Welcome to part three of our in-depth interview with Adam Nevill. If you missed out on our previous instalments with the man behind The Ritual, never fear here they are.
Adam Nevill Interview Part One
Adam Nevill Interview Part Two
You wrote short stories for Solaris’ The End of the Line and House of Fear collection. What different challenges do you face when writing the short story as opposed to the novel?
AN: Obviously writing a novel is a far bigger investment of time, energy and effort, and for me it’s always been the novel that I was most interested in. I really enjoy writing short stories, and it’s where the more esoteric side of me often comes out. They’re also a bit of a palette where I toy with ideas and voices that I may use later in novels. My horror short stories all seem to be focussed studies of three things: either a dysfunctional relationship, usually during cohabitation; becoming trapped in an evil place; or the investigation of a dreadful community not entirely human. My novels often cover the same ground, but with a wider lens to cover the broader effects of the situations and conditions.
What advice can you offer aspiring writers regarding both the craft and the importance of finding an agent?
AN: The bigger mainstream publishers probably won’t read a manuscript unless it comes from an agent. I tried to get an agent for years after finishing Banquet for the Damned, and was rejected by every agent that took fiction in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. They didn’t even read the book, they just rejected the letter of introduction – it was that hopeless.
After PS Publishing published Banquet for the Damned, I started talking to John Jarrold and became one of his clients. He’s the only agent that’s ever been interested in me. It came after I’d completely given up on having an agent. I wasn’t going to go through sending out letters again – I didn’t have the patience and it was utterly demoralising. It took two years for all the rejection letters to come in! If you’re a horror writer looking for an agent then start with the specialists. I’d recommend my own – JJLA – and Zeno.
But it’s a completely different environment to write in now because of the rise in digital publishing.
Understand the genre
Whether you go it alone now, or with a small press or online concern, or keep trying for the bigger international publishers, my advice to writers is always the same – get the writing right first, because it’s not enough to have ideas and imagination if you want to stand out. You have to discover the best way of expressing your ideas and that comes through acquiring the craft. I approach writing in a very old school way and I recommend it (it’s the only way I know): so thoroughly read the canon of whatever field you’re trying to contribute to. If you’re hoping to make a contribution to horror, go read the late Victorian ghost story writers through to Lovecraft and the Edwardian period. A lot of young writers that I’ve met have just read post eighties horror. Really immerse yourself into everything that’s gone before you and understand the field – it will make you a better writer.
Take a good Creative Writing course too; try and find a mentor who’s more experienced and more accomplished with their language skills than you are. Get tuition on line-by-line rewriting and editing. Learn to think like a poet at the very micro level of decription. It’s a long process – it should be a lifelong purpose if you are compelled to be a writer.
Once you have read widely, worked at your writing, and developed your own voice, then you have a good chance of making an original contribution, even if it’s at a small press level. There are plenty of other people who seem to take shortcuts, but the only route I endorse is the one that I took.
Some regard full time writing as this ‘badge of honour’ and say if you’re not a full time writer, you’re not a real writer. I think that’s bullshit. If it takes you ten years to write a book, so be it.
When I did a Masters in Creative Writing there were professional tutors looking at my work from the first day. It was very demoralising at first, but I started learning quickly and absorbing how to be better, clearer and to write with more impact. I suffered terribly from incoherence because of the sheer rush that writing a first draft can be. I thought I knew how to re-write, but a tutor showed me it was so much more than tinkering with a few commas and the odd sentence. Re-writing is going back and re-writing every single sentence until you’re saying what you want to say in the way you want to say it.
In terms of the craft and use of language I think anyone can be taught to be literate and to craft an entertaining story. In terms of the imaginative quality that makes a book special – that’s innate. But maybe you have it.
What does your full time writing schedule look like?
AN: I wrote full time for a year to finish Last Days. Other than the six days around the time my daughter was born, I worked on the book every day. Though I’ve now decided to return to work three days a week and write on the other four.
But during that year, I would look after my daughter for three hours in the morning, exercise in the gym and then start writing around midday. It usually winds down around six or seven, but if I’m on a roll I can be there at midnight, only breaking for tea.
When I was in my early twenties I could write for sixteen hours and would only take a break to piss or make a cup of tea. Most of what I wrote was incoherent, but felt brilliant and liberating as it came out. But I was pretty clueless. Now I think harder about what I write. It’s still an intense process, maybe not as free flowing and there is more pressure on me than before. It is still physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, but also just as euphoric when it goes well – you can’t beat a good day writing.
You said you learnt a lot about the craft whilst writing Banquet for the Damned. What did you learn?
AN: Everything. I aspired to create an atmosphere in which the supernatural was plausible and to suspend the reader’s disbelief. It was the first time I’d really tried to suggest, through increments, the presence of something supernatural. I wanted to sustain the power in a short story of MR James over a long novel. I tried to write bloody set pieces without using the word ‘blood’. It was a real learning curve.
It was the first time I had put into practice all the things I had learnt from the Creative Writing Masters. My only personal criticism of that book is perhaps it’s too precise, there’s just so much detail. I wanted everything to be as vivid as I could possibly get it, but at the same time I wanted to create a readable, entertaining, pacy horror novel.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
AN: Edith Wharton once said she didn’t believe in ghosts but she was still frightened of them, and that’s important – you need to be frightened of the supernatural. I would say I don’t rule it out and, as Agent Mulder in the X Files says, I want to believe.
AN: The scene in The Ritual where Luke asks to be killed really unsettled me. He had gone beyond reasonable human endurance and wanted to die. When I wrote that scene I said to my girlfriend, “I think I’ve just damaged myself.”
If you disturb yourself when you’re writing, what you have written will always be more effective to the reader. Whilst writing a scene for Last Days I became paranoid and wondered if by writing about the supernatural I could somehow make myself receptive to its appearance. That said I have never frightened myself to the point where I haven’t been able to finish something.
What are the dos and don’ts when writing physical gory horror?
AN: Don’t overwrite. Less is more in terms of description. Use the simplest, most effective language you can – and not much of it – unless wallowing in it is an artistic intention as we see in films like Martyrs and Inside.
What makes a good horror story?
AN: The stories that really work for me suggest rather than explain. They suggest that there is something within the story, a force, that is so dreadful a full revelation of it would be unbearable. It’s the same feeling I often have if I can see a clear night’s sky and suddenly realise, with horror, that I’m on a planet that is a speck of dust within something so vast that I cannot comprehend.
Would you consider writing a non-supernatural horror, such as a serial killer novel?
AN: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think there would have to be a supernatural element. Thomas Harris suggests the unnatural in several of his Hannibal Lecter books, and I like what John Connelly does with crime fiction. But I have so many supernatural horror novels in a queue that I still have to write, I think that is worth dedicating a literary career to.
Would you consider collaborating with another author?
AN: That’s a question I haven’t even considered. I’m not a huge fan of the collaborative effort – it’s one of the reasons I haven’t charged towards filmmaking. I made an unaired short film in 2004, but it highlighted to me the pitfalls of the collaboration.
AN: I really struggle with the idea of censorship, but in some cases you have to have guidelines as to the desired readership’s age. I don’t object to extreme horror, but it has to have something else too. Martyrs is a great example of a film that is philosophically and intellectually interesting, yet at the same time this is in perfect synchronicity with the high level of violence and gore. Whereas something like Hobo with a Shotgun was just unwatchable. I only went to see it because Rutger Hauer was back.
To shock or repulse a reader isn’t difficult, but to genuinely disturb or cause disquiet in a reader is far more interesting. I’m more interested in psychic terror than physical horror. I do use physical horror, but only when necessary. When the story requires it.
Is it possible to write an original horror story?
AN: Yes, it probably is. I’m not determined to appear entirely original, because each generation of writers are introducing a new generation of readers to horror. I write what I feel compelled to write, whether it’s identifiable as part of a similar tradition or not.
Apartment 16 was within the tradition of the haunted house, but part of its commercial success came from a reinvention of that sub-genre. I produce my own interpretation on what has gone before me rather than trying to totally reinvent the wheel.
What current writers do you admire?
AN: I like so many writers. Horror wise recently, my publisher’s The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell, is a brilliant George Romero take on the undead world theme. I really like Christopher Ransom’s first two novels too. Dan Simmons The Terror is another book I’ve loved in recent years. I think Joseph D’Lacey’s Meat is a really fine book from a new British writer too. Other British writers I’ve been reading for years are Conrad Williams, Joel Lane, Reggie Oliver and Mark Samuels. From the canon, I have recently read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which were both outstanding. Outside of horror I’m a huge fan of William Gay, Tom Franklin and Cormac McCarthy – I love American regional literary fiction. In terms of learning from really good writers, who are so good they make you want to give up, I’d recommend those three. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I think it’s really important for horror writers to read outside of horror. I’ve always read a lot of literary fiction and short stories to improve as a writer, to learn new approaches.
PHOTOS: TANIA GLYDE
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