using cunning and smarts. Some of his demons he runs away from – such as his issues with his sister. Without giving too much away, as character arcs go, Dave Klein’s is a downward arc. Yes, he learns things about himself, but one does wonder whether the price he pays for ‘enlightenment’ comes at too high a price.

What’s Ed Exley’s world view? In LA Confidential he came off priggish but full of righteousness. In the end he took a turn away from the manual to fulfil his ambition.

How does his character develop in White Jazz?

Exley’s still a ruthless climber, and still cold and distant, but in White Jazz he’s consumed by his hatred for Dudley Smith. Exley’s use of Dave Klein to fulfil his ambition of bringing down Smith is incredibly cynical. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in the execution of his plan. He knows what Klein is, and sees him as an asset to be used and disposed of as he sees fit. If Klein wins, great. But if he loses, Exley will find some other way to approach Smith.

So what’s Dudley Smith’s view of it all? Is he a cynical power grabber, or does he have a higher purpose?

Dudley Smith might be the most cynical and venal Police officer ever committed to print. He’s a racist, multiple murdering, thieving, blackmailing, crime lord. He’s a mobster with a badge. But he’s also a locquacious and highly entertaining character. His only purpose (at least before being watered down in Perfidia) is for the betterment of Dudley Smith.

Do you think Ellroy sees the world like this, that our institutions are corrupt because people are corrupt? Or is he out to entertain in the darkest way possible?

Ellroy is a strange one. He’s a bundle of contradictions. A right-winger who makes his left-leaning characters the most sympathetic. He’s a ‘Christian’ who swears like a docker and chases women relentlessly. His worldview is jaundiced and yet he seems to love it. He definitely sees people and institutions as corrupt, particularly those more clandestine operations, such as the FBI and certain elements of law enforcement – at least within his fiction. He’s such a contradictory character in real life that he’s hard to gauge.

I was convinced Ellroy had turned communist by the time I got to the end of Blood’s a Rover. Have you read it?

I have read it. I enjoyed Blood’s a Rover, but for somebody as disciplined as Ellroy the plotting is surprisingly sloppy (particularly the way he kills off Wayne Tedrow Jr). It’s especially disappointing when you consider how tight American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand are. But it’s still better than Perfidia.

The left-wingers definitely get more sympathetic treatment than those on the right in BaR. Considering he likes to sell himself as a right-wing conservative Christian, Ellroy writes some remarkably good communist characters. That’s what makes him so damn hard to gauge. I’ll be interested to hear his thoughts on Trump (I bet he’s got some interesting things to say), especially when you realise the Russian election interference has the kind of interlocking narratives that Ellroy loves so much.

An Ellroy take on the Trump presidency would be something.

You said Ellroy influenced your early writing, as he did mine – what pulled you away from his style to your own?

Ellroy’s style is too strong and direct and recognisable to read and not be affected by it. White Jazz in particular challenges its readers, but it also has a marked effect on writers. After reading Ellroy my sentences get shorter, my descriptions become less detailed and I start to OD on semi-colons. My stories won’t work in Ellroy’s style. I like pared back prose, but ultimately as a writer I prefer a bit more fat on my sentences than Ellroy provides. That’s why I never read any of his work during the editing process.

Which of Ellroy’s books did you read first?

Blood on the Moon. Didn’t like it all that much, which is why I didn’t pay much attention to Black Dahlia initially when it first came out. What a mistake that was.

Did Black Dahlia come next? That’s the first of his I read. What made you go back to him?

No, it was the rest of the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy and then Black Dahlia. As I didn’t like Blood on the Moon, I just let Ellroy pass me by until the novel of LA Confidential came out. Then I went back to Dahlia and loved it. And then I started on the rest of them. Having been on a diet of Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson up to that point, Ellroy felt like something new and fresh (especially The Big Nowhere).

Ellroy said all movie adaptations of his works are dead. He’s hated all of them except LA Confidential.

Could White Jazz work? And who’d star in it?

I’m not sure it could without major adaptation. White Jazz is kind of the culmination of things that begin with The Big Nowhere, it has plot strands that extend from LA Confidential, along with a multitude of plots that solely belong to that book. There will need to be some serious simplification for it to work as a film. I always thought George Clooney would make a great Klein, but he’s too old now. Not sure who might make the grade now.

I’m sure a TV adaptation would work a treat, though the film adaptation of LA Confidential worked great as a stand-alone.

What do you think of the Underworld USA trilogy? American Tabloid is my favourite Ellroy novel of them all.

Love American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand (although the prose is a definite challenge). I like Blood’s A Rover but don’t love it. As a whole it’s an impressive achievement.

Have you reached peak White Jazz in your own writing, yet?

God, no. If I ever get close to White Jazz in terms of brilliance I’ll probably quit writing and live forever on my one moment of undoubted excellence.

If I come up with anything of the scale, ambition, and execution of the LA Quartet, or the Underworld USA trilogy, I’ll be done as a writer.

In some respects, Ellroy would have been better off starting something entirely original than going back to a new sequence of LA novels. Perfidia ain’t great, and dilutes both Dudley Smith and The Black Dahlia.

If I write something great, I’d like to think I could walk away knowing I didn’t need to add to it and somehow water down my previous achievement.

You’ve just released the latest of your Stanton Brothers thriller series. I hope it’s doing really well. What’s next from you?

Fighting Talk is selling fewer copies than I’d expected; a situation that’s probably my fault because of my inconsistent release schedule. I should try and publish my stuff faster (a yearly cycle, or every six months), and maintain some sort of consistency. You have to keep your readers connected, otherwise they forget you’re around (understandable when it comes to ebooks). It’s something I need to improve upon. For the rest of the year, I’ve got a novella Get Santa (collected together with some previously released Stanton Bros shorts) coming in October/November and then another book that may arrive before the year end (or otherwise in January). In 2019, I’ll hopefully finish and polish The Amsterdamned. I’m going to try and hawk that novel to a publisher rather than self-publish. I think it deserves better than my rather rudimentary attempts at marketing. Fingers crossed there’s a suitable publisher for this labyrinthine, extremely violent tale. But I think with a little work it could actually be something really good.

Martin, you’ve been a star. Thanks for a top interview.

Thanks for the great questions, Jason. I’ve enjoyed it.

You can buy Martin Stanley’s Fighting Talk from Amazons US and UK.

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Sonia Kilvington on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

Sonia, which book are we talking about?

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – The best plot ever!!

What’s the synopsis?

A poor orphan called Pip has a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict in a graveyard on the marshes. Afraid for his life, he steals some brandy, a pork pie and a file from the blacksmith’s workshop; an act which will change his future irrevocably. A year later Pip is summoned to ‘play’ at Satis House, the home of the very mysterious Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella. The house appears to be trapped in time, along with its creepy occupants. Pip falls in love with the beautiful, but heartless, Estella and subsequently becomes dissatisfied with his life and ashamed of his upbringing. At age twenty he receives a strange endowment by an undisclosed benefactor offering him a substantial property along with ‘great expectations’. His new life as a gentleman begins, but tragedy awaits…

So, a classic of English literature. What do you love about it?

I do believe that Charles Dickens was a genius, but there are a couple of reasons I like the novel so much. Firstly, I think it has the best plot of any book I have ever read – it’s so engaging, complicated and has a fabulous revelation, which ties up the actions of the seemingly unconnected characters and different strands of the plot! Not only has Pip been deluded about his benefactor; he has placed his trust in a future which doesn’t exist, believing that steel-hearted Estella was meant to be his wife. Secondly, it was the first book I read as a child that completely captured my imagination; I will never forget that beautifully grotesque scene in which Pip first enters the dining room and sees the decaying wedding breakfast, rotting away and riddled with mice. It’s wonderful!

I like this the best of all Dickens’ books, too. I think I remember more from Oliver Twist, which had great villains, but Oliver himself was too angelic for my taste. Pip is a more complex character, and not entirely likable. Which makes him more interesting. What does Pip do for you?

Children usually have very tough lives in Dickens’ novels! I agree that Pip is a complex and contradictory character. He has a lot of charm, which endeared him to Magwitch in the graveyard at the beginning of the novel. Pip has a big heart and is very loyal to Estella, Miss Havisham and Henry Pocket, although he does treat Joe appallingly due to his snobbery while living his new life in London. I love Pips’ sense of adventure and the way he grasps his new life and lives it to the full. Pip has an enormous capacity for love; we see this when he burns his hands trying ‘put out’ Miss Havisham while she is on fire. He is nearly murdered trying to get Magwitch out of the country and then risks his own life trying to save him during the doomed escape attempt. Having been cured of his snobbery, Pip visits Magwitch in prison, and he doesn’t care that Estella is the daughter of a convict, and is proud to declare his love for her. Social conventions are less relevant to him at the end of the story, and he is a much better man for it! I appreciate his capacity to grow and change due to life experience.

Is it a less sentimental novel than most of his books?

There are degrees of sentimentality in his novels, but that doesn’t detract from his amazing accomplishments in fiction. If anything, Pip is a victim of his own naive sentimentality in this novel. He is besotted with Estella, who has been emotionally damaged beyond repair by Miss Havisham’s eccentric parenting. A modern psychological interpretation would suggest that Miss Havisham is an abusive and narcissist parent, who uses Estella as an extension of herself to wreak havoc on the male population; without empathy or any respect for Estella’s wellbeing. In turn, Estella becomes a cold, narcissistic nightmare, incapable of feeling much or giving anything to her relationships. The end of the novel is somewhat disappointing as Pip still believes ‘love conquers all’ and he is still fully immersed in his delusion. In this case, Dickens has given into a dangerous type of sentimentality. If you prefer the romantic ending, try and imagine Estella being a loving wife and mother…

Miss Havisham’s revenge on men is fascinating in that she’s cruel to Estella and to Pip, but also to herself, which she ultimately realises. Pip might still have a romantic view of life at the end – do you think Estella, in a sequel, could truly escape the ice Miss Havisham has put in place of her heart?

I would love to read a sequel to Great Expectations! I think Estella is incredibly damaged and it wasn’t just Miss Havisham who abused her – she married Bentley Drummle, a physically abusive bully who treat her appallingly! Surprisingly, she actually chose to marry him herself, continuing the cycle of torment. After a lifetime of abuse, both psychological and physical, Estella may have suffered from P.T.S.D., possibly experiencing nightmares, blackouts and memory loss. I think the only real hope for any lasting change would be if her new life and happiness with Pip were seriously threatened, forcing her to adapt, change and hopefully rediscover her heart. If the threat resurfaced from her past, it would be much more engaging and dramatic. Estella’s mother, Molly is still alive and working as a housekeeper for Jaggers. We never found out why he took her in after defending her, perhaps that would be an excellent place to begin a new chapter in their lives?

What’s Dickens’ main theme in Great Expectations? There are always so many it’s hard to know where to start, but one of the big ones for me is the disdain for the times’ ambitions to be a gentleman – a useless, snotty ambition. What’s your biggest takeaway?

Yes, I agree with you on that point – it’s not until Pip has been working as a clerk for his living for a couple of years, that he has any respect for the value of money; he wasted so much on frivolity and then got into serious debt after losing his benefactor. There are two central themes for me, personally. This is a novel about terrible parenting and the harm it causes, not only to the individuals, who suffer terribly but also to others who care for them. As a teenager, I was fascinated by Miss Havisham and the danger of making one disappointment control the events of an entire lifetime. Miss Havisham literally transforms herself into an embodiment of her own unfulfilled past. If you can’t move on from unfortunate circumstances, then your life will rot before your eyes, Mr.Dickens informs us in this wonderful tale. I used a similar theme for a short story I wrote, called, Gatekeeper of Memories, which was influenced by Miss Havisham and her plight. The story will be in my collection, Nightmare Asylum & Other Deadly Delights, which is to be published by Near To The Knuckle in February of next year.

That sounds great. Did Dickens inspire the whole collection?

That is the only Dickens reference, although there are influences of other amazing writers to be found lurking about in the darkness. My story Perfect Love is in part, a modern version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A companion android (sex toy) called Ted (named auspiciously after Mr. Bundy) is given human emotions in an experiment in order to provide a more satisfying experience to his female purchasers – unfortunately it all goes very wrong, and Ted goes on the Rampage – almost as badly as Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe in Great Expectations! Other influences are Helen Dunmore, especially in Winter Baby and Chuck Palahniuk in almost everything. The title story, Nightmare Asylum is the scariest thing I have ever written, it even spooked my writer friend, Chris Roy, and that takes a bit of doing I can tell you! This story is an attempt to capture a reoccurring nightmare I had when I was young. It felt so real, I lived it in my dreams; obviously, it’s been embellished but I aim to terrify – and I hope I have succeeded. I am delighted to have my short story collection published by Near To The Knuckle, and I can’t wait to see Craig Douglas’ illustrations and cover; it’s so exciting.

Thanks for adding to my TBR list. Your short stories are, well – short and snappy. When you write long-form do you like to get all Dickensian? As in – you go deep, you go full descriptive, your characters have a million complex attributes?

I am not quite as descriptive as Mr . Dickens… I write a lot of flash fiction and find it an exciting challenge to realise a full story in such a short number of words. Nightmare Asylum is a much longer story with layers of plot and a distinctive structure. Describing events in a horror story is something I have learnt to do over the last couple of years, it’s important to try and fully immerse your readers in the experience if you want to scare them! My characters are all psychologically damaged in some way; that is something I feel very comfortable with in my writing. Male psychopath is my favourite P.O.V. as it gives you a lot of freedom as a writer. I also enjoy a bit of paranoia; disturbed psychology is essential to my writing. I hope that answers your question in a short and snappy fashion?

A recent article said if Dickens was writing today he’d be a crime writer. Do you go along with that? Which themes would flood his work?

Great Expectations is saturated with crime! At one point in a carriage on the way back to the marshes, Pip feels the danger of it surrounding him, physically, like a hot breath lingering on the back of his neck. If Dickens was writing today, I think there would still be a lot of crime in his books, but there are many other themes such as the dangers of psychological torture as in Hard Times, and physical bullying as in David Copperfield ( also in Great Expectations, when Mrs. Joe repeatedly assaults Pip). There is more than one book that draws attention to terrible prison conditions; the debtor’s prison being a constant threat in all of his novels, especially so in Little Dorrit. I think that most of his themes are timeless and could shape-shift into modern day writing, without too much trouble. These days, he would probably be a multi-genre writer – and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Dickens did say David Copperfield and Great Expectations were his two favourite children. They both feature children as protagonists and the spectre of debtor prisons – which Dickens very much feared in his personal life growing up. Do you see any other similarities?

David Copperfield was a thinly disguised autobiography, as Dickens was sent out to work at aged 12 in a blackening factory (which sounds very grim) after his father was incarcerated in a debtors prison. The theme of child abuse, both psychological and physical runs through both of these books; child workers were exploited mercilessly. There were few things more frightening than to be an orphan in Victorian England according to Mr. Dickens. David Copperfield also admires Steerforth, who is supposed to be a gentleman but turns out to be a nasty piece of work. The value and purpose of being a gentleman are questioned yet again in David Copperfield!

Never trust a gentleman. Which film version of Great Expectations do you like best?

It’s got to be the 1946 David Lean version, which is so dramatic, atmospheric and full of fantastic actors such as John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons, and Martita Hunt. There are a lot of liberties taken with the plot, though. In this version, Estella doesn’t marry Drummle and takes to Miss Havisham’s chair as if history is about to repeat itself.

Miss Havisham looks exactly as I had imagined her from the book, and the decaying dining room is perfect! I hate the ending with Pip and Estella running off into the sunset like a pair of love-struck teenagers, its just too Hollywood and superficial for my liking. I think this film is a product of its time and is terrific despite its many deviations from the novel; it’s a beautiful, timeless classic.

It’s been years since I saw it, but I remember the feel of the film, if not the details. Who’s in your perfect film version, if it was made right now?

I wouldn’t remake it, Jason, new versions are always disappointing in some way. Best to leave the classics alone…

Armando Ianucci is adapting the novel. I think I can get behind that. If Dickens was alive now, what would he be writing about? Is Britain still obsessed with class?

He is apparently adapting David Copperfield this summer… maybe even as we speak! I think that particular novel could take some updating, the original film of that book wasn’t as exciting as Great Expectations. I read that Armando Ianucci is doing a more improvised version, so hopefully that will have a less ‘staged’ feeling than the old black and white film I remember. Mind you, I loved that adapted boat/house on the beach. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere cooler than that!

Nobody seems to convey social anxiety quite as amusingly as Dickens. If he was writing today, I think he would still be covering similar class themes, perhaps adding pointless celebrities to his list of societal problems?

Of course, I confused the two. 

Is there any modern work out there which has come anywhere close to the novel’s impact on you?

Books are very special to me, and I tend to reread them in times of stress and uncertainty. I have lost count of how many times I have read Great Expectations! The only other book I gravitate towards is Your Blue Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore. I wish I could have written that book! It’s unusual and challenging, written from the perspective of a character (Simone) living on a knife edge of debt and disaster. Given her already precarious circumstances, a dangerous ex-lover emerges from the mists of the moorland, turning her chaotic existence into a world of fear and darkness. Edged into a corner what can she do? What terrible things are we capable of to protect ourselves? It’s a fantastic story; beautifully written, and full of poetry and psychological insight.

Sonia, you’ve been great. Thanks a bunch.

It was fun, Jason!

Further Reading:

Time magazine rates Great Expectations as Dickens’ second best novel.

My Favourite Dickens: Great Expectations

Beyond Expectations: Rereading Dickens

You can buy Sonia Kilvington’s books at Amazon US and UK.

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