James is a great bloke, friendly and funny and very good company - he & I managed to eat through the giggles when we each chose the sausage fest pizza that got us so ridiculed by our table-mates at Andromeda - and he’s also an excellent writer. From his debut collection Falling Over, to his chilling novella The Shelter (which I reviewed here) and more, I thought it was time to ask him some questions.
JE: Good to see you too, Mark. Well, I’m a writer from Nottingham, where I’ve lived most of my life (apart from a few years in Oxford). I’m rapidly approaching my forties; I have a wife, a daughter and a black sleepy cat. I like reading (obviously), good food, nice beer, The Headington Shark, sad music, chess, and the Oxford comma.
I mainly write dark supernatural fiction, although sometimes I take a break and write dark, non-supernatural fiction. I’m a big admirer of strangeness, ambiguity and subtlety in horror stories, and hopefully they are the kind of tales I write.
|Meeting at Andromeda One (Steve Harris, James, Phil Sloman, me)|
JE: I started really when I was sixteen. We had a coursework assignment for GCSE English where you could submit a creative writing piece, and as I was a fan of Stephen King (thanks to my Dad) I wrote a horror story. I can only remember vague details, but it had a sex scene in (and at this point in my life I wasn’t following the adage of ‘write what you know’, so it was pretty bad) and I was too scared to show my teacher it. So I wrote another story. Which was also horror.
And from there I never really stopped to be honest, although it was a loooooooong time before I wrote anything I considered publishable. As for why horror, as you can see it was there from the start. My Dad let me read books from his shelves when I was relatively young–I remember reading a lot of classic science fiction like Asimov and Arthur C Clarke when I was about eleven or twelve. But something about reading Stephen King for the first time really struck a chord, and not long after that I read Ramsey Campbell for the first time, which sealed my fate really...
I don’t just read horror though, I think that’s pretty unhealthy for a writer (not to mention boring as a reader). I like to read pretty widely, it’s just I’ve realised over the years that whatever talent I have for writing is more narrowly focused than my reading tastes.
MW: Your own brand of horror focuses more on the subtle, psychological side rather than all-out gore. Do you prefer this style as a reader too?
Take the chest-bursting scene in Alien: that’s not shocking just because of the blood. It’s shocking because it’s a moment of realisation for the viewer: that thing has been living inside of him all this time! Violent imagery needs to be used as part of a wider whole. It should illustrate character or theme (Clive Barker would be a good example). In general I believe good writing should be trying to do two or three or ten things all at once, and I don’t find much of the stab-stab-splatter stuff does that.
MW: Do you find your style has changed much over the years? Has it adjusted with you becoming a father (I know that caused a shift in my own writing)?
JE: I hope it’s developed over the years, even if that’s only a case of becoming a better. I think, like a lot of writers, there’s certain core themes and literary ideas that I’m drawn to, but in my younger days I couldn’t really express them as a I wanted. If I’d tried to write something like The Quarantined City ten years ago, I’d have fucked it up. So I think it’s been a case of refining over the years, rather than a dramatic shift.
As for fatherhood, I haven’t written a story that specifically touches on that experience as yet, but I’m sure I will at some point (even if only obliquely). It’s something that has such a big impact on all areas of your life that it’s hard to think that it won’t affect my writing too.
JE: Okay, with the usual caveats that these would be completely different if I picked them tomorrow…
1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood–a better cosmic horror story than anything Lovecraft ever wrote.
2. The Man In The Underpass by Ramsey Campbell–I could have picked no end of Campbell stories, ranging from the start of his career to the present day, but today it’s this one.
3. Furnace by Livia Llewelyn–a new favourite, a story that’s haunted me since I read it…
4. The Fly by Katherine Mansfield–creates a sense of horror and sorrow from a trivial incident.
5. Into The Wood by Robert Aickman¬–much like with Ramsey Campbell, I could have chosen lots of different Aickman stories. He was a true one off. So I picked this one to stand in for his body of work as a whole.
1. ‘The Trilogy’ (Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable) by Samuel Beckett. A descent into nothingness, laughing as we fall away.
2. We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. For me, this black comedy just edges it over her other novels, although they’re all exquisite.
3. Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. Utterly disturbing short novel about politics, power, and death by drowning.
4. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. My favourite of the classic horror novels; a true masterpiece.
5. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. A perfect example of how to write about characters in the moment.
1. Memento – “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.”
2. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian – “Found this spoon, sir.”
3. Don’t Look Now – “One of the things I love about Venice, is that it's so safe for me to walk…”
4. The Empire Strikes Back – “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.”
5. Alien –“There is a clause in the contract which specifically states any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated…”
1. Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys–madly creative and nothing like the one song of theirs everyone knows.
2. Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan–classic song after classic song after…
3. Elastica by Elastica–the sound of my long-faded teenage years.
4. In Rainbows by Radiohead–they blow me away, every time.
5. Are We There by Sharon Van Etten–probably the best singer songwriter I’ve discovered recently.
MW: The Shelter is a novella, The Quarantined City is a novel, do you have a preferred length to write to?
JE: Well, The Quarantined City is novel length, but its form is not that of a novel. It concerns someone hunting out a reclusive writer in the city, and he hunts for clues in the short stories he finds written by that author. So the book has a number of complete short stories embedded in (and reflective of) the novel’s narrative…
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I love short stories and can’t ever see a time when I won’t be writing them (although I’d like to do more novels and novellas too). Most of my favourite writers wrote short stories either exclusively or alongside longer works. I always just assumed that that’s what real writers did. It wasn’t until I started thinking about getting my own work published that I found out it’s accepted publishing wisdom that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. That some readers don’t like them. It’s an attitude totally alien to me; I feel that if you don’t read short stories it’s like you’re dismissing an entire art-form. Especially so for horror, where so many of the classics of the genre are shorter works.
JE: Well, although I’ve changed the characters, the first part of the story is something that actually happened: I did go with three friends across the fields behind my parents’ house to an old WW2 air raid shelter, which we forced open with tent pegs and climbed down into. (At least, we all believed it was an air raid shelter¬–I’m not sure what else it could have been, but looking back I’m not sure why such a thing would be in the middle of the countryside either.) And like you I enjoy coming of ages tales; in particular Stephen King’s The Body and IT, and Dan Simmons’s The Summer Of Night. When the boys open up the shelter it’s almost exactly in the middle of the narrative: they’re all changed by what happens, regardless of whether they dared go down or remained above.
But there’s another side to the story too; it’s not just about being young on the cusp of adulthood, but about looking back on that time of life, from the perspective of someone for whom adulthood is a daily, unromantic reality. That was mirrored in the writing of The Shelter - I wrote a version of this story when I was about seventeen. It was shit, obviously. But years later I dug out the manuscript and saw something in it salvageable. My hope in rewriting it was that it would keep its energy and the verisimilitude of youth, but I’d be able to add a mature sense of language and craft to it.
The Hyde Hotel, which I was lucky enough to feature in. What made you want to co-edit an anthology and how did you decide on the theme?
JE: Well, as I might have alluded to, I love short stories. And I love anthologies too, the way they give you a chance to discover new authors alongside some you already know. So putting together an anthology was something I always wanted to do.
The actual theme for The Hyde Hotel simply came from staying in cheap hotels for work; by coincidence I read some great ‘weird hotel’ stories by Nicholas Royle and Hannah Kate at that time. So I wrote a blog post about hotel horror in which I wondered why no one had put together an anthology on the theme. Dan emailed me after he read the blog and said that we should do it ourselves. And thus The Hyde was born…
MW: The Quarantined City got itself caught up in an unfortunate situation within the UK small press but generally speaking, we have a pretty good genre community here, I think. Do you enjoy the social side of being a horror writer, the Cons and the get-togethers?
JE: I do, very much so. As you allude to, there’s a number of unfortunate events occurred recently, but none of that will prove important in the long run. What’s important is that writers continue to write good work and that they have a route to publishing it, in whatever way they choose. And I’ve found that, ohhh, 92% of the people I’ve met at Cons are utterly supportive of that. People give you help, advice, share their contacts, come to your readings and panels. You build up your own mini-community, of people you trust, can bounce ideas off, who you can speak to when the writing is going shit (because we all have periods when the writing goes shit). Everyone has shared interests and goals, so it’s amazing how quickly you make good friends with people. Me and you being a case in point…
It helps that we all seem to love curry, too.
JE: It varies; I believe, especially in short stories, everything needs to mesh together: character, setting, theme, plot. So if the story doesn’t call for a specific location then it’s normally just set in an unnamed twenty-first century urban Britain. But sometimes the story does need to be set in a specific place; so for example my story Home Time is about a character trying to evade his past, specifically a past lived in a Nottinghamshire mining town… or ex-mining town. I grew up in such a place myself and have a very strong memory of the day they demolished the pit-heads. And given that coal-mining is basically the retrieval of a substance created in the past, it perfectly fitted the story’s themes.
At the moment I’m writing a novella called Paupers’ Graves which will be launched at this year’s Fantasycon–it’s set in a specific Nottingham location, a cemetery where many of the poor were buried in the so-called ‘guinea graves’. On some of their tombs the lives are measured not in years but minutes. So that story again is set very specifically in Nottingham and I’ve pulled in details from the past of the city as well–the slums, the lace mills, the Goose Fair. But again, that’s all because it fits the narrative and the themes of the story. And where I’ve needed to change things to fit, I’ve felt no qualms doing so.
MW: What’s the typical process for you in creating a story, do the ideas come from images or are you one of those lucky people who seems to get them delivered whole?
JE: They very rarely come to me whole, and I’m not sure I’d trust one that did. For me, a story isn’t about a single idea, it’s about finding a combination of ideas that feels like more than the sum of their parts. Often I have ideas in my head for ages, and I’m trying out other ideas against them like jigsaw pieces, trying to see what fits. It’s purely subjective, it’s something I just get a feeling about.
As an example, I had a story called The Place Where It Always Rains in an anthology edited by Alex Davis titled Worms. I had the central location (the place where it does always, indeed, rain) in my thoughts for months but couldn’t think what to do with it, what plot might be set there. But when Alex asked me to write a story on the theme of worms something just clicked: worms come out in the rain. Something about those two elements felt right together; I still had no real idea of a plot but the imagery of worms drowning in rain puddles felt like something I could work from.
MW: So what can we expect from you in the future?
JE: I’ve got quite a lot coming out in 2016 - not through productivity, just through the vagaries of small press publishing timescales. I’ve already mentioned Paupers’ Graves and Infinity Plus will be publishing the complete The Quarantined City, so people can finally see how it ends. Then there’s a number of stories out in anthologies this year, where I’m alongside some pretty stellar company. So it’s all pretty exciting at the moment.
Then there's also my novella Trying To Be So Quiet (published today!) from Boo Books. It's the first hardback edition anyone has done of my work so I’m pretty excited about it.
As for the longer term, who knows?
MW: I'm sure there'll be plenty more books to come, my friend. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and see you at a Con soon!