Conrad Williams is a writer whose work I’ve been following for years. His brand of horror can be bleak and vicious – an enraged howl at the world – but his writing is also capable of great pathos, beauty and dark humour. It’s natural to define writers by other writers, but with Conrad this is pretty difficult to do as he’s very much his own entity. Each of Conrad’s novels pushes the genre envelope that little bit further and he’s never afraid to explore new territory. Next month sees the publication of Conrad’s novel, Loss of Separation in which an ex-airline pilot becomes entangled in a world of strange secrets in an English coastal village. So, I thought I’d have a chat with the man himself to discuss the new novel, horror and life as a writer in general.
JO: Hi Conrad. How weird is it to think that years ago, as a man just out of my teens, I attended the launch of your first novel, Head Injuries, and shortly after interviewed you for my BA English project, and now I’m your publisher, strange how life turns out huh?
CW: Who let you into the Head Injuries launch? You weren't invited. And yes, I remember the interview, on the South Bank. Nice project, getting to interview your favourite authors. Wish I'd thought of that one. And now I have to be nice to you because you are el Supremo at Solaris.
Tell us. in your own words, about Loss of Separation, and what the novel means to you.
The novel is very dear to me. It deals with a number of my phobias, including flying (or crashing, to be more accurate), severe injury, disfigurement, falling from great heights... it's a real compendium of Conrad yikes. It's also, hopefully, much subtler than some of my other novels, and more intense. There are fewer characters and it's written in the first person, in the main, which lends it a more intimate air.
It's about a disgraced pilot who leaves his job for a new life on the Suffolk coast. However, he is knocked over by a car in a hit-and-run incident and spends the next six months in a coma. When he comes to, his girlfriend has left him and he is in very bad shape, physically. A local nurse has taken him under her wing, and the other villagers are interested in him too, appalled and intrigued by his cheating of death. They treat him as a talisman, a sin-eater, and bring him secrets to burn. Via these secrets, and other events, he discovers that all is not as it seems in this sleepy seaside village.
Tell us a bit about the genesis of Loss of Separation. How did the story develop and what led you to set it in a coastal village?
The story came directly from an article I read in the Guardian in 2000. A heinous crime, something that has happened quite a few times since then, especially in America. It was obvious novel material. Very grim novel material, but it was begging to be done. I'd always wanted to write about a pilot, and fear of flying.
I'd written a short story called 'eta' for a Time Out anthology in the 90s. That was where the nightmare jet in the novel first appeared. Prior to that I'd written a story called 'To the Beach,' which appeared in The Third Alternative, as Black Static was then called, in around 1993. There's a creature, or a figment of the imagination, called The Craw in that story. I had enormous fun with that and always wanted to draw upon it in a larger work. Loss seemed ideal, especially in a community where sacrifice seems to be rife. There's another story called 'Consummation' (which was, for a long, long time, going to be the title of the novel) which appeared in an anthology called The Ex-Files that also deals with some of the issues in the novel.
Regarding the setting, I'd done some big city novels and I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum. The sleepy seaside town is a bit of a cliché in horror fiction, but it felt right for this story. I wanted a kind of wild, rural vibe. It's kind of Wicker Man meets Blair Witch. And the idea originated while I was living on the coast. I mashed all of this together and Loss of Separation came out.
This novel is quieter than your previous works, Decay Inevitable, The Unblemished and One, which had big, bombastic apocalyptic plots. Was there a desire to return to the supernatural and horror on a more intimate and personal scale?
As mentioned above, yes, I think it was something of a reaction to the big set pieces. The next book I'd like to write, a supernatural ghost story set in rural France (in much the same vein as my stories 'The Owl' and 'Rain') is also quieter, sparsely populated, but (again, hopefully) will be no less impactful in terms of themes and story.
Paul Roan, the ex-pilot main character, goes through a hideous period of rehabilitation after a nasty run in with a car. One thing that strikes me is how convincingly you write about this agonising recovery. Did you undertake meticulous research to get these scenes right?
I made a lot of it up, but I did read a lot about physiotherapy and talked to people I know who have been the subject of invasive surgery. Pain management is a fascinating subject.
I know that you have three young sons. How has becoming a father changed your writing?
Immeasurably. A lot of what I do now in my fiction is influenced or governed by how I feel about them. It's weird to think that ten years ago I didn't know any of them and now it's impossible to imagine having any kind of decent life if they weren't around. People might be finding it tedious that much of my work now has a father/son slant to it, but in dramatic terms, in One for example, where Richard Jane is 300 miles away from his five-year-old son when the world as we know it is ended, and he must go south to try to find if he survived... it trumps by a mile every other alternative I might have explored.
Which writers inspired you to become a writer and how have your influences changed over time?
Dad was pushing writers such as Ballantyne and Stevenson my way from an early age. I'd read over his shoulder sometimes: the newspaper, or whatever novel he was into. He liked thrillers set in the second world war, so I remember (mainly because of their covers) Amok and Tattoo. I read Jaws because I liked the cover, and the Daily Express come-on on the back page: 'Pick up Jaws before midnight, read the first five pages, and I guarantee you'll be putting it down breathless and stunned, as dawn is breaking the next day'. After that there were Peter Haining anthologies bought with pocket money from the book club at school, the Pan Books of Horror, and whatever the crap bookshop in town was carrying on its shelves. King and Herbert, mainly, but Ramsey Campbell too, which led to MR James, Lovecraft, et al.
The two writers who were instrumental in turning me on to weird fiction are Christopher Priest and M John Harrison. Both are effortless stylists, narratively mercurial, and, Harrison especially, are able to infuse their stories with a kind of dread that makes you stop reading for a while and check you're safe. Required reading: Priest's The Glamour, The Affirmation and The Prestige; Harrison's The Ice Monkey, Climbers and The Course of the Heart. I'm very excited that they both have new novels in the pipeline. I also like T.E.D. Klein – his The Ceremonies is a wonderful novel – but he's a slow writer, unfortunately, and, as far as I'm aware, he finds the process unspeakably tortuous. Thomas Tessier's work is also criminally underrated. Finishing Touches, for example, is as good as anything you'll find in horror over the last twenty-five years.
Beyond horror, I'm interested in crime fiction. Not so much police procedurals as the character-driven, angsty thrillers written by James Sallis (Death Shall Have Your Eyes is a stunning novel), Jim Thompson and Derek Raymond. If I hadn't read Raymond, there would have been no Blonde on a Stick. I like what Mark Billingham does, and my old mate Michael Marshall. I like, too, Henning Mankell and Michael Connelly (The Poet is brilliant). Give me good, honest writing and a glacially-paced plot over fast and loose every day.
Which new horror writers do you admire? Who do you think are the rising stars of the genre?
I think Tom Fletcher has a mature voice beyond his years. I like what he's doing in his short stories, particularly (I've not read his novel The Leaping yet). Adam Nevill is enjoying some much deserved success and is a real student of the craft. He cares as much about the writing as the end product. Stephen Volk is quietly making a name for himself and I'm looking forward to seeing a novel from him. Truth be told, I don't read an awful lot of modern horror fiction. The last horror novel I read, other than Adam's, was Scott Smith's The Ruins. I try to keep up with Ramsey's work, and I'm interested in what my peers are up to, but I tend to read in other fields. Partly because I'm worried I might be influenced by other people, or intimidated, or discover that they're writing something similar to me!
Why do you think that horror novels often have such a bad rep?
Because many of them are derivative, badly-written, sloppily-edited hack jobs. But then, you could say that about every genre. Horror's an easy target. I tend to ignore the criticism and just get on with it. It helps that modern publishers, especially the smaller ones with knowledgeable staff who know what they're doing (Angry Robot, PS, your good selves), are injecting good books into the market. There is quality control again, which was not necessarily the case during the height of the last horror boom in the 1980s.
Name your top five horror movies.
Don't Look Now
King Kong (1933)
Night of the Demon
Are you happy to be called a horror writer, or do you think the label harms you?
I am happy to be called a horror writer, or maybe more accurately, a writer of horror.
Do you ever think they'll be a day when a horror novel wins the Booker?
Why not? A horror novel won the Pulitzer. It won't be referred to as a horror novel, obviously...
Tell us a bit about your writing routine.
My wife, Rhonda, is an absolute gem. She's given me more time than I deserve in order to write since the birth of our three sons. At the moment, I have three writing days a week. I get up with Zac at whatever unGodly hour he decides is breakfast time, feed and water him, then sort out the other two zombies when they traipse downstairs. I take the boys to school and get back behind my desk by 9.30 and knock off at 5pm.
I try to do a Graham Greene (by which I mean get at least 500 words done, but I tend to do more than that, especially if I have a deadline looming). I work on Scrivener. And I have a notebook with me whenever I go out. I put ideas, sequences, notes in that and then transcribe on to various files on the Mac when I get back. I have a folder for every project I'm working on. I like working with paper, initially, when I'm sketching out a new novel. I use lots of 3x5 index cards. I have a white board. I need the visuals. When I lived in France I had a bedroom that was 36 square metres! I used one wall for my notes on The Unblemished and stuck up dozens of timelines, character bios and plot progressions. It was great.
I'm easily distracted by the internet so I have an application to hand called Freedom (http://macfreedom.com/) that blocks my wi-fi connection for up to eight hours. I do like to have something else on the go, though, for when I'm stuck or I need to free my head in a different direction, so I'll pop into Red Hot Pawn (http://www.redhotpawn.com/) to play chess with Darren Turpin or Mark Charan Newton (challenge me... I go by the name Salavaria). Or I'll have a football management sim ticking over in the background. Sometimes I'll head out with a notebook and write longhand in a cafe if I need that old school feel. I quite miss the process of writing whole novels with a fountain pen and then typing them up on my Remington Noiseless. But only in a nostalgic way. It was ridiculously hard work. Us writers have got it easy these days.
Do you write to music or are you a writer who needs silence to work?
Silence would be great, but it doesn't exist. I write to music (headphones on), but it has to be without lyrics, unless the lyrics aren't distracting (think Elizabeth Fraser). Classical music works, but I prefer ambient, or soundtracks. Current favourites are the Batman scores and Inception by Hans Zimmer, the Bourne trilogy by John Powell, and pretty much anything by Biosphere (who did the soundtrack to the original version of Insomnia) or The Stars of the Lid. Nick Royle introduced me to The Necks and Paul Schütze. Well worth a listen. His two 'Maps of Hell' albums are sonic horror novels. You can't write anything but horror if you work while listening to them. There's a free Schütze download here, actually: http://soundcloud.com/schutze-hopkins/live-in-hamburg
What’s next on your horizon? Are you sticking with horror or trying your hand at something different?
Other than the French ghost story... my last novel was a crime thriller, and I've got an idea for a sequel. But I've also got a few ideas for YA novels I'd like to write. One is a short, bleak novel about human experimentation, the other is a big trilogy about bibliophile monsters... I'd also like to write a novel set in the Howling Mile universe I invented for Nearly People and The Scalding Rooms. And something to do with dinosaurs. There's definitely a dinosaur novel in me.
Conrad Williams, thank you very much.
Loss of Separation in out March in the UK and April in the US (9781906735555/9781906735562 - £7.99/$9.99)
You can also listen to a podcast featuring Conrad here, at the Unbound Blogzine.