PS Publishing: An interview with Peter
As out of place and irregular of form as it might be, I would like
to start with a PS of my own: a PS in the sense of a post-scriptum.
And it is this.
are certain genre truths. One is that everyone in genre fiction can
do an impersonation of Ramsey Campbell's spoken voice; and another is
that not only is Peter Crowther a brilliant short story writer (The
Longest Single Note is a masterpiece), he is also a thoroughly nice
person, and has a way with words that qualifies him as an interviewee
extraordinaire. It is always nice when an interviewee answers in perfect
Crowther became involved in genre writing via science fiction. 'My
first love was science fiction,' he tells me: 'comicbooks, mostly, though
my mum and dad bought me copies of Patrick Moore's Mars books,
Angus MacVicar's Lost Planet series and E.C. Eliot's adventures
of Kemlo. I suppose I was around six or seven years old (in other
words, a precocious little so-and-so). At the same time, I was reading
the Classics Illustrated versions of various stuff -- pretty much anything
I could get my hands on, in fact: Homer's The Odyssey (great
Cyclops on the cover), Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Oxbow
Incident, et cetera -- and then I went on to the text versions of
certain titles, such as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine,
Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and so on. I was in love with space
and planets, as well as with ghosts and monsters.
'My early experiences of the classic writers of such fare were Herbert
Van Thal's Told In The Dark Pan Books anthology and Fred Pohl's
Star Science Fiction Stories for Ballantine. After that came
Edmund Crispin's Best SF Stories books for Faber, John Keir Cross's
Best Black Magic Stories and Best Horror Stories (both
Faber) and Anne Ridler's Best Ghost Stories (Faber again) --
all of which were usually presented to me as Christmas presents ...
along with Superman and Batman annuals, Beano and
Dandy books and all the Hannah Barbera character annuals (I adored
Yogi Bear and Boo Boo. I still have all those books ... shelves and
shelves of them). Then a couple of things happened.
'First off, in book form, I discovered Van Thal's Pan Books of Horror
Stories, Cynthia Asquith's wonderful Ghost Books (Pan Books
again) and Christine Campbell Thomson's Not At Night series,
newly available at the time from Arrow Books; and secondly, in comicbooks,
all the US titles started coming over to the UK ... so we had things
like Strange Adventures and Mystery In Space in colour!
And then my English Language tutor at Leeds Grammar School introduced
me to Ray Bradbury via The Illustrated Man.'
It is well known that Crowther adores the work of Bradbury. He explains
some of the fascination with the man's work that has endured to this
day. 'I'd read Bradbury already in Star -- "A Scent of Sarsapilla"
-- but this was a whole other trip: a feast of words and style, of images
and wonder. That was it. I'd been heavy on SF and its many related sub-genres
my entire life (all 11 or 12 years of it) but this was something else
... It's difficult for me to explain fully the sheer magnitude of the
inspiration that Bradbury's work gave to me. I was eleven or twelve
when I read The Illustrated Man and it was an immediate thing
-- whooomph! just like that: one minute it's not there, and you're
going along dah de dah de dah, and then the next minute, ka-pow!
you're laid low, shaking, forever changed, eyes wide open, out of breath,
drool dribbling out of the corner of your mouth. It sounds cheesy but,
hey -- what do I care. That's the way it was. And you know, that's the
way it still is. I still get that feeling when I read
Bradbury's stuff. Okay, sure, he's not the man he used to be; who among
us is? But he still manages -- every now and again, maybe after ten
or twenty pages instead of every few paragraphs -- to hit you with a
phrase or a sentence or an image that's like a girder being swung into
the solar plexus. And the guy is eighty-five years old!
'What is it about his work that so enchants me? Well, I've been asked
that quite a few times, and I've attempted to answer it a hell of a
lot more. Let's try it this way: writing is a magic act that's just
one step -- albeit one Mighty Big Step -- on from spelling. I
mean, with spelling, you shuffle up the twenty-six letters of the alphabet
-- and sure, give yourself a few extra vowels ... a couple more es
and os, they're always useful -- and then pick out a dozen or
so. Then shuffle the dozen (let's say fourteen) letters around some
more and ... whoah! what have we here! we have 'photosynthesis'! Neat.
That's a great word. But we can all do it. Now spread out the few million
or so words in the English language and try shuffling them around to
make up this paragraph towards the end of "Dark They Were, And Golden-Eyed":
Summer burned the canals dry. Summer moved like a flame
upon the meadows. In the empty Earth settlements, the painted houses
flaked and peeled. Rubber tires upon which children had swung in back
yards hung suspended like stopped clock pendulums in the blazing air.
At the metal shop, the rocket frame began to rust.
'I mean ... come on! There isn't a word there that's strange
or new to any of us: they're all there, in that metaphorical dictionary
we just emptied over the desk-top, ready to be shuffled around and plunged
into. But how long would most of us -- and I'm thinking here of pretty
much all of us -- have to shuffle and plunge to come up with
an image as whole and as evocative as that? I'm guessing a fair old
'And that's the magic of Bradbury. That's why, when I was wondering
who we should get to Introduce the new PS editions of R Is For Rocket
and S Is For Space, it took only a few phone-calls to line up
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Harryhausen, Tim Powers and Mike Marshall
Smith ... all of them champing at the bit, each of them eager to say:
This is what Bradbury does better than anyone else can do. This
is what Bradbury means to me.
'Simple as that. That's what he meant when I started out on this 'growing-up'
lark, and here I am, fifty-odd years on, still doing it ... and Bradbury
still means exactly the same thing. From there on, I read voraciously:
Bradbury, Clarke, Pohl, Silverberg, Wyndham and absolutely anything
published by Ballantine or Ace (or Berkley, Pyramid, Belmont and umpteen
other US publishing houses operating in the late 1950s and early '60s).
Then, when I was 12 years old, I discovered F&SF, Astounding,
Amazing, Fantastic, Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow,
Venture and many other similar digest sized magazines... all
of them piled high, three or four years' worth of them, all consecutive
numbers, at one of the big department stores in Leeds. That same magical
year, in Leeds market, I found piles of pulps stocked in similar depth
-- Weird Tales, Fantastic, Amazing etc. This was
a good year to be alive... and an even better year to be twelve years
old. Unfortunately, of course, it was a decidedly bad year to be the
parents of someone who had a fetish for reading: it must have nearly
bankrupted them -- after all, one has to remember that I was also buying
and devouring all of DC's comicbook titles plus all the ones put out
by Archie, ACG, Dell/Gold Key, Harvey and the then fledgling Marvel
Comics... plus novels by Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald (crime/mystery
being my other weakness).
'All of which is kind of a long-winded way of saying I was a sponge...
I read and I absorbed and pretty soon I decided I wanted to write this
stuff myself. My early efforts were absolutely dreadful -- looking back
at them now -- but I suppose my tutor saw some promise... though he
would always beg me to stop writing stories for essay assignments. But
I never learned. Thus my GCSE (GCE in those long-ago days) essay for
the title 'Communication' involved a six-year-old battering his grandfather
to death with a telephone receiver while the operator was asking what
number he required. When I told my tutor, he just rested his head on
his arms. But I passed -- Grade 2... which wasn't bad. I often wonder
what the examiner must have thought when he or she encountered my story
-- I like to think it would have been like a breath of fresh air.
'After that, I wrote more and more, pushing and pushing all the time.
However, by the time I reached my twenties -- 1969 -- I was becoming
more and more immersed in music. I'd already run the gauntlet of surf
music (early teens); Tamla, Atlantic and Sue (mid- to late-teens, which
involved DJ-ing at a club in Leeds and spending pretty much every other
weekend at The Twisted Wheel Club in Manchester) but the new sounds
on the streets involved moving my allegiances from Smokey Robinson et
al to Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead (where they've remained
ever since)... and didn't do much more writing until my late twenties.
Then, just before Nicky and I got married (in October 1976), I was managing
to place the odd story here and there in those gloriously amateurish
fanzines that abounded at the time.
'I tend to write what I read -- thus I've written horror, fantasy,
science fiction, crime/mystery and even the occasional pure mainstream
tale. Sure, my primary interest is genre but you could just as easily
find me reading a John Updike or an Anne Tyler novel as you could a
King or a Campbell, a Powers or a Niven, an Elmore Leonard or a Robert
B. Parker. I'd hate to spend the rest of my life restricting my reading
to SF or to any one type of fiction. Same goes in spades
when it comes down to writing.'
Another early influence on Peter Crowther was Julius Schwartz. 'Julie
was the main man at DC Comics,' he explains, 'and, for those who don't
know (and this is a good time for folks who are not interested in comicbooks
to go wash the car or read a newspaper), he was singlehandedly responsible
for ushering in what we all now refer to as the Silver Age of comics.
(That was with the first appearance of the new Flash character
in 1956, but you don't need this shtick.) The thing with Julie was he
picked a team of writers and artists that treated kids as more than
just ice-cream addicts with scuffed knees. This came home to me big
time with a story called 'The Hand From Beyond' in the November 1959
issue (#110) of Strange Adventures. I was ten years old. It was
in that story that I encountered 'adrenalin'. And I ask you this: how
many comicbooks aimed at today's ten-year-olds have stories centering
on a man's inability to produce adrenalin? For that matter, how many
even have the word 'adrenalin' in them? Answers, please, to firstname.lastname@example.org
-- I'll be genuinely interested to know.'
This brings us, of course, to PS Publishing, and to the question of
why Crowther decided to start up the company. 'The glib answer is actually
not far from the complete truth: it was something I hadn't done and
it looked like fun. At the time, I was doing a lot of freelance communications
work for an outfit called Editorial Services run by a fellow name of
Simon Conway (a good friend of many years' standing), and I suggested
to him that he might stump up a little capital (I didn't have any spare
at all) and the necessary computer facilities and we start up a little
imprint -- hence PS: Peter and Simon. We opened our company bank account
in December 1998 and published our first two titles (James Lovegrove's
How The Other Half Lives and Graham Joyce's Leningrad Nights)
in the late spring of 1999... and we were we mighty proud of them. When
I look back at them now, I cringe -- we thought we knew it all but boy,
we had a lot to learn.
'Two more titles saw the light of day that year and then five more
in 2000. This year, we've published nineteen titles plus two issues
of Postscripts. We've got another issue of Postscripts
due before Christmas (plus the Gene Wolfe novelette which will be going
free of charge to subscribers). Next year looks likely to be around
the same. After that, I'm looking to scale down the operation to ten
or twelve books each year, with four issues of the magazine. That way
I may be able to get a little of my own writing done.'
On the subject of his own writing, Crowther states: 'I don't think
there are many of my own pieces I'm not proud of. I wrote a story for
an outfit a few years back -- forgotten the name of the magazine --
and it was a pretty doomy and unpleasant piece that, frankly, I wish
I hadn't written. And the mag itself was a debacle. So they probably
deserved each other. One day, I'll re-jig the story and give it a slightly
lighter feel... which, believe me, will take some doing.
'I'm proudest of the gentle pieces, particularly the story I wrote
for the first issue of Bill Schafer's Subterranean magazine,
"Thoughtful Breaths". I've had a lot of nice letters and phone-calls
about that one. "Cankerman", an oldish story, always goes
down extremely well at readings as does "The Main Event",
a slightly irreverent murder mystery involving a very unusual poisoning.
I read that one for the first time at a gig at the Waterstones in Manchester
and I knew I'd done the right thing for two reasons: the first was that
the entire audience -- a big one: around sixty or seventy people, as
I recall -- stayed silent throughout and laughed hysterically at all
the bits they were supposed to laugh hysterically at; and secondly,
when I passed Mike Marshall Smith, as I was moving away from the reading
area and he was moving towards it, we nodded to each other and Mike
muttered sotto voce, but loud enough for me to hear him over
the applause, "Thanks... bastard!" Needless to say, he needn't have
worried about having to follow me -- he brought the place down as usual
-- but it was a nice feeling... being congratulated when you know you
'I've had some interesting readings, in fact. One time at the Borders
in Cheshire Oaks, at one of the regular appearances of our travelling
"horror" caravan (Ramsey Campbell, Steve Gallagher, Mark Morris
and me), we ended up in the children's section. It was a late night
opening so the store was fairly packed, and we had a nice if select
audience of around twenty or thirty people. When it was my turn to take
the stage, I explained that I'd brought two stories: one was gentle
and the other (which I'd just completed for John Pelan's The Darker
Side anthology) was pretty in-your-face and nasty. Which did they
want? Silly question. But when I started to read the tale I noticed
two things: the first was that there seemed to be a lot of activity
(and when I looked up occasionally, a lot of steely-eyed frowns and
stares) from the folks wandering the children's book section with their
assorted progeny and grand-progeny. That's when I noticed the second
thing -- a high (very high, for me) incidence of some of the
more colourful words in our national slang vocabulary. I spent the next
ten or fifteen minutes scanning ahead -- while I was reading! -- and
changing all the offending fucks and shits into things
less likely to offend. Great idea that, Borders -- organise a bunch
of horror writers to do a late-night reading and place them in the kids'
'I'm also pleased with one tale that's maybe the darkest I've ever
written -- "Bedfordshire", in Gathering The Bones edited
by Ramsey, Jack Dann and Dennis Etchison. Once again, you know you've
done okay when people go out of their way to praise you for something:
Ramsey, on accepting the story, said "Pretty bloody dark, mate!" (which,
from Ramsey, is praise indeed for a horror story) and Dennis Etchision
emailed me from the US to say how much the story had moved him. Staying
on the darker stuff, I still very much like "Eater" and "Rustle",
two stories I wrote for Rich Chizmar's Cemetery Dance mag; "Cleaning
Up", for Nick Royle's Darklands 2; "Dark Times",
for Bill Schafer's Subterranean Gallery; "Night Terrors",
for one of the Monteleones' Borderlands volumes and maybe a couple
'All my other faves are my softer and more optimistic yarns -- "All
We Know Of Heaven" being perhaps extra special to me. I wound up
adapting this story for Barrington Stoke's line of books aimed at "reluctant
readers"... those teenagers with reading ages around seven or so.
Now, just to give the background, this story runs from the viewpoint
of a young boy whose parents were in a car accident: the father is okay,
a little bruised and limping and so on but generally okay; but the mother
is in a coma and not expected to recover. As it happens, the boy's class
at school are reading and discussing the legend of King Arthur... in
particular, the enchanted sword, Excalibur. ("If your heart is
true, then you will prevail", goes the line about the young Arthur
removing the sword from the stone.) Needless to say, the boy starts
to think about the tube that goes down his mother's throat and seems
to be keeping her alive -- alive but comatised. And, of course, his
father is a wreck. So, pretty soon, the boy thinks about taking things
into his own hands. (For the record, the story was written for Richard
Gilliam's and Marty Greenberg's Excalibur anthology about fifteen years
ago.) Anyway ...
'So Barrington Stoke is a very professional and thorough outfit --
quite demanding, too, particularly when it comes to the language you
should use for the readership -- and so my story had to go by various
people to check the accuracy and validity. Because my story was so controversial,
it also went before a ward sister and a woman who had lost her little
boy. There were some slight changes required, nothing too arduous, but
these two wonderful women praised my story to the heavens and said --
with one of them actually in tears over the telephone -- how uplifting
it was. Well, things don't come any better than that.'
Finally, Crowther discusses his
plans to put together another collection and another collaboration.
'I'm on with the story notes to the follow-up collection to The Longest
Single Note (follow-up inasmuch as it's another set of darkishly
fantastical stories, unlike the more-or-less SF fare of my Songs
Of Leaving collection or the pretty much straightforward crime/suspense
of Cold Comforts, a CDRom-only collection I put out in the US
a few years back). The collection is called Dark Times and it's
pretty dark. The follow-up to this one will be Things I Didn't Know
My Father Knew, and that will be much gentler in tone. Let's face
it, I adore writing short stories... so I usually have enough at any
time to put together a new collection.
'I also enjoy collaborating but the grim truth of the past couple
of years is that the publishing business has pretty much kept me from
doing much writing at all... of any kind. Thus the short novel I've
been writing with Tim Lebbon (Into The Wild Green Yonder) ground
to a halt on my desk... as did "Study The Rain", a collaboration
with Paul Di Filippo. But I'm back on with Yonder and I'll turn
to Rain as soon as my head clears. Meanwhile, of course, I'm
trying to write my own mainstream novel and put together notes for the
second part of Forever Twilight... and so it goes on ... Unfortunately,
I've drifted dreadfully behind on a large number or projects, including
those listed above. Plus I haven't managed to write many new stories
for more than two years... bearing in mind that I used to write a dozen
or more every year without any difficulty. I've made so many promises
in the past -- promises mainly to myself -- that I'm now loath to commit
myself any more in writing. So let's just say that there'll be some
long-running projects that will be finished in 2006... and leave it
at that. As I said earlier, the publishing business has played havoc
with my creative juices (oo err!) but we now seem to be on a bit of
an even keel. In closing, however, I have to say this: I would not have
had it any other way... despite the fact that you may have heard me
bleating to the contrary at some convention bar area or other this past
few years. We've published some of the absolute best fiction -- and
non-fiction -- that's available anywhere: Aldiss, Bradbury, Campbell,
Dann, Erikson and so on all the way through to Zivkovic. We're blessed
that authors trust us to do right by them, paying on time and doing
nice production jobs with their work. It's all down to the best team
in the business -- Nicky (my wife and now -- as of this past 15 months
-- business partner), Ariel (website and tehnical support), Nick Gevers
(assistant editor), Robert Wexler (design and layouts) and Derek Schultz
(assistant designer). And, of course, we have the most wonderful and
loyal audience, many of whom buy our titles irrespective of the genre
or the author, simply because they believe they're going to get high
quality work. And it's also worth mentioning the many speciality booksellers
and bookstores who take our titles, plus my long-suffering printers
(Theresa at Biddles) and mailing house (Aimee at Mercury International).
My thanks go to all of them.'
And mine go to Peter Crowther.
© David Mathew 2005.
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