Where did your interest in so-called 'strange stories' come from?
I was brought up in England, in a bland Home Counties town, experiencing the last vestiges of the shadow cast by the war. My world was black and white; winters always seemed to go on forever, and reading was usually my only escape. The trouble was, we could never afford many books, and I had read most of the local library too. When I was nine, my father, who mostly read Sherlock Holmes, left a couple of Pan horror paperbacks lying around. Needless to say, I read them avidly, and felt myself drawn to the other-worldliness of them. I found I liked to scare myself, but that gore turned me off. One of the stories was an Aickman... and it must have scarred me for life!
What was the inspiration behind your upcoming collection of strange stories, Dying Embers?
Some years ago, I started writing my memoirs, mainly for my children. Having moved away from most of my family to Australia, and realising that my relatives were getting older, it struck me that so many of the anecdotes I had been familiar with throughout my lifetime would not be known to the next generation. In the process of putting pen to paper, it occurred to me that some of these scenarios could be the basis of short stories. Therefore, most of these tales are autobiographical in some way.
How has relocating to Australia affected your writing? And is there a tradition of supernatural stories from down under?
There certainly is a rich tradition of ghost stories from Australia, though in a different sense to the traditional English-style 'haunted house' tale. Mostly the ghosts are from and of the land, such as the Bunyip, which could be seen as the Australian equivalent to the Wendigo of North America. The 'strangeness' here is endemic to the landscape, under a burning sun, as shown powerfully by 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' by Joan Lindsay. I have experienced the effect of remoteness and distance on the psyche, which is every bit as powerful as a Gothic terror or the haunted ramparts of a medieval castle.
Some of the settings for your stories seem to have some historical significance. How authentic is this?
I do like, if possible, to tie my stories at least in part to reality, and several of the tales in Dying Embers are based on local legend or myth. Abraham's Bosom is geographically accurate, and tells a story that has its origins in England, spreading to the south coast of Australia. La Tarasque visits the south of France, bringing a medieval myth up to date, and The Source of the Lea explores a more recent local legend which was part of my youth. Playing Tag, also, weaves some of my own family's history into the recent restoration of an historic house.
Have you ever experienced anything that could not be explained?
Not in the conventional "ghostly" sense, but I've often felt odd things happening to me. For example, when I was a youngster, my father would be up impossibly early every morning for work. He would wake me, clattering around in the kitchen, and I would get up and creep downstairs. The house was usually dark, and I wouldn't switch the lights on for fear of waking my mother. So, in the gloom, I would cross the landing quietly, and float down the stairs. It was the strangest thing; for years I was completely convinced that I didn't touch the stairs at all. I can still feel the sensation of floating right now. It took me a long time to realise that I was probably just half-asleep, and that my mind was playing tricks with me... but were those tricks any less "real" than mundane, everyday things?
I also had a recurring dream as I grew up, of a bleak landscape seemingly made of Toblerone-shaped triangular blocks. There was some kind of shop, also made of these things, and I would enter... then wake up. I can still feel the exquisite texture of this strange world, and when I do, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It seems to me that one need never "make anything up" in strange fiction. If you look hard enough, there's more than enough of the unexplained to go round.
Which writer, past or present, would you like to chat to over a coffee?
No problem there, it would have to be Robert Aickman. But would I also invite L.T.C. Rolt, and try to reconcile them to each other? One thing's for sure, I certainly daren't invite Elizabeth Jane Howard as well; they would surely come to blows!
What is your writing routine?
I tend to fit it around being a house husband. I write first drafts in one of many A5 Moleskine pads which I carry everywhere, then eventually I find time (when the children are at school!) to type it into my laptop as a second draft. Then my editor reads through it, and I re-write; then edit. The whole process takes forever, but I really enjoy it. I must admit I particularly like working in one of my two favourite cafes just up the road.
How much planning goes into your stories?
I go where the situation takes me. I have a general idea about the feel and atmosphere of the tale, but no more than that. The plot, as it were, exists only to support the 'feeling' I want to create. It's inneficient, as often I write and write, then realise that no conclusion is in sight. Then I might shelve it and re-visit the story later, when (in theory) an ending introduces itself to my characters.
What 's next on your agenda?
I have a few short stories which didn't make the cut (well, I admit, they aren't finished yet) for Dying Embers, so I have a head start for the next collection. I am also thinking of a novel, but that is a much longer-term project.
Thanks to More Than Words 2013.