As a young writer currently enjoying the discovery of every kind of prose out there, I often find myself drawn to the weird and wonderful. I confess to a fascination with anything creepy and bleak, and exploring the darker side of things through words captivates me. So, who better for me to interview than, prolific horror writer Simon Bestwick. Simon is author of a impressive 5 novels including, The Faceless, Tide of Souls and the Black Road series, 6 novellas and numerous short stories.
I’m very grateful to Simon for taking time out to chat after a morning of leading workshops for Hive recently. I loved our exchange and I hope you benefit from his words of wisdom as much as I have.
Here, among other things, Simon gives a fascinating insight into the processes of writing short stories and novels in the realm of horror, some excellent advice for young and aspiring writers, and a really honest peek into how he became the writer he is today.
So, you’re a horror writer, how did your journey take shape?
I think the horror was always there. I always liked those kind of stories. There’s a lot of overlap with horror and other areas of literature. And I grew up watching Doctor Who and a lot of science fiction and horror too. My granddad had this fantastically huge book called ‘A Century of Thrillers’, from Poe to Arlen from about 1929, and it was chock full of the greats; loads of Edgar Allen Poe, Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce.
I’ve always written. I wanted to be an actor as well, and later a director. I wanted to do the act-star-direct sort of thing, which few people can really pull off. I did a media performance degree at Salford Uni so I got a bit of both, and coming out of that I worked out that writing was more my thing. I fell away from script writing towards prose. If you write a script you need to get actors and directors and money, whereas if you write a story you just need your fingers and a keyboard. That was about ’96, and I wrote my first stories in ’97 and started sending them out to the small press magazines. You’d get a free copy and if you were lucky you might get a cheque for enough to buy a Chinese takeaway. At first, it was one short story a week, now I write daily – it’s been about 20 years.
What were your stories like to begin with?
It was Boxing Day ’96 – I remember it clearly – I had just reached that point where I knew how dreadful I was and I just wanted to write one good thing. I didn’t care about my ego anymore it was just about the sense of fulfilment that you got from writing. So, I wrote this small story called Once, which was published in this small press mag. I knew as soon as I’d finished it that I’d finally written something real that had some truth to it, some soul. And it was kind of like the lights went on – that’s how you do it. You have to be humble. It’s the great paradox; if you want to produce stuff that people will actually admire, then that has to be the last thing on your mind when you’re writing it. You have to be thinking about the story and whatever truth that story’s actually about. After that I was banging out about a story a week, and eventually graduated to longer works. I had my first story collection in 2004.
So, did you write at all in school, was there any encouragement there?
I had some very good English teachers. The one that gave me the most encouragement was David Bradley. I think he’s actually an MBE now. He would read scads of stuff from me and critique it. I was very, very lucky to have that. Later, I went to an FE college for an acting course, and they had a playwright who visited, and he critiqued some of my work, and that was very helpful.
I wrote about three novels between ages of fifteen and seventeen, all very bad, but each was I think, I hope, a little less bad than the one before it. Then I got more interested in script writing for a time.
When you leave college and you have to work, it’s kind of, well if you want to call yourself a writer you actually have to do it. The beginning was a bad time for me because I knew what I was writing was dreadful. I was writing stuff with the sort of sense that I want everyone to be so impressed with me and think I’m so wonderful, and that makes your work very self-conscious and strained. There’s no heart, no centre to it.
So, you started off writing short stories. Do you prefer shorter stories or novels?
Good question. At the beginning, I loved shorts stories, absolutely – you just sit down and write it. I would potter around, noodle ideas about this or that and whack one out in a night. Whereas a novel requires a different kind of commitment. For me now, a novel now is easier to write in a way because it’s just like this big ongoing project. I have my outline and I just sit down and hit keys until I’ve reached two and a half thousand words which is my usual target. Short stories have actually become more difficult to write in that sense.
So, you said you write 2,500 words a day?
That’s the usual target, yeah.
Do you normally just sit down and write or do you ever have any writing exercises?
From time to time I will use writing exercises if I’m just in a bit of a rut or feeling a bit like I’m not really doing anything. I used to do morning pages, which is an exercise invented by Julia Cameron in a book called ‘The Right to Write’. Essentially, it’s just timed writing, which is something that Natalie Goldberg covers in ‘Writing Down the Bones’. Those are two books which are very, very useful to someone who’s trying to just get stuff out their head and onto the page.
Even if you can’t think of anything to write you just write – I can’t think of anything to write rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb rubbish rubbish rubbish. Sooner or later something will come up. And it’s because you don’t give yourself time to consciously think stuff. You can ask yourself questions while writing and the response to it comes because you haven’t got time to second guess or self-censor.
Do you talk to people about your writing or show your work to other people?
On rare occasions when I’m not quite certain if I’m achieving what I set out to achieve. Another time is when it’s a question of research. Like for example, I used to be friends with an ex-army guy. A lot of the stuff in Hell’s Ditch and more recently Devil’s Highway has a fair bit of action in it, and you want to get that side of things right. So, he would read over it and be able to give me thoughts, particularly on the military mindset.
He said, the main thing you need to work on here is how soldiers actually think, how they look at things and react to stuff. If you can get that down, then you’ve pretty much got it. I think it was Hell’s Ditch when I gave it to him I said, “Oh there’s nothing major”, and then a couple of days later I said “just waiting for your notes”. And he said “yeah, there’s nothing!” It’s a bit worrying though that I can in theory plan some sort of military assault – don’t for god’s sake put me in charge of anything like that!
I lost touch with him by the time I did Devil’s Highway. It’s one of the biggest things in terms of action that I’ve done. It revolves around this huge battle scene, which I’ve never done before. There’re lots of points of views, lots of different characters, lots going on. So of course, you have to try and work out the whole strategic element of it – they attack so they get pushed back so they try this and they try that so you have to work out all these moves and counter moves. And then you have to tell it through the individual experiences of all these people who are caught up in it. It was one of the few books of mine that my wife hasn’t really liked, she said it was a bit too heavy on ‘shooty bang sticks’ as she puts it. I was thinking a little bit of Black Hawk Down when I wrote that, and she hated Black Hawk Down, so there was the problem right away!
Luckily, a writer on a workshop I did, her dad is actually a former Royal Marine Commando and something of an expert, with a good sense of humour as well, so he read the whole thing and was able to give his thoughts. It’s quite funny because in the Black Road books people are mainly using weapons from the past like World War II surplus guns and stuff from the 1980s. So, they’re using sterling submachine guns which were the British army submachine guns from back then, which I’d had the impression were considered a reasonably good piece of equipment. He said they were considered one step above throwing stones!
I will try to be my own toughest critic and my own toughest editor and get it as close as I can to some kind of finished product before I let people see it.
That’s interesting. You mentioned Hell’s Ditch and Devil’s Highway – which of your novels do you like the most?
That’s like making me chose my favourite child!
Which was the most interesting to write?
They were all interesting in different ways. With Tide of Souls, I had a dozen bottom draw novels up to that point, but most of them I’d said I need to rewrite that, but then draw a line underneath and never come back to it, but with Tide of Souls I basically had very good inspiration in terms of four grand, two grand up front, two grand on completion and six months to write it. I probably learned more about the craft, if not the art, of writing a novel, in those six months than in the years waiting for the muse to tell me what to do.
Part of the pleasure there was that I actually did it, I actually wrote a novel. It was a zombie novel, and I wanted it to be more than just a bog-standard zombie novel. I wanted it to be a book that I had written, an actual novel by me, that just happened to have zombies in it. I thought it would do quite badly because the kind of people who might like it, would be put off by the lurid zombie cover and the fact that it’s a book of zombie stories, and the people who would actually read it would think ‘oh this is some sort of pretentious highbrow crap’. As it turned out it was one of their most popular titles in that series, and I got a four-star review in the Daily Telegraph, so I did something right there!
My second novel is The Faceless, which was a very tough book to write in some respects because it was based around the suffering of the First World War, and particularly the aftermath. There were many soldiers who suffered terrible psychological and emotional damage, and there was an awful lot of the physical scars – people lost limbs. World War I produced a huge number of people with massive facial injuries, because of the trenches and steel helmets. The helmet would prevent a fatal head injury, but you would be horrified to see how much of somebody’s face can be destroyed and they’re still alive. I saw pictures while researching that were absolutely horrific beyond anything I could have created out of pure imagination.
These people, not all of them – I doubt many of them lived particularly long lives – but these people had to live with that damage. A lot of early facial reconstruction techniques were pioneered after World War I. You want to try and do justice to that. And it was something when I was working to write the best possible novel that I could, that left me exhausted by the end of it. So, that one means a great deal to me.
Hell’s Ditch is the first thing I had published that wasn’t written to a commission. In the past, it’s always been throw some ideas at a publisher, ooh I’ll have that one, here’s your advanced cheque and off you go. Whereas, Hell’s Ditch was something I wrote because I wanted to write it, I wanted to write the Black Road books, so that has a particular place in my heart. And of course, Devil’s Highway is part of that and is hitting its stride and getting into the flow now.
A Feast of All Souls is kind of a step back from before, it’s an attempt to write something a little bit gentler, a little more varied in colour. A lot of my stuff has been very dark and relentless, but life isn’t just about that, there’s a warmer, wider, more varied essence. I’m not quite sure though how well I succeed in The Feast of All Souls, because whenever when I want to write a happy ending it comes out bleaker than I intended.
So, which is my favourite? Oh god! I really, really want to say I love them all; probably I’d say Hell’s Ditch because it’s the first one I wrote purely for the love. But that’s only if you put a gun to my head, that’d be my answer.
I quite like writing weird or darker stories as well. I think there’s something fascinating about that and I think maybe not the bleakness but the darkness kind of mirrors the world, from a pessimistic view, a little. I don’t know; what is it that you like about the bleak stuff?
There’s always been a bit of social commentary in my stuff, an eye to stuff that’s going on. Horror is a way that you can interpret events in terms of nightmare; in real life, we don’t want to experience the worst-case scenario, we don’t even want to imagine the worst-case scenario. In a novel, you can, and in fiction you can explore that stuff as far as it goes and there’s a catharsis in that.
I find we always put a little bit of ourselves in our writing
Oh yeah. A little bit? Sometimes more than a little.
Yeah definitely. So, you’ve written all these novels, but character is often a big thing. What’s your most interesting or most challenging character?
I think one I found very difficult was a character called Danny Holme, in a novella I wrote called The School House. That was a difficult story to write, for a number of reasons. It was for an anthology called Houses on the Borderline – haunted houses of some kind and you could take it in any direction. My title was The School House and my school days were extremely unhappy; I was pretty horrendously bullied for 7 years. One of the things that was very much on my mind as I wrote it was that an awful lot of my characters have a thing about breaking away from their past, and there was this realisation that so much of what I am and who I am has been shaped by that, for good or ill. And my life may well have been different if I hadn’t had that.
And I was on a train ride when I went past this huge building that was actually a hospital but I saw it as a school house, and that was the title of my story. And this idea came along at some point that, well, I didn’t want to write a straight forward ghost story. I wanted there to be something more solid and physical, but not like a psycho horror story where someone is just hacking people to death. I wanted it, I think it needed, to have an almost nightmarish feel, almost like a David Lynch movie, because it would be the only way to get that kind of effect. And the idea was that if your physical appearance reflected your psyche, then these horrifically mutilated figures would be what their souls were like and what this dreadful place that had turned them into. So, Dan Holme became this sort of character – he’s an orderly at a private exclusive psychiatric home – and one of his patients turns out to be an old school fellow. And there is a process that starts to unlock a lot of his memories from his school days, at the same time as these other more weird and supernatural things happen; it becomes very surreal and the psychiatric hospital and the school seem to become interchangeable.
In The Faceless I had to write a scene featuring Gideon Dace and I was trying to write a horror novel without villains, if that makes sense. The supernatural threat in The Faceless isn’t evil in terms of what it’s trying to do even though it’s very destructive; it’s born out of suffering and cruelty and exploitation. The problem is that there has to be a cause for all that and the person who is responsible is Gideon Dace. And I was facing a character who, if they had any redeeming features, I was buggered if I could find any or knew what they were. And so I had to write this scene where he comes face to face with somebody and he has a moment to justify himself – I wouldn’t say that was easy to write.
That’s interesting. It’s sort of a more removed genre, horror, but in a way that makes it more true to life.
The best stuff I think in that field is effective because it touches on stuff that’s very, very close to us all. There is very little more personal than fear.
Okay, now big question you always get from young writers – what would you say to young and emerging writers who want to go somewhere with their writing?
Run, run away now! No, I’m joking. One of the big things of course is to persevere. Never give up. Write as much as you can, as often as you can, build a routine into your life. Make time, if you can every day, to write. At the same time know when you need to break those rules a little bit because you need to have enough structure to write regularly and enough spontaneity that you’ve actually got a life where things are happening and you’ve got stuff to write about. You can’t have one without the other.
Don’t stop because things are difficult. Read very widely, both within the field you’re interested in and out of it. In horror, one of the big ones is H P Lovecraft, a great insight into the genre and the time he was writing. But also read widely outside the genre. Don’t just be playing a couple of piano keys, a couple of instruments, when you’ve got access to the whole orchestra! I mean, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a long way away from anything I’ve written but I love that book. I would love to be able to write something as rich and funny as that. I doubt I ever will, but it would be lovely to write something so beautiful. It would be a big change of pace for me, and as I said before even when I think I’m getting something lighter it’s usually more of a qualified happy ending, where some of the characters are still alive. In a broad sense, if you’re alive and you’ve achieved your goal then that is a happy ending; all stories end in defeat, I suppose, if you take them right to the end.
Ah yes: finish what you start. Rewrite it and rewrite until you’re happy with it, you have to be your own toughest critic and your own biggest cheerleader at the same time, which is a very weird and tricky balance to get. Send your work out and keep sending your work out. Do your research ahead of time and get your list of agents or publishers, starting with the biggest names right at the top, working your way down to the smaller independent outlets. And do it in batches. And always have a fall-back position. Work out a covering letter ahead of time – they’re not hard to do – I think Stephen King has an idea for one in his book on writing. And of course, have a look on agents and publishers for what they might expect to see in a covering letter. And read the guidelines before you start. If you have all that before you begin, then it’s hard to get discouraged by the inevitable knockbacks.
If you’re incredibly lucky you might get something accepted on the first time you send something out. You’re going to have to be prepared for the knockbacks when they come though, and that endurance is ultimately what you need to have. Always be open to new ideas; if you get an invitation to do something and you’re not sure, say yes and accept the challenge. It’s not like you’re performing open heart surgery on someone – no one’s going to die if you f*ck it up. And you have to take risks in order to progress, in order to grow.
That’s an interesting one. It’s a bit of both, ‘cause all of my friends are writers so we talk about this kind of stuff. But then, the writing is something that I try and get up and do it, and then go on and have the rest of my day. That’s another advantage to getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to write; by the time I’ve hit my quota for the day it’s “oh right, now I can get on with my day” sort of thing. One of the reasons I started getting up that early is for a new job, working shifts, so sometimes I’d be starting at 8 o’clock, sometimes at 10. I need about 2 or 3 hours to get that amount of writing done, so the only way to guarantee that every day is to get up at 4 o’clock.
People talk about discipline when it comes to writing, which is not a very good term; commitment I think is a better one. It’s not someone standing over you with a whip, but it’s like a relationship, you and the writing. I think of my writing not as a separate personality, but as a separate part of my brain that does this. And a lot of my end of things is to show up at the right time and let it get to work. Like I said, it’s about having a very humble attitude, pushing your own ego very far to the back.
Until I’m recognised as some kind of literary genius or until I have lots of money or prizes kind of thing, I’m in no position to be giving myself airs and graces. But knowing this is who I am is quite a big support in many ways, and it enables you to get through some jobs that other people might think are awful and soul destroying. But at the same time, you’re never quite off-duty as a writer; everything is material; you’re constantly a camera, picking stuff up and looking at it, hiding potential ideas in it.
Brilliant. Are you ready for a quick-fire end?
Dracula or Frankenstein?
Mmmm… Dracula. If you’re going to go for evil, then Dracula, but none of that glittery Twilight sh*t.
Jane Eyre or Lizzie Bennet?
Couldn’t give a flying f*ck about either of them.
Poetry – yay or nay?
Yay. Poetry’s great. Shakespeare, Shelley…
Typing or handwriting things?
Both. Typing is quicker so that’s often for a longer thing like a novel. I do like the physical feel of handwriting, especially with a fountain pen where you can see the ink glisten on the page.
Autumn. And season 2 of Blake 7 is pretty awesome, although my other half will never accept the appeal of Blake 7. 4th season of The Wire, definitely.
Kindle or paper?
Probably paper. I do quite like Kindle, but you can’t beat reading a proper book.
Fan of Shakespeare?
Okay, and finally – spaghetti. Do you curl it up and put it on a spoon, chop it up, or shovel?
I’m divided. Usually shovel. Occasional use a spoon. Chopping up is for heathens.
Yeah! Thank you so much for the interview, it was fantastic.