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An Interview with Steven Savile

by Alethea Kontis

Tell Steven Savile he's a horror writer, and he bursts out laughing. Many have used this word to characterize his work -- from his novel (The Secret Life of Colors) to his collection of short stories (Similar Monsters) to his editing of the critically acclaimed Redbrick Eden and two of Fritz Leiber's collected works.

For me, the best way to describe a Steven Savile story is to liken it unto a Grimms' tale. Magic is a constant Angel Road by Steven Savileundercurrent and the horrors are subtle -- death, the loss of hope, the tendency for all things to go to destruction, the pain of forgetting ... and remembering. And just as the Grimms have become the epitome of the romantic fable, Steven's stories similarly illustrate the quest for the very definition of love and faith.

His newest releases, the novella Houdini's Last Illusion (Telos Books) and the collection Angel Road (Elastic Press), offer all of these things and a little bit more. They seem to have sprouted wings and transcended into a new genre, coined most recently in the book world as "Literary Fantasy."

Houdini's Last Illusion is a what-if story that follows a supernatural subplot surrounding the famous magician's last performance. The stories in Angel Road are just as fantastic. Each should not be read without having experienced the one before it, as certain elements weave in and out, bonding one piece to the next in a mythical patchwork quilt. Complementing the stories are an amazing cover and sketches by Robert Sammelin, and brilliant internal full-color illustrations by Kjell Emanuelsson. In fact, the package Elastic Press put together might have been too perfect, as Angel Road sold out its initial print run on its first day of release.

I hunted Steven down to his current residence in Stockholm, from where he graciously corresponded with me about life, love, and his newest ventures.

Houdini's Last Illusion by Steven SavileAlethea Kontis: Which came first, Houdini or Hoke?

Steven Savile: Ahh, the eternal question. The Great Magician or the Fantastic Construct ... it's not exactly a chicken and the egg scenario. Or maybe it is when I come to think about it.

Hoke Berglund came first, in the short story "Fragrance of You". Without him, I am sure Houdini -- my Houdini that is -- would never have been born. The thing I really didn't appreciate when I first started out trying to write was just how important the characters themselves actually are. Above and beyond plot and genre, they make the work live and breath. Without characters that get under your skin as a writer, well, there aren't going to be characters around to get under the reader's skin either. It's a parasitic relationship, I suppose. Hoke was the first one to really get under my skin -- a surprise in itself for me, considering "Fragrance of You" opens with his funeral and is actually the story of his daughter and the poor sod who illustrated his final book ...

Houdini came out of a dark time in my life, when I was looking for my own great escape.

AK: Where did the character of Hoke come from? Do you see him taking part in future stories beyond Angel Road?

SS: Hoke was actually a present to a good friend of mine whose internet nickname was Hokum and always ended up being called Hoke for short. His real name was Mark (is Mark, he's not dead), and despite turning him into Mr. Self Affliction we are still good friends.

Do I see him living beyond Angel Road? Absolutely. Hoke has taken over a part of my life and is pretty determined not to give it back. He's gained a curious kind of independence -- heck, he even blurbed the new book! As it stands there are three Hoke stories, "Fragrance of You", "All That Remains is You", and "You Are All Alone" (which is as yet unpublished). But he is also referenced throughout Angel Road, with walk ons in one form or another in the majority of the new stories from "The Restless Dead "and" Malice" to "The God of Forgotten Things". I have every intention of actually doing a collaborative book with Hoke, combining all of his stories ("Angel Home", "Princess Scapegoat" and "The Forgetting Wood") and all of my stories about him in a single volume. Of course, there are also the graphic novels -- the first one of which, based on "Fragrance of You", Robert Sammelin and I have recently completed.

AK: Will you be revisiting Houdini again in the future?

SS: At some point yes, kind of ... I intend to write a third and final Houdini novella, to finish what I have called The Clockwork Magician, which will take place twenty-something years after his so-called death ... It looks like a Swedish publisher will be putting out The Clockwork Magician as a Swedish Language original, which really tickles me. It is one of the quirks of living overseas. So, who knows what we will see in English, but in Swedish yes ... I can't really say a lot more apart from that it really will be the great escape ...

AK: You mentioned that there existed at least one story that "almost" got in to the Angel Road collection. What are these stories and where can we find them?

SS: Actually there are a few stories. One, which I think highlights the versatility of the world I choose to explore with my writing, is "Idiot Hearts". It will be appearing in the Grey Friars Press anthology Poe's Progeny -- this was originally one of the new stories written specifically for Angel Road, and then I went and sold it by mistake and had to write something new to replace it. You know us writers, we have a problem saying no ...

Another was "Icarus Descending", which had already been published in the UK and reprinted in Similar Monsters. It just didn't sit right in the collection as the overall theme became apparent.

At one point, Houdini's Last Illusion was also up for inclusion but again, Angel Road had taken a very definite shape with all of the stories very much feeding into and on each other. Houdini just didn't fit. In that incarnation at least -- he did make the cut as a young boy in "This Broken Land", the final story, which is the perfect cap for the collection.

AK: You balk at the term "horror" and your stories seem to defy genre -- are there perhaps any authors you most resemble?

SS: It is always comfortable to identify with a label, but people coming to my writing looking for horror stories are going to be deeply disappointed. People in search of magic, a sense of wonder, of infinite possibility, of heartbreak, love, and the great universal myths and monsters will find something to interest them. In the past, reviewers have compared my earlier stories with Jonathan Carroll, which is very flattering. I have also seen more than one reference to both Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell -- Barker for the sheer grotesque imagination of some of my darker ideas and Campbell for the denseness of some of the prose. I don't really know of anyone who is writing what I write -- which is a blessing and a curse.

AK: You call "The God of Forgotten Things" and "Angels in the Snow" the only "happy" stories in Angel Road. What feelings do you mean to evoke in your readers? What do you want them to walk away with?

SS: I think the whole raison d'être of short fiction is to evoke emotion, any emotion, in a reader. Just like my characters, every time I find myself giving in to the urge to write I want to find the words that somehow get beneath the readers skin. If those words evince sadness and regret, well, sadness is often so much more interesting and allows the reader to be so much more empathic. As long as the reader is touched in some way, then the story has done its job.

AK: In" The God of Forgotten Things", how much of what the God remembers reflects your own childhood?

SS: Actually very little is MY childhood. Again, God is a gift to a number of friends who were generous enough to share their childhoods with me -- all of the wonderful memories from "The God of Forgotten Things" come from them. Be careful what you tell a writer, you never know how they will abuse it ...

AK: In your stories, everyone's favorite childhood book seems to be Hoke Berglund's Princess Scapegoat. What was your favorite book/story as a child?

Similar Monsters by Steven SavileSS: That is such a tough question -- the one that stands out is actually one I never read. It was read to me by a wonderful middle school teacher, Mr. Mendez: Alan Garner's Elidor. I reread it last year, technically read it for the first time, and loved it as much as an adult as I did as a child. Indeed, an element of Hoke Berglund's magic is a tip of the hat to that wonderful book.

AK: With which character(s) in your stories do you identify most?

SS: The sad tormented heroes -- probably Stephen from "The Restless Dead", and the younger Hoke from "All That Remains Is You" -- though aspects of my personality shine through in the character of Max Noon ... I won't let on as to which parts ...

AK: Do you believe in love? Magic?

SS: Of course -- I'm one of the hopeless souls who believes in love at first sight, at great grand gestures, of giving yourself body and soul to the possibility of happiness. It is our one redeeming feature as human beings, our constant ability to fall in love. And magic? Well what is magic apart from the ability to see the world as it really is, in all of its brilliant and loving colours? With magic, as with love, anything and everything is possible.

Angel Road by Steven SavileAK: There are reportedly some "inside jokes" in the cover art for Angel Road readers to discover. Would you like to share with us a few of those?

SS: Indeed! As I mentioned before, Hoke pops up on the cover. There is also a hidden poem -- a third for the collection -- that will take some rather exceptional eyes to discover. The more eagle-eyed reader might also spot the fact that the name on the cover has grown an extra letter, from Steve to Steven. This has caused havoc on Amazon but was done for a very definite reason -- to mark my own evolution as a writer. And of course, you can always play a game of collecting the story references from the cover art itself!

AK: What projects will you be tackling next?

SS: I'm wrapping up a grand sweeping epic fantasy novel, The Ghosts of the Conquered, which seems to have eaten up far too many years of my life. I really love this story, it is dark, gritty fantasy quite unlike the fluffy bunny fantasy that seems prevalent in the genre right now. It deals with the effects of war on common people, turning the Everyman into a hero of necessity -- a bruised and battered hero at that. There is no simple magic ring, no mystical swords, no white wizard on a mythical horse to come save the day. These guys are fighting simply to survive.

After that it's another change of pace and, technically, genre. I have a love story of sorts, a war between heaven and earth, and at least two more graphic novels in the pipeline. I love working in this form, it appeals to my visual sense as well as my more literary leanings. Working with Robert Sammelin is a truly collaborative process, where the sum of the whole is far greater than the sum of the collective parts.

AK: If you could use one word to describe yourself, what would it be?

SS: Driven.

© Alethea Kontis 2005.

Secret Life of Colors by Steve SavileHoudini's Last Illusion by Steven SavileAngel Road by Steven SavileSimilar Monsters by Steve Savile

Angel Road was published in November 2004 by Elastic Press; ISBN: 0954374797.
Houdini's Last Illusion was published in July 2004 by Telos Books; ISBN: 1903889669.

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