An Interview with Phil Rickman
by David Mathew
One piece of advice often given to first-time novelists and writers in general is 'know of which you write'. Speak from experience. Phil Rickman is one writer who followed this suggestion to the letter for his first book, Candlenight, in 1991, and who continues to do so to this day. Phil Rickman worked for many years as a journalist for Radio Wales and Radio 4, one of his documentaries, Aliens, earning him the award for Wales Current Affairs Reporter of the Year in 1987. This documentary formed the factual backbone for Candlenight (1991).
'Aliens related to a period in the mid-eighties when a lot of people in England were buying up land very quickly in certain parts of Wales. The land was cheap and it was assumed that you could make a killing. But there were two major factors that were not foreseen. The first was, the land was of poor quality which meant that the six acres that you thought you were getting for a bargain turned out to be a bad investment; you needed one hundred acres to make the move profitable. And the second thing, which inspired the documentary and then the book, was not all of these English people were welcomed by the Welsh. There was a strong feeling of invasion, of being invaded. And the English felt unaccepted, unwanted. Unloved, I suppose. An odd statistic I uncovered at the time was that 60% of the calls the Samaritans were receiving were from English people in Wales who simply couldn't handle it anymore. Personally, we moved to Wales as journalists and I didn't encounter that lack of acceptance; that's never really been a problem.'
When did Phil Rickman start writing, and how did he make the leap from journalism to fiction? 'These things always go back to childhood, I think; that won't be any great surprise to anybody. I was re-writing episodes of The Famous Five at the age of six. Moving from non-fiction to fiction was more complicated. Carol, my wife, and I were driving one day and Carol has the advantage of not being copiously carsick whenever we drive anywhere. Always a bonus. She wanted something to read for the journey, so I gave her the first fifty or so pages of Candlenight. I also gave the manuscript to Alice Thomas Ellis to read and she liked it a lot.' (Alice Thomas Ellis is the pseudonym of Anna Haycraft, the widow of Colin Haycraft, who was at the time the Managing Director of Duckworth. Mrs Haycraft was the fiction editor.) That was a real boost to my confidence in one way but in another I felt, oh, she's just being nice; she's just being kind. But I've got her to thank because a year later, Candlenight still did not have a taker. One publisher sent it back saying, with apparent disdain: but its got funny bits in it. You can't have a horror novel with funny bits in it. Well, go back and read Stephen King! It was Alice Thomas Ellis who suggested Duckworth. I was suddenly that old cliché: the one year overnight success.
'The journalism helped, no doubt about that; if nothing else it gave me the taste for certain topics and subject matters that I would later re-visit in the fiction. Plus, I suppose writing journalism I interviewed - God! - hundreds of people. Hundreds. Now that's been left in my blood: the compulsion to go out and research - and I mean research - a novel. To talk to people. To get a feel.'
Although Phil Rickman in his fiction leans more toward the macabre than to bloody pyrotechnics, and to the weird rather than the scary, until very recently he has been marketed as a down-the-line horror writer. Has he been content with this? 'It's not so much that I feel that my previous novel-covers misrepresented the work inside as I feel that I'm very difficult to market. I don't fit into a genre, but I got horror covers. That's categorisation for you. Categorisation has now got so bad that publishers will actually publish a writer as being like another writer. Insidious! "In the style of Patricia Cornwell" - and you get these very dark covers with forensic details on them... I don't feel like a horror writer; I don't feel I fit into any category particularly - not even "supernatural suspense", which is apparently the latest sub-genre.' Rickman is pleased with the way that his most recent novel was promoted. 'The Chalice (1997) was the first of my novels whose packaging I was entirely happy with. Macmillan (his publishers) and I really worked on that one.'
Subtitled 'a Glastonbury ghost story' and described as 'an absolutely awesome supernatural thriller of the pre-millennial decade', The Chalice - like all of the author's work - dabbles in the occult and mixes non-fictional current affairs with a complex, rewarding plot. The Chalice is a huge tome set in the West Country town rumoured to be where the Holy Grail is now located. It is a novel held together by inter-character tensions (be they sinister or romantic) and the plot takes on the themes of corruption and invasion (a popular one with Rickman) as well as examining the modern-day clashes between Christianity and paganism; it then goes on to examine the inevitability (in a Yin-Yang universe) of there being an anti-Grail - the Dark Chalice of the title.
True to form, the novel came as a result of some earlier journalistic work: in this case a two-year quest for the Holy Grail, a search that ended six years ago with Rickman holding 'a fragment of a wooden cup, partly blackened and obviously ancient. Its guardian let me touch if only for a moment before snatching it away'. For a radio programme Rickman started the project 'in a decaying mansion near the West Wales coast' but is unable to say where, geographically, he touched the relic: 'Before my wife and I were allowed in to see the cup, we and the producer of the programme signed a solicitor's document guaranteeing that the location would remain secret.' Of course, Rickman cannot but deny the possibility (some might say likelihood) that the relic might not have been the actual Holy Grail; as he puts it, 'Whether the cup is the actual vessel used at the Last Supper and allegedly brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea - is anybody's guess.'
The research that Rickman did for the novel obviously involved some time in Glastonbury itself; here he was told that a common misconception among believers of mysticism is that Glastonbury will be an easy place to live because of the aura that purportedly emanates from it. The truth is that the city has a high rate of business-, marriage-, relationship- and health- breakdowns. Phil Rickman also tells the story of how his printer would not print out a particular section of the manuscript; anything else was fine, but he had to try again and again with this one section as the only print to emerge was in the form of symbols and nonsense...
Before exploring the more mystical qualities of places like Wales and Glastonbury, and the Pennines in The Man in the Moss (1994), Rickman wrote some non-fiction. Mysterious Lancashire, Mysterious Derbyshire and Mysterious Cheshire is a trio of 'thin volumes' which looked at (inter alia) guides to ley lines and 'that sort of thing'. These books are not mentioned on his 'by the same author' pages. 'Mysterious Cheshire and the others are not listed simply because not they are not fiction; I didn't want people to be misled... Oh, and I suppose there's another reason. You have to remember - these books (written in the late seventies) ... well, I was very young. That's all I can say really! Don't read them!'
Does he have any advice for writers just starting out or still trying to make their way? 'All I can say is that the following works for me. Never write a book without a contract. In fact, I might as well tell the truth here: I never write a word without a contract.' And once he has that contract? Does he plan his extremely large and detailed books meticulously? 'No, not really. I work with a theme rather than an outline. I don't particularly have a plan; I sell an idea.'
Are there any rules he follows while writing? 'The most important thing for me and my novels is character. Good characters are crucial. Characters of complexity; characters with depth. Nasty and funny is a good combination: in fact, you can't beat it.' This description might fit a host of modern horror movie villains - but it also fits one of Phil Rickman's more unusual characters. Ma Wagstaff in The Man in the Moss is - if not psychopathically nasty and funny exactly - then certainly eerily nasty and funny; a woman who takes belligerence to new levels. She makes herbal remedies and knows more about the occult and the supernatural in her small area of the world - the village of Bridelow in the Pennines - than anyone else does around her. One interesting point to note is that many people around her know that she knows more than they do; that the supernatural exists is hardly held to question.
'Ma Wagstaff was based on my grandmother. Affectionately, I hasten to add. My grandmother taught me a lot and was an early inspiration. And no, not all of the herbal remedies worked; but some did. My grandmother was into the supernatural and believed in reincarnation. She could leave her body, she saw ghosts and had these extremely lucid dreams. Come to think of it, she was a very weird one, was my grandmother. I'm not sure that people were always comfortable when I was left alone with her, but I loved it.'
Given that Phil Rickman presents Radio Wales' And Now Read On, what does he personally enjoy reading? Does he read within the horror genre at all? 'To be honest, I'm not particularly fond of modern horror. I'm not sure that there are really that many good horror writers around at the moment. Even Ramsey Campbell's lost his way. I like Peter James. I like Barbara Erskine, although unfortunately and inexplicably, she's published as a romantic writer. There isn't a romantic page in all her books!' In that case, what were his early influences (not counting the Famous Five stories mentioned above)? 'As for what I used to read... well, Henry James I found boring. With M.R. James I liked the stories but not the style.' (Rickman's work has been compared with the classic ghost stories of M.R. James, and there is possibly an argument to suggest that he was influenced by them a great deal.) 'And I used to read Dennis Wheatley - good stories, bad dialogue, and so-right wing. Quite often you have to wade through pages of right wing propaganda in search of the story. Start on page fifty and dodge all the stuff about trade unions! Now I read something of everything for the Radio Wales programme. In terms of my early influences, really there weren't that many supernatural books about.'
The next volume available from Phil Rickman will be The Wine of Angels, available in the summer of 1998 from Macmillan. This book 'is slightly different from what came before. There are elements of the supernatural, but really it's a psychological mystery. It involves a female vicar, apples and cider and the folklore connected with these things, the seventeenth century and witchcraft!' There will also be a reappearance of the digger driver from Crybbe, the sharing of characters from one book to another being one of Phil Rickman's other trademarks.
Phil Rickman emerged as a strong author and a name to watch when he arrived in 1991. Since then his popularity has grown and grown, to the point where his novels are extremely well received by luminaries both inside the horror genre and outside of it. The genre he works in (for argument's sake) is that of horror. Occasionally he borders on the surreal, the comic, the erotic - which highlights the problem of categorisation. With the possible exception of the western, genres are now too spacious and nebulous to be described with the sort of accuracy that will exclude some authors who might not have all the correct criteria for a place. Even war stories can be subdivided into romantic war stories and, say, horrific war stories. Rickman is a horror writer, but the genre is vast, and if you are not usually a fan of the genre, give him a try anyway; you will find no messy mutilations or eviscerated corpses - what you will find are sturdy, well-researched, well-crafted novels about human and not-so-human behaviour, that dwell in the dreamland between the here-and-now and the never-and-maybe.
This interview first appeared in the September 1997 issue of
The New Writer
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© David Mathew 14 March 1998