Friday 5 February 2016

Interview with Alex Davis

Alex Davis is a publisher, editor, author, creative writing tutor and events organiser from Derby. Film Gutter volume 1, his collection of reviews, has just been published by Ginger Nuts Books and last year saw publication of his first novel, The Last War, from Tickety Boo Press.  He organises Derby’s annual Edge-Lit convention - and its new sibling-convention Sledge Lit - and also runs Boo Books, which last year published the excellent Dead Leaves.  I caught up with him to talk about editing, writing and, of course, extreme cinema.
Edge-Lit, July 2015, picture by Steve Shaw
MW:  So tell us a bit about yourself.

AD:  I consider myself quite a lucky guy really, because ever since being a kid I always wanted to be a writer and get a book out there, which last year I was able to do. As I got older I found myself also getting a lot of enjoyment out of working in writing in its broadest sense – supporting other writers, teaching and workshops, putting together writing events and in turn publishing and editing anthologies. My attitude has always been to give things a go, and see how I feel about it, and if I like it then I'll keep on doing it. In the last fortnight I've just started tutoring GCSE English, for example, which has been really enjoyable so far too.

MW:  I think we first met at FantasyCon in the mid-noughties in Nottingham but you’d been organising conventions for a while.  How did you get into that?

AD:  I think that was the early 2000s – I put my first convention together back when I was twenty-three, which was the first of five Alt.Fiction events I was heavily involved in running, and started con-going a couple of years before that. At the time I was Literature Development Officer at Derby City Council, and had this vision of putting together an event in Derby with a view to drawing established convention audiences as well as getting more local audiences along, trying to provide a sort of gateway into the whole convention scene. I was amazed I could get my then-boss to go along with it, but he was really excited by the concept and with a bit of Arts Council funding we were able to get things off the ground. Being at a venue rather than a hotel, things like that felt important in terms of being a nice, soft and welcoming introduction to the scene. This year's Edge-Lit will be the fifth, and my eleventh convention as organiser.

MW:  You must be thrilled at the way Edge-Lit has become an important (and, to my mind, essential) part of the UK convention calendar.

AD:  Oh absolutely, chuffed to bits. 2015 felt like a real watershed year – these things always take some time to gather a head of steam, and we had three very good years before kind of mushrooming last year – the attendance was near double that of 2014. What I wanted – and still want – is for Edge-Lit to be the best writing-focussed convention around. It's not about necessarily getting load and loads bigger – QUAD is an incredible venue and a superb partner – so the aim is to keep offering more and more to our attendees each year.

MW:  So, “Film Gutter” then.  How did that come about?

AD:  I've always loved to have kind of a 'hobby' project, which has come under various guises over the years, and when the mastermind behind Ginger Nuts of Horror put out in January he was looking for new writers for the site I couldn't resist throwing my hat into the ring. The idea for Film Gutter wasn't really in my mind then, but when I started thinking about what I could perhaps bring to the table that others don't, the 'extreme horror' angle occurred to me. I've never been shy of controversial films – in fact any kind of fuss or furore tends to really fascinate me – and I was particularly inspired by a few Youtubers I watched who were recording brilliant reaction videos based on their immediate response to disturbing movies. Unboxed, Watched and Reviewed on the Otoobach channel on Youtube was and remains a favourite – it's made even funnier by the fact that the presenter has kind of a weak stomach. So I just thought to myself – maybe I could do that. What I could never have guessed for a second is how it's grown over the year it's been going – when I was sat interviewing Tom Six and Dieter Laser prior to the UK Premiere of Human Centipede III I just thought 'this is nuts, how did this happen'? But that's a symptom of how supportive and close-knit the extreme horror community is.

MW:  As a longtime fan of horror, I’ve grown to dislike the “why do you read/watch that stuff?” and so I’m reticent to do it to you but, as we discussed at FantasyCon, I’m amazed at your capacity to watch some of the films you do.  Not because of the content, necessarily, but for the emotive depths they plumb.  So when did you discover your enjoyment of the “film gutter”?

AD:  I've always been interested in things that kind of flirt with the edge of good taste, or what's considered acceptable, right from being a teenager I suppose. Musically that was black metal and Type O Negative's controversial albums. Bookwise as a kid A Clockwork Orange was an important one in influencing me. David Cronenberg was a director that really drew me in, and I suppose watching Videodrome one night on BBC Two – introduced by Mark Kermode, as I recall – was kind of a watershed moment as well. From there I watched Crash, and in turn Eraserhead, so it all sort of went from there. I suppose you could also reframe that as me having a pathological urge to dislike anything popular – I remember being really into nu-metal before anyone knew what it was, but when kids starting wearing Slipknot hoodies I just kind of moved on to something else. There's always been that bit of me that likes to dig around, find my own thing and then hopefully share that with other people who might not stumble across it other wise. In that sense, Film Gutter is me all over.

MW:  You wrote, as a guest blog, that with extreme cinema you started to wonder if there was “a line I won't let a film cross? Is there a point where I would press the stop button and give up because something had disturbed me so much? If those things that really shook other people up had produced so little effect in me, was there something out there that would make me feel that perturbed?”  Did you ever find that line or point?

AD:  Not as yet, but there are movies that have come close, and it's kind of hard to find a common thread between them. Thanatomorphose was just horrible to watch from start to finish, powerful but a serious test of endurance. Snuff 102 was flat out upsetting – there's a scene in that still makes me queasy to think back to. Megan is Missing features the bleakest closing twenty minutes in cinema history, in my opinion, and just left me shell-shocked for a couple of days. What interests me in a sense is why some of these movies do the things they do, and I can't answer that question without watching the film all the way through. Often there's a logic, an artistic reasoning going on beyond the flat-out gratuity it often gets considered as. It's good to be challenged by art sometimes, and for it to make you take a deeper look inside yourself and at the world around you.

MW:  You also run the small press Boo Books and published one of my favourite books of last year, Dead Leaves by Andrew David Barker.  What made you decide to run your own press?

Alex, (centre), with Carl Robinson (left) and Andrew Barker (right) at
Sledge-Lit, November 2015
AD:  Doing all the other work that I do, I'm always fortunate to stumble across great talent, and very often in the teaching or workshop environment talent that doesn't realize how great it is. Publishing felt like a natural next step to me, something that would give me the chance to help authors to get their work out there in a direct way rather than the indirect approach as it had been up to that point. The first novel we put out was Andrew's debut, The Electric, which just blew me away on first read and made me feel we were onto something special. He's a real talent, which he demonstrated possibly even more in Dead Leaves by delivering a book of a very different stripe that was every bit as good. The Electric was dreamy, optimistic, magical, whereas Dead Leaves is gritty, urban, almost nihilistic. The new novel out – A Dip in the Jazz Age – is actually written by an ex-student of mine, and that's almost a perfect summary of what I wanted to do with the press. It's about giving new names a chance out there, and that's what we'll continue to do.

MW:  What prompted the move into editing anthologies?

AD:  Again, just another one of those life ambitions! Half the joy of freelancing is that you can just decide to do something and go for it – there's no boss to say you can't or shouldn't. I've always loved short stories, and read a lot of anthos over the years, and when I was chatting away with the guys over at Doghorn about my first idea it all fell together wonderfully for No Monsters Allowed. The rest, as they say, is history.

MW:  You’ve also worked on the other side of the publishing coin, with your first novel The Last War coming out from Tickety Boo Press last year.  How long have you been writing and what led you into sci-fi?

AD:  I've been writing for as long as I can remember back, and SF was something that was really important to me in my formative years of reading. As a teen I was cracking my way through lots of the classics, and it's genre I've always had a fondness for. My focus is probably as much horror as SF these days, but the opportunity to have a sci-fi novel out there was something I just couldn't resist.

MW:  Okay, a “Film Gutter” quick fire round:

AD:  Favourite film and why: Flowers for me – Phil Stevens' debut feature is so visually fascinating, so poetic and so haunting. It was an absolute bolt from the blue for me – one of those movies I knew next to nothing about but absolutely rocked my world. His second movie, Lung II, is fantastic as well. Julia was a close second – just a fascinating tale of revenge and self-discovery in the most unlikely of circumstances. If I had a Film Gutter Oscar (note to self – there needs to be a Film Gutter Oscar one day) Ashley C Williams would have won it.

Least favourite film and why: Tough question, so I'm going to give two answers. Snuff 102 I've mentioned already, and I marked that one low not because it didn't have quality but because it left a distinctly bad taste by the end of the movie – I called it 'morally reprehensible' at the time and nothing since has changed my mind. I think there's a sequel on the way too. Quality-wise Chaos was just inexplicably terrible, just awful in every respect. I'm not one to lay into someone's creative work lightly, but there was just nothing to redeem this one.

MW:  And a general quick fire round

AD:  Favourite film and why: The Orphanage. I love Spanish filmon the whole, and The Orphanage is just exemplary in every respect – script, story, performances, atmosphere – and it also remains the only film to have surprised my wife at the end, which is no mean feat.

Favourite book and why: Vermillion Sands by JG Ballard. My fave tends to flip between this and Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, but I'm on rather a short story kick at the moment so Sands has the nod right now. It's a wonderful collection set in a faraway, rundown beach resort inhabited by some of the most unusual and ethereal characters you can imagine, and the stories are just gorgeous – Ballard has an incredible imagination and this book is a superb showcase for that.

Favourite album and why: I tend to prefer metal and rap, so right now it's either Mindless Self Indulgence's You'll Rebel to Anything or Watsky's Cardboard Castles. I could barely come up with two more different albums, now I think about it....

MW:  So what’s next for Alex Davis?

AD:  There's a question! No doubt there's plenty of things I don't even know about yet, but this year I'm hugely excited to be chairing the British Fantasy Convention, which runs in Scarborough from the 23rd-25th September. As someone who's been going to the event for over a decade, the opportunity to lead on it means everything and we want to make it the best in many years, if not ever. It's an awesome location and the line-up is coming together really well, so it's bound to be a great weekend.

MW:  Thanks very much Alex and I look forward to seeing you at Edge-Lit and FantasyCon!

AD:  Thanks Mark.

Alex can be found online at Alex Blogs About and also on Twitter.  Boo Books can be found online here and on Twitter.

Come on in, the water's revolting... 

Film Gutter Volume 1 is the full collection of 2015 reviews and interviews from Ginger Nuts of Horror's popular Film Gutter series, looking at some of the most bizarre, grotesque and disturbing horror features ever made. With over 50 movie reviews plus interviews with directors and actors including Tom Six, Dieter Laser, Matthew A Brown, Jimmy Weber and Phil Stevens. 
Film Gutter Volume 1 also takes in a host of exclusive content, including the much-requested 'most disturbing movies' list! 

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