Kim Newman interviewed by David Mathew
The prolific Kim Newman has published over twenty books, including novels, short story collections, critical volumes about film, and a good deal of pseudonymous work under the name of Jack Yeovil. His latest, and most unpredictable, work will appear later in 1998 and will be called Life's Lottery. In the following interview Kim Newman speaks first:
'Like many kids, when I was about three or four, I wanted to be a fireman, and that was quite obsessive. Then when I was seven or eight, I decided to be an actor. I've no idea why. When I was about eleven (this is one of those big influential moments) I saw the old Bela Lugosi version of Dracula on television, and that impressed me. I wanted to be an actor like Bela Lugosi, but I then wrote a rudimentary and thank-God-I've-lost-it play version of Dracula, with the idea that I would star in it. It was a page long. Over the next two years, my ambitions to act were channelled into writing about it instead. I attempted a novel about vampires when I was about fourteen...
'Living in a very small village in Somerset, with all of my friends living in the town nine miles away where I went to school, I was on my own quite a lot. Which is a common thread in the childhoods of writers. I was one of those kids who always had a book on the go, and had the time to write while the other kids used to go out and play. That time allowed me, as a teenager, to write all the really dreadful stuff out of my system, which all writers have to do. By the time I was at University and having to think about a career, I'd been writing so much, and it was so much a part of my life, that I didn't consider it a career option. I spent a few years not doing much, although I was still writing for amateur theatre.
'The rock group I was in, which started as an R&B group, then became a sort of comedy group. The things that influenced us were things from a long time before - Spike Jones, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Monty Python. We thought we were funny. This may be the great problem of my generation: we thought we were funny. Some of the theatrical pieces were interesting, although very different from the studied avant garde work that Clive Barker was doing. Typical was a musical I wrote called The Gold-Diggers of 1981, which was knockabout with a few stabs at contemporary politics. But it was much more informed by Hope and Crosby. A few scenes emerged, distantly, in my pseudonymous novel Drachenfels.'
Kim's first published short story was 'Dreamers'. '"Dreamers" was a spin off from what became my first novel, The Night Mayor, which I drafted as a novella in 1982. The novella was rejected by Interzone magazine but my fourth submission was accepted. It's a tiny idea that came up when I was writing The Night Mayor, which I realised wouldn't fit in. So I wrote that and didn't get round to finishing The Night Mayor for another five or six years!'
When he did, however, the book was well received. It drew heavily on Kim's love and knowledge of films, being set, in part, in a 1940s film noir dreamscape, which has been created as a hiding place by a 21st century criminal, and partly in the future itself. 'The Night Mayor relates to a morass of popular and high culture that I'm assuming my readership shares.' The book was often described as being part of the then-new cyberpunk school of science fiction, which had been popularised by William Gibson's Neuromancer.
'My first stories just caught the beginnings of what they called cyberpunk. And looking at them, they share the concerns of cyberpunk, but very few of the mannerisms. Maybe if I'd been writing two or three years later, I would have been influenced by William Gibson. As it was, I was influenced by the people who influenced William Gibson: Philip K Dick and Alfred Bester, as well as Raymond Chandler. The problem with trends and movements is you have a few very good writers and a lot of not-very-good ones following around. As a critic I'm interested in genres; as a writer I wait on the outside.'
From science fiction Kim next moved to horror. 'Bad Dreams was originally written as a film outline. There were elements of the novel that I probably wouldn't have done if it hadn't been for that, but I'm not unhappy with them. For instance, when the original brief was given to a group of us, one of the rules was the leading woman had to be an American. Bad Dreams was a fast, nasty horror novel that became as much about the American woman's relationship with her family... Isn't that always the way with writers? "It's a story about werewolves, but really it's about relationships!" When it was first commissioned, it was a Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off: that's what they wanted. A woman, a monster... a kind of dreamlike reality where strange things happen to her. What I tried to do that Elm Street didn't do was make it one big dream, rather than every ten minutes go to sleep, get into another scary thing, wake up...'
Although Kim states, 'The main purpose of horror fiction is to be frightening and I'm not sure how frightening my horror stories are,' The Quorum is his best and scariest book. 'The problem with genre fiction is it's always characterised by the median, the average; by which I'm not referring to quality but to expectation. Your average horror novel relies on an incursion of the supernatural into the lives of ordinary people. The Quorum is not quite like that. It's a book in which nobody dies. It's the only novel of mine in which magic is a major theme. I'm not sure it's comfortable being a horror novel.'
It uses the Faust legend, but with a relevant contemporary twist. 'Because I have no particular religious background, the whole idea of selling your soul was complicated for me. The Quorum is one of those very few ideas I've had where I've woken up in the middle of the night with the title and exactly what the book is about. I knew one day I would write a book in which three people sell somebody else's soul to the Devil, which is a very 1980s idea. But most people would do what they do.'
The Quorum, in this sense and in others, has connections with Kim's next project. 'The book I've got coming out this year is called Life's Lottery and it's an experimental novel. It's structurally modelled on those Choose Your Own Adventure novels that were popular in the early '80s. "You meet a monster in a corridor, and if you decide to fight it you turn to page 100, and if you decide to run away you turn to page 98." I've applied that structure to a literary novel. So it's written in the second person; you are the lead character who is an ordinary bloke. I noticed that my earlier books were about people who were somehow notable, famous. They're doing important things. So I decided to write a story about a guy who's the son of a bank manager and who later will probably work in a bank. At various points in his life he has choices to make and you get to make the choice and follow up the scenes. Of course you're supposed to try both, and read both alternatives. So the book has one beginning and a multitude of endings. It's very complicated as you travel down the branches. Sometimes you're faced with what-girl-will-you- marry? choices, or what-job-will-you-take? choices. Sometimes it's: will you take tea or coffee? So very trivial things can lead to great changes. And sometimes apparently huge things can be dead ends.
'It's a very difficult book to do; it has a lot of technical challenges that I hope people will appreciate. It's particularly difficult to write neutrally, to write in the second person. The reader has to supply a great deal of the character for the male lead. If you give someone a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing and that person chooses the wrong thing, that makes the chooser a bad person, not the character. And it means in the next section the character is unpleasant, because he chose to do the unpleasant thing. But the whole moral issue is quicksandy. What is the right thing to do? That's a question I asked in The Quorum. Of all my books, Life's Lottery is closest in tone to The Quorum. In fact, the narrative voice - the person talking to you - is Derek Leech, the devil character from The Quorum. And it intersects a bit with the plot of The Quorum. The lead character is at school with the people from The Quorum. There are even a few of the same settings... It's due out around November, but there's still some work to be done on it...'
Busy as ever, Kim is already working on the project that will follow Life's Lottery. 'I've done a draft of another in the Anno Dracula series, which is called Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha. It's set in Italy in 1959 and it's kind of like La Dolce Vita. There's an element of those Italian murder mysteries, like an early Dario Argento. Complicated crimes. But because the last book, The Bloody Red Baron, was quite a grim book, about the war with lots of people dying - it was very male - I've decided this is funnier, looser, a more romantic book. The three lead viewpoint characters are women, and there's a bit of Three Coins in a Fountain in there as well. And as in the other books, there are characters who have been borrowed from other literature. In this book I'll be doing something I don't usually do, and that's describe the clothes they're wearing. In the second draft that's something I'll deal with a little bit; I'll do some research into what was fashionable in 1959... At the moment I'm pleased with it, but it's only in first draft. Since I work on the word processor, it's hard to say how many drafts I would do. I think in terms of first draft and revisions, so that's essentially two drafts. I probably print out twice.'
Lastly, Kim Newman offered a few comments on one of the genres he works in: horror. 'The question horror is best suited to address is: What is Evil? That's what some of my books address over and over. But implied in that is: What is Good? Horror, as a genre, has to deal with the fact that a lot of people don't like it. Nobody says, "Oh, I don't read comedy. I don't watch comedy films." They accept the fact that there are some things they find funny and some things they don't. Maybe you like Ealing comedies; maybe you like Benny Hill. Doesn't matter: you'll watch what you want. But people do say, 'I wouldn't read anything that's frightening; I don't watch horror films.' And someone saying that is saying, "No, I don't like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I also don't like Algernon Blackwood's ghost stories." When people say they don't read horror, I don't tend to believe them. Because everybody read The Silence of the Lambs; everybody has read A Christmas Carol. Everybody saw Psycho. So what they're saying is the equivalent of saying, 'I don't like comedy.' Everybody likes some kind of comedy, and I think if you get down to it, everybody likes some kind of horror.
An early version of this interview appeared in the October 1996 issue of Writers' Monthly. The updated version, with additional material, appears for the first time here.
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© David Mathew 24 January 1998