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An Interview with John Kaiine

by Sarah Singleton

Off LimitsJohn Kaiine, born 1967, artist, photographer, writer and one-time gravedigger, is the author of metaphysical thriller/horror novel Fossil Circus, published by Egerton House Publishing. He is also the author of stories "Dolly Sodom", published in Ellen Datlow's Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, subsequently made into a short film by American film maker Brandon Dexter, and "Chavi Chori", included in the Ultimate Witch. "Unlocked" written with Tanith Lee appears in The Mammoth Book Of New Terror. Comic work includes My Closest Friend illustrated by Dave McKean for A1 and lead strip in the horror comic Strand from Trident. Kaiine was a guest at the Octocon in Ireland in 2004 where he gave a Photoshop workshop. His next novel, Hollow, will be published by Egerton House in 2005. He lives by the sea with his author wife Tanith Lee and two black and white cats.

Sarah Singleton: Could you tell us something about your background? How did you come to be a gravedigger?

John Kaiine: I was brought up in a South West London village called Roehampton. It's situated between John KaiineWimbledon Common and Richmond Park and is mentioned in HG Wells' War of the Worlds. There were trees everywhere. Centuries of forests and parkland. Big skies. Beautiful dawns and twilights. However, colossal Modernist high-rise tower blocks also dominated: early sixties 'models for urban renovation': the award-winning architects had obviously holidayed in the Mediterranean and copied the flat roofs seen there. Wonderful. Only trouble is, that it rains in England. Within 15 years all the 'shapes of things to come' were rife with damp and were living health hazards. Le Corbusier's dream gone horribly wrong.

I lived overlooking a vast gothic convent, which backed onto Richmond Park. Plenty of Catholic iconography, priests and endless nuns who appeared faceless in massive wimples and long trailing habits: they ministered to the considerable Down's Syndrome community resident there.

There was a huge hospital: Queen Mary's. It shared its space with the Limb-Fitting-Centre, the first home of artificial limbs in England. My excellent mum and brother worked there and I was often brought home discarded artificial hands and arms to play with. Some early cybernetic, some beautifully crafted wooden hands perfectly articulated. I still have some. Amputees were omnipresent. From babies born without limbs to ex-servicemen who had lost arms, legs or more in battle. The hospital also housed an extensive burns unit and P1; a psychiatric unit, where inpatients would regularly escape -- no surprise to see naked loons, some very violent, wandering the busy roads. Ongoing burns unit patients were encouraged to live locally, to 'interact' with the public, so those having their faces and lives 'rebuilt' would be sitting next to you on the bus or queuing with you in shops. Some didn't have any face left, their head being held in place by a steel neck brace.

There was also a private psychiatric hospital there: The Priory. Another white walled gothic structure. Mervyn Peake stayed there for three years, shortly before his death. It's now a celeb rehab clinic specialising in 'eating disorders' -- residents from the age of 12 upward.

Roehampton was also on the flight-path for Heathrow, so every few minutes jumbo jets would be coming in to land, so low sometimes you could actually see the passengers' faces. Concorde was always an event to see and hear -- the sonic boom.

In retrospect -- what with dodgy 60's bronze statues dotted about and stags, foxes, owls and other park/common wildlife strolling through the windswept concrete piazzas -- it was an extremely surreal place, but at the time it -- madness, disfigurement, difference, failed futurist, nature rampant, gothic splendour -- just seemed 'normal' to me. Still does. There was an overall humour you find with hospital/psychiatric towns -- a survivor's humour, very black but carried off with great dignity.

Childhood was quite a dark affair. Any escape from reality was welcome. I could read when I was two, Greek Mythology, all mythology and American comic books. And the Beano and Topper on Wednesdays. I was always drawing. BBC Radio 4 was constantly on: brilliant comedies -- Round the Horne, Hancock, The Goons are early memories. It was the time of Monty Python's Flying Circus (if I'm honest, that's where the 'Circus' in Fossil Circus comes from) and later, Fawlty Towers. Basil was, and still remains a great inspiration. In the early 70's, BBC2 began showing the back catalogue of Universal Studios Horror Movies. Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, etc. I couldn't get enough. The first film I consciously remember seeing was the 1933 King Kong. Carry On Screaming is still one of my favourite films.

Primary school was ok. I lasted exactly one week at secondary school -- a 'social experiment' comprehensive on Putney Heath -- I didn't exactly appreciate the bullying from either the pupils or teachers. So, I left home every morning and jumped on a different bus and wandered around London for the day. Museums, galleries, sometimes just riding the tube, people watching, listening. Taking it all in.

I worked in various art studios, on magazines, worked on film special effects for a while, that was great fun. I sang in a band in the late eighties.

Grave-digging? My then local cemetery -- Putney Vale -- was 45 acres of Victorian/Edwardian granite and marble, bounded to Wimbledon Common. I'd played there as a kid, knew most of the names on the headstones: have used some as character names in Fossil Circus and other works. It seemed only right (to me) that I should work there. I got a job there as a gardener, one of many, strimming grass, weeding etc. Most new graves now are dug by mechanical diggers, but at Putney Vale there are many old (moneyed) family graves: four or five generations piled in together and these graves are in extreme proximity of one another -- so whenever a new burial in an old grave was needed, it had to be done by hand so as not to destroy the surrounding tombs. I joined two others and got digging. They had been doing it for years and knew what was coming -- when we got down to about three feet deep I suddenly, very violently threw up. They just laughed. We carried on digging. I threw up again. The stench was unbelievable. Over decades rain had washed down off the common and flooded the burial ground, rotted the coffins and all that was left of dozens of families was a communal 'soup.' After a while, the ground turned to mush and I was sinking into it. Just kept dry heaving and shovelling out the goop. The most disgusting smell was the gallons of new and curdled old industrial disinfectant poured into the grave to mask the stagnant water/rotting flesh.

Fossil Circus by John KaiineSS: Could you tell us about the genesis of Fossil Circus?

JK: It just came. After writing different episodes of Strand, (immortals getting up to no good in real/dark/hidden/mythological London ) I moved onto another comic idea, which I later wrote as a novel -- Clay ( gone to hell ) a supernatural gangland thriller also set in London. I was sketching out characters and scenarios -- all very downbeat alchemical: various characters suggested themselves, a particular line (which is the entire premise of Fossil ) and the names Norman Fish, Roane and Jerusalem Lamb. And that was it.

Originally I thought it was going to be much more 'supernatural' than it was.

I knew 'odd' London, so used what I knew. I wanted a contemporary Gothic novel (not full of 'goths' or for a 'goth' audience -- that certainly didn't interest me -- the only faintly gothy character is Roane, who has the weakest character of all of them) in its truest sense -- an atmosphere of mystery and horror -- I wanted the language to mirror this, but let it do its own thing. Most of the characters -- Mr Jackson, Ernie, Fish -- were drawn upon from childhood. As was Jerusalem.

I wanted illustrations, a glossary, an illustration index. The feel of a Victorian novel, even though it was a paperback, an event -- not just cover and content, something thrown together in an afternoon. I like Victorian and earlier novels and travel-logs with maps, so wanted to include a map or a partial map, which led to a crash course in Photoshop cartography.

It would have been good to have had a page of Dramatis Personae: Mr Jackson ~ A northern double amputee with sexually charged pyromaniac tendencies. Kenneth Schilling ~A chiropodist with a foot fetish. etc. and also a contents page describing each chapter scene by scene with a single striking statement: Arrival At Tookesbury Hall -- The Last Room in the Corridor -- Undertaker's Shrubbery -- Time's Asylum -- Stained Glass Minds -- etc ... but I thought that would be giving too much away.

And it would have been great fun to have had a rambling Rowley Birkin preface: the author dilating at considerable length ... but my own forward stating how the idea of Fossil Circus was ripped off by another 'writer' for a crappy radio play was enough for me.

SS: The novel is at once lyrical and grotesque, with both poetry and bodily fluids aplenty -- the episode of the man with a foot in his freezer springs unpleasantly to mind -- what, for you, is the fascination with the horrible?

JK: There isn't one.

I suppose it's what you're used to: the stuff I personally find horrible, most of the world loves: so-called 'beautiful people' -- either in the worlds of publishing, movies, art or music -- the mind numbing bullshit of 'celebrity' -- let alone politics. (As a worrying prediction of such present dross, and for anyone who hasn't already seen it, I would strongly suggest Nigel Kneale's superb 1968 film The Year of the Sex Olympics.) The force feeding of 'fashionable' concepts -- I'd much rather my characters with their own minds and unique desires were getting their jollies from amputated feet removed from necessity than being floppy-haired thirty somethings looking for love in a media-driven London.

When you're dealing-with/writing-about geriatric psychiatrics, you encounter an awful lot of bodily fluids in one form or another -- they're used as prop, comic device, metaphor. But sometimes it's just funny. When in doubt, get 'em out! Although the This snot has bones 'coughing lift-boy' character is another all too real episode from long ago.

It would be all too easy to appear patronising when talking about characters with 'disabilities', but I will say this -- You want beauty? Watch a blind woman shaving her legs.

SS: The writing in Fossil Circus is not straightforward -- with its curious staccato rhythms it reminded me of Old English poetry, and requires some concentration from the reader -- did you have a particular intention using this style or did it simply evolve from the story?

JK: No conscious intention. I wanted an instant atmosphere of tension -- a rhythm -- heart beats or slaps. I like sinister. I like alliteration. I'm dyslectic, so I do things with words that may not occur to others.

I didn't know what was going to happen with the story -- I had the bare bones, a few scenes in mind, but it became its own being. Constantly morphing into itself. Characters suggested their own 'dynamic' and their own 'rhythm'. Always surprising. I found the role of narrator quite a paternal one.

Old English poetry? (I always wanted Grendel to win.) I suppose Jerusalem's story could be called contemporary heroic verse. His chapters could be chanted around an improv 3AM bonfire or burning car. Performance art! A Care in the Community project perhaps. Any social workers out there?

I've been making notes for Hollow and one line in particular stands out very much to me -- Someone in church who sang out of tune -- nice metre.

I read aloud as I write, perhaps that's where the poetry/performance correlation comes in; speaking in the different accents of the characters, acting out the scenes. Working through movements and comic timing of the slapstick episodes to the ethereal driftings of the dreamlike/drugged states. It can get a bit manic, especially the 'channel zapping' episode -- seven mostly pissed characters, one a parrot -- fighting over what to watch on television. Fists and insults flying. Great fun, but I did walk away with bruises from that one. Method writing can be taken too far however -- During the scenes of Yellow Fever, I unintentionally contracted the European version of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever -- I was bitten by hedgehog fleas -- I didn't know at the time that I was extremely allergic to them. Great pain in all joints, hideous skin condition and hallucinations from drinking with the prescribed tablets: bats in the brick work.

SS: As a writer with very little in the way of talent in the visual arts, I use writing to create the pictures I see in my imagination -- how does your work and outlook as an artist affect your writing?

JK: Enormously. As my writing affects my art.

The creative process of producing a piece of art has always been something to describe in metaphorical terms -- mixing of paints, stretching canvas, priming glass, the chemical reaction of spray-paint on liquid solvents -- a character, a scenario, an accident -- dumb luck. Each is unique. All are special. It's the same with photography (especially infra-red) -- seeing everything in different angles, light, perspective. This has evolved in my writing as of late, the work I have been producing with Photoshop: computer assisted imaging. Working with boundless layers: Overlay, Saturation, Linear Burn, lighting effects, filters. Each suggesting a different possibility. But the secret is in knowing when to stop. Although, sledgehammer can be more effective than subtle, sometimes.

When I write I sketch out scenes, almost like a storyboard. Character sketches too, these often throw up new possibilities -- surprises -- which lead into new thought processes. Dumb luck. I'll go and take photographs of what I need to write about or produce it on Photoshop. The more visual input I have, be it research books, pictures, images, the happier I am.

A visual image should tell a story. A sentence should produce an image.

I see everything as a film -- a vast wraparound screen. Be it walking by the sea in 'real time', visualising an idea or reading an existing text -- someone else's vision. It's because of dyslexia, where one part of my brain 'doesn't work properly' it overcompensates in other areas. Creative visualisation. It's not a conscious decision. When I write, especially novels, I see them in terms of film and think of them in such a manner. A series of stills: photographs, hastily scribbled sketches. This is why I wanted the seven-page car chase in Fossil Circus. I'd seen it done in movies, French Connection, Blues Brothers, Bullitt, but to my knowledge, hadn't been produced in novel form, especially as it's a metaphysical car chase driven along and by ley-lines!

SS: Who are the artists and writers you most admire? Who or what has inspired you? Films, poets, music etc?

JK: Mervyn Peake as both artist and writer. He is unsurpassable. Beautiful. Genius. The three Gormenghast novels and Boy in Shadow (a novella chronicling the journey by Titus Groan away from Gormenghast) are unbelievably wonderful. Such an imagination. I could read and reread them, as I have done many, many times before. There is always something startlingly new to discover in his words.

Edward Gorey: artist, writer -- sublime. The reason black ink was invented.

Other writers -- in no particular order -- Graham Greene. Angela Carter. John Fowles. John Banville. Gustav Meyrink (Der Golem, Angel of the West Window). Kafka. Tennessee Williams. Jean Rhys. Alexei Sayle. James Joyce. Jorge Luis Borge. MR James. Raymond Chandler. Jeanette Winterson. Nikolai Gogol. Poe. Goethe. Leonora Carrington. James Hamilton-Patterson. Peter Ackroyd. Conan Doyle. Will Self. Freya Stark. Flannery O'Connor. Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Shena Mackay. Ray Bradbury. Peter Straub (Ghost Story). Isabel Allende. Dickens. Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen -- Seven Gothic Tales). Nigel Kneale. Tanith Lee -- I won't go near contemporary SF or Fantasy (and yes, I know I am probably missing an awful lot of new good stuff) -- but Tanith's work tends to reflect her preoccupations/obsessions with many things historical, mythical, and the hard nosed psychology of the here and now. Reading her, to me, isn't like reading fantasy. John Cleese and Connie Booth for Fawlty Towers. The Monty Python Team. Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews for Father Ted. All the writing crews on Hill Street Blues and N.Y.P.D Blue. All mythologies. And Harry Harrison, as writer and dangerously addictive company.

Non Fiction: David Icke. Many books for research.

Artists -- Klimt. Durer. Beardsley. Brueghel. Bosch. The late Richard Dadd (killed his father and painted fairy microcosms in his Bedlam cell). HR Giger. Howard Pyle, who painted/illustrated pirates. Dave Lloyd: V for Vendetta. Sydney Paget for his immortalisations of Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine. Max Ernst for amongst other things, his 'surreal novel of collage': Une Semaine, dé Bonte. Charles Keeping. Ainslie Roberts, the painter of Aboriginal Myths. LS Lowrie. Lewis Edward Booth. And most of the PreRaphaelites.

Poets: Ted Hughes. RS Thomas. Ian Hamilton. Elizabeth Bishop. Most of the 'War Poets'.

Films: Plunkett and Macleane. Carry on Screaming. Brotherhood of the Wolf. Photographing Fairies. Blade Runner. The Hitcher. Legend of the Holy Drinker. Dr Mabuse. The Man Who Laughs. Freaks. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Anything with Lon Chaney Snr. Coppola's Dracula. Nosferatu (1922). Golem (1920). Dog Soldiers. The Mystery Men. Leon. SlapShot. Moulin Rouge (2001). American WereWolf in London. King Kong (1933). Kind Hearts and Coronets. The Man in the White Suit. Passport to Pimlico. Brazil. Italian Job (1969). La reine Margot. Lawrence of Arabia. South Park the Movie! The League of Gentlemen (1960). Alien. Roshomon. All the Quatermass films. And the beautiful Jeremy Brett televisations of Sherlock Holmes.

I listen to music when I work -- I very rarely work in silence. I like songs that tell stories and music that is 'visual'. Gary Numan is perfect for this, a groundbreaking genius and never ending source of inspiration. Wonderful live too! Other atmospheric bands, composers include -- Fields of the Nephilim. Gorecki. The Stranglers. Curve. Elvis Costello. Sulpher. Bowie. Killing Joke. Tool. Ligeti. Nine Inch Nails. Cocteau Twins (Garlands). CycleFly. David Sylvian. Faith No More. Depeche Mode. Rammstein (Amerika!). Sisters of Mercy. Mediaeval Baebes. Dead Can Dance. Pink Floyd's The Wall. Albinoni. XTC. Talking Heads. David Byrne. Talk Talk. Mark Hollis. John Foxx. Kraftwerk. Headswim. Gravity Kills. Marilyn Manson. Sting. And darker pieces by Marillion.

SS: Could you tell us something about your next novel, Hollow?

JK: An odd 'Prussian' turn of the 19th/20th century is the original setting. The beautiful art-loving wife and child of a royal war hero are suddenly, inexplicably found dead in the vast maze in the grounds of their home. The 'hero' gathers all his wife's artistic friends together and work begins on a 'fitting tribute to her': a perfect world called The Rectangle. No war within it, no politics, no religion, only beauty. 50 years go by, a war rages on in the outside world and needless to say it all fucks up. Fast forward 500 years and we see what is happening to all the inhabitants, ghosts and those who have returned from Without. Hollow is the eponymous long-white-haired hero. No car chases in this one, but there is a camel chase.

At present for research I'm ploughing through Heinz Hohne's monumental The Order of the Death's Head, the story of Hitler's SS. Other research includes every book I can find on Gustav Klimt and the haunting Jean Rhys novel Wide Sargasso Sea.

Hollow was originally written for the Oxford University Press, one of the editors there had read and liked my writing and asked if I could write a cutting edge 'young adult' novel with fantasy elements for them. Initially I wasn't interested, but very soon the idea, title and characters were in my head and soon on paper. It only took six months to write -- it's over 200 pages long, which for me, is extremely quick -- it just arrived. They had it for months and finally rejected it with a reader's report bleating of 'the hint of cannibalism' and 'over use of the word, bloody'. Cutting edge publishing indeed. So I'm now in the process of making it 'adult' and adding explanations, extra characters and lots more bloody cannibalism. 8):: ... ...

It owes a lot to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels and the thought-provoking writings of David Icke.

A three word description of Hollow would be: Minatour as cuckold.

SS: What are you working on now?

JK: Lots.

Hollow, obviously. I've another 150-200 pages to add. The explanation of how the Rectangle came to be, its originators and the gradual decline of it, its denizens and the outside world. It's scheduled for publication this year -- 2005 -- but I'm a methodical writer, I like to linger over words and scenes, so I can't see it being finished by then. (Sorry Egerton.) I'm not a robot or hack. There are also the front and back covers to produce and all the internal photographs and artwork. It would be good to design a Hollow font also.

There are always ongoing ideas -- notes, characters, chapters written -- for other novels -- a metaphysical thriller set in a rundown seaside town, a harsh Arabian Nights novel of dark mythology, a freak-show novel, a series of children's illustrated story-books and a vampire movie screenplay. I'm always making notes and sketching out ideas.

There are book covers, author photographs, short stories and artworks to be done. And Tanith and I have talked about working together on a collection.

Will start thinking about getting up and running too. I want a 'hands on' site where I can exhibit and sell artwork, photography and writing. I know absolutely nothing about web design so that should be interesting. I know how I want it to look and that's most important to me. The practical side of it will be secondary.

It will all get done, but in my own time. Life normally comes along and delays plans. There's no rush.

I've just spent a few days scanning in snake skeletons and dead spiders for an ongoing image.

There's always something creative going on.

SS: How does it work out having a partner who is also a writer? Do you inspire each other, share ideas? Or do you work entirely separately?

JK: We psychically work entirely separately. Except that one workroom is above the other and occasionally one or either of us may hear curses, howls or laughter from the other one in mid stride. I listen to music when I work, Tanith works in silence, so most of the time I wear headphones.

We do exchange ideas mostly over lunch or Fossil Circus by John Kaiinedinner -- knife, fork, pen -- Tanith will freely admit that she has been unwise enough to accept and use (mercilessly) a number of ideas I have offered her. The results often startle me by being quite different from what I had envisaged. We do help each other too by discussing what each is working on, or wants to be working on, and reading each other slabs of the text as we go along. This can help as a kind of initial editing (probably also audience response).

Tanith has suggested many ideas and solutions for my work over the years also.

In the case of the short story we wrote together -- "Unlocked" -- we were still working separately -- then coming together with the sections and fusing them.

SS: What makes you happy?

JK: Travelling.

Melon flavoured Geneva (Dutch gin).

Indian food.

3 AM improv bonfires ...

© Sarah Singleton 2005.

Fossil Circus by John Kaiine

Fossil Circus was published in June 2004 by Egerton House Publishing; ISBN: 0954627563.

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