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Conrad Williams

interviewed by Keith Brooke

The Scalding Rooms by Conrad WilliamsConrad Williams was born in 1969 and has been in print since 1988. He has sold around 80 short stories to a diverse range of publications and anthologies.

He is the author of three novels, Head Injuries, London Revenant and The Unblemished; three novellas, Nearly People, Game and The Scalding Rooms; and a collection of short stories, Use Once then Destroy.

He is a past recipient of the Littlewood Arc Prize and the British Fantasy Award.

He lives in Manchester with his wife, the writer Rhonda Carrier, their sons, Ethan and Ripley, and a monster Maine Coon cat called Reddie.

This interview was conducted by e-mail during March 2007, in the lead-up to publication of The Scalding Rooms.

Keith Brooke: A published author by the age of 19, you now have something like 80 stories and three novellas, three novels and a collection behind you. Are you, at heart, a short-story writer who sometimes writes long? If so, why? Is it a conscious choice, or just how the ideas hit you? Is horror - or speculative fiction as a whole - really a short fiction genre?

Conrad Williams: I've always wanted to be a novelist. But I never had the confidence to just sit down and write one. I felt the need to build my way cover scanup via short stories. That said, I was determined to complete a novel before I was 21. I did. And it was shit. But cracking that 70,000 word limit really gave me some confidence.

I understand what you're getting at, asking me if horror is really a short fiction genre. I talked to Mike Smith for a long time about this and we both agreed that horror more readily suits the short form. You're looking for the frisson. Horror novels tend to suffer because you can't sustain that over the course of 300 pages. You have to have periods of calm.

KB: Who are the horror writers who manage to make it work over 300 pages for you?

CW: Precious few, actually. I prefer to read short stories within the genre, and I tend to look elsewhere for novels. But 'lost boy lost girl' and 'In the Night Room' by Peter Straub were both excellent. Ramsey Campbell's work is always worth reading. Mark Z Danielewski's 'House of Leaves' was one of the creepiest novels I've read in a long time. It will be interesting to read Steven Hall's 'The Raw Shark Texts' and Joe Hill's 'Heart-Shaped Box'. There's a growing feeling that horror is enjoying a renaissance and books such as these are at the vanguard. I'm much more interested in what Joel Lane is doing in his novels, than where the next vampire/werewolf novel is coming from. I'm not one for traditional stuff. The horror I like almost isn't horror. You find it at the margins. It's edgy and unsettling and brilliantly written.

KB: The Scalding Rooms: Junko Caine, haunted by his gang warfare past, has found some kind of stability working in the local abbatoir to support his wife and child, but the past never leaves you alone - Junko's past, but also that of the abbatoir itself and its awful boss Max Grappen. A man struggling to live on the straight and narrow, his past looming large: it has all the ingredients for great psychological horror, but then the setting and the gangland connection opens up the possibility of something far more explicit - a wonderful mix! What led you to the town of Red Meadows, its abbatoir and to Junko and his various acquaintances?

CW: I'd always wanted to write a sequel to Nearly People and this was a good opportunity to revisit that universe. That it was a totally fictitious world meant that I could be as brutal as I liked in terms of what went on behind those slaughterhouse doors.

Junko is the name of the Japanese hairdresser I visited in Marylebone. You know what it's like as a writer. It's like trawling around your memories. A Pic'n'Mix counter.

KB: Did you have to do much research? I hesitate to ask, but were you already well acquainted with the world of animal slaughter and butchery or did you have to find out all about it?

CW: I'd read Eric Schloss's book Fast Food Nation and seen a few articles on battery farming in the weekend supplements. I also remembered a friend back in my undergraduate days who worked in an abattoir during the summer holidays. He used to tell me stories of ringworm and misfiring bolt-guns and general misbehaviour. There's an abattoir in Warrington on New Cut Lane, near The Eyes (yes, all of these placenames exist), but I've never set foot in one of these places. I saw a shocking documentary on TV, I think it was last year, of the disgraceful maltreatment of these poor animals in an abattoir run by cretins who had fannied about at school for fifteen years and then realised they had to get a job. They had no respect whatsoever for the animals they were slaughtering. In contrast, a visiting halal butcher made sure his knives were razor sharp and, although it was hard to see the animals having their throats cut while still alive, you saw that this man felt real compassion. He did his job professionally. He was aghast at the treatment of the other slaughterhouse staff. I thought it would be a great setting for a story.

KB: What do you make of the state of horror publishing at the moment? We have excellent presses like PS Publishing bringing out works like Nearly People and The Scalding Rooms, but is it really possible for a horror author to have a career in mainstream publishing?

CW: You'd have to ask a horror author. I like to write horror stories, but I'd never limit myself by calling myself a horror writer. I write what occurs to me. The next novel is about a pilot recovering from a car crash in a Suffolk cover scanvillage. It will be dark, but you couldn't really put it alongside The Unblemished. It will be interesting to see how things pan out in terms of horror fiction this year and next, especially if the books I mentioned turn out to be a success. We might find horror - by which I mean New Horror, by which I mean something that won't be classed as horror but will flick all the switches a horror reader looks for - will be rescued from the ghetto. It will be given a sexy cover (no black, no red, no snakes slithering through skulls) and offered to us as mainstream fiction. I think that can only be a good thing.

KB: You lived in Suffolk for a time, didn't you? I find with my own writing that it's often a sense of place that triggers a story, but that's particularly so with dark fiction: my teen horror novels, for instance, are very much rooted in place - including the Suffolk coast, now that I think of it. Is it the same for you? Is there something about horror - or, to broaden it, the kind of fiction that presses horror buttons - that is particularly dependent on setting?

CW: I think you're right. I lived in Southwold for six months in 2000 and had the idea for the novel I want to write next while I was there. The novel will be very place dependent, as have all my novels. I think, if a location is represented well, it can almost become another character. Some of my favourite novels are place-dependent too. Jim Crace's Being Dead and Signals Of Distress are set on the coast and the locations really invade your imagination. Interestingly, Jim Crace's next novel, The Pesthouse, though I've yet to read it, sounds as though it would sit happily on the horror shelves.

KB: I note the use of the future tense when you refer to the new novel - how far have you reached with it? Do you have a target date for when you expect it to be finished? Are you writing on spec, or do you already have a publisher lined up?

CW: I don't have a contract with any publisher. The Do-Not Press stopped publishing a couple of years ago. The last book was a commission. This idea has been on my mind for years and it's pushed its way to the front of the queue. I'm glad it's taken so long, because a lot of what I'd planned for it I've rejected and a lot of new stuff has suggested itself. I'm just agonising over how to start it, but it will be this year and it will be called Loss Of Separation. I think.

So what comes after The Scalding Rooms? Any more short fiction, novellas or novels lined up?

CW: Funny you should ask that.... I have a new novella from Gray Friar Press called Rain which is about a dysfunctional family who have escaped to France after a violent break-in. Nasty things happen... It comes with an introduction by Nicholas Royle.

Short stories - I'm looking forward to appearing in Ellen Datlow's Inferno, which is due at the tail-end of the year. There's also a story in Cemetery Dance's The British Invasion.

KB: Tell us about life outside writing, and how the two connect. Like most of us, do you lead parallel existences with a day job and a writing life and is it easy - or even necessary - to keep the two separate? How do you juggle the writing and all the other components of your life?

CW: More and more the two existences are blurred, especially now that I teach creative writing at Warrington Collegiate and Manchester Metropolitan University. I was never great at separating work from writing, though. My loyalties were always to my fiction. I used to work at Channel 4 and would spend all my coffee breaks making notes. I'd have a story on the go while I was writing press releases. I arrived late and left on the dot of 6pm so that I could spend as much time as possible on my own work. Latterly I've been a househusband. Writers who aren't parents might be amazed at how much work you can get done when junior is having an hour-long nap...

KB: It's a great way of imposing discipline on a writer isn't it? And it does teach you to appreciate the opportunities you get to just sit down and write!

How are you finding teaching creative writing? What's your approach to teaching someone to write fiction?

CW: I don't think you can teach fiction. I think you can only teach the discipline and offer feedback. The only way you can get better is to keep doing it and read other people's work. It depresses me when I meet people who say they haven't written since school, but they want to know if it's in them, if they have the ability to write something, if they might be able to cover scanmake a living out of it, that it's their ambition to get a book published. And I ask them what they read, and they say they don't read books and I want to set fire to them and tell them to fuck off and stop wasting my time. There are lots of people like this. Usually, once they start writing in class and see how difficult it is to produce 500 words, they readjust their ambitions. Especially when they realise that a novel is at least 60,000 words long. There's a big discrepancy between wanting to be a writer and actually being a writer, putting the hours in. A lot of people tell me they can't find the time to write. Well, that's the wrong way of looking at it. You have to make the time. Get up at 6am and write for an hour before getting ready for work. Write in your lunch hour. Write on the bus. Write on the toilet. otherwise ten years go by and you think, 'Shit, I wrote nothing.'

KB: What question did you really hope I wouldn't ask you? And what's the answer?

CW: I'm glad you didn't ask me where I get my ideas from. The answer is: the glove compartment in your car.

KB: No... that's the answer to "Where you you get my ideas from?"

Okay, I promised I wasn't going to ask that question, but now that you've raised it... Taking a slight tangent: you've already referred to how authors typically pic'n'mix from real life in their work - do you ever run into problems with this? Any writer who deals with difficult matters is probably even more vulnerable to those around him or her being concerned about "appearing" in fiction, and horror is probably something people are even more sensitive to than most genres - have you ever explicitly used someone in your work, or been accused of this?

CW: In Head Injuries, I referred to a girl I had a monumental five-year crush on at school. I used her real name, although I was certain I hadn't. I described how beautiful her breasts appeared whenever she stretched in class. She read the book. And I met her a few years ago at a school reunion. She was all right about it, thank God. I won't make that mistake again...

KB: You've worked in TV - do you have any ambition to branch out and maybe write scripts, plays, librettos, poetry, advertising copy or any other field I've neglected to mention? Are you artistic and/or musical? It intrigues me that some creative people dabble in lots of areas before settling on the one medium where they can really flourish, whereas others are far more channelled: only ever a writer, or a musician, or an artist.

CW: I've been trying to learn how to play guitar for years, but never been in any one place long enough to find someone to give me lessons... I wrote poetry as a teenager - who didn't? - and I've written a script (for Head Injuries), but only because I was contracted to do so. I'd love to write scripts, but I'm not going to write them speculatively. I'd rather spend the time writing a novel.

KB: And I suppose it's only fair finally to ask which question you really hoped I'd ask, and what is its answer?

CW: I wish you'd asked me if I'd like a suitcase filled with cash so I could take my family on a year-long holiday and write myself daft. The answer: Yes.

KB: Damn, and I didn't ask that! Bad luck, mate...

The Scalding Rooms by Conrad Williams

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