Friday, October 12, 2012

Fear and Wonder: The Spare Parts interview

As Spare Parts has been reissued as an ebook by Stumar Press I've dug up this interview from when the original Rainfall paperback was published. The interview is conducted by British Fantasy Award winning editor Pam Creais.

Pam Creais: Which writers did you enjoy most as a youngster?

Stuart Young: My favourites were Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Biggles by Captain W.E. Johns. Dr Who novelizations (especially the Terrance Dicks ones; he also wrote several SF, horror, and detective novels that I loved). The Willard Price Adventure series. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. John Harris’s Martin Falconer series. And The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

And then there were the comics like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, X-Men, and Justice League International.

PC: When did you first start writing yourself?

SY: I can’t remember exactly. There were writing assignments in school that never felt like assignments because they were just fun to do. I remember doing an illustrated Mr Men story when I was about six. And a few years later one of my friends was a huge Dr Who fan, he had all the novelizations and he got me into reading them. He used to try writing his own ones and I followed suit. So I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But in terms of actually submitting stuff that would’ve been, I don’t know, 1995, or something like that.

PC: How did you become aware of the small press and what was your first accepted story?

SY: I read somewhere that the small press was the place to try out your work before moving onto the big leagues. Of course then I had the problem that most small press magazines were horror and I knew pretty much zero about the genre so I had to slog my way through a bunch of novels and short stories that I absolutely hated before I found anything which fired that little spark of recognition -- “Hey, this is the kind if stuff I want to do!” Then I went through a period where I just collected rejection slips for about nine months. I was thinking, “Women have given birth quicker than this!” Eventually I wrote ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ in a single afternoon and sold it to Nasty Piece of Work on my first submission.

PC: Do you think the small press is beneficial to aspiring writers?

SY: It can be. If it works well you get Honourable Mentions and agents see your work and approach you about writing novels and you use it as a springboard to professional work. But if it doesn’t work well then no one actually reads your stories. At all. In that case it becomes a vicious circle; the publisher needs the readers so they can afford marketing to make the magazine more visible to the readers, but the readers don’t buy the magazine because they’ve never heard of it, so the publisher sells less copies and has less money to spend on promoting it.

Of course the small press can be a valuable way to hone your talents as a writer before tackling the bigger publishers. Although even then there are problems. Some authors write very specific types of fiction which only appeal to the real aficionados of that particular genre. So all the die-hard fans of, I don’t know, supernatural mysteries solved by Bavarian cheese-makers, buy the writer’s stuff and tell them they’re a genius but when they step outside that circle into the wider realms of publishing no one wants to read their work.

But obviously not everyone can expect to get Stephen King type sales. So even if you don’t hit the big time the progression through the different levels of the small press (magazines, paperbacks, hardbacks) means that you’re reaching the widest audience that’s possible for you

Wow, that almost sounds like I know what I’m talking about, doesn’t it?

PC: How did your first collection of stories, Spare Parts, come about?

SY: I had a whole bunch of old horror short stories lying around. Plus I had a couple of new ones that were too long for most magazines’ guidelines. So I put them together and showed them to John B. Ford at Rainfall Books. John said he couldn’t use all the stories because there were just too many of them so he picked out the ones he liked the best.

I was a little disappointed because a lot of good stories didn’t make the final cut. But the collection probably has more of a sense of identity this way as all the stories John chose are about love and death. Which means I just took all my characters and put them through the wringer. Make them fearful, make them break down before the dark wonders of the universe. That’s a pretty good goal to aim for in horror fiction; fear and wonder.

PC: Which writers in the small press scene do you most admire?

SY: To be honest I’ve got behind on my reading in the small press. Names that spring to mind are Mark Samuels and Matt Cardin who both write very atmospheric philosophical horror. And I really admire the way Tim Lebbon has used his success in the small press as a springboard to working with bigger publishers. Gary Spencer Millidge writes a great comic called Strangehaven which is this very English, very eccentric story about an idyllic village that’s populated by Freemasons, South American shamans, and extraterrestrials. It’s kind of a gentler version of The League of Gentlemen, but Millidge did it first. And Paul Grist did a great crime comic called Kane but I’m not sure if he’s still doing it because he’s doing Jack Staff for Image these days.

PC: Is it equally gratifying to get a story published in an e-zine as it is a hard copy publication?

SY: It depends. There’s pros and cons to both approaches. When I had a story in The Mammoth Book of Future Cops I was jumping up and down because it’s a mass market paperback, people can get hold of it anywhere. But then my local bookshops didn’t stock it. On the other hand the local libraries had multiple copies. Whereas if something goes online it’s there for anyone to read.

I’ve got an eBook of fantasy stories, called Shards of Dreams, coming out soon so I’m curious to see what sort of business that does. In theory it’ll be easy for people to get hold of because they can just click on the web site. But they won’t actually have the book in their hand to let them flick through it and decide if it’s the kind of thing they might want to buy. Hopefully they will buy it because it’s got quite a good cross-section of my stories. There’s funny stuff, scary stuff, adventure stuff. And my definition of fantasy is pretty broad so it’s more like rocketships and flying cities and sentient universes than goblins and elves. Which is not to say goblins and elves can’t be fun but I know they’re the reason some people run away screaming when presented with fantasy books.

PC: Have you considered writing a novel, and, if so, what genre would you choose to write in?

SY: The longest prose piece I’ve completed to date is a novella of religious/philosophical horror. Still waiting to see if anyone publishes that.

I’ve got some ideas for novels. Most of them would probably be described as horror. Although one would definitely be SF and another would be fantasy or maybe science fantasy.

It’s just a question of which ones actually get written.

PC: Do you think that generally the market for horror/fantasy fiction is on the wane in Great

SY: Apart from stocking a few British authors like Simon Clark most UK bookshops’ idea of horror is to sell US horror authors. And even then you either need to have a franchise like Buffy or Anita Blake or else be Stephen King who is a franchise in himself.

I’ve lost track of modern adult fantasy authors but kids’ fantasy seems to be going great guns. Their books look much more fun and tend to be written as series rather serials. So even if you don’t complete the series at least you know the book you’re reading at the time will have a complete story.

PC: Is it difficult to come up with new ideas in the area of fantastic fiction: surely everything has been said and done nowadays?

SY: Good point. But that’s true of pretty much every area of life. We all still have the same basic goals as our ancestors: survive as long as you can in as much comfort as you can. But whereas for them that meant sitting in a cave, thinking about the best way to get food for your family whilst daubing a picture of a deer on the wall, for us it means sitting in a house, worrying about the mortgage whilst the TV tells us what products to buy. Meanwhile wars are still raging, politics is still as dishonest as ever. Even modern physics like superstring theory can draw parallels with ancient religious beliefs like Kabbalah. Sometimes it seems that the aim in any endeavour is not so much to create something new as to refine what has gone before.

But that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are holes in that argument that you could drive a truck through.

So if I can drag myself back to answering your original question: I’m not a real scholar of fantastic fiction or weird fiction or whatever you want to call it. Some stuff sticks in my head and some stuff doesn’t. I just write stories and hope I’m not ripping anyone off too badly.

PC: Does your interest in the comic/graphic novel medium influence your story writing?

SY: Definitely. I soaked up a lot of stuff about drama and conflict from Stan Lee and Chris Claremont. Characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men always struggled to do the right thing even though that would usually end up making things worse for them.

And in terms of story structure I found comics very helpful. Comics only have so many pages per issue, and so many panels per page, and you can only fit so many words in per panel. So everything -- plot, dialogue, description -- needs to be as tightly written as possible. Although sloppy writing obviously isn’t encouraged in prose the mechanics of writing aren’t always stressed to the same degree, people often get caught up in the idea of metaphors and similies and they forget about stuff like scene structure and tight plotting. To a certain extent if you’re worrying about the economy of words and story structure in prose then it’s a question of aesthetics, whereas in comics it’s a question of necessity.

Even in a comic like Seppuku, the miniseries I’ve written for Engine Comics, where I had fifty-two pages to play with, I had to keep shaving the lines down so that they’d fit. Every panel felt like, “Okay, I’ve got to explain this character’s motivation whilst simultaneously moving the plot forward and outlining a fundamental Zen concept. And I’ve got to do it in less than ten words.”

PC: If someone gave you unlimited cash to make the genre film of your dreams, what novel or story would you like to see make the transition from the page to the big screen, and why?

SY: Oh God, there’s so many books and comics I’d like to see made into films. Um, I’ll say Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Even though Hollywood would totally screw it up.

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