On my quest for blokey writers, the lovely Adele sent me the contact details of one Mr Steve Savile, with the words "interview him, he's really cool," attached to the address. Once again, the girl was write about such things.
Steve Saville is a prolific writer who has had one of those bumpy paths to publication that plague most of us - although to be fair, his has been somewhat bumpier than most. Steve has been good enough to share the trials and tribultions of his writing career with us, which I think goes to prove that persistence is just as much a key to your eventual writing success as your talent as a writer is.
Over to Steve:
Hello Steve! Can you talk us through your writing career to date?
Oh my... okay. Erm. That's... well, it's a long story. It would be, wouldn't it? I mean, I write therefore I just about am. Okay, stepping back into the time machine (cue special effects, Tardis woo-wooo dematerialisation noise and we're back) I first started noodling about skipping lectures at uni to stay home and write some dreadful fantasy-pastiche that was Terry-Pratchett lite... then probably around age 20 I went dark. I discovered horror as a genre to read and found I really enjoyed writing it. So I sat down and wrote a story, Coming for to Carry You Home (as in Swing Lo Sweet Chariot... I guess it must have been the year the rugby fans picked it as an anthem) and sent it away to a small press magazine, Exuberance. It was picked up. Earned me fifty quid. I sat down thinking 'this is easy' and wrote a much longer novella, In Darkness, We Sleep and sent it to Frighteners, the Newsfield magazine (the guys who did all of the computer mags in the 80s) and Oliver Frey bought it for 350 quid. I was beginning to think this was 'easy'. They posted a note in Frightener that they were looking for 40,000 word stories to do as special projects, so I wrote The Last Angel (Angel of Pain, Secret Life of Colours... it's had a raft of titles) and subbed it, thinking it was seriously GOOD. I mean it felt right. But it came back in the same envelope unopened, and started to make a few calls. Newsfield had gone bust. My debut story was supposed to be in that issue along side Steve Harris and some other fairly well known 90s horror writers. I believe 30,000 copies were sat mulching in a warehouse back then. So suddenly I was stuck with a story that was an 'unsellable' length.
In that blind arrogance of youth I wrote a letter (more like a mini-book) of about 10,000 words and sent it to 10 literary agents down in London saying I was the next best thing to sliced bread... 9 wrote back within 7 days asking to see the full manuscript. I sent them out the next morning. Three days later Tanja Howarth (who was PD James and Patricia Highsmith's agent) phoned me at home to say she'd read it, loved it, and thought I was the hottest thing she'd found since whatever the last hot thing was. It was all very heady stuff. I went down to London, we discussed plans for expanding the book. Keep making it more magical was her advice - then it went out to publishers. Unfortunately, timing rather stumped us and the landscape of horror changed pretty much overnight with the arrival of Silence of the Lambs. Everyone wanted less 'magic' and more 'real human horror'. But after a lot of very brilliant rejections we got an offer, only this was right around the time paper prices hiked staggeringly and books went from sub one quid to two fifty and three fifty and four ninety-nine in about 12 months, and like so many debut writers I was cut loose. Unfortunately my second novel, The Sufferer's Song, was proving unsellable because it was too big (160,000 words when everyone wanted 80,000) and Tanja and I parted company.
I worked away in a wilderness for a few years, writing another unsellable novel, Laughing Boy's Shadow, which actually got me back into the game, so to speak, when Laurence Pollinger took it on, describing it as reminiscent of a young Chandler... but still, no joy. I was pretty much done in at this point. There's only so much great rejection a boy can take - and I was still young... maybe 24. So I went and got a real job. That didn't last.
I remember chatting to a guy, a really nice writer, who said you know, you should check out Lucy Bator over at Henderson's, they're doing a series of kids horror novels... like Goosebumps. So I gave her a call and we got on like a house on fire. She, however, admitted the horror line was closed, but they were looking for pre-teen romances... could I write one? The writer's mantra is "I can do that". Great, she said. I need a synopsis on my desk by the end of tomorrow, fax it over. So I got my then girlfriend to round up all of her female friends for a night on the town in which a dozen 20 something girls were going to entertain me with stories of what they thought was hot when they were 12... I wrote an outline that I reckoned knocked it out of the park. Lucy agreed. Unfortunately it was too similar to the idea her best writer had done, could I give her ANOTHER idea for the next morning? Of course, I said, I can do that... And did.
But again, the line never game out, so my teen romances are long gone, hidden on some harddrive I can't access any more.
What it did result in was a phone call many months later to ask if I was into computers because they wanted a book all about this thing called the Internet... I adopted the writers mantra, said, I can do that... and a three weeks later gave them a definitive guide to the internet circa 1995. They intended to publish it in 1997. Needless to say it never happened.
But that led to the first phone call that changed my writing life. It went something like this: "Steve... do you like space and dinosaurs?" "I did...when I was 12." "I've got a job for you but I can't tell you what it is. Want to do it?" "I dunno... do I want to do it?" "I think you want to do it.." and so we danced around it without saying what it was... it was actually pretty cool - adapting Return of the Jedi for young readers, and doing a series of little flip books for Star Wars characters, and doing a FunFax file for Jurassic Park II: The Lost World...
Suddenly in 1997 almost a decade after I started writing I had books out.
It should have been plain sailing from then, right?
Couldn't sell squat for about 6 more years. No matter what I did. I went through a string of agents. One I remember burst into the British Fantasy Convention to say "Steve! I've got BRILLIANT news!" and everyone thought he'd sold my fantasy novel (Bones of Dominion, still unpublished). He hadn't. Spurs had won 1-0.
Then I was quite ill, and during that illness wrote the story that pretty much changed it all, Houdini's Last Illusion, which won the Writers of the Future Award (under the title Bury My Heart at the Garrick). Within a year of that I'd sold a couple of small press collections, and then, through a quirk of knowing people who knew people, got to audition to write for Games Workshop's Warhammer line because their vampire writer had disappeared off the face of the planet...
From there I got fairly lucky in that I got to fulfil a lot of youthful dreams, writing for Dr Who, Torchwood, Stargate, Primeval and other stuff like Slaine, as well as do my own writing. I've been a full time writer since 2005, topped the UK chart with Primeval, hit the German and Italian charts with the Warhammer stuff, and am finally getting to see the reward for all that persistence.
Do you have an agent? If not why not, and if so, why?
I do. And I've had about 11. Nah, that's an exaggeration, but finding a good agent is like trying to find a wife. Actually probably harder in many ways.... you want to get on with them, but you don't want to be their friends, once you're friends they burst in to celebrate football scores instead of book deals... ahem.
You've written a few collaborative works with other authors. How does that work? Does it involve a significantly different approach than writing by yourself? Which do you prefer?
I've collaborated with Bram Stoker Award Winner David Niall Wilson on a Deadwood-esque fantasy about the Devil's Assassin, Steve Lockley (something like 11 times nominee for the British Fantasy Award) on the Sally Reardon Supernatural Mystery series (Of Time and Dust, Missing and Deadlines thus far), Brian M. Logan (an actor and screenwriter) on Monster Town, which has just been picked up by a tv studio in the US, and Aaron Rosenberg on so much stuff my head wants to spin. I really like collaborating because each of these guys brings stuff to the table that I don't have in my own locker. We create something that is neither me nor them but uniquely us. There have been other collabs, like Mostly Human, a straight to e-book venture with Scott Nicholson, Steven Lockley, Willie Meikle and I (four writers, four countries... got to be something for the record books)... in the main each one is very different. With Steve what happens is we thrash out a storyline, he'll write a really rough first pass because his skill is visualising things and chipping out the core story quickly, then I'll get it and fill in the characterisation, the scenery etc until it's smooth and you can't see the joins.
But, obviously, I love working alone as well... it's just fun to work together with people you like, admire and trust.
Tie-in fiction for Stargate, Primeval and Dr Who. How did you score those gigs, and what advice would you give to someone looking to write for established lines like these?
See above, basically. It was a process of luck initially, but in truth it came down to submitting a 100 page sample to Games Workshop, and being lucky that the editor, Lindsey Priestly loved it and thought I was what they needed for the line at the time. Then it was down to barter. I've done X, I'd like to do Y... and approaching the editors in question with cv and begging cap in hand.
As to advice - build your own body of work. More and more tie-ins are being delivered 'complete' from the studios with writers attached in the US, for instance, and then other properties are so hot you've got Michael Moorcock and Ian Rankin doing them... Places like Wizards of the Coast have auditions, check their website for details. Games Workshop run open submission windows- that's the best way in. With one of those you could get into the next anthology... write the best story you can, and you could get into the book line...
Does writing tie-in involve different skills to original fiction?
Yes and no. No in that you still need the basic skill set of any writer, but yes in that you have to please thousands of people who think they know the world you are writing better than you do, and can do it better. There's a shared ownership that you don't face with your own original works. People expect (rightly) that you know what you are talking about, that you are a fan of the show and you get the voice of the characters right. The thing is you can't please everyone, you have to focus on pleasing the people at the show itself, the editors etc. With my Stargate novel for instance, the characterisation was singularly praised by the MGM licensing department but has been savaged by the fans. I watched every episode of Stargate over a 4 week period (that's over 200 episodes of tv) until I knew them inside out, and then wrote the novel. According to the internet it's obvious I've never watched a single episode. You really can't win and you need a fairly thick skin and just need to be sure you've written the best novel you can write for the show.
Speaking of which, can you tell us a bit about your original works?
Well, I've done quite a bit. I'm most proud of two books, neither of which are available in the UK (unless you have a Kindle, that is), Silver, an assassination novel in the vein of Day of the Jackal, but with a religious undercurrent, and London Macabre (only available in Polish currently). Silver's out in Spain, Germany, the US, coming in France... I've released all of my back catalogue on the Kindle through my own imprint BadPress. And in the UK in a few weeks you'll get to see The Black Chalice, which is an original Arhturian fantasy written to kick of Abaddon's Knights of Malory series.
So, why genre fiction?
In truth, I write everything. I've ghostwritten novels in a variety of genres, I've done non-fiction, and am working on a rom-com script. Really, I'm like an idea magpie and flit form shiny thing to shiny thing...
What are you working on right now?
I'm ghostwriting a thriller for a very well known on-air talent in the US, writing Gold the sequel to Silver, and thinking hard about a new fantasy novel, Glass Town, which I think could be very interesting... if I ever get the time to dedicate to fleshing it out fully!
Can you talk us through the positives and negatives of being a full time writer? Do you love the freedom of being a freelancer or do you think you're possibly crazy?
Oh god... I can think of hundreds of negatives - the strain it puts on your family for a start, how it turns you from a writer to a business man chasing invoices and fighting to be paid for your work all across the world, how if you aren't writing you aren't getting paid so you don't eat... mortgage fear when the end of the month looms... but I wouldn't have another job. I am obviously barking mad.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to build a career writing full time (as opposed to just getting a novel published)?
Do it properly. Take the time to learn what you are doing. Think of it as a career - that means long term. Look at the numbers... if you start writing age 30 and write until you are 70 producing 3 great short stories a year (truly great, not just so-so or good) and write one great novel every 2 years by the end of your career you have got 120 GREAT short stories and 20 brilliant novels as your body of work, and that is one incredible body of work that could easily see you accepted into literary cannon. Don't be in a rush. Think of it as a long arduous walk in the desert - you need to take the time, and drink a lot. Ahem.
What is your ultimate writing goal?
I've often joked that if I ever get it right I'll stop writing... so I think that's it. I think my goal is to write a novel and know I've got it right. All of it. That it couldn't be better in any way. And that's the day I'll retire...
And finally, if you could sum up a key piece of writing advice for aspiring writers in one sentence, what would it be?
Be yourself. When you die and Saint Peter's up at those pearly gates waiting to judge you, he isn't going to say "Why couldn't you have been more like Dan Brown... or more like David Baldacci... or more like Terry Pratchett." He's going to say "Why couldn't you have been more like yourself." You have a unique voice. Share it. And that's more than one sentence, obviously, but you get the point.
IT'S AN OLD, OLD STORY
*Actually, it's an ancient interview I found online, conducted by my old friend Mark Seiber, for Really Scary, so for curiosity value, some old thoughts:
You sometimes hear the term born writer being thrown around. In many cases it’s definitely true, but it seems like a hoary cliché in many more. Having known Steve Savile for a few years now, as a writer and a friend, I believe that he is a living embodiment of that title. Steve seems as comfortable with word as others might be walking on their feet or shoving food into their mouths.
Born in October 1969 (which makes him a palindrome at age 33), Steve entered this world in Newcastle, England. Newcastle is a bleak industrial place with a strong shipbuilding and coal-mining heritage. His formal education includes a BA in Political Science and an MA in Islamic Studies. Steve Savile left his native England and is now an expatriate living in Stockholm, Sweden, where he teaches college English.
His publishing history boasts of one full-length novel, Secret Life of Colors, a chapbook called Icarus Descending and a collection of his acclaimed short stories entitled Similar Monsters. More recently, Steve Savile has been contracted to expand his Secret Life of Colors novel and include more stories with its central character in an omnibus edition called tHe LaSt AnGeL. A graphic novel adapted from one of his best short stories, The Fragrance of You, is in the works. However, the most exciting and important thing that has happened to Steve’s career is his recent coup as a winner of the prodigious Writer’s of the Future Award, for his brilliant story, Bury My Heart at the Garrick. Steve was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Really Scary…
Really Scary: Steve, thanks for taking the time for us…
Steve Savile: An honest pleasure, Mark, so let’s roll our sleeves up and dance, shall we?
RS: It seems to me that literature has been an enormous part of your life for just about ever. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
SS: I can actually remember very vividly the first moment I decided – I don’t know if I am odd, but writing really was a conscious decision in my life, not just a banana peel that I slipped on – that I wanted to write. I was sixteen, just out of school, finished with my ‘O’ Levels and contemplating the really scary ‘what happens next?’ part of my life.
I was lucky in that I had a wonderful English teacher, PJ Knock, who ignited a real passion for the written word in me, and regularly told me that I had what it takes if I ever wanted to forget about sports and flexing my teen muscles and get down to the serious business of writing. PJ introduced me to more than just the classics that your average English teacher inflicts upon his pupils. He was a wonderful man who took the time to talk about characters, elements of style and structuring of plots, about what made Dickens and Jerome K. Jerome so wonderful, about warmth and wit in writing, about the dangers of animating the inanimate, attention to detail and continuity. He took the time to show clips from war films where in the background you could see VW Beetles driving along the cliffs in the distance, and read scenes where heroes escaped wild chases by leaping from windows where the author had simply forgotten that the action was taking place on the fourth floor. Like I said, I was like. PJ was a wonderful teacher.
Add to that the fact that my father had a habit of finding books on the train that he thought I might like, including Fritz Leiber’s Nights Black Agents and The Two Towers within a few weeks and I was devouring Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke on a daily basis, it was only natural that I would start to think: “Hmmm…” because for every Asimov or Zelazny you have to wade through the quagmire of sub-standard drek that muddies the way.
Anyway, long story not so much shorter, I was traveling from Newcastle down to London where my father was living, and needing something to get me through the eight hour coach journey, I raided the local library and found a copy of David Eddings’ The Enchanter’s Endgame, missed the fact that it was book five in a series, and devoured it on the long journey. I got off the bus knowing that I wanted to write. I wanted my stories to effect people and *this* was the kind of stuff I wanted to write. Epic. Dazzling. Magical. Heroic.
I proceeded to borrow my aunt’s typewriter – an old Imperial that looked like something out of Naked Lunch – and hammered out the first two chapters of an epic fantasy novel that weekend. It wasn’t good. It’s sitting in ‘The Drawer of Things That World Will Never See’ right now, festering. I followed it with a bizarre comic story that earned the stinging rejection: “We don’t need another Pratchett!” If anything that just served to spur me on. I was writing for myself – I’d never heard of the Small Press and the idea that people would actually pay to read something I had written still hadn’t occurred to me. I made plans to go to college to study business and journalism and kept on with my dirty little secret, locking myself in my room at night and writing…
RS: What are your earliest memories of reading?
SS: I think it goes back to my father again, who used to make up these wild stories for me and my friends whilst performing magic for us – he had a wonderful trick with an old police helmet that he used to make things appear and disappear that kept us all captivated. It was all part of that innocence that is so, so important to the fostering of a vivid imagination. My grandfather was great as well, he used to do card tricks and tell improbable stories of bank robberies to go along with them. At school I was always an impatient reader – I used to skip ahead in the books because I wanted to get to the end and see what happened. Even did that once whilst reading aloud for my teacher in third or forth grade, missing out about 11 pages in a single turn of the page. She noticed and made me go back and read all of the books I had already read, just in case I had skipped stuff, which of course I had.
Serious reading didn’t really begin until I was twelve. My teacher read us The Hobbit at school. It was a magical way to discover that amazing book. The scene where the trolls are planning to eat the dwarves and Gandalf keeps them talking all night until they turn to stone come sunrise is one that I will never forget. The Hobbit was also the first time I experienced grief through a book when Thorin Oakenshield dies. I cried like an idiot. I had never felt anything even close to it.
I begged my parents to give me The Lord of The Rings for Christmas. I started reading The Fellowship of The Ring on Christmas morning, ignoring all of the expensive presents, including my first computer and one of those total control racing games in favour of Middle Earth. I didn’t say a word to anyone for three days solid until I had read all three books. It was a truly amazing way to fall in love with reading, and at that stage, with eyes so wide and ready to be filled with wonder everything I sampled tasted so good.
I remember well my first taste of horror, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, read by torchlight beneath the bedcovers. It was a truly terrifying experience. I am not sure anything since has managed to engender even a tenth of that feeling of unease. King is easy to knock, but the truth is he is only ever competing with himself with each successive novel, everything else pretty much pales in comparison. He really is the grand master of the fantastic.
RS: Have you always been attracted to the fantastic?
SS: I think so. As a child I was always fascinated by Uri Geller. I used to sit on my windowsill trying to make grape seeds shoot and my mother still has a drawer full of bent and twisted cutlery. As far as reading and writing goes, it is difficult to really remember. I know I was strongly influenced by Michael Moorcock, Clive Barker, Stephen Donaldson, Fritz Leiber and JRR Tolkien, more so than any conventional horror writer – I love writers like Jonathan Carroll, Brad Denton and William Browning Spencer who have this wonderfully warped way of looking at the world. I love the fact that things might not be as mundane as they appear. Isn’t it far more interesting to look at the world just slightly off-kilter than thinking that everything is as mundane as it appears to be?
RS: Film has certainly had a staggering influence in our culture for the last 100 years. How greatly do you feel that it has affected your fiction?
SS: Directly, without film I doubt very much that there would not be a genre out there called horror. I think we would be lucky because publishers wouldn’t be striving to pigeonhole young writers into easily definable categories like fantasy, horror, science fiction, speculative fiction, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, it would all be together as it used to be under the auspices of the literature of the fantastic. Tales of imagination. Writers like Carroll, Ligotti, Calvino, Singer, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, Chabon and Gaiman would all be right there next to each other in the bookstores instead of scattered throughout misleading subgenres. Indirectly, I have a very visual (cinematic) way of layering the plots in my work, thinking in terms of scenes and atmosphere far more than many writers. In one of the first reviews of Secret Life of Colours on the old Masters of Terror website the reviewer commented that David Fincher would be the perfect director to bring the book to life, I would tend to agree. Fincher has a wonderfully dark and grainy style which would suit Gabriel Rush down to the ground.
Of course, this is all talking about past projects. Currently I am about halfway through a mainstream/crime novel, parallellines, which is constructed very much in a cinematic style reminiscent of Altman’s Short Cuts or PT Anderson’s gorgeous Magnolia, with nary a hint of the fantastic or the magical, but with plenty of dark absurdity to it.
RS: Obviously, Jonathan Carroll and Fritz Lieber have been literary mentors to you. Are there any other writers who have been influential to you?
SS: Mort Castle has played a strong part in my development, guiding me, encouraging me and telling me honestly when I get it right and more importantly when I get it wrong. Writers I have always admired include Salman Rushdie, Paul Theroux, Michael Moorcock, Roddy Doyle, Douglas Coupland, Chet Williamson, Tim Powers, Jay McKinnery and Paul Auster – these are all must buy writers for me. Every time they have a new release I am first in the queue at the bookstore. The new writers that really inspire me right now would have to be Glen David Gold (everybody simply HAS to go read Carter The Great, a wonderful, wonderful debut novel), Alice Sebold (Lovely Bones is simply beautiful, haunting and elegiac and challenging and captivating – and she just happens to be Glen David Gold’s wife), Zadie Smith (What can I say, White Teeth, hell of a book, genuinely brilliant) and Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is by far and away the best book I have read in the last ten years).
Genrewise I am finding it more and more difficult to get excited by new writers. Brian Hopkins is someone I intend to read a lot more of. I’ve recently finished These I Know By Heart (Vox 13) and from the very first word Hopkins is dealing up wonders and beauty in equal measure. There aren’t many others though. To be honest I find myself failing to finish more and more horror novels because the writers simply don’t know how to write and instead fall back on garish special effects and heaps of thud and blunder.
RS: For better or worse, the Internet has made a monumental impact upon publishing. Do you think this is a good thing?
SS: God no. Erm, did I say that out loud? I’m a Luddite at heart. The internet has done a lot of great things for my career, without it I would never have met John Pelan and ended up co-editing two collections of Fritz Leiber’s work (Black Gondolier & Other Stories and Smoke Ghost & Other Apparitions, published by Midnight House) which was a dream come true. Equally I would never have met David Nordhaus and had the joy of seeing Secret Life of Colours published in the US. But – have you noticed there is always a ‘but’? – the technology of the Internet makes it too easy for the trolls to roam around anonymously posting malicious stuff on message boards. People seem to forget about simple things like common decency and libel laws. I see good people being maligned simply because they had the nerve to disagree with a self-styled Pied Piper of Horror. I used to let this stuff upset me but I find myself steering further and further away from the online communities and simply doing what I ought to have done from the very beginning, writing. The amount of energy that gets wasted in pointless discussion on message boards, all of this “My book is bigger than your book” stuff is really inane and is nothing more than blatant self-promotion that turns me off. I rather enjoy the old days when the writers were more of a mystery. Sure it is nice to hang out in cyberspace with likeminded souls, but I miss the simplicity of the old days.
It has certainly made ‘publishing’ easy – in so much as any idiot with a copy of Dreamweaver or Pagemaker can cobble together a non-paying ezine and call themselves a publisher, which doesn’t help anyone in the long run. There has to be a quality threshold and the painful truth is that the Internet is full of junk masquerading as literature.
RS: What do you think about Print On Demand publishing?
SS: POD as a technology is fine (despite the annoying fact that the cover stock tends to be too thin and curls too easily), POD Publishers on the other hand have the to make minimal investments to get a book into print, taking negligible risks – the name of the game is lots of writers on the list, paying no advances, rejecting as few writers as possible and relying upon accepted writers to peddle their wares. The publishers don’t need to sell more than a handful of copies to break even. It is the kind of business that is obviously going to attract people without a strong editorial history because the actual editing is negligible beyond reading the manuscript and looking for spelling mistakes – and only the most glaringly obvious of those. That said, done properly, print on demand has a lot to offer the ambitious writer and some of the publishers really do have the right ambitions.
RS: Could you state your feelings about the current state of horror fiction?
SS: Tough one, Mark. Tough one. Obviously this is leading question. There is no market for horror fiction in the UK. In the US you have Leisure and Pinnacle but to be honest I’ve not been impressed by the quality of the Pinnacle books I’ve seen. They seem to be distinctly void of originality – with the obvious exception of Scott Nicholson’s Red Church – and rather Leisure being the saviour of the horror genre I wonder if it isn’t getting in to a position of dictating what is and isn’t good horror simply because it is the *only* market? The small press scene is pretty strong, Cemetery Dance and Subterranean put out incredible books, and over in the UK PS Publishing have a great catalogue of titles but frankly the prices of these small press books make book buying prohibitive to the average reader. Novellas trading at thirty and forty bucks is simply immoral.
I am looking forward to the day when Tor, Daw, Del Ray, Bantam, Harper Collins, Random House, Headline, Orion and Macmillan start publishing quality massmarket paperbacks at a good price but that won’t come until the writers stop being satisfied with duplicating the old zombie/vampire/werewolf/serial killer/haunting trash that they saw as kids in the Hammer Horror movies and really start to delve into their own subconscious’s and producing horrors unique to them, start challenging themselves and stretching themselves. There are good writers out there, an upturn in the genre’s fortunes will come. To go back to your comments about the internet, it has made it easy for writers to become complacent and turned them into salesmen rather than craftsmen. Now it is a case where making noise, banging your own drum, has become the norm instead of the exception, and he who bangs loudest becomes most important. The thing people seem to forget is that readers aren’t stupid and readers won’t keep coming back if the stuff you’re writing isn’t good enough. Quality is the key.
I also find it vaguely off-putting that books I spent a lot of money on picking up the small press edition appear a year or so later in the massmarket, this is especially true of anthologies. Some might look at it in a positive light but I can’t help feeling slightly cheated. That said, I am delighted that Ash Tree have issued a collection of Chet Williamson’s short stories and sincerely hope a massmarket publisher picks it up. Chet is a writer’s writer, rather like Charles Beaumont was. You can’t help read his words and be envious of his supreme talent.
RS: DarkTales did a beautiful edition of Secret Life of Colors and I know that you enjoyed working with them. Yet, the sales of the book were unsatisfying. Evidently, all of their sales weren’t very good because they closed their doors earlier this year. Would you care to speculate on that?
SS: Secret Life was really a victim of being released too early in their publishing schedule, long before the guys had gotten distribution sorted out. All that said, it did sell out its original print run. By the time real interest in DarkTales titles began to surface, Secret Life was already an *old* book so the bricks and mortar stores were less than eager to stock it, and pricewise it never stood a chance in my native England retailing at fifteen pounds for a paperback. That was outrageous really, considering the fact that it was a little over 60,000 words in length and had what the DT guys lovingly referred to as a “glob of snot” on the cover. I was pretty happy with the reviews that the book picked up but very disappointed by the lack of promotion in general it received. That was one of the primary reasons behind the new book, The Last Angel, through Catalyst. Gabriel is an interesting hero and I think his story will interest fans of horror, fantasy and crime fiction. Indeed, for a while when Bookface was in its prime Secret Life was actually the #1 read on its bestseller list, up there with the likes of Grisham and Ludlam, and I received a lot of emails from people who said the same thing: “They wouldn’t normally read horror but…” and invariably they were nice enough to say it was one of the most original things they had read, moving, shocking, but not at all what they expected from a ‘horror’ novel. I liked that. That for me is what it is all about, connecting with the reader, giving them something of value for their time, surprising them, entertaining them, making them think and taking those thoughts down avenues they would not usually go.
Running an independent publisher is a full time job and the rewards are minimal, in all honesty. Something like DarkTales took an exceptional amount of courage, unlike your average POD publisher they actually printed upfront a large number of copies, normally around 250 at a time I believe, and marketed them. Of course, they were hit by bookstores and distributors not paying their bills. I have a lot of time for the guys at DT, they had the right idea and so very nearly made it work.
RS: It seems like every week we hear about promising new writers in the field of horror. A lot of that may be hype. Can you name any new writers that excite you?
SS: To be honest I am finding it harder and harder to get excited by ‘new’ writers these days as a lot of it has become about self-promotion rather than simply writing good stories. Michael Laimo is a good writer and a great guy, Brian Hopkins (though I don’t think he really counts as a new writer) is class from top to bottom, excellent writer really producing worthwhile work, Conrad Williams is getting better and better (Nearly People, his PS Publishing novella is a must read), and probably Greg Gifune. I get dreadfully bored with all of the *amazing* blurbs I am reading these days that keep saying things like: “The hottest new voice in horror” Not so long ago a good blurb used to mean something, and from some writers it still does but the trend for hyperbole to boost your friends (or even yourself) has become a little tiresome. Face it, if everything was so good it would be flying off the shelves, New York would be lining up to make massmarkets out of it and cash in on that sudden glut of talent. Publishing is a business. Business is invariably about exploiting assets. Writers and their wares are very definable assets, if they were that *hot* the accountants couldn’t afford not to exploit them. The great thing about the guys I’ve listed above isn’t just that they are good writers; it is that they are gentlemen who understand that to be a writer involves good writing not talking about how good your writing is.
RS: What differences do you observe between British publishing and American publishing?
SS: A large part of it is ambition I think – in the UK I honestly think there is more of a feeling of community and a more genuine feeling of working together for success. There are a number of very talented young writers in the UK that are virtually unknown on mainland USA – I am thinking of Joel Lane, Conrad Williams, Jason Gould, and Christopher Kenworthy who seem to have been around forever and are genuinely exciting writers but are virtually unheard of outside of the UK because they don’t waste their time jumping up and down and shouting: “Look at me! Look at me!”
Of course residing as I do in the grim north of snowy Scandinavia I am very much an outsider looking in on both communities these days.
RS: You’ve told me that you are working on a love story. This may come as a shock to some readers. Could you elaborate on that?
SS: It is true. What can I say? I am the kind of writer my agent hates. I don’t keep turning out the same story over and over, I want to explore, I want to push myself into creating genuine Art, so that sometime when I am long gone my words will linger and perhaps still have the power to effect someone who chances across a dusty book in an even dustier bookstore. The love story is very much in its infancy, but I have a loose outline mapped out along with some character notes. I won’t really get into the meat of it until I have finished parallellines (probably around Christmas time this year), but I am very excited about it. The opening scene takes place on a bridge in Prague where a old man finds a painting of himself and his now dead wife for sale, the painting is of a scene from thirty years before and he never knew the painting existed – the artist had taken a random photo of people in love because he wanted to remember the day himself – the day he learned he was going to be a father. I’m not really in a position to give a lot more than that away, but yeah, I confess, a love story. Non-supernatural, non-nasty love story. I guess I am going soft in my old age.
RS: Where do you see Steve Savile, The Writer, in five years?
SS: To be honest, friend to friend, I don’t know. I can’t see myself *not* writing but I have reevaluated a lot of stuff in my life over the last few years, especially after my illness, and I have realized that my definition of success is probably very different to other people’s. I don’t crave the attention anymore. I don’t feel the desperate need to have one hundred emails in my inbox to prove I am a writer anymore. I want to write the stories that are inside me. I don’t sit and imagine what markets they might be for anymore. I write for me and I am a pretty tough audience. What I can promise is that you won’t read the same story twice. I mean here we are talking about a mainstream crime/lit novel in one breath and a love story in another. I’m nothing if not unpredictable. To be honest though, I can’t see me editing anything else for a long time. I’ve done it now, with Redbrick Eden and the Leiber books. It would be difficult to top the feelings that those books represent, besides I want to write more and editing leeches away time like nothing else. Right at the top you mention the graphic novel of Fragrance of You – at the moment I am talking with the artist about a potential series or interlinked novels roaming in theme from the Knight’s Templar to Da Vinci into the wars in Eastern Europe going on right now. I just like to write and see where those stories lead. Maybe five years from now we’ll be talking about my latest balls out horror novel, who knows?
RS: From our many talks, I know that Science Fiction is very dear to you. Do you still read in the genre? Or is your heart still true to the “Golden Age” of SF, as mine is?
SS: I can’t read modern SF, it is all jargon and hard science. I adore the Golden Age stuff. My bookshelves a overloaded with Sturgeon, Leiber, Asimov, Clarke, Damon Knight, John Brunner, RA Lafferty, Hal Clement, Cordwainer Smith, Bradbury, Ellison, all old school writers who really wrote good stories. I mentioned Charles Beaumont earlier, as I am sure you know Charles died tragically young, but even in his short stay Beaumont wrote some amazing stories. I love rereading Beaumont’s stuff. Have you noticed writers always talk about their stuff? Not their books or their stories, their stuff.
RS: This Writer’s of the Future award…. it’s obviously the biggest thing that’s happened for your career thus far. How do you think this will affect your future?
SS: Winning the award was an amazing thing, as far as writing goes it is by far and away the biggest thing that has happened to me so far, prize aside, getting to workshop with Tim Powers for a week will be an amazing experience. I can see doors that were once closed opening already. I have been asked to adapt a novella into a radio play, have had a couple of massmarket anthology invitations into what look to be pretty major projects for 2003. The secret is building on it. It is one thing to be a writer of the future but quite another to be a writer of the NOW. In April 2003 I’ve got a new book coming out with Catalyst, The Last Angel, which is the definitive Gabriel Rush book. I’ve toyed with doing a second Gabriel Rush novel but to be honest I don’t want to return to his life for another year of mine – instead we are offering a revised and improved version of Secret Life of Colours complete with new alternative ending, a novella and a couple of short stories featuring Gabriel and a huge authors commentary on the genesis of the character, the mythology of the world Gabriel inhabits and the many metamorphoses the story went through from cradle to the grave. This is something I have always wanted to see happen, the DarkTales edition was lovely but didn’t get seen by anywhere near enough people. It sold out its original print-run pretty quickly and when they offered the chance for a reprint I turned it down because there were a number of things I wanted to put right, including a number of missing chapters and a cover which did anything but help sell the book. This time out I’ve got an amazingly homo-erotic illustration from Robert Sammelin (who did Tim Lebbon’s Nature of the Balance cover) which is part Jesus, part angel part demon and so suggestive of suffering and pain it is almost unbearable. I absolutely adore the cover. It absolutely radiates beauty and controversy and it steers away from the usual genre traps.
WRITING ACROSS GENRES
I suppose I should start by introducing myself. So imagine we’re sitting in a smoky bar in Cuba with the music playing and the far-too toned dancers shaming us slightly out of shape writers as we smoke our cigars and sip a nice single malt in the sweltering heat. What? That’s not how you imagine a writer’s life? Okay how about a garret in Soho with a wire-framed bed and a typewriter straight out of Naked Lunch perched on the windowsill, filthy curtains filtering the sunlight, the pasty-faced writer hunched over the keys bleeding onto the white page? Better or a bit too noir? Depending on how we’re meeting I’m Steve, though I could be Alex, or Aaron, and pretty soon to a whole new generation I’ll be Matt. I tried being Aimee for a while – actually Aimee’s book was a Nook First Look title,Moonlands, you might have caught it last year. It was a bit tough being an Aimee so that one went back to Steve pretty soon after because I had a problem logging onto message boards and pretending to be a woman. It felt a bit… creepy. I mean, it is one thing to be Alex Archer and quite another to be Aimee Carr. So alas poor Aimee, I knew her… but not well.
For the purposes of this blog though, I’m Steve and if you’re likely to find me anywhere it’s in the local coffee shop hunched over my laptop pulling the tiny strands of hair that stubbornly spring from my scalp out in frustration as that damned character just did what?
I’m a writer. I don’t call myself an author, I figure that’s for other people to decide. I write therefore I am. That’s basically it. It’s all I do. The thing is no one told me I had to be one thing or another, I didn’t have to be a science fiction writer, or a thriller writer or a crime writer or even a romance writer. So by not applying these restrictions to the way I approach work, I leave myself open to possibilities. I read widely, too. In fact my reading habits veer far more than my writing ones. I think that helps, having a healthy interest (or indeed an unhealthy one) in just about everything (though if you stalk me on Facebook you’ll notice I pretty much only talk about football (soccer to you, I suspect) and 80s music, don’t ask me why, I don’t know, that’s just the way it is… and yes I deliberately ended that line with an 80s music reference. I’m bad).
Okay, so what have I written you might know? I have written books for TV shows like Stargate, Primeval, Doctor Who and Torchwood, for roleplaying games like Warhammer, Pathfinder, Fireborn, Arkham Horror, a few computer games like Risen 2: Dark Waters and the storyline for Battlefield 3, I’ve adapted the old British comic strip Slainé into two novels, I’ve ghostwritten a tell-all as XXXXX XXXX and a bestselling novel for a household name as XXXXX XXXXXXXX (yep, I’m not telling on pain of death), I co-wrote HNIC with the hip hop legend Prodigy from Mobb Deep, and I’ve written a bunch of fairly well received independent novels, including my debut thriller, Silver, which was #2 in the UK for 3 months back in 2011 and the rest of the Ogmios books in the same series. I recently co-wrote with Steve Lockley the first in a (hopefully) series of gritty crime novels, Northern Soul. I’ve also been fairly lucky, and had a few titles feature in Nook First, and London Macabre was picked out as one of the Best 100 Indie Books of last year by B&N. So hopefully that’s a very intense peek into the completely scattergun approach I’ve taken to my career to date, and gives you an idea of why I was asked to try and explain just how I work, how I keep it all separate in my brain and basically don’t go crazy in the process.
One of the biggest influences in my career, one of those pivotal moments, was back in 2001 when I won Writers of the Future. It wasn’t for the award itself, which was incredible validation, it was because I met Kevin J Anderson, who is basically my big brother. I’ve forgotten just about everything I learned at the event apart from Kevin’s 10 Rules of Being a Professional Writer. These things changed my life. Some of them were really obvious, like if you’re going to write a Fluffy Pink Unicorn story write the best damned Fluffy Pink Unicorn story you can, because you never know who is going to read it, others were funny and obviously pertinent, like if you’re going to a con, go as a professional not a fan, don’t be the guy who wears the gaming tee-shirt for 5 days straight and forgets to take a shower. Like I said… obvious, but sometimes you need this stuff spelled out. Bu there was one thing that he said that stood out head and shoulders over everything else, and that was the Popcorn Theory of writing – basically instead of spending all of your energy nurturing this single perfect piece of corn until it pops, you chuck a big heap into a pan and see what pops. Think of it in terms of ideas – you could be the writer who spends 18 months labouring over their magnum opus, or you could put together a dozen proposals for ideas and see which ones catch people’s imaginations.
And that catching the imagination is equally important for me. If a game company or a tv show tie-in comes along and I don’t really like the show, or the game, I won’t do it. Because here’s the thing, I need to really enjoy it and think it’s going to be FUN. It might only take a day or two for someone to read, but writing the book, all the research in getting the characters right etc consume months of my life. I always chuckle when someone posts a ‘hack’ review and says ‘Oh he only did this for the money’ because they think a tv novelisation pays oodles of cash and any fool would do it. Sadly, I was higher paid as a teacher time-wise than for any novel I’ve written apart from Silver. That one broke even. But you don’t do it for the cash. You’d be mad to. You do it because it’s FUN. What is going to set your imagination going? After all you’re looking at writing the best Pink Fluffy Unicorn story you can, remember?
So I need to think I’m going to have a good time hanging around with these characters (there are some I’d kill to write, like Dr Sam Beckett, because believe me, I’m still not satisfied with the notion that he never found his way home…) and that means they need to be great story people. I’m writing a Sherlock Holmes novel for Titan soon, which will be out in 2015. You don’t get a better character than Holmes. He’s so distinctive, with such a unique voice, that the trick to getting him right was a case of buying the BBC audio dramas of the complete Holmes and listening to them solidly for about 6 weeks in any spare time I had, because you get a different response to the words if you hear over see them. Then I read the complete short stories of Conan Doyle, making obsessive notes about dates and times and places. Then I picked up a bunch of Victorian London reference books second hand, and spent ages getting used to stuff like prices for food and drink, purveyors of quality produce, etc. You can see why you need to love something, right? Because the thing is, if you don’t, the fans will know. It’s as simple as that. When I wrote my Stargate novel I watched every single episode back-to-back nonstop for 3 weeks until I knew the characters inside out. MGM wrote me a gorgeous letter about how I’d absolutely captured the voices, but if you look at the reviews it’s the worst Stargate novel ever. Y’see stupidly I made a mistake. I was emailing a buddy, Jonathan Maberry during a break from writing a scene where the team are worrying about what will happen if Maybourne finds out what’s going on… only I called the duplicitous s.o.b. Maberry because Jon’s name was in my brain when I went back to it. That single slip which got through the editors, the proof readers, the approvals set-up at MGM, convinced the more vocal fans of the show I’d never watched a single episode… Funny how it goes sometimes.
Anyway, I’m rambling. I select paying gigs like that based on what will be FUN because I’m actually giving up my allotted lifespan in months on this earth to make it happen. Money never comes into it. I wrote a SPACE 1889 novel with a mate because I used to play the game when I was at university, as had he and his wife, and his wife had tragically died recently so I told the publisher look, I’ll do it, but only if I can do it with David, and only if he gets to write a piece about Janet in the back, explaining why Leviathans in the Clouds had to happen. And if we do that, I’ll do it for free.
I know I can only do so much work in a year, so I divide my schedule up into seasons, and determine that I’m going to write one ‘for the love’ book every year, for me, something that my soul burns for. This year it’s a novel called The Harrowing, by far the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. Next year, I already have a good idea what it’ll be because the idea is bright and shiny in my head and is refusing to go away. That’s a good sign in the selection process.
With my own work it’s different, but no less obsessive. I mean, if we look at London Macabre, a Victorian fantasy (not Steampunk though… honestly) and Silver, a modern day religious terrorism-thriller my process was identical in that I spent a few months just thinking about the team, even dropping a few cheeky links across the timelines, with Dorian Carruthers appearing in London Macabre and Quentin Carruthers running MI6 in modern London. I’d think okay what’s the very worst thing that can happen to these people? And when I’d worked out what it was I’d say right, so that just happened… and go from there. But it’s always the people first. I like normal people. Slightly damaged ones. I’m not a big fan of the invincible hero when I’m writing, however I freely admit that I love Jack Reacher. I think Lee Child’s created the coolest Lone Ranger rides into town to save the day since, well, the Lone Ranger. But for my own stuff, I want some messed up psyches. I want ordinary people who are stretched in extraordinary circumstances. I like to think there’s a hero in all of us waiting to come out.
As odd as it sounds, I don’t like to make things up. So with London Macabre, a book in which real magic has a pretty prominent place, I badger friend who just happens to be a theoretical physicist and say things like ‘okay, I want to make an entire district of London disappear… scientifically, you know, with real physics, how could I do it?’ and he’ll then come back cursing me for a while before coming up with some brilliant answer that I’ll then turn into ‘magic’ that makes sense.
There are exceptions to all of this, of course. I like to watch people. When I first moved to Stockholm I went into a café with a bunch of friends and everyone’s chatting away, and I’m dead silent. They don’t notice it for a while, and just figure ‘oh Steve’s writing again’ but at the table beside us there’s a really attractive woman and she’s got some of those old yellow Kodak envelopes on the table piled up in front of her. A homeless guy comes in and sits at her table. She doesn’t object, doesn’t say a word, and he starts to go through her photos, takes one, stuffs it into his pocket and walks out. I mean it was that surreal, honestly. So I remembered it. Didn’t do anything with it, just remembered it. A few years later I’m in Burger King in Stockholm and this guy comes running in, looks around, checks his watch and runs out. I’m teaching English at this point and one of my kids is on work experience in the restaurant. He tells me this guy has run in at the exact same time for the last four days, checked his watch and run out again without talking to anyone. My mind goes into over drive obviously, I mean what does this guy want? Who is he looking for? Why come back every day at the same time? I love those ‘what if’ questions that go with making stuff up. It’s another one I file away thinking one day I’ll use this in a story. A while later I’m on a plane back to England and the woman in the seat beside me takes a pair of scissors to the magazine she’s brought to read and cuts out every single advertisement in it. I mean this thing is down to bare bones, a few strips of paper holding it together, nothing more. And suddenly it all comes together, the homeless guy with the photos, the guy running into Burger King every day and the woman on the plane collecting adverts. In that moment the idea coalesces and I start writing it while I’m waiting for the connecting flight. That one’s called Remember Me Yesterday, and it’s probably my favourite short story I’ve ever written, but it’s a close call with one that just appeared in the Gene Wolfe tribute anthology from TOR, Shadows of the New Sun. That one is called Ashes and it’s been in my head for 12 years. I had the weirdest day in Prague when I was on honeymoon. I’m walking over the Charles Bridge towards the castle, and I see an artist who has loads of paintings he’s done on display and right in the middle of one it’s my wife and I, and more surreally, it’s of the day I proposed. I know exactly what was happening in it. So I talked to the artist and he explained how his girlfriend had just called him to say he was going to be a dad, and he’d wanted to capture that moment, so he leaned out of the window and took a photograph. Just so happened we were in that photograph and he’d painted. I knew I was always going to use that in a story too, because it’s one of those magic moments that deserves it, you know?
So, yes, the characters always come first apart from when they don’t.
I’m sure you’re wondering what it’s like to live in my head after that. How do I keep it all straight, do I work on different things at once, does Alex have a difference voice from Steve, etc? And the truth is yes, a bit. I’ve done four Alex Archer novels for Gold Eagle/Harlequin, the first, Grendel’s Curse comes out in May. It’s a fun experience because there are something like 50 other Alex Archer novels, you’re protected a little by the anonymity of it and can just (and it’s those two words again) have fun. You can take risks with stuff to simply tell a rollicking good story. The trick is, I try to work on a couple of very different things at the same time, so, say, something like Moonlands, which was a young adult urban fantasy novel and Lucifer’s Machine, the fourth of the Ogmios books, two things that couldn’t be more different. It allows my brain to work on one for a while, letting the ideas for the other percolate in the background without crossing over or getting confused. I like to be editing one book whilst writing another, editing in the morning, writing in the afternoon/evening. There’s a sense of order to it, doing it that way. And I’m a fairly meticulous plotter. Don’t look at me that way – I like to know what’s coming up. I learned it with the tie-in novels. You need to get every single scene from the storyline approved for continuity and authenticity to make sure it meets the show/game owner/creator’s vision. That means no surprises. No letting characters get carried away with themselves. You need to know what’s going to happen.
So once I’ve got my characters, I tend to spend two to three weeks ‘not writing’ by which I mean sitting around seemingly doing nothing. This is the important part. This is the ‘genius’ bit where I’m just thinking. At least that’s what I tell the wife when she comes in and asks why I haven’t done the dishes. I’ve been writing. ‘No you haven’t you’ve been sitting around on your backside all day watching tv’ Nope, I’ve been writing, in here –taps temple… That’s about the time I need to weave a storyline. Not always. Sometimes it can take forever. I ended up writing an outline for my agent a couple of years ago that took me three months. She didn’t like it. It was a crusades era novel around the fall of the Templar, lots of knights and sword fights and revenge stuff. She said it was ‘too history-centric, tied to real events’ – I’d made loads of them up but obviously effectively. So I said, hey, I bet if this was a fantasy, you’d not be worried about that. So I spent another month turning it into a fantasy novel outline, to which she said ‘you’re right, that’s all great… this other stuff though, urgh, hate it…’ so in a fit of pique I threw it all out, and in the space of 20 minutes hammered out an outline in an email thinking ‘I dare you to hate this!’ all the time I was writing it. Sent it away. 10 mins later got a response: ‘Now this is more like it! Why didn’t you do this in the first place?’ Heh. What can I say? Sometimes I need battering into shape.
What I hope you’re seeing here – what you’re taking away from this is not only is it different for every writer, for me it’s different for every book. I wrote London Macabre without any sort of outline, deliberately weaving the most intricate plot and daring myself to solve it, writing myself into trap after trap and kinda saying ‘go on, get out of that!’ With Silver, I had something like 10 plot points or anchors I wanted to hit along the way, that was it. With something like Sign of Glaaki, the brand new Arkham Horror novel, I had a 10,000 word outline with my co-writer Steve Lockely that detailed everything that would happen in the 90,000 word book.