Joseph D’Lacey is a horror, sci-fi and fantasy author best known for his widely published and critically revered eco-horror novel MEAT, In this interview, writer meets writer as his fan and fellow horror-author Simon Bestwick talk about his works, as well as his new two-part novel The Black Dawn.
Do you see yourself as a horror writer? What does that term mean to you, if anything?
I used to. Now I think I’m just a person who can’t keep his weird off the page. I love the notion of light coming from darkness and that neither pole can exist or make sense without the other. If there’s an opportunity to explore that in a story, I’ll often take it and that will almost always ensure an element of horror. Sometimes, though, I just like it when things get totally messed up! As a label, ‘Horror’ helps readers decide what they want to read (or consumers decide what they want to consume…) so, if people identify me as a horror writer and that’s what causes them to pick up my books, I won’t complain. That said, I think I prefer the term Dark Fiction because, even when I stray into another genre, that element of ‘the shadow’ remains.In the final analysis, though, I’m not sure it even matters. What’s important is: did I tell a good yarn? Was the reader transported? After that, it’s all just chat, really.
Where did the idea for The Black Dawn come from? I get the idea it had been with you for a while.
Yes, it gestated for a long, long time. But it’s odd, when you ask me straight out like this, I’m almost unable to find a coherent response. It was a collision of ideas – or prompts – rather than just one thing. I think all I can do here is note some of them:
- A concern for the broken relationship between people in technologically advanced societies and nature – their own and that which exists around them; especially when no such separation is either necessary or warranted.
- I wanted to recount the life of a messiah from birth to martyrdom.
- I wanted to create a post-apocalyptic world that was positive – light from darkness.
- I love crows!
- I love the idea of sacrificial leaders.
- I’m fascinated by the thought that there may be realities beyond our ability to perceive but that our inability to access them does not diminish their actuality in any way.
- I wanted to express some of the ways in which it is possible to connect with the land and its creatures and how good that feels.
You actually managed to get a quote from Stephen King on the cover of your first novel, MEAT (“Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”) What was the story behind that, and how did it feel to get a blurb from him?
Just before they signed me, Beautiful Books were using a publicist who’d worked with SK on his Lisey’s Story UK tour. They asked her if she’d get a copy of MEAT to him. Somehow, she managed it. Two months before publication, I was on a walking holiday in Austria with my wife and I got a text from my editor: “Guess what Stephen King thinks of MEAT…” Fortunately, there was a bench nearby. I needed a good sit down. Funny thing is, I wrote Mr. King a thank you letter and tried to use the same channel to send it. To this day, I don’t know if he received it. Perhaps I’ll get to thank him in person some day. I do hope so.
I understand the published version of your second novel, Garbage Man, was a very different beast to what you’d intended. Can you tell us the story behind that? And do you intend to go back to Garbage Man at some point and restore it to its original vision?
I’ve always been haphazard and ill-disciplined in my writing habits. Garbage Man was a short story that got out of control and became a short novel. The original draft was 55k. As a comparison, The Rats was a similar length. The action begins with the storm over the landfill and doesn’t really let up until the end. Beautiful Books’ plan for the novel came as a shock. They felt the characters had nothing to distinguish them and would I address this? They also wanted a further 40k. I managed but it was a sprint on a very short deadline. Not much time to let it settle before editing and, because a good deal of the new material had to go at the beginning, it slowed the novel’s pace to a crawl. On the plus side, I explored the themes in Garbage Man far more thoroughly than in the earlier draft. But it will forever remain an imperfect novel – well, they all are, aren’t they? but some are more imperfect than others! It didn’t help that the intern proof-reader’s first language wasn’t English! When enough time has gone by, you can chalk these things up to experience, I suppose. Fortunately, the book was re-edited and re-proofed before its re-release with the new edition of Meat in 2013. I also prefer the new cover. Honestly, though, I doubt I’ll revisit the work a third time.
Meat appeared in 2008 and had a huge impact in the horror genre. That was followed by Garbage Man, and a novella, The Kill Crew. And then for several years, it all went quiet, before you came back – in style – with Snake Eyes, Blood Fugue and now the two Black Dawn novels. What happened?
The vicissitudes of publishing and human existence! Beautiful turned down the third eco-horror novel I wrote for them – a tale of carnivorous flora called Weed. I realise now that the rejection may have had more to do with financial issues, as I soon encountered payment problems and, not much later, they went into administration. After that, even with an agent and a decent stack of completed manuscripts, I made no headway at all. It was like starting a career from scratch all over again. A couple of years of this made it look as though I’d dropped out but I continued to write and court publishers throughout. Late in 2009, with nothing left to lose, I began Black Feathers and The Book of the Crowman. Written as a single novel, the first draft took close to a year to complete. Then began yet another seemingly fruitless search for a publisher. In late 2011, and no longer repped, I was approached by Simon Key of the Big Green Bookshop who wanted to do a collection of my short fiction. That became Splinters (Timeline Books, 2012). Around the same time, another editor, Steve Haynes, got in touch after reading The Kill Crew; he was interested in a novel. That contact led to Blood Fugue (SALT, 2012). It was in the late summer of 2012 that I finally hooked up with the Black Dawn’s wonderful publisher, Angry Robot Books, and an agent, Brie Burkeman, who quickly proved herself an awesome force for the good of my career. The publication of The Book of The Crowman now completes a four and half year cycle. Since early 2013, I’ve been more able to concentrate on the important stuff: developing new ideas and writing. What a relief.
Snake Eyes consisted of a pair of novellas, A Man Of Will and Experience and A Trespasser in Long Lofting. It was a hugely enjoyable book, but very much a departure from your earlier work – the first story has more in common with science fiction and the second with the fantasy genre. How did that come about and do you have any plans for more work in that vein?
I’ve got no concrete plans for that. But the fact is that I’ve written sci-fi and fantasy ever since I first ‘got serious’ about the craft. I’ve no doubt that elements of both will appear in whatever comes next. The scope that Fantasy, in particular, lends a subject is becoming more and more attractive at the moment because of the kinds of ideas that are arising in me.
Your strongest works – Meat, Garbage Man and now the Black Dawn – are great stories in their own right, but they’re driven by ecological themes, coupled with a spiritual dimension. Would you describe yourself as religious, or spiritual, and what do those terms mean, for you personally?
It’s very difficult for me to find a single good thing to say about organised religions. From the lips of a professional bullshit artist, that’s quite a boast. I mistrust religions in much the way I mistrust corporate bodies, politicians and Wile E. Coyote. That said, Buddhists and Taoists are relatively cool.At the same time, though, I think atheism just as flawed. It’s one thing to, very justifiably, either mistrust or even abhor religious factions for all the suffering they’ve caused. But to let that disgust completely disable one’s spiritual awareness strikes me as a mistake. I think atheism is an emotional backlash against blind faith and, while I completely understand the trigger, for me that sense of being cheated led to further, deeper questioning rather than opposition. Eventually, dissatisfaction with the world leads you to look within instead of without for answers. When you do that religion is neither right nor wrong; it’s simply irrelevant. I think most people accept now that there’s no objective reality. Good old science has helped a lot on that score. That being the case, religion – or any other organised system of belief – can’t work. Life and all its experiences are entirely subjective. So, the only place you can find answers is within your own subjective perception. There is only one truth: yours.It has taken me a stupidly long time to realise that what you think about and how you think are fundamental to your experience of life. If you think it’s a shit world full of shit people you can’t trust, that’s the world that awaits you outside the front door each morning. What you think about expands. In my personal reality, simply thinking ‘better’ thoughts is enough to ‘improve’ how I experience the world. Personally, I see myself as ‘spiritually active’ or ‘spiritually curious’. I feel that there’s consciousness in all things and that, rather than being separate, localised beings, we’re all connected in the ‘awakeness’ of the universe – an awareness that permeates and interpenetrates everything.
The Black Dawn is a very big, ambitious work – both narratively and philosophically – but your characterisation has a remarkable depth and delicacy. I’m thinking particularly of the relationship between Gordon and Denise. It’s very flawed and damaged, and it certainly isn’t love, but Denise is a very well-drawn, sympathetic character. Was it difficult to keep the balance between those small, human details and the epic scale of the story as a whole?
It’s so heartening to hear you say this. I was often concerned, even in the final editing stages, that the mundane aspects of Gordon and Denise’s relationship would detract from that feeling of other-worldliness that can make Fantasy so appealing. To discover that you think it lends the novel depth is a real relief. I also worried that Denise wasn’t convincing enough to play her role in a way that was fulfilling for readers. So this is all good news! To answer specifically, though, yes; it was very difficult. I was never sure I’d gotten the tone right. Until now!
I was quite intrigued by your handling of the character of Grimwold in The Black Dawn; the changes he goes through over the course of the story are quite remarkable. Did you pre-plan his journey or was it something that just emerged as you wrote the novels?
Ah, Grimwold. What a guy. I love him because he represents a pivotal fragment of light, born right out of the pit of darkness. He’s blacker than a raven’s eye and utterly broken, yet, even through his evil and blindness he leads the way to the light. But Grimwold was a discovery, not a construct. I didn’t plan his journey – I didn’t plan a single aspect of The Black Dawn! The fact that it all came together in the end gives me great faith in the power of the subconscious; that even though you might look across the field that is the novel and see only a few unrelated green shoots, underneath the soil of the field there is total connectivity. In some way, the idea already exists and all you have to do is trust the process enough to discover it.In a departure from all this fluff, I am going the plan my next novel. From the ground up, in its entirety. (Don’t worry. It’s only an experiment…)
So what lies beyond The Black Dawn? Does it represent the ultimate expression of your ecological concerns, or have you more to explore in that vein? What’s next for Joseph D’Lacey?
Things being what they are environmentally, globally – cosmically, even – I doubt my concerns about the land and our world as a whole will diminish in my lifetime. But ecology isn’t the only thing that interests me – or frightens me. There are many other areas of human experience I’m looking forward to exploring in fiction; more, I expect, than I have life left in which to write about them. Still, for a novelist, that’s got to be a good thing.
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