Thursday 28 December 2017

My Creative Year 2017

Continuing a tradition (now in its fifth year), here's my annual look back at 2017 from a creative standpoint.

During the year, I wrote a lot of essays for this blog but no short stories at all, focussing instead on my psychological thriller novel.  I started it in early May and finished, 140,000 words later, at the end of October.  It's been an exciting project and I'm now working on the second draft, with the intention of shopping it around to agents in the new year - wish me luck!

* * *
I had one short story published, A World Outside Your Window, in 12 Dark Days: One Hell Of A Christmas, edited by Dean M. Drinkel from Nocturnicorn Books.  The anthology appeared, in print and digital editions, in December.

My collection, Things We Leave Behind, was published on 15th July by Dark Minds Press and launched at Edge-Lit 6, alongside Laura Mauro's excellent novella Naming The Bones.

At the launch, Laura read an extract from What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking whilst I read the first few pages from her novella

My novella, Polly, was published on 30th November by Stormblade Productions, with an online Facebook launch that evening (you can see a transcript of the fun here).

* * *
Things We Leave Behind featured in Chad Clark's Top Reads for 2017, which was very pleasing.

James Everington included What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking (from Things We Leave Behind) in his annual Favourite Short Stories round-up.

What Gets Left Behind featured in Tom Johnstone's 2017 Review Of The Year.

* * *
The Crusty Exterior managed another gathering, meeting at Astley Book Farm in Bedworth before heading off for a curry to help celebrate Steve Harris' 50th birthday in May.  Loads of friends, thousands of books, we had a great time.  And at Sledge-Lit, plans were hatched to meet up again next year...
Just after an enjoyable curry with, from left, James Everington, John Travis, Steve 'birthday boy' Harris, me, Phil Sloman and Steve Bacon

In June, Earls Barton held its first Literary Festival.  My friend Sue Moorcroft appeared on Saturday 10th, with her "route to number one" and I (in my first Lit Fest experience) had a slot on Sunday afternoon (which I wrote about here).  My talk was called "How can you write what you know when you write horror?" and centred around my novella The Mill.  I had a decent audience who listened attentively, laughed at the funny bits (I think the Grand Hotel in Scarborough gets more gothic every time I describe it) and asked some good questions. A terrific experience and it instantly made me want to do it again.
picture by Sue Moorcroft

On October 11th, I was part of a "Meet The Authors" panel with Sue and Louise Jensen (both of whom are best sellers) held at Kettering Library, moderated by John Griff of BBC Radio Northampton.  It was a terrific evening (Dad came along with me and proved to be a hit himself) with a good-sized and engaged audience, John kept the questions coming, the panel acquitted themselves well, we all had a laugh and books were sold.  I had a really good time.
Me, Sue, John and Louise 
I'm pointing at Dad, who finally got to ask his question, much to Sue and Louise's amusement

As a favour for Dad, I did a reading & writing session for the Rothwell Beavers Group in early December.  To them, he's Badger, the group leader and they were all surprised when I revealed he was my dad, the only person who used to read my stories when I began writing at their age (he stopped reading them when I - doubtless much to his relief - started writing horror, a genre he's not particularly fond of).  I wrote them a little Christmas tale and had great fun doing it - two elves help Santa but then he gets accidentally knocked out so they need to get some help - and left the ending open for the kids to finish.  I didn't really know what to expect but the response was superb and every single one of those Beavers either wrote or drew a conclusion to the story with some fantastic flights of imagination.  As much I enjoyed the evening itself, the next day was even better when I saw this feedback from one parent.

* * *
I attended three great Cons in year.  The first was Edge-Lit 6, held at The Quad in Derby on 15th July (see my report here), followed by FantasyCon, held at The Bull Hotel, Peterborough from 29th September to 1st October (see my report here) and I rounded out the year with the excellent Sledge-Lit 3, held at The Quad in Derby on 25th November (see my report here).
At Edge-Lit 6 with, from left, Peter Mark May, Richard Farren Barber, me, James Everington
On a panel at FantasyCon - from left, Ramsey Campbell, Phil Sloman, me, Helen Armfield, Nina Allan and James Everington
Priya Sharma, Steve Harris, me, Simon Bestwick (front) and Peter Mark May

At Sledge-Lit with, from left, Becky Moore, me, Tracy Fahey, Steve Bacon, Lisa Childs, John Travis and James Everington
Interviewing Alison Littlewood - pic by James Everington
* * *
I'm feeling confident for 2018 too, as I plan to crack on with the novel and plot out more, plus I have a few things due to be published and a couple of novellas to write.  I'll keep you updated as how things go.

As always, thank you so much, dear readers of this blog, for all your support in 2017, especially those who bought, read and liked my work - I really do appreciate it.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Merry Christmas!

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish readers of this blog a very Happy Christmas, with all best wishes for the New Year.

Thank you, as ever, for your continued support and interest - let's hope 2018 is as good to us as we want it to be!

Monday 18 December 2017

The Ninth Annual Westies - review of the year 2017

Well here we are again with another year that seems to have zipped by and so, as we gear up for Christmas and all things festive, it's time to indulge in the annual blog custom and remember the good books of 2017.

Once again, it's been a great reading year with a good mix of brand new novels alongside a few books that had spent far too long languishing on my TBR pile (plus a few welcome re-reads).  As always, the top 20 places were hard fought and, I think, show a nice variety in genre and tone reflecting my shift in reading from horror towards psychological thrillers (since I've been working on my thriller novel this year).  Where I've blogged about a book earlier, I've linked to it on the list.

This year features another tie for first place but since both books are very good and very different, I couldn't place one above the other.

Without further ado, I present the Ninth Annual Westies Award - “My Best Fiction Reads Of The Year” - and the top 20 looks like this:

1= The Summer Of Impossible Things, by Rowan Coleman
1= Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough
3: The Little Village Christmas, by Sue Moorcroft
4: The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak
5: One Summer In Italy *, by Sue Moorcroft
6: Body In The Woods, by Sarah Lotz
7: The Pool House, by Tasmina Perry
8: Alexa, by Andrea Newman
9: I See You, by Claire Mackintosh
10: Disappearance At Devil's Rock, by Paul Tremblay
11: Naming The Bones, by Laura Mauro
12: Cockatrice **, by Stephen Bacon
13: Looking For Captain Poldark, by Rowan Coleman
14: The Surrogate, by Louise Jensen
15: The Escape, by C. L. Taylor
16: Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence, by Richard Farren Barber
17: Helene **, by Nicola Monaghan
18: When You Comin' Back, Range Rider, by Charles Heath
19: The A-Team, by Charles Heath
20: Ten Percent Of Trouble, by Charles Heath

* = This is Sue's second book of her second Avon contract (I read it to critique) which will be published in May 2018.  Her current release is The Little Village Christmas.
** = read to critique, not published yet

The Top 10 in non-fiction are:

1: A bientot…, by Roger Moore
2: Roger Moore As James Bond 007, by Roger Moore
3: How Star Wars Conquered The Universe, by Chris Taylor
4: Meryl Streep: The Reluctant Superstar, by Diana Maychick
5: The Man With The Golden Eye, by Peter Lamont
6: Alfred Hitchcock, by Peter Ackroyd
7: The Cinema Of George Lucas, by Marcus Hearn
8: Cinefex 51, by Mark Cotta Vaz
9: Kiss Me Like A Stranger, by Gene Wilder
10: The Cars We Loved In The 1980s, by Giles Chapman

Stats wise, I’ve read 74 books - 41 fiction, 22 non-fiction, 3 comics/nostalgia/kids and 8 Three Investigator mysteries.

Of the 66 books, the breakdown is thus:

6 biography
6 horror
15 film-related
11 drama (includes romance)
20 crime/mystery
3 sci-fi
2 nostalgia
3 humour

All of my reviews are posted up at Goodreads here

Just in case you’re interested, the previous awards are linked to from here:

Wednesday 13 December 2017

The Ghost Club, a guest post by Willie Meikle

A special mid-week post for a guest spot by my friend Willie Meikle, whose latest collection, The Ghost Club, was published on 8th December by Crystal Lake Publishing.

Over to you, Willie!
Mark and I have never met, but we've 'known' each other online for many years now. I think of him as a friend, and a fellow traveler on the winding, sometimes meandering, pathways we walk as genre writers in pursuit of fortune and glory. We have different enthusiasms -- I don't have a thing for Stormtroopers for example -- but we both have a thing for Caroline Munro, and we're both headed, mostly, in the same direction.

My personal enthusiasms lie in the past, but farther back than Mark's Star Wars, Roger Moore's Bond, and INXS.

My name's Willie, and I've got a thing for Victoriana.

I'm not sure exactly when it started, but it was somewhere around fifty years ago now. Adam Adamant was on the telly, ZULU was my favorite movie and I was reading Verne, Wells, Doyle and Stevenson. I moved away and on into the future with Clarke, Asimov, Aldiss, Vance and then Moorcock, Zelazny, Ellison, Le Guin, Delaney et al a few years later, but the love of period works never really left me and over the years I remained charmed by the likes of Kim Newman and Tim Powers in print, Jeremy Brett on the telly and endless rewatches of Taste the Blood of Dracula on VHS.

Strangely, when I started out writing in the early 90s, it never occurred to me to write in the period. I was often off and away on another of my enthusiasms in pulp detectives, aliens and big beasties causing mayhem. Mark and I crossed paths in some small press publications back then too, which is where I guess we came to each others' notice.

It wasn't until around 2008 after I left the UK small press field, went full time as a writer, came to Newfoundland, and got a new lease of life that I really started turning part of my writing life towards my first enthusiasms. There were a couple of factors that pushed me there; firstly a publisher asked me to write a couple of CARNACKI stories which, while not Victoriana, were close enough in style for me to develop the taste and realise I liked it.

Then I saw Charles Prepolec on Facebook putting out a submission call for weird Sherlock Holmes stories. I had no idea whether I could pull it off but I gave it a try, got accepted and appeared in GASLIGHT GROTESQUE from EDGE Publishing. At that very point it was as if an engine got turned on, one that I couldn't turn off. Over the next few years I wrote more CARNACKI fiction ( 3 collections of it now), more HOLMES works (a novel, 3 novellas and a collection as well as a handful of other stories), a CHALLENGER sequel to the Lost World, and a CHALLENGER collection. It's not all I wrote, but it made up over half of my output for quite a few years.

I did get something out of my system though, and I thought I'd now said most of what I want to say, especially in Doylian pastiches. I wanted to do my own thing more, and veered off to write a bunch of books for DarkFuse and Dark Regions Press, and venture into more modern horrors and some Lovecraftian fantasies. I couldn't quite get rid of CARNACKI, I'm not sure I ever will, but at least Holmes and Watson don't take over my head any more.

I thought that was it for the Victoriana. But then someone on Facebook mentioned H Rider Haggard and asked if I'd thought of doing something in that vein. I hadn't, then suddenly I had. But not just Haggard. I mentioned earlier about Wells, Verne, Stevenson and Doyle. I'd also read Haggard and Kipling, Tolstoy and Twain and more. And suddenly the Victoriana pulled me back in, I had a 'what if...' moment thinking about a ghost club, and there it was, a new idea in my head. I've been at it long enough to know that when something like that hits me, I have to write it.

It's called THE GHOST CLUB, and it's a simple premise.

In Victorian London a select group of writers, led by Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Henry James held an informal dining club, the price of entry to which was the telling of a story by each invited guest.

So I wrote a bunch of stories, containing tales of revenant loved ones, lost cities, weird science, spectral appearances and mysteries in the fog of the old city, all told by some of the foremost writers of the day: Verne and Wells, Tolstoy and Checkov, Stevenson and Oliphant, Kipling, Twain, Haggard, Wilde and Blavatsky alongside their hosts. I had more than a few moments of panic and self doubt, wondered many times whether the sin of pride would bite me on the arse or the ghosts of the dead writers would come along in their own little club and laugh me out of the room.

And finally it was done.

Then the real worrying started. But it has a home, it has advance readers who loved it, including some of my favorite writers, and it's now out in the world.

I can't do any more about it, it's in the hands of the readers.

And now, again, I've said I'm done with Victoriana for a while. My latest work in progress is pure pulp creature feature, I have a contract for more of the same, and I'm also working on a big historical fantasy thing with another writer that's about as far from the Victorian as I can get.

And yet... I've recently had a tickle of interest from a publisher who might want to see a new set of Victorian ghost stories from me. I'm a bit busy to be thinking about it but...

My name's Willie, and I've got a thing for Victoriana.

* * * * *

THE GHOST CLUB was published by Crystal Lake Publishing on 8th December 2017.

It's a simple premise.

In Victorian London, a select group of writers, led by Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Henry James held an informal dining club, the price of entry to which was the telling of a story by each invited guest.

These are their stories, containing tales of revenant loved ones, lost cities, weird science, spectral appearances and mysteries in the fog of the old city, all told by some of the foremost writers of the day. In here you'll find Verne and Wells, Tolstoy and Checkov, Stevenson and Oliphant, Kipling, Twain, Haggard, Wilde and Blavatsky alongside their hosts.

Come, join us for dinner and a story.


Robert Louis Stevenson Wee Davie Makes a Friend
Rudyard Kipling The High Bungalow
Leo Tolstoy The Immortal Memory
Bram Stoker The House of the Dead
Mark Twain Once a Jackass
Herbert George Wells Farside
Margaret Oliphant To the Manor Born
Oscar Wilde The Angry Ghost
Henry Rider Haggard The Black Ziggurat
Helena P Blavatsky Born of Ether
Henry James The Scrimshaw Set
Anton Checkov At the Molenzki Junction
Jules Verne To the Moon and Beyond
Arthur Conan Doyle The Curious Affair on the Embankment

* * * * *

'The Ghost Club is a massively ambitious anthology of stories 'by' classic authors as imagined by the extremely talented William Meikle. Massively entertaining, too.'
- Simon Clark, author of the award winning THE NIGHT OF THE TRIFFIDS

'In the past, we’ve had the Diogenes Club, the ‘Club of the Damned’, and even Peter Straub’s ‘Chowder Society.’ Now we have THE GHOST CLUB by William Meikle. And it is, quite simply, a delight. Not only has the author displayed his knowledge of and love for the writers of yesteryear, but in creating ‘The Ghost Club’ our host has produced his own collection of unknown and previously unpublished short stories ‘by’ Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Leo Tolstoy, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, H. G.Wells, Margaret Oliphant, Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard, Helena P Blavatsky, Henry James, Anton Chekhov, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle. I say ‘unknown’, when I mean – of course – that all the stories are written by Mr Meikle in the style of the aforementioned authors; and the entire experience of reading this collection is like sitting with him in an old fashioned study, with a roaring fire, guttering shadows and a snifter or two of brandy as he unfolds his ‘Ghost Club’ tales. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.'
- Stephen Laws, author of GHOST TRAIN

'William Meikle is an audacious writer! In The Ghost Club he takes on the personalities of literary icons Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and the like and creates stories they might have told, mimicking their voices and writing styles. And he makes that work! I have too many favorites to name but as I read from start to finish, the stories just got better and better and I found myself as absorbed as if I were reading spooky tales told by these master storytellers. Kudos to Meikle! Lovers of traditional and quirky ghost stories need The Ghost Club in their library!'
- Nancy Kilpatrick. author of REVENGE OF THE VAMPYR KING

"Masters of literature spin classic spooky tales in this chilling collection."
– Scott Nicholson, author of THE RED CHURCH

* * * * *

William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with twenty five novels published in the genre press and over 300 short story credits in thirteen countries.

He has books available from a variety of publishers including Dark Regions Press, DarkFuse and Dark Renaissance, and his work has appeared in a number of professional anthologies and magazines.

He lives in Newfoundland with whales, bald eagles and icebergs for company.

When he's not writing he drinks beer, plays guitar, and dreams of fortune and glory.  He can be found online at his website, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Monday 11 December 2017

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Christmas Annuals

"Christmas is coming!"
Me & Tracy, Christmas 1977 - look at how chuffed I am, I've got the new Look-In annual AND the Starsky & Hutch Gran Torino!
One of the highlights of Christmas when I was a kid (beyond the catalogues I wrote about last year) was seeing which annual I got that particular year.  To those who don’t know (it might be a peculiarly British thing, I’m not sure the same format is available in the US), Christmas annuals were (and remain) large size hardback books, designed for children and based on existing properties.  Back when I was a kid, this included a variety of comics, popular TV shows of the time (I wonder how many kids fell over themselves for The Sweeney and Kojak annuals?), the occasional film as well as sport and pop round-ups.

The ones based on comics featured the same cast as the weekly editions, mostly in new adventures, while the TV and film ones had comic strips, the occasional short story, fact files and interviews and - brilliantly - in the case of The Fall Guy, behind the scenes information on stunts and how they were filmed.

Annuals are generally published towards the end of the year, cover-dated as the following year (so that Look-In annual above is classed as the 1978 one), to ensure shops don't take them off the shelves immediately after the new year (though, by then, unsold copies are often heavily reduced).  Still as popular now - you tend to see fewer relating to ongoing comics (perhaps because kids today don't have the range of comics we had) - the only difference seems to be that they're much skinnier (and that's not just me being all nostalgically misty about it - my ones from the late 70s and early 80s are substantially chunkier than the ones I’ve bought for Dude over the past few years).  I haven’t bought one for myself in years (the only ones that vaguely interest me relate to Star Wars and none of them have snagged my interest when I’ve glanced at them in shops) but I have enjoyed the odd read of his (Pokemon was a favourite for a long time, now supplanted by Match Of The Day).  I did, however, buy the compilation one of Look-In magazine that was put out a few years back but the interest there was in the re-printing of old comic strips and articles.

Here, then, are a selection of old favourites, ones that I received and ones I remember my sister Tracy having.  I hope some of them inspire a warm, nostalgic trip down memory lane for you...
This is the first annual I remember, though I'd have been 5 during Christmas 1974 when it was originally published, so my memory must come from re-reads, I imagine.
I was a huge fan of the TV series but the highlight of this annual, for me, was the 4 page article about John Chambers' make-up and showing how Roddy McDowall was transformed into Galen (probably the first behind-the-scenes thing I ever read).
To be honest, I can't remember anything about this show and I wish I could.  The annual has several pages of magic tricks, clearly designed (and carefully explained) for kids, which I recall 'entertaining' family with at several Christmas get-togethers...
My childhood hero, in book format
I was a big fan of Look-In magazines (The Junior TV Times), as I wrote about here.
I loved The Beano.  The Bash Street Kids (the cover stars here) got their own annual starting in 1980 and running through to 2010.
Tracy was a huge fan of horses (she later worked with them and rode competitively) and Black Beauty was one of her favourites
For 9 year old me, Return Of The Saint was one of the coolest things on TV - that car, the job and that fantastic opening theme tune.  I knew of the Roger Moore version, but that seemed very static compared to this.  The annual is a bit disappointing though, to be honest, filled with not-very-good-at-all artwork.
I started watching the TV show because of Farrah Fawcett (wife of Lee) Majors and it was good fun.  I always liked Kate Jackson best though.
The "seven-penny nightmare" comic writ large.  I have nothing but fond (and gore-streaked) memories of this!
Wonderfully spooky - marketed towards girls, though boys comics also had spooky stories in them, I liked this
The weekly funny comic that supplanted The Beano for me.
Me and my friends loved this show but, bearing in mind how much our parents did too, I wonder now just how much of it went sailing over our heads...
I love the fact that the songsheet the girl on the left is holding is the same picture, except she's getting splatted by a snowball
A popular US TV show that I only barely remember now but Tracy, who loved monkeys, really enjoyed it and I used to watch it with her.
Although I'd started reading 2000AD when it was first launched in 1977, I graduated to Starlord which began in 1978 (both were published by IPC).  Costing slightly more (though the better selling of the two titles), it had higher production costs and rather than split the market, it was absorbed into 2000AD in 1978 (though annuals continued until 1981, cover-dated as 1982).  This often happened during my childhood, favoured comics being gobbled up by bigger name titles, with all of my favourite strips gradually being phased out.
More ponies!
Top Of The Pops!  Debbie Harry!
The Professionals (which began in 1977) was clearly aimed at an adult audience but much-loved by kids like me (I wrote more about them here), who enjoyed the running, shooting and vehicular mayhem - hence the annual.
Tucker!  And the gorgeous Cathy Hargreaves (bottom left) played by Lyndy Brill
One of my favourite TV shows (which I've written about before - as a retrospective here and as part of my recuperation from my heart attack here) - Lee Majors, Heather Thomas, behind-the-scenes stuff and lots of stunts!  The annual is good fun too, with some interesting articles and a spooky short story.

scans from my collection, aside from Charlie's Angels, Misty, Tammy and Judy (thanks to comicvine for those)

You can read more of my nostalgia posts here

Monday 4 December 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 12) - Music & Sound

In January 1977, the first cut of Star Wars was completed and George Lucas began to work on the soundtrack.  He wanted to record it in Dolby Stereo, a mid-70s innovation that neither the studios nor the cinemas were too keen on as the equipment was expensive and not always reliable, but he was adamant.  He wanted the best possible format for the film, to showcase the score and the sound design (all of which had to be created, since the sets were wood, the blasters shot blanks and the robots didn't make much noise at all), especially since he had expert craftsmen on hand creating them.

So for the twelth and final entry in the Star Wars At 40 thread, I'm taking a look at the work of Ben Burtt and John Williams.
At the 1978 Oscar ceremony
(left) Ben Burtt with his presenters, C3PO and Mark Hamill (right) John Williams with his presenters, Henry Mancini and Olivia Newton-John
For the sound design, producer Gary Kurtz had spoken to Ken Mura (Lucas’ former instructor at USC) before production began, asking if there were “any sound geniuses” there.  Mura said one, Ben Burtt, was just about to graduate and he was hired, sight unseen and instructed to begin creating sounds.  He didn’t meet Lucas until six months later and they only had one conversation about the concept - Lucas didn’t want the background noise to sound like it had been manufactured in a recording studio.  He felt electronic, synthesised soundtracks had become a sci-fi cliché - “the sounds of the real world are complicated and kind of dirty,” Burtt said, “they simply cannot be reproduced on a synthesiser.”

Armed with his trusty Nagra tape recorder, he began gathering sounds after breaking the effects into different categories - voices, weapons, vehicles and doors (as well as introducing the Wilhelm scream) - taking his inspiration from the world around him.  He recorded his blender, fridge, stereo turntable, movie projectors, jet engines and animals at the zoo. 

Darth Vader’s breathing came from Burtt recording himself using an old Dacor scuba regulator while R2-D2 was a mixture of his own voice, synthesised and spliced together with flexible pipe being squeezed and metal scraps rolling around in dry ice.  He also ‘voiced’ some of the squawks made by the holographic monsters on the Millennium Falcon.  Knowing that made-up languages would quickly sound fake, he used real - if little known - ones as often as possible - Greedo, for instance, speaks the Inca dialect of Quecha.

The lightsaber sound came from an old projector at USC, where the interlock motor made a humming sound as it idled.  “It would slowly change in pitch and beat against another motor and they would harmonize with each other.”  Then he passed a microphone by a television set picture tube (this was long before flat screens) and that created an unusual hum as it picked up the transmission signal and induced it into its sound reproducing mechanism.  “It was a great buzzing,” he said, “so I recorded that and combined with the projector motor sound and that became the basic lightsaber tone.”  To create the sense of it moving, he re-played the hum and waved another microphone in the air next to the speaker, creating “a Doppler’s shift, where you get a pitch shift in the sound [that] gives a sense of movement.”

Creating the blaster effect
The distinctive roar of the TIE fighters came from two different sources.  George Lucas had seen a British documentary, The Battle of Stalingrad, that featured some strange sounding Nazi rockets, which he suggested might sound good as the blasters.  Burtt recorded the sound but needed something else and decided to blend it with a recording he’d made at the zoo of an elephant shrieking.  Slowed down and changed in pitch, the combination worked perfectly.  The blaster effect eventually came from Burtt hitting the guy wire of a radio tower with a hammer.

Benjamin ‘Ben’ Burtt, Jr., was born in Jamesville, New York on 12th July 1948 and graduated from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.  He won the National Student Film Festival in 1970 with a war film called Vape God and won a scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, where he earned a Master’s degree in film production.

Following Star Wars, for which he won a Special Achievement for Sound Effects Editing Oscar in 1978, he has created sound for a lot of big films (including almost every Lucasfilm production to date), often working through Skywalker Sound.  In addition, he has directed several IMAX documentaries (such as Blue Planet, Destiny In Space and Special Effects: Anything Can Happen), wrote several episodes of the 1980s Star Wars cartoon series Droids and edited the Star Wars prequels and Red Tails (2012).  He made cameo appearances in Return Of The Jedi (as the Imperial Officer Han Solo knocks over a balcony in the shield generator on Endor) and The Phantom Menace.

To date, Burtt has won four Oscars for Sound Effects Editing - Star Wars (1977), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) while being nominated for a further six.  He was awarded a Doctor Of Art by Allegheny College in 2004 and The Charles S. Swartz Award by The Hollywood Post Alliance for contributions to the field of post production.

Although orchestral scores had declined in popularity in the 70s (partly due, ironically enough, to Lucas’ American Graffiti which started the trend of filling the soundtrack with old songs), he knew that was the way he wanted to go with Star Wars.  “I was looking for a composer who could write in the classic Hollywood style of the '30s and '40s,” he said in interview.  His close friend Steven Spielberg gave him a recommendation.  “He said ‘John [Williams is] the man for you, he’s fantastic’ though I was a little nervous at first because I only knew him primarily as a jazz guy.”

John Williams (left) discusses the score with George Lucas
In a 1976 interview, Lucas said, “I told him ‘I’m basically doing a silent movie and I need to have the discipline of the way silent movie-music was written’.”  Since “about 90 percent of the film is music”, Lucas and Williams agreed on a classic 19-century style with liberal use of leitmotif (wherein a character is given a recurring theme) since the music “had to serve as an ‘emotional anchor’ for the audience to relate”.

The classically trained Williams knew exactly what Lucas was looking for and delivered a lush, grand score that is instantly thrilling (and the power of the Main Title Theme as that Star Destroyer flies overhead - wow, I saw it as a 9 year old and it stuck with me), taking cues from Richard Strauss and Golden Age Hollywood composers Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  There are also a few elements from Psycho too.  When Paul Hirsch was editing the sequence as Luke, Ben, Han & Chewie “pop out of the hatch in the Falcon, I laid in a very famous piece of Psycho music there [on the work print],” he said in interview, “the same three-note motif that Scorsese had insisted Benny [Bernard Herrmann] use in Taxi Driver.  Curiously enough, Johnny [Williams] - I don't know if he did it deliberately or what - but it's now incorporated into his cue for that moment in the film."

John Towner Williams was born on 8th February 1932 in Floral Park, New York and his father Johnny Williams was a jazz percussionist who played with the Raymond Scott Quintet.  The family moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and John studied at the University of Californa before being drafted into the US Air Force in 1952, where he conducted and arranged music for The U.S. Air Force Band.  In 1955, following his service, Williams entered The Juilliard School where he studied piano with Rosina Lhévinne and worked as a jazz pianist in many of New York’s jazz clubs.  After his studies, he moved back to Los Angeles and worked as a session musician for the likes of Henry Mancini (on the Peter Gunn soundtrack), Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann, Alfred Newman, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein.

Conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at Anvil Studios, March 1977
His first film composition was for Daddy-O (1958), his first credit Because They’re Young (1960) and he quickly gained attention in Hollywood for his versatility, equally at ease with jazz, piano or symphonic music.  He won his first Oscar for Fiddler On The Roof (1971) and his stature increased during the early 70s as he composed scores for big budget disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno and Earthquake (both 1974).  His score for Jaws (his second film with Steven Spielberg) is still extremely well known (and used to indicate approaching danger) and won Williams his second Oscar.

His work on Star Wars earned him his third Oscar and it remains the highest grossing soundtrack recording of all time.  He continued to work with Lucasfilm (scoring the Indiana Jones quartet, as well as The Empire Strikes Back, Return Of The Jedi, the prequel trilogy and The Force Awakens) and has scored all but two of Steven Spielberg’s films (the director was quoted as saying he considers it “a privilege to call John my friend”).

Williams has written well over 100 film and TV soundtracks (a third of them through the 70s), released more than 140 albums (including soundtracks) and over 30 concerto pieces (for a full list, go here).  From 1980 to 1993 he was the Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra (he’s now their laureate conductor) and created the theme music for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as well as the 1988, 1996 and 2002 Games.

To date, Williams has won 5 Oscars, while being nominated for a further 50 (only Walt Disney has more nominations).  He’s been nominated for 6 Emmy Awards (winning 3), 25 Golden Globes (winning 4), 65 Grammy’s (winning 22) and won 7 BAFTAs.  The American Film Institute selected the Star Wars soundtrack as “the greatest American film score of all time” (his scores for ET and Jaws also feature in the top 20, at 6 and 14 respectively) and it was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  He was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl’s Hall of Fame in 2000, was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honours in 2004, received the National Medal of Arts in 2009 and was presented the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2016 (the first composer to receive it).

Because I can't discuss John Williams and Star Wars without hearing the music, here is the man himself conducting the Boston Pops in the early 1980s.

This snippet, showing Ben Burtt and John Williams in conversation, is taken from From Star Wars To Jedi: The Making Of A Saga which was a VHS release in 1983 to help promote Return Of The Jedi.

Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
Ben Burtt: Sound Designer
George Lucas on John Williams

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday 27 November 2017

Sledge-Lit 3, Derby, 25th November 2017

This year saw the third Sledge-Lit event in Derby, held at the Quad (organised as ever by Alex Davies) and as I had such a good time at the previous two (I wrote about 2015 here and 2016 here), I bought my ticket as soon as it was announced.  Then, to add the icing on the cake, my friend Alison Littlewood (who's one of the Guests Of Honour, along with Sarah Pinborough) asked if I'd interview her onstage and, of course, I quickly agreed!
me, Becky Moore & Paul Melhuish
Paul Melhuish drove us up, like he did last year and we made good time to Derby, chatting writing and books on the way.  After seeming to find yet another route to the Assembly Rooms car park (neither of us recognised the road at all), we were quickly and, by coincidence, parking up at the same time as our Northampton Speculative Fiction Writers Group colleague Becky Moore.  She’d never been to a writing con before but, after speaking to us at the last NSFWG meeting, decided to come along on the condition she catch latch onto us and we agreed.  We said our hellos and crossed the square to the Quad where the first person we saw was Pixie Puddin, who's under the weather at the moment but was still her chirpy-self and it was good to see her so.  I introduced Becky, we got signed in and then Gary McMahon arrived, so I got my hug from him too.  After getting my free bar tickets (the event has me listed as a speaker) I bought Paul and Becky drinks and we found a table to run through the programme, which this time around was packed full of stuff I wanted to do.  
James Everington, me, Alison Littlewood - Fergus remarked that we were standing under the specials...
I spotted Alison Littlewood across the bar and went to see her and Fergus and, as ever, it was great to catch up with them both.  She was really nervous about her GoH interview so I told her my plan about asking a really awkward question in the middle of our interview but, oddly, it didn't seem to make her feel any better.  She was sitting with James Everington (my fellow Crusty), so I caught up with him and then suddenly we were in a big fluid group of people who were arriving and congregating at the bar.  Adele Wearing was there, quickly followed by John Travis and Simon Clark and Tracy Fahey and the big group of us chatted for a while, with Paul and Becky coming to join us all as well.  Eventually, we headed back to our table with Tracy, Lisa Childs arrived along with Stephen Bacon and there was a wonderful feeling of the gang being back together as everyone caught up.
The gang gathers - from left, Becky, me, Tracy Fahey, Stephen Bacon, Lisa Childs, John Travis and James
At 11.25, I headed up to The Box and met Dion Winton-Polak and Steve Shaw on the landing, said hi to them and Steve introduced me to Kitty Kane, with whom I’d tangled online with an irate Dr Who fan who, apparently, hated all women (including Kitty).  I went into the auditorium and Alison & I got ourselves sorted, both of us feeling nervous as we settled down in our chairs, made sure the microphones worked and waited for people to file in.  We’d already compiled a list of questions, loose enough to go off at tangents if we wanted and, with a bit of trepidation, I set off but I needn’t have worried - the audience was engaged and interested, Alison is a great speaker and very interesting and the time rocketed by.  When I threw it open for questions, we got several good ones and I bartered good-naturedly with Jo (the red-shirt in the room) for a bit more time and overall I think it went really well.  Time up, both relieved, we hugged and posed for some photos then headed back down to the bar for lunch.
Alison & me, mid-interview - pic by James Everington
Alison & I - relieved...
The bar had filled up but we quickly ended up linking three tables there were so many of us - with John, Simon, Steve, Fergus, Alison, me and James on one, Paul, Dion, CC Adams and Angeline Trevena on the next two, plus we then found room for Becky to join us.  Wonderfully, Fergus insisted on buying me lunch for the interview, I suggested it was worth a drink at most but he’s a persuasive chap (thanks Fergus!).  Everyone, even though in the middle of eating, joined in the conversation, chatting writing and stories and life and the time sped past, helped by the great company and tasty food.
(clockwise) - me, [Steve Bacon & John's heads], Simon Clark, Fergus, Alison and James, at our table for lunch
We broke up around 1.20 as people went off to their various things and, on my way out of the bar, I finally got to meet Linda Nagle, which was nice.  Steve Harris was in reception so I said hello and hugged him, spotted Fiona Ní Éalaighthe (more hugs), introduced them to Becky then Steve Bacon, Paul & I headed up to the Thrills & Chills panel.  As we waited for go in, Andrew Barker (who wrote the excellent Dead Leavesappeared with his young daughter and we got to say hello.  The panel itself, moderated by Alex Davies, was interesting and I enjoyed it a lot then afterwards, Phil Sloman & I chatted with Mark Morris, a conversation that naturally ended up involving The Three Investigators.  Leaving everyone behind for the second GoH interview (Sarah Pinborough talking to Gary McMahon), which I’d really wanted to see, I made my way down to my panel on the first floor where I met up with Penny Jones (who was moderating) and introduced myself to my fellow panellists, Stephen Aryan and Claire North (I felt a bit out of my depth).  Life Online: Social Media and The Writer was an interesting topic and we all made good points and the tone was nicely downbeat, which seemed to go down well.  I enjoyed it and Stephen & Claire were good company.
The panel - Claire North, Penny Jones, Stephen Aryun, me
With the panel over, I headed back up to The Box for the Dark Minds Press/Fox Spirit launch and sat with Steve Harris, finally getting a chance to have a chat with him.  The launches went well (they adopted the same process Laura & I did for our Dark Minds Press launch, where people read work by other writers) and as the readings finished, I got up meaning to go and buy the books - Imposter Syndrome and Tracy’s novel.  As it was, Gary McMahon and Sarah Pinborough were standing off to one side so I stood chatting with them for a while instead.  Gary went to get his books, leaving Paul & I with Sarah and since I’d missed her interview, it was nice to catch up with her, especially talking about the wonderful Behind Her Eyes and her new deals.  By the time I got to the book table, Tracy’s book had already sold out though she signed me a bookplate and I picked up a copy of Imposter Syndrome.  After chatting for a while longer with Sarah - and seeing Jay Eales - Steve Bacon, Phil and I headed down to the A Home For Horror panel, which Sarah was moderating.  It had an interesting mix of panellists and was entertaining - even better, I got to say hello to Kathy Boulton, who was sitting behind me.

When the panel was over, Steve & I went to the bar then headed back up to The Box, walking up the stairs and chatting with Simon Clark, who's a genuinely lovely bloke.  As we sat down, I finally got to meet Andy Walker who I think I’ve seen at every Con for the last few years and raffle king Ross Warren was ably represented by Lisa (his wife is on the verge of giving birth so he stayed at home).  Sarah and Gary co-hosted and, as ever, it made for a very funny and entertaining raffle (and deadpan Pixie, dressed as a Christmas tree, was as priceless as ever), keeping alive the traditionally disrespectful Edge-Lit raffle vibe.  Even better, I won this year, a boxed version from PS Publishing of Joe Hill’s The Fireman.  Steve also won a set of Midnight Movie Monographs and since he already had the Death Line edition (the one I was after), he gave it to me.  Double result!
As Ask Italian - from left, Phil Sloman, me, Paul, Steve, Gary Dalkin, James, Alison & Fergus
With the end of the raffle signalling the end of Sledge-Lit, we congregated on the landing and I got to say hello to Kevin Redfern briefly before we made our way downstairs, saying our goodbyes as we went which, for me, is always the sad part of any event.  There were two dining options, curry or Italian and I headed up the latter, with Alison & Fergus, Steve B, James, Paul, Phil and Gary Dalkin.  We were easily seated ("a table for eight?" usually brings on furrowed brows), the drinks came quickly and so did the food and we ate and talked and laughed and had a fine old time.  Putting together a group of writers, at the end of a day filled with creative energy, is always great and we had a lot of fun putting the world to rights.  As it was, Ask Italian did good business from Sledge-Lit and we saw tables full of fellow con-goers there so we got to say even more goodbyes when we finally made a move to leave.

I’ve always had fun at Sledge-Lit but, as Paul & I discussed on the way home, this year seemed to have a little bit extra with very few of us spending much time in the bar since the quality of the programming and panels was high.  I had a great time, it’s always lovely to spend quality time with old friends in such a creative atmosphere and my only regret is missing Sarah’s interview.

Already looking forward to the next one!