Interview: Graham Masterton on Writing, Research and Violence

Graham Masterton JPGGraham Masterton is mainly recognized for his horror novels but he has also been a prolific writer of thrillers, disaster novels and historical epics, as well as one of the world’s most influential series of sex instruction books. He became a newspaper reporter at the age of seventeen and was appointed editor of Penthouse magazine at only twenty-four. His first horror novel The Manitou was filmed with Tony Curtis playing the lead. More recently Graham turned his hand to crime novels and White Bones, set in Ireland, was a Kindle phenomenon, selling over 100,000 copies in a month. This was followed by Broken Angels, Red Light, Taken For Dead, Blood Sisters, Buried and the forthcoming Living Death. Graham’s horror novels were introduced to Poland in 1989 by his late wife Wiescka and he is now one of the country’s most celebrated authors, winning numerous awards. He is now working on new horror and crime novels.

Some writers plan their work out in great detail before setting pen to paper, while others wing it with no plan at all. Are you one or the other of these, or does it vary depending on the type of story you’re telling?

Of course you need to have a strong central idea when you’re writing a novel, and usually I have a strong subplot as well, so that I can weave one through the other, and (hopefully) bring them both to a mutually satisfying conclusion. I know where my stories are going to be set geographically, and this is very important, because a realistic and interesting setting gives a story depth and believability. If a reader actually knows the pub or coffee bar where the characters are meeting and talking, it gives them an extra sense of enjoyment and inclusion. I know who the principal characters are going to be, but very often an incidental character will materialise whose interests and behaviour have an unplanned but very dramatic effect on the course of the story. Generally, I would say that once I have created them, I leave it to the characters to do all the work. I may want them to do one thing, but they want to do the opposite, which always makes for an interesting conflict in the story.

How many words a day do you normally write?

It varies enormously. If there is a lot of research involved, maybe only three or four pages will get written. If it’s a dramatic chapter with lots of action, between five and seven. When I was finishing Night Warriors I wrote fifty-one pages in one day, but I was younger then, and it was all fantasy that required no looking-up of facts.

A number of your books—your historical novels particularly—must have required extensive research. How does it fit into your writing process—how much do you do, and how much is before, during or after the first draft?

Obviously I research the main concept of the book before I start, but that usually goes no further than thinking that I want to write about oil tycoons (Rich) or the building of the American cross-continental railroads (Railroad) or discovering that Lord Curzon of India had an American-born wife (Empress). After that, I do the research as I go along, looking up whatever needs to be looked up to give the story authenticity and depth. Google has been a Godsend, I have to admit. Rather sadly, I don’t have to visit my local library very often, and I don’t have to order books to help with my research. My new eighteenth century crime thriller Scarlet Widow was a real nightmare to research, although an enjoyable nightmare. I had to research clothing (women didn’t wear knickers because they weren’t invented) transport (all the various kinds of carriage, and the classes of people who trundled about in them) pharmacology (which medicines had been invented in 1750 and which hadn’t) and of course geography (there are scenes set in eighteenth century Birmingham which in those days believe it or not looked quite an attractive place to live). And of course nobody in 1750 had a mobile phone or a car or even a baby’s pushchair. At the moment I am writing a series of crime novels set in Cork, and I read the Irish Examiner online every day to keep up with political and social and criminal news in the Irish Republic. A great deal of my research is fascinating but never gets into the novels. I’m telling a story, not giving a lecture. Nonetheless deep research gives the books an important resonance. It makes the stories sound as if the characters really know what they’re talking about.

On a related note, your productivity is truly enviable, not to say awe-inspiring: nearly a hundred novels, not to mention short stories and twenty-seven sex instruction books. What would you say is the key to this kind of productivity?

Having been expelled from school (for two reasons: no interest in Shakespeare and too much interest in girls) I was trained from the age of seventeen as a newspaper reporter. In that job you have to write every day whether you like it or not, and it was the same when I became deputy editor of Mayfair the men’s magazine and subsequently the executive editor of Penthouse. You have a newspaper or a magazine to get out every week or every month and so you constantly have to be thinking of new and entertaining ideas and, as I say, you have to write even if you have a hangover or you’re in a foul mood or you don’t feel inspired in the slightest. Writing is my job. I would recommend anybody who wants to be a professional writer to seek a job as a journalist first. I have been helping a young woman writer to publish her debut novel, and she often expresses her regret that she didn’t apply to work for her local paper instead of becoming a fashion model.

The Manitou by Graham MasteronYou’ve written across a very wide range of genres, was that more of a creative impulse, a commercial decision or something of both? On a related note, are there any genres you’ve yet to write in that you’d like to, or any you wouldn’t, no matter how popular they are?

It was a mixture of creative impulse and commercial decision., but what you want to write as a writer and what a reader wants to read as a reader are not always the same. If I ever made a bad commercial decision it was to turn away from horror after The Manitou and The Djinn and The Revenge of the Manitou and a few other horror novels and turn my attention to writing historical sagas. That is not to say that the historical sagas weren’t profitable or successful: Rich and Maiden Voyage made it into The New York Times bestseller list. But this happened at the same time that Stephen King was building up his horror readership and if I had continued to do the same I believe I could have been just as renowned as him. Eventually I returned to horror with Tengu, which sold tremendously well, but I definitely lost momentum in that market. I’ll write about anything. I’d like to write more humour, because I regularly used to write humour columns for Mayfair and Penthouse, and even when I left the magazine business to become a full-time novelist, I continued to write World of Nookie, a sexy humour column for Men Only, under the name of Ed Knox. I have half-finished a humorous novel about two siblings who form a rock band in rural America, The Indigestible Brothers but I have never had the time to finish it. Humour writing is extremely hard work … as hard or even harder than being a stand-up comedian. I have also been an agony uncle for Woman’s Own and other women’s magazines in the United States, and I hosted a phone-in sex-advice show on BBC radio for a while, but I think I have said all that ever needs to be said about sex. How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed is still a bestseller in Poland, under the title Magia Seksu. Whenever I go to Poland I not only have horror readers lining up to have their books signed, but middle-aged women telling me that I transformed their sex lives. I am not mad keen on traditional horror threats like vampires or werewolves or zombies (although, having said that, one of my own favourite novels is Descendant, which is all about strigoi, the real Romanian vampires, and The Pariah has kind-of zombies in it). Neither am I particularly keen on sword-and-sorcery, although the five Night Warriors novels are sort of sword-and-sorcery-ish.

I actually stopped reading Buried at one point because I was so afraid something would happen to one of the characters. You’re quite ruthless with them—in the Katie Maguire books, particularly, a lot of her ‘supporting cast’ have been wiped out, and Katie herself has been put through a very brutal emotional mill over the course of the series. Similarly, your characters rarely get anything like a happy ending in terms of any romantic entanglements that arise.

Life is a vale of tears and then you die. It’s a compliment to me if you cared about one of my characters enough to be hesitant about seeing what happened to him or her. But life is difficult and brutal and nothing that I write can match the daily grisliness that goes on in Syria and other parts of the world. Some people like so-called ‘cosy crime’ in which the worst thing that happens is that the bishop gets beaten to death with a badger in the bathroom. However, I wanted to write about crime and the people who have to deal with crime on a daily basis and make it realistic and believable. The stress of their work often leads their personal lives to be chaotic. I personally know a policeman who beat his wife just to vent the anger that he had to suppress at work. As a reporter, I saw some horrible things, like a young man who had jumped in front of a train at Three Bridges station and who was still lying by the track talking to paramedics even though he had been cut in half. Those paramedics would have had to go home that evening and sit down with their families and eat supper as if nothing had happened.

On a related note, you write about violence in a horribly compelling way: you often describe what happens way past the point that other writers would break off, but it never becomes voyeuristic or pornographic, and it continues to compel the reader’s attention (the murder scenes in White Bones spring to mind in particular).

When my late wife and I were living in Ireland, it occurred to me that I had never seen a crime thriller set in Cork, which is a very fascinating and eccentric city and very different from Dublin, say, where so many Irish novels are set. They have their own slang, their own accent, and a cosmopolitan history that comes from Cork being the second-deepest harbour in the world, and thus an attraction for centuries for Vikings, Spaniards, and of course the British Navy. Corkonians still say “take a sconce to that” when they mean take a look at something … a phrase that dates from candlelit days. As I said earlier on, setting is vital. Setting is what gives a novel a four-dimensional quality and of course killing is killing, whether the murderer is a ghost or some other kind of supernatural creature or a scumbag from Knocknaheeny who knocks on your door and shoots you in the head while you’re still carrying your toddler in your arms. I have sometimes set out deliberately to write scenes of extreme horror, because it is a test of my writing quality to make it vivid without (as you say) being pornographic or voyeuristic. My short story ‘Eric The Pie’ was written to do this, and unfortunately resulted in the banning of the first edition of the new Frighteners magazine by WH Smith (Eric has sex with a dying calf). Sepsis, which was a chapbook published by Cemetery Dance, was similar (woman eats dead cat). Rich Chizmar and Brian Freeman at Cemetery Dance will shortly be publishing Cheeseboy, another extreme chapbook, set in Ireland.


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