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PS Publishing: An interview with Peter Crowther

by David Mathew

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.

The Longest Single Note by Peter CrowtherThere 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 paragraphs.

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.Constellations edited by Peter Crowther

'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 while.

'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 -- 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.

Postscripts 1Postscripts 2Postscripts 3Postscripts 4Postscripts 5

'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 deserve it.

'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' section. Sheesh!

'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 more.

'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 Songs of Leaving by Peter Crowtherhis 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.

Songs of Leaving by Peter CrowtherThe Longest Single Note by Peter CrowtherConstellations edited by Peter Crowther
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