Q1: Tell us your biography and background in three sentences or fewer.
I was born with one hand up by the side of my head, like I was raising it to ask something – so, questioning from the start, but polite with it. Nothing terribly unusual happened to me during my childhood – Hertfordshire was specifically designed to prevent the unusual – but there were two experiences that I later realised played a significant part in shaping me: the first was hearing Beowulf read out in primary school and being simultaneously appalled and thrilled by this ancient world of dark shadows, monsters and bone-crunching gore – the first true ‘horror’ response that I was really aware of; the second involved Saturday nights spent about four inches from the screen of the TV that my parents allowed me to have in my room, watching late night double bills of Universal horror movies (Dracula, Frankenstein et al) with the sound turned way down, long after my parents thought I was asleep. Later, I became a journalist and learned how to write to deadlines – a career move which, at the time, had seemed like a fluke or an accident, but which now looks like it was subtly setting up the most crucial part of the plot.
Q2: How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I’ve always been writing something or other, but my earliest writing memory is from primary school. We were asked to write a story that included a list of words, so I crowbarred them into a four page vampire tale. One page was more what was expected; this was epic. We had a great English teacher who read the stories out – and, amazingly, treated these 7 year-olds’ ramblings as serious pieces of writing. I remember him complimenting me on a particular descriptive phrase. That really stuck with me. It was the first time I realised I could make an impression this way. Next time the opportunity to write a story cropped up, I went for horror again – a ghost story this time, with a twist, and using the same central character. My first sequel!
My first published, paid piece was a freelance interview feature for a Cambridge magazine, about a local (but renowned) stonecutter name Lida Kindersley. I’d never written anything like that before and it was an eye opener – as was the editor’s feedback. I was dreading him suggesting changes, but soon realised that what he was suggesting would actually make it better. He commissioned more pieces and eventually offered me a job. So I became an editor – and finally learned about finishing things. I went on to run my own magazines, and had the opportunity to interview writers, comedians, actors, directors – some of them personal heroes. Chuck Palahniuk, Billy Bragg, Cate Blanchett, Anne McCaffrey, Kevin Spacey, Bill Bailey, Ray Harryhausen, Eddie Izzard, Ray Davies… It’s an eclectic list. I’ve never lost thrill of talking to people who are great at what they do.
It was years before I committed to writing a novel – and in the meantime I’d written a couple of screenplays, from which I learned an immense amount about plotting, character and pace. I’d also started teaching journalism and screenwriting at Anglia Ruskin, which forced me to analyse my own methods. My first novel was the result of a pitch to Abaddon, for their Tomes of the Dead (ie zombie) series. They rejected it initially saying ‘I didn’t like where it took me…’. Fair enough. Months later I’d forgotten about it and they called me and asked if it was still on offer. Someone had picked it out of the slush pile and this time, they’d liked it. That’s how flukey things can be… I said: ‘Yes’. They said: ‘Great! Can you do it?’ They set me a deadline – I need deadlines – and that was that.
That first novel – partly the result of a lot of research I’d done into the Viking Period – was The Viking Dead (2011). It essentially brought together all that stuff from childhood – Beowulf, monsters, tales with a twist (the twist in this one divided the audience), a fascination with history, a love of horror movies (more of an influence on me than books). Vikings and zombies… Someone had to do it.
Q3: What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?
I need to ascend my soapbox here, but bear with… The sad fact is, some people who self identify as being ‘literary’ are a bit sniffy about genre. I became aware of this very early, when I was at secondary school. We had been studying H G Wells’ The History of Mr Polly – a fine book, but one whose themes mean very little to kids – and I asked the teacher why we couldn’t read War of the Worlds or The Time Machine instead – books I knew we would have lapped up. There was a fairly sound, curriculum-related reason why not, I’m sure, but that wasn’t the answer this particular teacher gave. Instead, he made it clear that these were not serious books – they were entertainments. The implication – idiotic though it was – was that nothing that entertained could possibly be educational, or intellectually worthy. That attitude still persists. I have had people with this mindset tie themselves in knots to trying to explain to me how Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are not science fiction, because… because… they are better than that… It’s nonsense. Of course they’re science fiction. What else could they be? Science fiction is just better than they think it is. But still there are those who shun SF, horror and fantasy as if they are people they don’t want in their neighbourhood. I’ve always loved these genres, find them profound and entertaining in equal measure, and will do whatever I can to counter that attitude. Or at least have fun trying.
What some fail to understand, I think, is that speculative fiction is metaphorical. It’s not simply escapism (and I think many people are too dismissive about that term anyway); it’s a means of tackling some of the most fundamental questions – What are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? – but in a way that looks at them sideways on. The original Star Trek was able to deal with racism, fascism, torture, issues of gender, but did it by dressing them up as something else – something that, as in the operation of a dream, is easier for us to face. That’s not cheating, or dumbing down. It’s what literature does.
As a postscript, since I’ve already mentioned Star Trek, I offer this: one day, in 1960s America, a young black girl who dreamed of space was watching TV. The show was Star Trek, and to the amazement of her and her family that day, it featured a black woman named Uhura. She wasn’t a maid. She wasn’t a cleaner or a housekeeper. She was lieutenant on a starship, in a future where race had apparently ceased to be an issue. Mae Jemison frequently cites this as a key moment in her life. She had dreamed of being an astronaut, but it seemed an impossible quest. Now, however, she believed in it as a possibility – because she had seen it. Thus inspired, Mae studied hard, joined NASA, and became the first black American woman astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Speculative fiction doesn’t just warn us about how we might go wrong (Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World). It shows us possibilities, and allows us to believe they could be real. And that is the first step to making them real
Q4: Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project
The past few years have been taken up not with horror, but with historical fiction (albeit with elements of horror). The Hunter of Sherwood trilogy, also published by Abaddon, has as its hero Guy of Gisburne – the traditional villain of the Robin Hood stories. Although sometimes classed as fantasy because of the Robin Hood connection, the world it describes is real – no supernatural elements, no magic, no dragons, just the late 12th century pretty much as it was. OK, so maybe Gisburne goes a bit James Bond at times – but if so, it’s Craig era Bond…
The final volume of the trilogy is being written right now (I am typing this simultaneously, with my feet). It’s called simply Hood, and features the final confrontation between Gisburne and the famed (and frankly nuts) outlaw. It’s got everything I want from a Robin Hood story, but interpreted in the series’ customary warped fashion. Some things turn out exactly as expected, some things very much don’t. The idea is for it to satisfy Robin Hood fans as well as surprise them, the conceit being this was what really happened before the legend took on a life of its own and turned the proto-Joker Hood into an idealistic hero. There has been a sense in previous novels of forces gathering for this moment – characters being introduced, situations being set up, so now we finally have all the familiar merry men together and at the head of a peasant army, King Richard returning and only Gisburne and his handful of comrades capable of preventing the kingdom from descending into chaos. The first book, Knight of Shadows (2013) was kind of an Indiana Jones adventure. The second, The Red Hand (2014) was more intimate and cerebral – Gisburne, the man of action, forced to become a kind of medieval Sherlock Holmes. In both, Hood was not the main adversary, but was waiting in the wings; in the third book, his time has come. It’s also the most epic: big battles, major scores to be settled, everything at stake – and there will be blood.
Q5: What’s next?
Next, I hope to turn back to horror, and a book I’ve been toying with for a while: a zombie apocalypse story set in 1880s London – Zombie & Son. It’s got everything thrown in, from mummies and Frankensteinian monsters to Chinese agents and Jack the Ripper. But it’s a essentially a romance. A necromance, if you like.