Author Q&A with Hari Kunzru

godsmenUSALitro: You open Gods Without Men with a short chapter reimagining a coyote myth in a modern idiom, which sets the tone for much of the book. Did you set out to tackle desert myths in this way, or did it arise from your experiences?

Hari Kunzru: I got interested in Coyote during the process of researching the book. I’d started reading about the Chemehuevi people who inhabited the Mojave (and are still to be found on the banks of the Colorado) and they tell many Coyote stories. Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, The Trickster Makes This World, was also an influence. For me Coyote represents an opposing pole to all the Gods in the book – instead of the transcendental organizing principle, he’s immanent to the system, messing with the works, connecting things together in ways that are ‘illegitimate’. Coyote’s mistakes are creative. He suffers the consequences. The trickster steals fire for humans from the realm of the Gods, an illegitimate connection that starts civilization. Coyote is all through the book, making things happen.

Litro: The ‘alien’ passages also seem to be placing a modern spin on mythology, in the sense that alien sightings and alien abductions feel like a modern cultural myth. Do you see them in this way? Where do you think our fascination stems from?

Hari Kunzru: UFO’s are indeed a modern mythology. If you look at the first generation of contactees in the late 40’s and early 50’s, many of them had a prior engagement with Spiritualism. Their UFO stories seem like earlier stories about angels and spirits, given a technological sheen. As the Cold War progressed, these stories became more complicated, and in some ways darker (abductions, etc.), a way for people to process hopes and anxieties about otherness. The UFO period is more or less over now, since other geopolitical issues have taken over, but there’s no reason there shouldn’t be another flowering. In the years before the First World War, as anxieties about aerial bombardment began, there was a spate of alien airship sightings. Before that, even, there were alien balloonists flying over Midwestern farms.

Litro: To what extent do you still feel like an outsider in New York, now that you’ve lived there for a number of years? How does this outsider status affect your writing?

Hari Kunzru: In some ways I cultivate it. I like it that I’m not entirely part of the culture I live in, though in other ways my rootlessness is entirely typical of a whole class of New Yorkers. This is a city which has always attracted cosmopolitan intellectual types, so in that sense I’m just following tradition.

Litro: Along with David Mitchell you’ve been tagged as an author who isn’t afraid to move in and out of historical periods, and across genres. What appeals to you about this style? Why do you think literature is starting to take this direction?

Hari Kunzru: I find historical perspective a useful way to organize the world. I don’t like the idea of ‘the historical novel’ as a genre. Agreed, there is such a genre, which uses ‘history’, and the distance from the past, as a way of generating romance, or putting a superficial sheen on stories which otherwise would be banal. But the contemplation of time, of distance, and of cultural change seems to me like useful work for the novel, and my enjoyment of archives and libraries makes such work congenial.

Litro: Memory Palace and Twice Upon A Time both explore the ways in which writing can interact with a specific location, and both use a multimedia element. Why do you think it’s important for literature to not just be about the written page?

Hari Kunzru: I think it’s time to expand our thought of what literature can be. At the moment, my biggest formal limitation is the production process imposed by the publishing industry, and the lack of distribution (and indeed archiving) of other kinds of work. There are huge opportunities for writers now, in terms of formal exploration. Sadly, that’s accompanied by the collapse of our ability to make a living. At a certain point, when publishers can no longer pay, then there will be no further reason to process text in the way they dictate – delivered in a certain way, with a certain number of pages, cover designs that have little to do with the writer, and a lot of blurbs and other garbage on the front. None of my books have ever looked like I want them to look – some editions are nice objects, others actively repel me. I dream of having the formal and visual control that my artist friends have. Of course, the price of that would probably be a day job, and I’m not quite there yet.

Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next? What’s inspiring you right now?

Hari Kunzru: I’ve become very interested in the Blues, particularly the culture of pre-war blues collecting, and the taste for authenticity and outsider status among white bohemians. I’m writing a novel about authenticity, appropriation, cultural ownership. It’s a sort of ghost story.

Hari Kunzru picBorn in London, Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004), My Revolutions (2007) and Gods Without Men (2011) as well as a short story collection, Noise (2006) and a novella, Memory Palace (2013). In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. His short stories and essays have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, London Review of Books, Granta, Book Forum and Frieze. He was a 2008 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library and is a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. He lives in New York City.

Author Q&A with Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club 2Litro: In your novel Diary, you write that “Everything is a self-portrait. Everything is a diary.” To what extent should we take your characters as a self-portrait? Is Misty a self-portrait of sorts? Is Peter?

Chuck: Of course Misty is me. All of my characters are. In the case of Diary I was processing my reaction to how the old wheat-land small towns I remember from childhood are being gentrified with vineyards and kite festivals. That, and I was exhausting the guilt I feel about neglecting all of my close relationships every time I get deep into the writing of a book. It’s as if I take a months-long trip and when I return all except my closest friends have dropped me.

Litro: Do you feel that the diary is in danger of being relegated to history, with teenagers putting the minutiae of their lives on social media for everyone to see? Are we losing our sense of privacy?

Chuck: Diaries are very much alive. The act of keeping one is now referred to as ‘journaling.’ A blog is an entirely different animal, it’s a performance of a public self intended to engage an audience. An act of exhibitionism. The older I get the more I admire those people who burn their diaries and take their best secrets to the grave.

Litro: Your latest novel, Beautiful You, explores and satirizes female sexuality, a bold topic for a male author. What made you want to write this book? Did it require any special research?

Chuck: Please don’t believe all the book jacket copy you read. My intention was to satirize arousal addiction, which is generally understood to be a male issue. By depicting women with the problem, I’d hoped to make it less threatening to male readers. As for research, I was forced to engage the professional services of thousands of world-renown sex experts. Those months of strenuous study have left me hardly more than a dried husk of my younger self. This is how I must suffer for my art.

Litro: Doomed was a sequel to your earlier novel Damned, and you’ve recently spoken about a planned sequel to Fight Club. Do you think you’re more open to sequels now than you used to be? Why is that?

Chuck: I’ve always been interested in sequels and prequels, any forms that broaden and deepen the original story. The real problem is that book publishers despise sequels even more than they do short story collections. There’s usually some attrition between the original and a sequel so publishers always expect the latter to sell fewer copies. Thus, unless the original sells ten million copies, publishers are dead-set against any sequels. My publisher has refused to offer me a contract for sequels to my novels Rant and Beautiful You. Perhaps some day those books will sell enough copies to warrant a sequel.

Litro: The Fight Club sequel will be a series of ten comics, is that right? Why did you decide to revisit these characters, and what made you choose comic books as the medium?

Chuck: It’s been a decades-long effort, but both the book and film of Fight Club have become classics. A sequel in either form would be compared directly to the original and, naturally, suffer. The novel and film have had a long head start to engender their audiences. Therefore, to launch the sequel on a level playing field, I chose the graphic novel because it’s a third medium. Plus it’s a collaborative effort much larger than a novel, but smaller than the army needed to make a movie. I get to be a student and learn from people – artists, editors, colourists, letterers – who are the best in their fields. With luck, my novel Rant will become a film, soon, and I can begin work on a graphic novel sequel to it. My fingers are perennially crossed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChuck Palahniuk‘s novels include the bestselling Snuff, Rant, Haunted, Lullaby and Fight Club, which was made into a film by director David Fincher, Diary, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke, which was made into a film by director Clark Gregg. He is also the author of the non-fiction profile of Portland Fugitives and Refugees and the non-fiction collection Stranger Than Fiction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Author Q&A with Colin Barrett

We discuss short stories, long stories and the importance of luck with the award-winning author of Young Skins.

Colin Barrett book coverLitro: You’ve been hugely successful for a debut short story writer, winning both the Frank O’Connor prize and the Rooney Prize. Do you think the market is improving for short stories?

Colin: I don’t know. The Internet gives an impression of greater visibility and interest in the form, but the Internet does that for most things. In actuality, it’s still probably the same relatively tiny band of doggedly impassioned adherents who help keep the short story alive. Alive, dead, declining, reviving: in any case such anthropomorphic metaphors have their limits. It doesn’t, shouldn’t, affect the work. I used to worry about things like the ‘relevancy’ of the form, and indeed worry about things like if serious writing etc. was on the way out. Well, it probably is, but it always has been. There are people, alive, now, coterminous with my own contingent existence, that care deeply about the short story. Today, that is enough for me. I don’t worry if there can be ‘enough’ of them, of us.

Litro: What attracted you to short fiction? Will we see any longer fiction from you?

Colin: Short stories, like poetry, are profoundly at odds with the literalness of language and the given-ness of the world. In short stories you are working with distillates. You are concentrating the world, and language. There are intensities achievable in the short story form by definition much more difficult to replicate in longer narratives.

The novel does other, different things, but for the last few years I was fascinated by what the short story does. I used to read and write a lot of poetry. I still read a bit, though less than I used to, and don’t write it as such. My interest in the short story progressed from that original interest in poetry.

But yes, you will see longer fiction from me.

Litro: Many of your characters in Young Skins are down on their luck, or generally in a bad place. Was this done as a dramatic device, to increase the tension in the stories, or did it go deeper than that? Do you see a lot of bad luck around you?

Colin: I did not think of very many of the characters as down on their luck. As I was writing the book, I didn’t think of them as anything, if I could, by which I mean there were no devices or preconceptions in play – not consciously, anyway. I just found a gesture or phrase and built from there. You write to find out what you are writing about. Luck isn’t a concept I spend much time considering. I think maybe most my characters would consider themselves lucky; at least, most have established some sort of working accommodation with their own limitations or inhibitions or parlous circumstances, and most are not alone in their lives.

Litro: The stories also feel very deeply rooted in Ireland. It’s hard to imagine them taking place anywhere else. Do you consider yourself to be a specifically Irish writer?

Colin: The great, or vexatious, thing about being an Irish writer is that you don’t have to worry about considering yourself an Irish writer, because even if you don’t consider yourself so, you are! I’m going to repeat myself and make it sound like I have some sort of cognitive impairment, but I don’t think about it. Practically speaking, reading other writers had more of an influence on Young Skins than any of my own personal experiences, and the majority of those other writers were not Irish. But of course the book is infused with and practically seeping Irishness. How could it not?

Litro: To what extent do you think aspiring writers make their own luck? What advice would you give to a wannabe writer to improve their luck?

Colin: You have no control over how your work is received. You have only limited control on whether it is seen in the first place, that is, published: you can’t legislate for the possibility that the day your work is lifted off an submission editor’s desk is the day the intern is nursing a hangover and an incorrigible grudge against pieces written in the second person singular.

What you have control over is the work itself. Working on it until it is as near to correct as you can get it. Write and read as much as possible. And rewrite and reread. Get deep into the structures of the things, your own work and the work of people you admire. Word counts mean nothing. But keep writing. Write steadily, whenever you get the chance. Keep coming back, as they say in AA. The shittiest page of cliché and typo-ridden dross is still worth more than the most pristine page of unwritten prose. “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” said, apparently, some golfer guy. Now, granted, all he did was wear plaid Dadwear and hit small, dimpled white balls into holes in the ground all day, but the principle, I find, is sound.

Litro: Which writers are you reading at the moment? Who has inspired you most?

Colin: Writers I’ve discovered fairly recently include multiple short story volumes by Joy Williams, Jayne Anne Phillips and a collection, Night Soul, by the novelist Joseph McElroy. I mean, they’ve all had long careers and published a raft of critically acclaimed books, but to me they are ‘new’ discoveries. The work I’ve found I’ve really liked.

James Joyce, Paul Muldoon, David Foster Wallace, Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson are, overall, the writers who each likely prompted the most crucial transitions in my writing.

Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next?

Colin: More short fiction. Longer fiction.

Colin Barrett squareColin Barrett was born in Canada and grew up in Ireland. Young Skins, a collection of short stories, is his first book. In 2014 he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and is shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Author Q&A with Urban Waite

Urban Waite is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Carrion Birds and The Terror of Living. A recipient of Esquire Magazine’s best book of the year as well as a finalist for the New Mexico and Arizona book award, Waite’s writing has been translated into nine languages and is sold worldwide. We asked him a few questions about his third novel, Sometimes the Wolf, released in the US this week.

sometimeswolfLitro: Did you always intend to write a sequel to The Terror of Living? At what point did the sequel start to emerge?

Urban: I never intended to write a sequel. And I don’t think of Sometimes the Wolf as much of a sequel. It requires no prior knowledge of Terror and I think that’s important for any book. More than anything, it’s a book about fathers and sons, and the legacies they leave each other. Both up and down the tree. So, I guess in that way, everything I write is sort of a sequel. Maybe one of these days I’ll stray a little bit. But I’m not there yet and I still have a lot more to say about fathers and sons.

Litro: Sometimes the Wolf explores the father-son relationship between Bobby and Patrick Drake. What made you want to explore this dynamic?

Urban: The people that know my dad and I ask this question a lot. We actually like each other. Unlike the characters in my novel, he never went to prison and ruined my life. And for the most part (except for that summer I was grounded) we’ve been on pretty good terms. So I guess the best answer to this is like anything else in fiction: we explore what we don’t know through writing. Sorry, Hemingway.

Litro: Where did the wolf subplot (and the title of the book) come from?

Urban: Down by Carlsbad, New Mexico I saw a coyote tugging at the carcass of a deer that had caught itself on some cattle wire in the night. It was just a short, passing image as I drove by, but it stayed with me. And so when I started to think about the Northwest and the mountains this image came to mind. And well, from there it all kind of just fell into place. Wolf as metaphor and that sort of thing, because out here it’s a big issue (front page of the Seattle Times this past Sunday).

The title was pure genius on my editor’s part. I had something horrible, which won’t be mentioned here (or ever, except after a couple beers, and even then only maybe). My editor was reading through Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and came across a line in there that I’ll paraphrase for you. “When the lamb is lost in the mountains, the lamb will cry, sometimes comes the mother, sometimes the wolf.”

Litro: Do you think you’ll ever revisit these characters again? Or is this the end for Drake?

Urban: I’ve been thinking more and more about this lately. I always think it’s over when I get to the end of a novel and then this idea of an ending sort of festers there as I wonder what happens to these people after the final page is read.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that Sometimes the Wolf is the middle of something. Like Terror, it takes a moment in a person’s life and it analyzes the what could be, and the what is of the moment. I think there’s more there to look at. More that I can explore, and want to explore down the line.

Litro: What can you tell us about the film adaptations of your first two books?

Urban: I’ve had nothing but a good experience with the film adaptations. Both of my previous books have had their rights sold and they both currently have scripts and some form of funding. But to be truthful this is all my vague understanding. I mostly keep out of it. As a writer I work on my own and I like it that way. I am baffled by anything that resembles a workplace, or requires the input of more than the voices in my head. All the working parts of making a film seem quite foreign to me. And I imagine it must be like trying to make your voice heard in a room where there are a thousand other voices vying for attention. Still, I always hope for good things.

Litro: If you had to give one piece of advice to someone wanting to write crime thrillers, what would it be?

Urban: Bad guys are people, too.

There are a lot of really bad, bad guys out there. And when I say bad, bad guy I mean they do not seem like believable characters. And if the idea in writing is to create characters that the reader can identify with in some small way, then my goal is always to create characters that are only a few shades of gray from being good, decent characters. In life and in fiction the beginning of something horrible often comes down to a choice as simple as getting behind the wheel after a beer or two. Meaning: the distinction between what is good and what is bad is usually something very small.

Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next?

Urban: I’m working on a novel that follows around an Olympic boxer in the year after he has come back from the Olympics. I wasn’t really sure what I had when I started but I’ve found it to be pretty fascinating. The whole idea of family amidst fame and celebrity, as well as the hopes those in the community put on someone who is, in their minds, bound for greatness.

I’ve finished a draft and I’m tailoring it now, trying to make it better with each pass. It’s always an adventure and one that I think I might just pull off.

WaiteAuthorPhotoYou can read more about Urban Waite’s forthcoming fourth novel in his essay ‘Approaching the Ring‘.

Sometimes the Wolf is out now in the US from Harpercollins. Buy it here.

Waiting For Dark | LitroLab Podcas

“Waiting for Dark Mia Funk Litro NEW” from Mia Funk’s Album by Mia Funk. Released: 2015.

Latitude: An Interview with Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer lives in Bristol, where he works as a mental health nurse. His debut novel, The Shock of the Fall, was published in May 2013. We caught up with him for a quick chat before he headed down to Suffolk to perform at Latitude, Friday afternoon in the Literary ArenaSHOCK-OF-THE-FALL1

Let’s start with Latitude. Are you excited? What’s in the backpack?

Not excited enough to have packed my backpack, evidently. I should do that. But yes – I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Is this your first time at the festival?

Nope. I’m a veteran. Some of my favourite poetry gigs have been at Latitude. The Poetry Arena has a very special place in my heart and I’d imagine it’s where I’ll be mostly hanging out this year too. All credit to the curator, Luke Wright, for making it such a success. I last performed there in 2009 though – so it’s been a little while.

What sort of thing will you be performing?

This year it’s about my novel. Well,mine and Matt Haig’s. We’re being interviewed together by Suzi Feay in the Literary Arena. Before stand-up poetry gigs I get terribly nervous, but I’m a lot more relaxed about this. I imagine it’ll just be a nice chit chat. Less rhymey.

Your novel, The Shock of the Fall, as you know, really touched me. I thought it was a beautiful and tender look at mental health. Can you tell me a little about how the idea came to you?

You’re very kind and your review was marvellous. It means the world to me when people connect with this story. It’s the work I’m most proud of, and was the hardest to write.

Now to your question: It’s interesting to me, this notion of the idea behind a novel. I find myself looking for one now, of course – the idea for my next novel, I mean. But when I think about The Shock of the Fall – about how much it changed through the telling, through the countless revisions, to something quite unrecognisable from my starting point  – there clearly never was the idea. It was a work of countless little ideas, many of which were contradictory and each vying for space on the page. I lack the perspicacity to have the idea for a whole novel. I’ll settle for an arresting sentence, and then hope for another. All that said clearly there was still a beginning to this process. And that occurred shortly after I’d started working in mental health, training as a nurse. So for a less lofty answer: I guess it probably had a bit to do with it.

I thought the intimacy of the novel was really generated from the point of view. Was it always planned out to be first person?

It was, yes. For all those many drafts and changes, Matthew Homes (the narrator) was a constant. It was always to be his story and told from his perspective.

Who are your favourite novelists? It seems like you’re attracted to a mixture of great plotting and the more playful, meta-fictional writers…

Really? I don’t know so much about meta-fictional writers. I really like Luke Kennard, who I maybe could argue is a meta-fictional poet. I’m not sure how strong that argument would be though, so let’s not have it here.

A good while back I read If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino and that’s definitely meta-fictional. Oh, and my daughter has a baby-grow with the first page of Tristam Shandy on it (picture attached as proof).

But I think this may be an example of how it is possible to belong to a lineage without being a scholar of it. I do know that The Shock of the Fall has a whole load of meta stuff going on. “I am writing myself into my own story,” explains Matthew. “…and I am telling it from within.” The earlier drafts were actually far more experimental in this respect, with considerably more breaking down of the fourth wall. But I killed a lot this in favour of a more immersive read. As for my own favourite novelists, there are many and the list keeps growing. I’m a new convert to Cormac McCarthy. I love John Steinbeck and William Maxwell. I love Iain McEwan and Tibor Fischer and AM Homes (who Matthew Homes is named after). But I wouldn’t purport to know what, if anything, these authors share in common. They’re all bloody good though, no?

Have you ever used a typewriter?

I borrowed a typewriter to try writing the typewritten sections of my novel on, but managed about a paragraph before just downloading a decent font (Typenoksidi, as it happens). To quote Matthew again, “I live a cut & paste kind of life.”

Do you ever plan on returning to mental health as a topic in the future?

I’m yet to read a novel that isn’t about mental health. So yes –  I guess it’s inevitable.

Nathan was talking to David Whelan, who reviewed Nathan’s novel for Litro here. Nathan is in conversation with Matt Haig and Suzi Feay at Latitude on Friday 19th in the Literary Arena at 13:15.

An Epic Project: Interview with Richard House on The Kills

Richard House’s The Kills, out in July from Panmacmillan, is set to be one of the literary events of the year. Both political thriller and epic literary project, The Kills is an interlinking web of narratives spanning four separate novels, from a remote Iraqi military base and a multi-million dollar theft, to a brutal murder in far-away Italy that replicates a well-known novel. Litro published Richard’s fantastic short story Max405 in our Russia issue back in 2010, and we’re delighted to welcome him back to talk about his latest project.

Litro: Tell us about The Kills – how were the novels conceived?

Richard: The Kills are four novels that are interlinked. They appear to be thrillers, but there’s quite a bit extra going on. The first, second and fourth books follow on one from the other, but the third is a crime novel that characters are reading in the first book. There’s also a film that’s being made of the third book in the second book! So they all link together tightly.

Litro: Did you always envisage this story as four interlinking books?

richard_house_the-killsRichard: I started writing the third book in the series, The Kill, first. I was writing it in Naples, but finding it tough. Everyone assumed I was writing a straight crime novel, and I didn’t like that. So I began to take that idea apart a little.

Then I was on a writing residency for a month, where I just wrote and wrote, and the other books spun out from there. It made sense that they would fit together. I enjoy thinking across a wider scope – you can plant conversations that will be significant later, or introduce ideas that will be repeated.

Litro: Was it a technical challenge to write something on such a large scale, having to think about four books at the same time?

Richard: Yes! It’s such a huge thing to have done, I think I’m a little shell-shocked, looking back on it. A problem would be set up in the first book that I wouldn’t get to the solution of until the fourth book. I like stories that are really complicated, when you feel that the question that the book sets up is answered, but not fully answered. Over four novels I have to be pretty careful about what is and isn’t answered.

richard_house_sutlerLitro: The settings are key to the books. Why did you choose them?

Richard: I used to work as an artist with the Chicago-based collaborative Haha on these large projects where we’d go and try to find out about the history of a building, how it was used, and build an idea of that place within the final piece. Living in the States, I was in this fantastic position that I think a lot of writers experience, where you’re deeply involved in something, but you’re also an outsider. It’s a really healthy position to have. That expresses to me a lot of what writing’s about, being inside and outside at the same time.

When I started writing The Kills, I made a conscious decision to set it somewhere that was going to be a challenge, but also enjoyable, and Naples was that place. I found it impossible to see the city without thinking about all those other stories about it.

I think I’ve been very lucky with my background in a military family. We were in Berlin when the wall was still up, and my dad would come home with incredible stories about what was happening, what we were seeing on the news. We’d see another side to it. I wouldn’t say I was a voyeur, but I like the idea of seeing a place from different perspectives.

Litro: Did you travel to Iraq to research?

Richard: No, I was really determined not to do that. I wanted to play with the idea that you can be abroad but it might as well be your home country. My father was in the military and my family travelled around a lot. When I was with my dad on a military base in Malta or Cyprus or Germany, we could have been in England for all the interaction we had with any Germans or Maltese or Cypriots. It was very artificial. So The Massive is set in the desert in Iraq but there isn’t one Iraqi in the book. It’s about people who are from elsewhere and have no business being there. They’re making a mess of things.

We have a concept of what Iraq is like, constructed from all these narratives that we encounter in the press. I like the idea of playing with this Iraq constructed from stories.

richard_house_the-massiveLitro: Where does your interest in the concept of telling stories come from?

Richard: That is a huge thing for me.  When I was working with the Haha collective, we had this idea that telling stories is a really helpful thing. The more we express ourselves, our stories, the better off we are. I’ve always believed that to be important and true.

But I play with this idea in The Kills. In the final book, a man is getting language lessons and is telling stories to the instructor, and she’s taking these stories as fact. But the reader will know that these are all stories taken from the third book in the series. Not everything he’s saying is true, and she’s building an idea of this man on it.

I wanted to look at how stories can be manipulative, how dangerous it is for someone to tell you their story. I can remember feeling angry at how complicit I was, we all were, about going to war with Iraq. Why wasn’t I on the streets screaming about it? Why did I swallow of the nonsense we were told? I probably knew at the time that it was fabricated, but I didn’t examine it.

Litro: You’ve said that you were influenced by the novelist Roberto Bolaño. What is it about his writing that appeals to you?

Richard: When I was about half way through writing The Kills, I began wondering, what’s the worth of fiction? What does fiction do? I think most writers get to this point where you walk into a bookstore and you see thousands and thousands of books, and you wonder what the worth of that is. Are you just getting more trees chopped down?

Then I read Bolano’s novel 2666 and was inspired by how an idea can be extended across such a vast landscape. It seemed to me that that kind of enquiry was entirely worthwhile. As a reader I felt I was being engaged and entertained with a thriller, but also given a space where difficult ethical issues were being discussed. I loved how intelligent that was. I wanted to do that – to do something where a reader could be involved in the stories as thrillers, but also able to connect the pieces.

richard_house_the-killLitro: The Kills comes with downloadable films and extra content. Tell us about that idea.

Richard: When the internet was in its infancy, people questioned what effect it would have on books. People imagined that if you read Moby Dick online, there would be hypertext linking you to other information, about whales, or Melville, or movies of the book. So while I think that Moby Dick is sufficient in and of itself, I really like that idea that you can step out of the narrative and go somewhere else. A good book stays with you like a scent; you live it a little afterwards. So the films that accompany The Kills allow me to do that. They don’t change the main narrative, but they do inform it. The books work just as books, but the reader has a choice – you can dip into the extra material while you’re reading, or explore it afterwards.

Litro: What made you choose to write in the thriller genre?

Richard: Crime fiction has always involved people who are outside, who are other, dealing with the problem of how they reestablish themselves. So if the territory I write in involves people who are excluded then it makes perfect sense to write a thriller. All I have to do is make sure my characters are complete, that I’m not being sloppy, or stereotyping.

When I wrote my first novel, Bruiser, which was about a gay relationship, it was pretty clear that although it wasn’t autobiographical, it came from experience. And when I came to write The Kills, I started to think, if I’ve ever felt outside, or excluded, because I’m gay, are there other territories that involve feeling like that. Not being able to speak a language, or being poorer, or not being employed – I think fiction is a really good way to get people to approach someone else’s position, a viewpoint that you might not otherwise consider.

Litro: Is this layered approach to writing something you’d like to try again?

Richard: Oh, absolutely. I’m interested in technology –how would you tell a longer narrative over Twitter, for example? I was looking back at Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series [a cycle of 20 interconnected novels], and I really like how that connects together. And while I wouldn’t like to write about a family necessarily, I’d be interested in writing a longer series that would snap together in blocks. You’d get a sense when you were reading it that it was part of a larger whole.

The Kills will be published by Panmacmillan in July 2013. Read Richard House’s Litro story Max  Max405 here.

A Dark and Bloody Debut: Jack Wolf on The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones

Jack Wolf lives in Bath, where he is currently studying for a PhD. His debut novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, was published in January by Vintage. A dark, beautiful and impeccably-researched take on the 18th century novel, it has been widely praised by reviewers.
The troubled Tristan Hart wants to become an enlightened London doctor but he finds himself drawn into the dark and dangerous world of English folklore and the gruesome legend of Raw Head and Bloody Bones. Tristan becomes convinced that the terrible Raw Head is after him. Is her right, or merely insane? Does Raw Head really exist? And if he does, how can Tristan defeat him?
In this interview with Robin Stevens, Jack talks about the process of writing the novel, his fascination with folklore and the 18th century and what it feels like to become a published author.

Tell me about what drew you to the 18th century as a setting for the novel.

I’ve always had an interest in the 18th century, and I’ve always read – and not just read but enjoyed reading – 18th century literature. I guess it was just a question of the period appealing to me, and then me having this sort of bloody-minded interest in making my book as historically accurate as was appropriate. That’s quite important, because I wasn’t writing a work of history. There has to be a balancing act in a historical novel between what it actually true and what people expect, and so although Raw Head is not a work of history I felt that I needed to have my facts accurate. I hope they are.

What works did you use to get yourself into the right mindset?

Henry Fielding is a character in the novel, so I used his works quite a lot – partly to get a sense of who he was and partly to get a sense of how to write an 18th century novel in a way that I would actually enjoy. I’ve also read things like Richardson, but although my supervisor at uni is very into Richardson – Clarissa is her favourite text of all time – for me it’s much too much. I wanted my book to have a sense of fun, as well as accuracy.

In terms of its word capitalisations and spelling choices, Raw Head even looks like an 18th century novel. Did it seem organic to write the book in the style it’s presented in?

I went through a two-stage writing process: I wrote it all longhand first, without capitalising, but when it went onto the computer every noun became capitalised. Originally it was very random because that’s how real 18th century writing is – they hadn’t standardised anything. But ultimately I decided that because Raw Head’s narrator Tristan has something that I think is almost like an OCD, he would capitalise every noun rigidly.

The way you compare Enlightenment rationality and superstitious belief in fairies is very interesting. The two belief systems seem much more connected than we might expect today – not at all mutually exclusive!

No, they weren’t mutually exclusive at all. It’s quite extraordinary what comes out about that. I posted on the Raw Head Facebook page about the Mary Toft rabbit hoax.  A surprising number of people fell for it, but to modern sensibilities it is utterly unbelievable. In the 18th century there were massive gaps in science – people really didn’t have the basic grasp of scientific principles that we take for granted, so their whole worldview was much more fluid. The tradition of fairies having existed in England is ancient, all the way back to the dark ages. In Tristan’s case, even though he has scientific aspirations, he struggles not to believe in fairies. I think it was so engrained in English culture that it was difficult to shake.

How did you do your research for the book?

I read a lot of non-fiction, a lot of folk tales and a lot of folk songs. I have a very weak and pathetic background in folk music, and that turned out to be very useful for Raw Head. That was the basis for the novel, and it was only later, when I was working on tidying it up, that I began to research the medical side of things. That took me to some extraordinary places, things I would never have looked at. I read neurological journals aimed at medical students – I tried to understand what they were saying, but some things I still find mind-boggling.

Did you make any unexpected discoveries during the research process? What stood out for you?

The understanding of stroke during that period turned out to be so much more advanced than I had expected. I had to go back and check my research on that, because I found it so incredible – but it appears that that was the case. In the 18th century there really was a sophisticated understanding of stroke causes – and that in itself is interesting, because stroke was an illness that for centuries before had been thought to be caused by the fairies.

rawheadRaw Head reminded me of novels like The Crimson Petal and the White and Pure – like them, it’s very much of the era it’s describing, but you’re also responding to the 18th century novel in a consciously 21st century way. What would you say to that?

That’s right. In a recent review, a reviewer asked “what is the point of an imitation of Tristram Shandy when one might just as well read Tristram Shandy?” First of all, Laurence Sterne wouldn’t have written this novel. He’d have probably read it in the dark, and then not admitted to reading it. That’s the whole point – the 18th century couldn’t have published this, unless it was under the counter. There’s too much in it that would have been seditious, or obscene, and of course the way I write about atheism would have been a complete no-no.

How did your original idea for the book come about, and did it change during the writing period?

I thought, when I started writing Raw Head, that I was going to write a novella! Originally I just had a character called Tristan – although I had a strong sense of him, I didn’t really have a plot. The only bit I had was the love-story between Tristan and Catherine. Then I realised that the character needed a goal in life, and that was when the medical stuff crept in. I wanted Tristan’s goal to be rather overwhelming! Nathanial, too, was there from the beginning. Originally I wanted to use the relationship between him and Tristan to explore the Gothic trope of light and dark, but give it an Emily Brontë twist with the fair character being evil and the darker skinned character being good. As things fell out, though, it all became much more complicated than that.

Raw Head is a very dark and bloody novel – did you ever have your agent or your editor telling you you needed to tone it down or change parts of it?

Well, my agent originally wanted to calm it down, because it had such a frenzied energy. So I wrote a few chapters of it in a calmer vein, and my agent took one look at them and said, “This isn’t working.” Nobody ever complained about the darkness, though. It is a dark book, but I think that darkness works.

What was the writing process like? You have a Creative Writing MA, is that where the novel began?

Well, the first few chapters were written on the course, more or less – though some bits survived and some had to be rewritten. I found the peer review process a hugely supportive experience. I didn’t have a huge amount of confidence in myself at that stage – I knew that I liked writing, but I didn’t know if other people would like it. I also didn’t know if I’d have the energy to sustain a longer piece. After I’d left, a few of us from the course carried on looking at each other’s work – but the last section was written on my own, the classic sitting in a corner thing!

What happened then? Did you start sending it out to people?

No, actually! I’d met my agent when he came to give a talk to my MA course. Then about six weeks after graduating I got an email asking to have a look at my work. I couldn’t believe it – I thought somebody was having me on. I asked around to see if anyone else had had a similar email, and it turned out that they hadn’t. So I went to the meeting, approaching it like a job interview and thinking that I really had to impress, but it turned out to be pretty much the other way around! When we’d met previously he’d expressed interest in the sort of work I was doing, so I figured that if he liked my writing he would be the right person to take my book on – and he did. That saved me the headache of having to hoick it round agents. I was very lucky to find an agent who essentially wanted the book I had written.

How does it feel to be a published author? What’s been the best part of the experience so far?

I don’t think it’s sunk in yet! I had my first real reading at Toppings Bookshop in Bath – the people there were mostly people who I knew, so it was a very friendly start. Holding the book for the first time was quite extraordinary. The thing that you’ve known as words on a screen or a sheaf of papers suddenly appearing as a physical object – it was quite an extraordinary moment.

What advice would you give aspiring writers? Is advice even possible, or is there just a magic ingredient?

I think the magic ingredient is bloody hard work. It doesn’t matter how talented you are – if you don’t put in the work, you won’t write the book. I’ve wanted to be a writer probably all of my life. At times I’ve also wanted to be an actor, a singer and a biologist, but that was always as well as the writing.

So, what are you writing next?

It’s another novel set in the 18th century, but with no connection to Raw Head. I wanted to dump Tristan out of my mind. It’s not a Gothic novel – I’ve been thinking about the Romantic writers of the late 18th century, and I’m playing around with some of the ideas that they used. It has three narrators, and it’s set in 1789 against the background of the French Revolution, which then triggers a slave revolt in Grenada. Its main theme is oppression. One of my characters is a female black slave, who on her return to Grenada becomes involved in the slave revolt. I’ve also got a character who is transgendered, and another who is my slave Cordelia’s owner. Like Tristan, he’s struggling with faith, although not so intensely. I’m not too sure how things are going to pan out yet – although I’ve got more plot than I had with Raw Head, I go with the flow. I’ve got a general outline and that’s it. I think you have to give your characters a certain amount of space. It’s like kids – if you’re too rigid, you’ll lose the spark.

Do you think that you’ll stick to the 18th century in future? What does not interest you, theme-wise?

The present! The past and the future I find hugely interesting. Before Raw Head I wrote another 18th century novel, set in the 1760s. It was absolutely dreadful, but it did teach me how not to write an 18th century novel. Thankfully, that will never see the light of day.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

If everything goes to plan, in 10 years’ time I’ll be writing my third or fourth novel. That’s the plan, anyway. In 10 years’ time I’ll probably be looking back at this and thinking, God, what an idiot. But that’s where I’d like to be – writing and possibly doing some teaching as well.


To find out more about the fascinating world of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, visit the book’s Facebook page, curated by Jack himself, or read his series of blogs for the Vintage Books website.
You can see Jack next on the 14th of April at the Cambridge Word Festival 2013, where he will be making up part of the Debut Writers panel alongside Melissa Harrison and Kevin Maher.

Life After a Cult: Peggy Riley on writing Amity & Sorrow

Peggy Riley is an American author and playwright who has lived in the UK for some years. We talked to her about her new novel, Amity and Sorrow, the story of Amaranth and her two daughters and their flight from the polygamous cult where the children have been brought up.

Peggy Riley 2Tell us about how you came to write “Amity and Sorrow”.

I had the idea for a long time before I decided to try writing fiction. I had seen a picture in a newspaper of a wooden church on fire, on a prairie. I thought it would be a fantastic way to start a piece – but I knew it would be impossible to put it on stage. The idea made me want to change how I wrote, to tell the story that came from the picture when I began to ask “what if”.

When you first set out, did you already know that you would concentrate a large part of the story in the period after Amaranth has fled from the cult with her children? Why did you choose to do this?

I deliberately began with the fire and the leaving of the cult, as I had read too many books that ended there. Most books about cults are a build up to the leaving, with only an epilogue to cover what happened next. I was more interested in how the women would cope – or not – after leaving, as opposed to how they left and why. But then, the how and why were too important to the characters to leave out. The book moves backward and forward from the moment of leaving, the history chapters moving backward and the bulk of the book moving forward, into what happens afterward.

You have said that Amity and Sorrow is about ‘god, sex and farming’? Can you give readers a little bit of insight into this?

They are three strands that were particularly important in the writing of the piece. The words reminded me to keep them in balance, to play each one off the other. Most of my pieces come about as an odd juxtaposition of contrary or opposing elements. God and sex are often in opposition in books and dramas. Sex and farming are often found together. So, I combined the three, together and in opposition. Some might say, less of the farming, please.

All the characters, possibly apart from Sorrow, try to do their best, but all are hampered by their limitations. These are not people who ever had big chances and they’re doing their best to cope with what life has dealt them. You’re very honest and non-judgemental in your portrayal of Amaranth as a mother: what drew you to write a story based on these people?

I felt I couldn’t judge any of the characters. Even Sorrow is coping the only way she knows how. They are all making the best decisions that they can, using what limited resources are available to them. I had to follow the cause and effect of the cult on its people, on the children, on the women and on Amaranth, who is consumed with guilt for her own culpability. But in exploring the history of the cult, we see that she, also, made the decisions she did because of her own limitations. Her children, in turn, are far more limited because they have been so cloistered, so protected, so manipulated. I have tremendous compassion for all of them, for every woman who joined the community because it was the best option she had at the time, for Zachariah, who truly believes he can build a new Eden. I feel for Sorrow’s desire for power and autonomy and her inability to understand how and why all the rules have changed, all of a sudden. I couldn’t write them any other way.

amityandsorrowYou never say exactly when the story is taking place. This gives it an extra other worldly quality. We see Amity struggle with learning the basic signs and rules of the world outside the cult, but there’s also something in the world of the farm that doesn’t belong to the here and now.

I wanted to write a piece that didn’t feel modern, but that was in the modern world. The cult is living off the grid without technology, which also increases their isolation and their ignorance of the outside world. I also wanted Bradley’s farm to feel old fashioned, worn out. It is a failing farm and he can’t afford the equipment or technology that would allow it to compete with the larger farms all around him. And the ghost of the Dust Bowl, the ghosts of the Joads and the The Grapes of Wrath loomed pretty large while I was writing.

Indeed, John’s Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath figures in the narrative. How important was this book was for you when you were writing?

It was terribly important. You cannot approach Oklahoma or the Panhandle without dealing with it. My grandmother is from Oklahoma and I grew up with that sense of “Okies” and all the Oklahomans who left during the Dust Bowl, coming to the California where I grew up. My problem was that I wanted to write about men who had lived through the Dust Bowl, too stubborn to leave, perhaps, or unwilling to believe that life will be greener anywhere else. And I didn’t know if they actually existed. So, I also owe a debt of gratitude to Timothy Egan, whose book The Worst Hard Time, was about those survivors. And then I knew I was on the right track, luckily!

Do you think that readers in the US and readers in Europe may have a different response to the book because of the different ways that religious faith tends to be acted out on the two continents?

The responses have been very different, yes. I suppose the book is less alien in the States. Americans are more aware of the faiths and cults that are referenced in the book. They are, perhaps, more aware of the impact that faith has on the lives of these women and how difficult it is to break free of it. In America, readers seem to feel it is more “true”. In Britain, readers seem to understand and respond to its darkness, and have less context for the history of handmade American faiths and cults. I wanted to create my own faith from all the faiths and cults that I remember while I was growing up, from the California cults of Charles Manson and Reverend Jim Jones, the Moonies and Hari Krishnas, the raids on the Branch Davidians in Waco and the recent raids on the fundamentalist polygamous compounds of Warren Jeffs. It is, I suppose, more exotic in Britain. I am simply grateful to have the book available in both, as my head is probably somewhere in between.

What impact do you think your work as a playwright has on your prose?

I felt like I had to learn how to write, all over again. And my first draft reads as if I’m describing what’s happening on stage, over there somewhere. I had a lot to learn and I’m still learning. Dialogue is still the most comfortable method for me to deliver the drama of a chapter. I still think and plan as a playwright, in terms of structure and time frames and character arcs – perhaps I always will – but I am enjoying the feeling of stretching out in writing prose, in writing fiction. I don’t have to fit my story on a certain stage and within a budget. If I want 50 wives, I can write them in and not worry about casting. I can add as many beds (a no-no on stage) and goats as I like.

What’s your response to the idea of the book making a good film?

Well, as a playwright, I would tend to agree! And I did try to put the story on stage, but it was never successful. I am a visual writer and my pieces begin with place, with setting, with the world of the story. I can see it. Wouldn’t it be lovely?


Amity & Sorrow is out now from Tinder Press. Read our review of it here.

After the Apocalypse: Going Underground in Hugh Howey’s Wool

The next Hunger Games? Dystopian-fiction fan Emily Ding reviews Hugh Howey’s Wool and chats with the Florida-based author about his journey from self-publishing sensation to Big-Six author, and how it feels to have his book optioned for Hollywood, possibly to be directed by three-time Oscar-nominated Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame.

What happens when the world as we know it turns hostile and annihilates any form of life? Fly to space, or go underground. But since other planets aren’t quite ready for human habitation yet, there’s only one option.

In Hugh Howey’s post-apocalyptic Earth, humans live in a “silo” that extends about 150 storeys beneath the ground to seal themselves off from the toxic air outside that eats away at human flesh. This scenario doesn’t sound quite so unlikely when you cast your mind back to the nuclear threat of the Cold War that escalated between the Americans and the Soviets in the sixties. In similar circumstances, it’s entirely plausible that we would build a subterranean refuge in which to live out our days until the world above ground becomes right again, when we could return to rebuild a new civilisation. Although in the end 21.12.2012 came and went without much fanfare, in the build-up to the supposed Apocalypse, some rich people were reportedly buying up USD$2-million luxury apartments to be built into the shaft of an abandoned missile silo underneath the Kansas prairie – an actual relic of the Cold War, with nine-feet-thick concrete walls purportedly engineered to withstand an atomic bomb blast.

Howey takes this glimmering reality further in Wool with meticulous attention to detail. Like the Kansas silo, Howey’s silo also has its own life-support systems: hydroponics farms, water treatment facility tanks, oil wells, power generators. Unlike the Kansas silo, the one of Howey’s imagination is pretty primitive: it doesn’t come with its own pool, movie theatre or library; and in place of an elevator is a metal spiral staircase, with which it takes about two hours to descend twenty floors – at least, for the elderly mayor Jahns and her deputy sheriff Marnes; the porters who deliver goods and messages daily up and down the silo do it faster. In fact, Howey’s silo seems unlikely to be able to sustain itself for much longer. We get the idea that it wasn’t built for its current purpose nor to last forever, and these humans have lived in it for a long time – certainly long enough for them to wonder about their “Creator” and question how they had come into their current existence while the glass and steel skeletons of buildings, abandoned from a different time, crumble against the “stately rolling crests” of “lifeless” hills in full view from the top floor of the silo. All they know is that a “great uprising” had wiped out the silo’s history.

Before Howey became a full-time writer he was a yacht captain, sailing all over the American East coast and the Caribbean. His inspiration for Wool, he said, had come from seeing the difference between 24-hour news and the world he’d seen on his travels: “They were nothing alike. One was all the bad news, the other was quite a nice place. And so I imagined a society that only knew of the world from looking at a single screen. Like Plato’s cave analogy. But the shadows on the cave wall are all sinister.”

As this picture (right) of the proposed Kansas missile silo shows, a circular structure is particularly useful with which to project a panoramic view of any illusion you’d like. Though life in Howey’s silo is pretty basic for most of its inhabitants, IT personnel – less than 24 of them and mostly men – possess sufficient technological capabilities to build a full-wall screen display that wraps around the perimeter of the silo’s top floor, offering its citizens, via cameras above-ground, a view of the world outside: as a hint to the possibility of a different future, but also as a deterrent.

Because in Howey’s subterranean world, the expressed wish to go “outside” is a death wish. Those who commit this and other crimes are mandatorily let out into the upper world to “clean” in a protective suit engineered by IT with the best of their technology to give those condemned to the outside a moment of reprieve before the deadly wind dissolves them into dust. To “clean” is to use a wool scrubber to remove the grime from the camera lenses above ground to bring the world outside into clearer view once again. This view is nothing like the colourful children’s books (the only ones to survive the uprising) the silo’s inhabitants remember; there is no blue sky nor green grass, just a broad, dull palette of brown and grey littered with the “sleeping boulders” of dead bodies. Unfathomably, even faced with this evidence, every single person who has ever been sent outside has always done the cleaning even when, in their bitterness, they had vowed they wouldn’t. This is the mystery: why do they always clean?

Still, while each act of cleaning is a sacrifice, it is also a renewal of hope. Usually, after each clean, a new jubilance and vitality permeates the silo – there wouldn’t be another too soon – but also, people dare to want: couples can hope at a chance of winning the lottery to procreate (via the removal of an contraceptive implant): one down, room for another. More importantly, there would be another chance to test IT’s protective suit, to see if it lasts longer this time against the lethal elements outside. It is the silo citizens’ unspoken wish that one day, the suit would be advanced enough to enable them to venture above ground without dropping like flies. Despite the bleakness of the landscape, “it looked like a scene one could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole”.

In this way then, IT wields considerable power, though on the face on it Mayor Jahns, flanked by her sheriffs Holston and Marnes, reigns supreme over the silo. Mechanical personnel, too, possess the know-how to change the balance of power within the silo as they are well versed in its technical and practical workings (they also control the energy that sustains IT’s operations), but they don’t always realise this because they are kept in the dark within the deepest reaches of the silo, tasked with keeping the great machines running in good order so life in the silo doesn’t break down. Wool, like most dystopian fiction, makes many parallels to our present society, and it is easy to read into the social, political and economical stratification evident by virtue of the silo’s architecture. Also, for every person who yearns to break his confines and explore unchartered horizons, there will always be another who refuses to wander too far from where he lives – both are equally base human instincts.

In Wool, we read the separate but interlinked stories of three main characters — Holston, the sheriff; Jahns, the mayor; and Juliette, a tough-as-nails young woman from Mechanical, who eventually takes over as the protagonist for most of the book. As with most dystopian fiction, the characters don’t know at first that they are living in a dystopia (though we do) – and Howey is really good at dishing the clues out bit by bit, so you are compelled to keep going for answers to the larger puzzle. Still, by the end of the book you’ll have more questions than answers, and some seemingly vital characters feel like they have been barely pencilled in. Having spoken to Howey, however, readers can rest assured that we’ll find all the answers in the upcoming books. Shift, the prequel, will tell us how the silo came to be; and Dust, the last book in the trilogy which Howey is working on right now, will, he says, include “answers to every question you can think of. You’ll see what becomes of the world.”

Part of how Howey successfully keeps us hanging on a drip of information is that he writes Wool in instalments, but this serial way of writing, much like that of writing a TV series, is also what is responsible for its limitations. Howey first self-published Wool as a short story in mid-2011 about Holston and his struggle with life in the silo after his wife Alison – in a fit of sudden clarity or insanity, he didn’t know – chose to go outside, and his own part in having to condemn her to that while carrying out his duty. When Holston’s story became popular with fans, who expressed their desire to read more about this world, Howey decided to write more chapters. Writing serially has its benefits but also some serious challenges – one of which is being able to conceive of the series tightly as a whole, so that all the plot lines hang together coherently as a master piece of work. Wool stumbles slightly in this aspect; the continuity between the instalments isn’t always maintained. Still, this is easily overlooked.

Wool is an addictive, engaging read, and has been much vaunted to be the next Hunger Games (though Wool wouldn’t be marketed as Young Adult) or the next Fifty Shades (except Howey actually writes well). Howey had made his own name and was commercially successful even before his book deals with Big-Six publishers, purportedly raking in a six-figure income a month running a one-man show – being his own publicist, engaging heavily with his fans. So far, rights to Wool has been sold to more than twenty countries, and film rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox with three-time Oscar-nominated Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) slated to direct it and Steve Zaillian (who won the Oscar for Schindler’s List) to write the script, so it’s fair to say that Wool is set to become a global phenomenon. Read it before everyone else does.

MEET HUGH HOWEY: This Sunday, 3 March, in London at the Old Crown Public House, 33 New Oxford St, from 4:30-8:00 p.m. More details here.
Wool is available from Random House in the UK and Simon and Schuster in the US.
The next self-published omnibus in the trilogy, Shift (the prequel to Wool), is now available on Amazon, and will be available in the UK from Random House come April. Howey is currently working on the last book in the trilogy, Dust, which UK readers can expect from Random House in October.
You can find out more about Hugh Howey at

More Questions for Hugh Howey (**contains spoilers)

Did you know from the start what was going to happen at the end of the trilogy? 

I didn’t have the plot until I saw the reaction to [the original short story], which was when I sat down and outlined the rest of it.

I knew what would happen at the end of Dust [the final book in the trilogy], which is what I’m working on right now. I did the same thing with my Molly Fyde series. I thought about the last scene of the fourth book while I was writing the first one. That doesn’t mean I don’t allow the story to surprise me along the way, but I have to know where a story is heading. Otherwise, I worry it will meander or that I’ll lose interest.

It was still released serially. I published as I wrote. But I didn’t have the ability to go back and change earlier works while working on later ones. It posed some challenges. I really had to know how the pieces fit together.

Do you worry that by the end of the trilogy you’d want to go back and change something?

If I worried about that too much, I wouldn’t get any writing done. Even when working on a single novel, there’s the fear that you’re making the wrong decision somewhere. You have to trust your gut and press forward.

Serial fiction is enjoying some popularity nowadays. What does it let you do that writing a novel doesn’t?

I think it fits the modern readers’ lifestyle. Not everyone has time to devote to a novel. They can read an instalment in bits and pieces. For those who want it all at once, they can wait and get a compilation for less money. TV has changed the way we view stories. Some people wait for the entire season before they watch the first episode. Books can be read either way. Kinda like how Dickens used to release his works.

Also, readers don’t have to wait a year or longer between instalments. They can stay engaged. But you have to do it correctly. These can’t be mere chapters doled out. They each have to be satisfying on their own. And they have to work seamlessly as a whole. It’s a tricky balance.

Right, and as a writer, does writing serially give you more immediate gratification? That you can know early on whether readers like it, and that encourages you to keep writing?

It does. But there’s also the pressure to keep up a release schedule. One of the benefits is getting feedback from readers as you write. It almost becomes collaborative. You can gauge reactions to certain characters and plot points, which takes the joy of having early draft readers to the next level. And it really gets readers invested in the success of a story. The buzz develops while it’s being released, so there are fans in place before the finished work is bound together.

A lot of these discoveries were happy accidents. I had no idea how any of this would work. I was just enjoying writing something that people were reading. The pros and cons didn’t occur to me until after.

Do you have a specific example in Wool that you’d changed or added because of a suggestion from a reader?

The reaction to the death of main characters showed me how powerful that could be. We are so used to major characters surviving anything. So I continued a trend just long enough for people to assume that I’d kill anyone they loved. And once that pattern was established, I changed tack again. By gauging expectations and reactions, I was able to make sure I wasn’t being predictable. That was a huge asset and a lot of devious fun. :) I believe some readers have cursed me. And I’m okay with that.

So, one thing that struck me about reading Wool was that as readers, we need to have a certain suspension of knowledge, because we know something the characters don’t. For example, you mention the “silo” and “pixels” early on, and I remember I wondered if they were supposed to mean what I know it to mean, or if it was a subverted version of what I knew it to be. How does this work?

One of the things I love about speculative fiction is that they can read like a mystery novel or a suspense thriller. Information is doled out a little bit at a time, like clues. The reader is on a journey of discovery. I think it’s why people find themselves up late at night with this story, unable to put it down. They want to read one more chapter to see what they might uncover next. It really puts them there with the protagonist, who is also trying to figure out what’s going on. They are in it together. John Grisham does this very well, as does Dan Brown. It’s something I pay close attention to as a reader and something I try to emulate.

Speaking of clues being excruciatingly doled out, will we read more about Juliette’s lover George and her relationship with her father in the upcoming books?

Yes. I’m actually saving the George story for a short piece that I’ll release on its own. It brings back Holston, and we get to watch him work that case, meet Jules, and the two interact together. I’ve already started it and have really enjoyed seeing these characters alongside one another. Marnes as well. I might make it free on my website, but also have it available elsewhere.

The relationship with her father will be touched on as well. I was just writing a scene with him in it recently.

Even knowing that going outside is a death wish, many of the silo’s citizens still want to go there. How do you reconcile the fear of a place with, at the same time, the desire to go there?

I think the urge to explore and escape can be strong enough to overcome every other fear. People make irrational choices all the time. They set off in ships with no idea of what’s beyond the horizon. And people elect to end their own lives in sad abundance.

My wife and I plan on sailing around the world one day. The desire to explore and tour is stronger than our wish to be perfectly safe.

Something I found interesting about Jules is that from the outset she seems like an unlikely heroine. She rarely ventures up the silo and is happy to stay where she is.

Two things, I guess: I love the “reluctant warrior” character trope. The person who doesn’t want to fight but is pressed into action. Those are my favourite heroes. I don’t enjoy the people raring for a fight.

Also, I worked as a roofer after working as a yacht captain. I moved from a world of luxury to one of arduous toil. I went from making USD$350 a day to making less than a third of that. And I was happier for it. I loved how I felt at the end of the day. It felt more purposeful, putting a roof over a family’s head than it felt to drive a billionaire around in their boat. I know that might sound weird, but it gave me an appreciation for blue-collar work, that it is more important in many ways to other forms of labour.

What is it about Juliette, do you think, that means she succeeds where others do not? And why was Marnes so keen on appointing her the sheriff?

Marnes and Holston worked with Jules in the down deep, which put her on his radar. It was also a political choice. A woman and someone from a different part of the silo.

Why she succeeds has to do with the knowledge she possesses with the help of her friends. Nobody had ever had these advantages. And her mechanical aptitude always helped her. She’s just a sound thinker, brave without being careless, compassionate and resourceful.

But she isn’t without her flaws. She has a difficult time forgiving her father. She has a tendency to run from some of her problems. And she can be single-minded when she’s tackling a project.

Now that you know what you know about self-publishing and Big-Six publishers, do you think you’ll continue with the former?

Yes. I’ll continue self-publishing, because I don’t want to delay the availability of my work. But if a publisher comes along afterward and wants to discuss taking these stories and pushing them to a wider audience, I’ll always entertain those discussions.

I read that on your home turf, Simon and Schuster has print rights to your book but not ebook rights. Would you say this an unconventional arrangement within publishing and was it hard to negotiate for this?

We didn’t really negotiate for it. We told publishers early on that this is what we would need to sign a deal. We were told it would never happen. What it required was the strength to walk away from very large sums of money before someone finally put the deal together. We turned down two seven-figure deals before S&S finally came up with this. They deserve all the credit in the world for being flexible and innovative.

I believe this was the first such deal from a big-six publisher. There has been at least one other since. And Bella Andre, a romance writer, got a similar deal from Harlequin a few weeks prior.

Your book has been described as “high-concept”. Do you think there are particular kinds of self-published books that succeed better than others?

I think the chances of a book becoming successful are pretty slim no matter how they are published. I worked as a bookseller for years, and it seemed as though only a few works were being discussed at any one time. Which means a lot of luck and good timing is involved. But any story can break out if it strikes a nerve with readers.

In self-publishing, it seems the genre works do the best. Romance, erotica, science fiction, fantasy. I don’t know if this is because the readers of genre have more insatiable appetites, publishers aren’t adequately meeting the demands, or what. I suspect it’s simply an imbalance of supply and demand. And self-published authors are eager to meet that demand.

Publishing houses are largely run by English majors. When I took creative writing classes in college, I was told not to write genre fiction. Everything was to be literary. I think this is a sad state of affairs. Writing is about storytelling more than it is about perfectly flowing prose. Think back to Homer and the oral tradition. Readers want excitement. I think we would be well served to have more English professors embracing genre fiction and more publishers giving it its due.

In the bookstore I worked in, we pushed all the genre out of sight and presented shoppers with the stories that fewer people seemed interested in. I always puzzled over that. The Hunger Games is science fiction. Harry Potter is fantasy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mystery/thriller. Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica. This is what people want to read. And we keep insisting that they love whatever is winning the literary awards. We put taste above sales, and I think that does our readers a disservice.

Do you think that is beginning to change though, with these big successes that you mentioned?

Yes. I do. Publishers are beginning to look at what is selling well that they aren’t profiting from, and I credit them with being so willing to adapt. But I don’t think English professors will ever change much. I hope I’m wrong.

Is there definitely going to be a film adaptation of Wool by Ridley Scott?

Nothing in Hollywood is definite, but I just spent a week in L.A. meeting with the production teams and the executives at Fox, and everyone is very excited about the possiblity of getting this on the big screen. I don’t know what the chances are right now, but I’d guess somewhere around 50/50, which is leagues better than I would have guessed a month ago.

So if you could choose, who would be your Jules, Lukas and Solo?

To be honest, I would prefer unknown actors. I like for a character to be himself, not someone famous. But that’s unlikely. Maybe Charlize Theron for Jules and Robin Williams for Solo. I don’t have a good Lukas in mind.

Fun question, since you’re now an author of the same publisher who published Ray Bradbury: If you were to find yourself in a Fahrenheit 451 world, which book would you save and why?

Shakespeare’s complete works. I think it’s the single most important volume of fiction ever set down.

Between Myth and History: An Interview with Travis Elborough

londonbridgeIn 1968, at the height of America’s fascination with the Swinging Sixties, perhaps the most bizarre event in the history of the “special relationship” took place: the sale of London Bridge to an eccentric Missourian entrepreneur. Eager to secure an attraction to put his hometown, Lake Havasu City, on the map and capitalise on the growing US fascination with England, Robert P. McCullouch shipped the 130-year-old bridge some 3000 miles to the middle of the Mohave desert. In London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing, (Jonathan Cape, Feb 2013) Travis Elborough unpicks the myth surrounding the transaction.

By way of exploring how the sale came about, Elborough’s fourth book delivers a partial history of London, and a run-down on Anglo-American relations. It’s a grand scope, and Elborough explains that his fascination with the story began in childhood. “When we learnt the nursery rhyme about the bridge at school our teacher made a remark about it being sold to America, and my interest was piqued at a young age. When researching my book The Bus We Loved, I discovered a Routemaster had been shipped to the States, and stood at the foot of the bridge serving as an ice cream parlour, which got me thinking about the whole story again.”

Once he began to delve into the research, Elborough was thrilled at the bizarre characters which emerged, particularly that of Robert P. McCullouch. “He has no contemporary counterpoint. He was a pre-venture capitalist businessman, driven not by money, but a very distinct and wild form of bravado. He spent years working on an ill-fated ‘gyroplane’ (a hybrid combination of a helicopter and aeroplane). He was eccentric, almost to the level of a Bond villain, although with more benign intentions.”

In the course of researching the book, Elborough visited McCullough’s Lake Havasu City, which he found a distinctly surreal experience. “You drive across Route 95, with the Wimpole mountains in the distance. In this barren landscape is a man-made lake, which looks in that setting a lot like a mirage. And then you see the bridge, which is actually quite elegant in these surroundings. In the extreme, dry heat, the sun goes down very fast, and the bridge reflects the sunlight like a light bulb. What’s strange to see is that it still has original etchings, such as graffiti and people’s army numbers scratched into the surface, and it still has soot clinging to it; it wears its scars.”

The book is dotted with highly evocative references to sounds and songs; from the clangs of iron work as the bridge is being built, to the universally-known nursery rhyme. Having written a book about collecting records (Long Player Goodbye), Elborough notes that whilst music is a personal obsession, the aural references did seem integral to the tale. “It did feel like the story was a very sonorous one. The sale of the bridge in fact inspired a number of pop songs, written by the likes of Spectrum and Bread. I’m not sure what sort of songs the architecture of today’s London Bridge would inspire. Maybe there’s a Kraftwerk number in there.”

The strong and consistent allure that bridges hold over artists is a recurring theme in the book, and one that Elborough attributes to both concrete and metaphorical reasons. “Bridges are the earliest and simplest structures humans have created. During Medieval times they began to have a very strong religious significance, and I think the sheer amount of human endeavour that goes into their building adds to their spiritual meaning. Just look at how many people died during the 30 years building of London bridge, for example. They certainly do tap into something very profound within us all.”

While London Bridge in America is about a number of characters with lofty ambitions often too grandiose to be realised, Elborough doesn’t share their great schemes. “I’m not sure I have such vaulting ideas as someone like McCullouch. My ambition has always been to write books, ever since I was a child. I’m very fond of the book as a physical object, and I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to develop ideas and tell stories in long form, over two or three hundred pages. That’s something I’m very fond of, and I hope to have the opportunity to continue to do so.”

London Bridge in America is published by Jonathan Cape and available now.

Russ Litten Introduces Swear Down, Our Current Book Club Title


In this special Q&A, Russ Litten, the author of our first Book Club pick Swear Down, introduces himself and his book.

Russ has written for television, radio and film, and his first novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster was published by William Heinemann in January 2011. He lives with his family in Kingston Upon Hull and runs creative writing workshops for prisoners. He can be found on Twitter @RussLitten.

Swear Down will be published by Tindal Street Press in April 2013, but our Book Club members will be given exclusive access to the novel in the weeks leading up to its official release.

To find out more about the Book Club and our Membership Platform, click here now.

Swear DownTell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a writer, why do you write the things you do and what is your life like when you’re not writing?

I’ve been writing since the age of seven when I had my first short story published in the local newspaper. It was a Christmas story about an angel who lost his halo. After leaving school I joined a band as a bass player and lyric writer and travelled the UK in a van. After that I went to live in Prague, where I taught English. At the turn of the century I came home and became a freelance writer. Since then I have written stuff for magazines, newspapers, radio, film and TV. I have written commercials and short stories, plays, comedy sketches and feature length films, all to varying degrees of success. My first novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster was published in 2011. Swear Down is my second book.

I’m not entirely sure why I write the things I do. I am endlessly fascinated by the human condition, the joy and wonder at the heart of its existence and also all the trouble it seems to cause. Writing seems like the best way to try and make sense of this. It also helps to calm me down.

When I’m not working I like to play the bass guitar. I occasionally go running around my local park in a vain attempt to stave off death.

What is Swear Down about?

Swear Down is about two people who find themselves backed into a corner. It’s about friendship and loyalty and also the responsibility of having kids. I didn’t realise this until I was halfway through writing the book.

Why did you decide you wanted to write the novel, and where did the inspiration for Swear Down come from?

I had a small scene sketched out that involved a teenager and an old man who worked in a bar together having an argument. One of my favourite films is Midnight Cowboy and I was interested in that kind of dynamic, two people from different worlds thrown together through adversity. These characters gradually turned into Carlton and Jack. I then applied the idea of an unsolved crime that put both the characters in the frame and all of a sudden I had a situation to explore. I was originally going to have the book as just the two transcripts of the confessions, but then I decided I needed someone to try and make sense of it all. That’s when my detective Sergeant Ndekwe appeared.

Who are your favourite authors, and which writers have most inspired you?

The first book that lit a fire beneath me was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, and from there I fell in love with American literature. I read all the Beats, and people like Bukowski and Salinger and Raymond Carver. Closer to home I liked Alan Silitoe, Barry Hines, Bill Naughton and Stan Barstow. More recently I have been knocked out by writers such as Niall Griffiths, Jenn Ashworth, Jenni Fagan, Kerry Hudson, Richard Milward, Daniel Woodrell and Keith Ridgeway. But I’ll read virtually anything. I’ll read the back of a matchbox.

What themes were you interested in addressing in the novel?

One of the lads I worked with in prison had LOYALTY ABOVE ALL LAWS tattooed down the inside of his arm and I became interested in the consequences of living by such a code. I was interested in the concept of personal responsibility and how people living in the middle of the capital could live their lives with virtually no reference to the established laws of the land. I don’t mean crime, specifically, but the idea of people having their own self-imposed codes of conduct based on a morality born of a perceived necessity. I was also interested in the themes of race and personal identity and the desire to transcend your immediate surroundings.

What topics are you most looking forward to exploring with Litro readers?

Crime, punishment, morality, race, identity, the state of modern Britain. Writing and books in general.

Philip Pullman on His New Retelling of Grimm Fairytales

Philip Pullman is a writer of international renown. Named by the Times as one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945“, he is the author of numerous bestselling and award-winning books, most notably the His Dark Materials (Northern Lights) trilogy, which has won not only the Carnegie medal but the “Carnegie of Carnegies“—a 2007 poll in which book lovers choose their favourite winner from the Carnegie’s 70-year history.

His latest book is Grimm Tales for Young and Old, a beautiful retelling of fifty, personally handpicked fairytales. Shocking, hilarious and haunting by turns, it brings Pullman’s wit and wisdom to the weird and wonderful tales first collected by the Grimm brothers.

For Londoners who would like to catch Philip Pullman in person: he will be discussing the book with writer and literary journalist Lucasta Miller at the Southbank Centre on Thursday, 6 December as part of the Economist‘s Books of the Year festival. Book your tickets here.

Ahead of the event, I spoke to the author, who is based in Oxford, over the phone about riffing on the Grimms’ classic collection, the essential difference between novel characters and fairytale heroes, the importance of horror to storytelling, and where he’s going to venture next in his work.

I was at the launch of The Good Man Jesus a few years ago, and I remember you talking then about your interest in paring down the story and simplifying your language. Reading your introduction to your new book, it sounds like you have a similar project going on here.

Yes. In both the Jesus book and this one I was relying on reshaping stories that had originally been oral tales. The Grimms had oral sources—they were relying on people who told them stories which had been handed down for years, in most cases without a literary background at all. The same thing’s true about the Gospels. We think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as texts, but they’re really reports of things their authors had heard about, many years afterward the events themselves. The way in which the Jesus stories were passed on was of course the oral way, and so in both cases I was doing things with oral origins.

It struck me that in a way, you approached The Good Man Jesus as almost a Christian fairytale. In a recent discussion of your book at the Cambridge Theatre [which Philip Pullman missed because he was ill], Neil Gaiman said that he thinks fairytales came from myths, that stories started large and got watered down into fairytales. What do you think about that, and are myths and fairytales closer than a lot of people think?

Interesting point, but I think they are slightly different things. Myths have an explanatory purpose. They explain why the rainbow is there, for example, or why we have the seasons, or why we die—big questions. Fairytales are not like that. They’re about matters of great human importance, like marriage or birth or death, but they don’t have the same sort of big purpose as myths. It’s very hard to say, of course, why people started telling a story about a woman who was very badly mistreated by her mother and stepsisters, who then grew up to marry a prince and so lived happily ever after. Why would you tell a story like that, except that it’s fun to imagine? It’s an interesting thing to think about, and so it’s a good story.

We often hear it said that there are only seven stories in the world, and it’s certainly true that the same human situations come up time and time again. One of the reasons fairytales, and the Grimms’ tales in particular, have been so popular is that they do deal with fundamental human situations. What do you do if you’re starving and you can’t feed your children? You send them into the forest and hope somebody else will look after them. Fairytales are popular because they talk about basic human situations, ways in which human beings can relate to one another. We can be a parent to a child, a child to a parent, or we can be a spouse or a partner—that’s about it!

As a child I read your very big His Dark Materials series first, and then I went back to some of your earlier stories. They seemed a lot more deliberately simple—like fairytales, in fact! Is there something about the form that particularly interests you?

There’s a big difference between novels and fairytales. His Dark Materials were novels, but as well as the Grimm Tales I’ve written four other books that I call fairytales, although they’re much longer than the stories in Grimm: The Firework Maker’s Daughter, The Scarecrow and His Servant, Clockwork, and I Was a Rat. The difference is in the characters. In a novel, the character has to be as rich, as 3-D as you can make them, with a psychology, with a personality, with experience—all the things that we understand as making up consciousness. But the characters in a fairytale aren’t like that, they’re flat somehow. We aren’t interested in the psychology of Cinderella; it doesn’t matter very much to us what Little Red Riding Hood thinks or feels. It matters what she does. I found that to be true when I was doing these Grimm tales, and I find that difference fascinating. Flat characters are very delightful to be with.

But they’re still very driven characters, they have desires, something they really want, and they push for it.

Yes, they’re much simpler even than the characters in Dickens, who are often accused of being very flat indeed. They want things, but they’re very simple about it. The boy who wants to learn what fear is—that’s the only thing he wants. And Gambling Hans, the only thing he cares about is gambling. He’s obsessed by it.

As you say, the tales all have a “swiftness” to them, a wonderful lack of logical progression. For example, in “The Three Golden Hairs”, the character suddenly arrives in Hell with no explanation. Did you enjoy working with that kind of energy?

It was very fun to do. Some of the stories were more difficult than others, but they all had that sheer, deft, very swift nature which was great fun to work with. It was also fun to work on something that was already there, rather than having to make it up. Because the story was there already, what I had to do was—and I make this comparison often—more like playing jazz than playing classical music.

The full title of your book is Grimm Tales for Young and Old, and in the introduction you say “the ideal fairytale is too easy for children and too difficult for adults”. Do you have a fairytale that you understood as a child—that you just got—and then you grew up and found yourself having to struggle with it more?

Well, “The Juniper Tree” is a bit like that. But so is “Little Red Riding Hood”. So are a lot of them, actually. When you’re young and you meet Little Red Riding Hood for the first time, you just want to know what happens next. You’re thrilled by the horror of being eaten by a wolf, and you squeal with excitement when the huntsman comes along and sets her free. Then when you meet Little Red Riding Hood again as an adult you start to think, what is her mother doing sending her into the woods? She knows there are wolves, why is she exposing her to so much danger? So you do see them in different ways.

Talking about that excitement and fear, what do you think is the role of fear and horror in fairytales, and is it important?

They wouldn’t work without it! In the simplest sense of all, a story begins with something going wrong. If everything went well, if everybody was happy and nothing went wrong, there wouldn’t be a story. Stories happen when somebody dies and there’s a consequence, or when someone gets lost, and so on. There’s got to be this element of apprehension, of worry for the main character. In fairytales, of course, this is taken to an extreme degree: we have mutilations and beheadings and deaths and all sorts of things. It’s a world of extreme violence, but because the characters aren’t real, because they’re just puppets, so to speak, we don’t worry too much. We know that they’re just going to come back to life in the end.

You write about your interest in telling the stories. What was the process of writing them like? Did you feel as though you were actually telling them out loud?

I did treat the stories very much as spoken things. I had to hear my voice telling them as I wrote them down, and I wanted to make them work orally, so that they could be read aloud with great ease—that was a very important thing for me.

The translation necessary between oral and written stories is very interesting. You explain in your introduction to the book that some of the Grimms’ sources were oral and some were manuscript—how did that affect your own retellings?

That was interesting to find out. I wanted to give my reader a little more information than usual about where the stories came from before the Grimms got them, so I found out who the tellers were or alternatively what the literary source was. “The Juniper Tree” is an interesting one because it came to the Grimms as a fully written manuscript. There are many different forms of the basic Juniper Tree story but I feel that this one is a particularly perfect retelling. In fact, it was one of the very few stories I found that couldn’t be improved. I couldn’t do anything to it to make it better; if I tried to do it another way, the story would resist me. To meet this kind of resistance from a story was very interesting. And in the end the story was right—it is un-improvable.

You mentioned giving readers additional information about the stories. The notes you give are quite scholarly and it is obvious that, as well as telling really great stories, you’re also writing this for people who want to study the stories. 

I hope the stories are not just for academics. I thought they would be of interest to people who are interested in stories per se, not just for academic reasons. I wrote in the notes the sort of things I would be interested in reading myself—principally, what makes it a good story, why does it work, what is there in the story that doesn’t quite work and what has been done to it to make it read more fluently.

This is obviously a retelling of one specific group of stories, whereas a lot of writers working with fairytales at the moment are using more diverse influences. What do you think of the different ways of responding to fairytales?

Fairytales are almost indestructible, and the stories will accept many different kinds of retelling. At one extreme you’ve got people like Angela Carter whose variations are very poetical reimaginings of the stories. They are very much her own voice and often told in the first person, and that’s fine. The stories can take it, there’s no harm in that. In Grimm Tales I tried for a very straight version that is, as I say in the introduction, “as clear as water”. That was just the way I chose to do it. But the stories can take any sort of retelling. They can even be told as novels, although that takes more doing.

I hadn’t realised this before, but a lot of the Grimm stories are very Christian in their tone—”The Girl with No Hands”, for example. As an atheist, how did it feel to respond to that?

The Grimms were men of their time, very pious, and as the nineteenth century wore on and their book went through several editions the stories became more and more pious and more and more overtly Christian. Some of them started in almost a pagan way and became more Christian as they went along. There were other stories I left out that were more pious and, for that reason, less interesting to me. But essentially, if it was a good story, I told it. If it wasn’t such a good story, I left it out.

Reading them, I could recognise that they were the Grimms’ stories I knew. But in the word choice and the little details they were also your own. What is the place of personal imagination within the formulaic storytelling tradition?

Everybody who tells a story has a duty to make it their own. There is no settled text for a fairytale. What the Grimms did was write down one version from one occasion on which they heard it, and often they altered it later. Because of this the modern teller of a fairytale has every right—and, in fact, every duty—to make it their own.

I recently went to a talk about crime fiction, and one of the writers said that it was the boundaries around the genre that gave her freedom to invent. Is that how you feel?

Well, that’s true. It’s not quite the same thing, because crime fiction is a genre, and I’m not quite sure fairytales are a genre. They’re something a bit different. But certainly working within the confines of a genre you can be very inventive. It’s part of the fun for fans of genre fiction—which I am, I like thrillers—seeing how the writer has played with the concept, inverted it and subverted it.

It’s that jazz again! Neil Gaiman has also said in talking about your book that in fairytales there’s nothing special about the hero, that they sort of stumble into their role. But aren’t there certain qualities, like kindness and politeness and cleverness, that every fairytale hero has to have?

Fairytale heroes are the everyman or everywoman. Their goodness is part of the basic morality of the tales, which is a very simple morality, based on justice. If you’re good you will be rewarded and if you are bad you will be punished. But the good characters are the everyman characters. They are kind and forbearing—and most importantly, they are brave. You have to be brave!

And finally, where will you go from here?

Well, I’m actually writing another book in the His Dark Materials series, set in Lyra’s world. The Book of Dust, it’s called.

I was going to ask whether Lyra was still in your head, but obviously she still is! We had a reader question about whether when you hear the word “dust”, it still means “Dust” in your special sense, and I suppose it still does!

Yes, it does! The Book of Dust is set in Lyra’s world and it’s about Dust—by which I mean human consciousness—about what it does and what it is. I’ve been announcing this for about ten years, but I’ve finally got going with it.

Philip Pullman will be discussing his latest book, Grimm Tales for Young and Old (Penguin Classics), at the Southbank Centre on Thursday, 6 December as part of the Economist Books of the Year series. He will be in conversation with writer and literary journalist Lucasta Miller. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
If you’re a fan of fairytales, click here for your fairytale fix: in books, films, TV series, exhibitions, and on the stage.

Carlos Gamerro on his novel, The Islands, and writing alternative pasts.

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro had been hovering around my consciousness for a few months before I picked it up and finally realised what I had been missing. You can read my review for Litro here.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1962, just fourteen years before the beginning of a brutal and repressive dictatorship that would culminate in the Falklands conflict, Carlos Gamerro is an outspoken and celebrated contemporary writer who, in The Islands, explores the unsettling hold the Falklands conflict has over Argentine society. He has written five further novels, a collection of short stories and a range of literary criticism, and translates literature from English to Spanish. He also adapted The Islands for the stage.

As Carlos is based in Buenos Aires, we had to “meet” on Skype. I talk to him about The Islands, detectives, investigating Argentine society and writing about the ghosts of an alternative past.

I really enjoyed The Islands. It’s a surreal and exhilarating read, and though it’s a lot of fun it makes you work hard as a reader. Do you have a reader in mind when you write?

Yes, of course. I want to make difficult stuff as easy as possible for that reader, but what I’m not prepared to do is discard something because it will be hard to understand or stomach. In that sense, the beginning of The Islands is a bit of a warning. It begins with a guy who has preserved one of his turds and lives in a tower made of mirrors and buggers his own adult son. So if you don’t like it or cannot take it you might as well stop reading now—and don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The character you mention, Tamerlán, is extreme in many ways. Your work is often described as “political”, and here’s a power-mad psychopath in a mirrored tower. Do you think he represents a sort of corruption?

No, I wouldn’t call Tamerlán corrupt. Corruption means that something that was initially good has been degraded or debased or distorted. The political and economic power system of the 80s and 90s in Argentina—and I suppose the same could be said for most of the world—was monstrously healthy and sane. This is what economic and political power are all about when the moral fetters are removed. Tamerlán might be considered evil or monstrous in the same way Machiavelli was seen as evil or monstrous in, say, Shakespeare’s day—because they both give you the naked truth, without pretence.

That idea of pretence is found throughout The Islands and you’ve said before that you originally conceived this as a detective novel. Was the truth-seeking element always present for you?

Well, what I find interesting about the detective novel is precisely its truth-seeking element. This is why the genre has developed in so many directions and doesn’t seem to dry up. It is not because all of us are interested in the world of crime; this is part of its appeal but not the whole story. The genre is about human knowledge: how we attain it, what its limitations are, how we might prefer a dramatic narrative to the simple factual truth. On the other hand, a detective, whether a professional one or a circumstantial one, is practically the only figure in fiction today that can tie together the different strands of our divided societies—divided socially, racially, geographically, religiously, culturally.

A large metropolis like London or Buenos Aires cannot really be known by any of its inhabitants, unless he is forced to visit slum and palace alike in search of something. Now, because the idea of a private eye is impossible in Argentine fiction (all private eyes are ex-cops, all cops corrupt), a cop or ex-cop in search of the truth is for us a bad joke, a fictional implausibility. Because of this, I chose a hacker, a hacker who must turn detective against his will and better judgement.

This hacker you mention, Felipe, is also a Falklands/Malvinas conflict veteran. So, as well as examining contemporary Buenos Aires, Felipe is also investigating his past, reopening old wounds, searching for a kind of truth there. 

For me, there was a challenge here. I am part of what’s known as the generation of ’82—the generation that got sent to war—and had I not asked for my military service to be deferred, my fate might have been that of Felipe’s. When I was writing the novel, I had a feeling of “There but for the grace of God go I”, so I invested Felipe—an individual, not just a symbol—with my own imaginary experience.

On the other hand, I met many ex-combatants and talked to them about their experiences. This was a time (some eight years after the war) when nobody wanted to listen to them; they were the symbol of defeat, and even the Left saw something fishy in them, since they had participated in a war conducted by war criminals. So they were eager to talk—only you could see they felt you wouldn’t understand. You realised they felt that all the words in the world would not make you see what they had seen, feel what they had felt. When they spoke with each other very few words were needed. There was a world of experience behind each word.

So this was the challenge: to make, through words, this experience that was not mine, mine, to believe in it, and to make others believe in it.

It sounds almost as though you were writing an account of the life you could have had…

Yes, the way I usually put it is that it is autobiography in reverse: the story of what might have happened, even of what should have happened, had fate not been so careless as to miss me. A lot of the best fiction is like this. I mean, if you’ve lived through it, why would you want to do it a second time in writing? Once is usually enough. Fiction does not only exist in literature—we’re creating fiction when we wonder what our life might have been like if, twenty years ago, we had left for Norway or Borneo as we had planned… or when we meet a person we like and in thirty seconds we have lived out a whole imaginary life with them, right down to our grandchildren. These ghostly selves are always with us, and sometimes one feels like writing about them. Much more interesting than writing about past selves or real people!

And in terms of national history, countries that feel they have failed, or which are not where they should be, are always agonising about the road not taken. They write their history in the conditional or the subjunctive.

That idea about writing about “alternative realities” is something that features heavily in Argentine literature. Which writers—Argentine or other—have most influenced you? 

I don’t tend to talk about “influence”—that is the task of the critic! A lot of the influence you receive is unconscious, anyway. I recently reread Moby Dick, which I had read a couple of times before getting started on The Islands and hadn’t read since, and I was shocked to see how many elements of Ahab’s mad quest had found their way into the “Malvinas obsession” some of my military characters—notably Major X—have.

But what I can talk about is about models I choose: authors to guide me through a specific novel. In the case of The Islands I definitely tried to learn from writers like William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. I was writing a war novel and in Argentina we had no war literature to speak of. But as the Malvinas/Falklands war was so weird on so many levels, I knew I had no use for straight realism, so I went for Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin—and Apocalypse Now, of course.

You wrote The Islands fifteen years ago, and it’s set another six years before that. Then you adapted it for the stage in 2011 while working with translator Ian Barnett on an English edition. Has working in so many different formats and over a long period time made you see it in a different light at all? 

I always thought of Las Islas as an omnivorous novel, a protean novel, one that would never achieve a fixed form. This is not true of all my novels. An Open Secret, for example, is pretty fixed and definitive. I wouldn’t think of changing a word. Contingency dominates The Islands: it is the novel it is, but it could be many others. So every time I go back to it I try new things. I changed much of the plot—but not many of the scenes—for the play, and I cut the original version by some 100 pages when working with Ian Barnett on the English version.

Last question: Do you have a favourite novel, and if so, what?

God, that’s the hardest of them all! It depends on what I’m writing, I suppose, but I must admit that my three last novels—La Aventura de los Bustos de Eva, Un Yuppie en la Columna del Che Guevara and the one I’m working on at the moment, a story about Shakespeare and Fletcher’s lost play—are all variations on Don Quixote. So I guess you could say that Don Quixote has been my favourite novel for a while. Not very original, I’m afraid, but truthful!

The Islands was originally published in Spanish as Las Islas. This English version, translated by Ian Barnett, was published on 29 May 2012 by And Other Stories (UK) in paperback. Readers in the US can buy it via Amazon. More about the author at

Work for twentysomethings: What am I doing wrong?

Henry Goldman of interviews Dr. Meg Jay, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, who specializes in twentysomethings and recently published The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How to Make the Most of Them Now.

Author’s note: I wanted to ask Dr. Jay about her research and practice, but our conversation basically turned into an impromptu session for my own problems. Which was great.

HG: We at yr an adult like to refer to the twenties as the “New Adulthood”, and this is clearly a focus of your research and professional practice – I’m curious, how and why did you start to research it?

Dr. Meg Jay: I had so many twentysomething clients and twentysomething students – I taught at UC Berkeley, and had a private practice for many years – and I just realized I was seeing the same things over and over, and saying the same things over and over. I realized there was a real need, that twentysomethings were hungry for real information about this developmental moment.

There are a lot of generalizations about this generation: we’re more aimless, less structured, more connected, more entitled (in our minds). Do you generally agree that this generation has a different approach to facing adulthood?

That’s a good question. I think that’s been happening for a while. I mean, I’m not a 50s housewife – I’m a Gen-Xer. And my generation definitely got married later, we had our kids later, we traveled and explored before we settled down. So, it’s been happening. I think that’s not going to change, so I think this generation is continuing that trend. But they’re doing it in there own way. Technology’s changed a lot since Gen-Xers were in their twenties.

You seem to advocate a more aggressive type of growing up by the mid-twenties. Is there anything that you think can wait?

There are certainly some things that can wait, but where people get into trouble is when everything waits. And then there’s this new idea, that 30 is the new 20 and life is somehow going to be coming together in your 30s. But then people find that too much waited and there’s just not enough room for everything to fit. Life doesn’t add up the way that people wish that it would.

So I think it’s a personal preference about what waits for you. Is it work? Is it family? Is it exploration or travel? But everything can’t wait.

Based on your writing, you seem to really hate this saying, “30 is the new 20” – could you elaborate?

(Laughs) I do pick on that phrase, don’t I? I think it’s misleading because, what does it mean, “30 is the new 20”? 20 is when people used to graduate from college and start their lives and get going. So with that phrase, I think there’s this sense that “Ok, I don’t really have to face getting going in my life until I’m in my 30s.” And I have seen that lead to a lot of trouble. I’ve worked with too many clients in their 30s and even in their 40s, and they’re saying “Oh my gosh, what was I thinking? Now I can’t have the life that I want.”

I also think it leads to magical thinking where people think somehow at 30, everything is going to come together. But there’s a really big difference between starting your life at 30 and having a life at 30. And if you want a good life in your 30s, you can’t start it at 30.

I feel like a lot of people I know are optimistic that they won’t necessarily be able to start at 30, but they’ll be able to take what they’ve done in their 20s and either fully realize it or transition to something new.

Absolutely. And I think everyone is talking about underemployment right now, and the statistic that half of Americans twentysomething are either un- or under-employed. Even if you’re underemployed, to think about the fact that underemployment may still be sowing the seeds to having a good life in your 30s. I was definitely underemployed when I graduated college, but some of the things that I did had a fair amount of identity-capital, they helped my resume. And now, in my 40s, I’m not the least bit underemployed. And it came back to some of that underemployment I dealt with in my 20s. So yes, as long as you’re getting going, life will not have come to fruition in your 20s, but it will start to look good in your 30s.

What do you think about people delaying college one or two years, so you don’t show up at college so excited to be on your own that you forget to learn?

Absolutely. I work with a lot of college students, so I can definitely see the value in that for a lot of people. You know, it’s not unusual for people to take time off in the middle because they realize, “I don’t really know why I’m doing this. I’m not really benefitting.”

And I wouldn’t see that as delaying, as much as being more aggressive or more intentional about college. Saying “I’m going to think about what I’m going to do and then I’m going to do college in way where, when I graduate, I’m going to feel like it led to more for me.”

Do you think the milestones of aging – 21, 25, 30 – are actually healthy markers to track progress, or if sometimes people can get a little obsessed about them?

Both. (Laughs) I’ve certainly seen people get obsessed about them, but I do think, as you’re saying, time is a difficult thing to make sense of. There is something about new years and about birthdays and about that twenty-fifth birthday and that thirtieth birthday, that can lead to some helpful self-reflection about the fact that time is passing. Are we where we want to be? Will we be where we want to be in ten years? So, I’m a fan of developmental milestones, but you’re right, they’re nothing to obsess over.

This is more of a social science question, but do you have any sort of general assumptions as to why this generation of new adults are so different as a generation?

That’s a big question. It’s a general trend, obviously. It really started with birth control in the 1960s and 1970s. It didn’t really used to be an option to delay parenthood because people were getting pregnant. So, birth control had a big impact. Women’s rights, in terms of more women entering the workforce, so that really made a big shift, because women were no longer really thinking first about marriage and kids, nor did they have to. They could wait. There’s that.

There’s also the shift, very recently, in the economy, where it feels like there’s a lot of work to be done before people can even really think about settling down and having kids. First you’ve got to think about where am I going to find a job and even get going? I think it’s a trend that’s not going to go back in the other direction.

Though, a Pew Research study just came out showing that millennial women are interested in career, but they want family even more. And I do think there’s been a bit of a swing, between Gen X, my generation, who was the first to really push everything and you’re hearing some of the blowback from that, where people are saying, they’re paying the consequences. And you have to think about how you’re going to fit everything in.

So I think birth control and women entering the workforce, but saying they want to have it all really [precipitated the shift].

In your recent editorial in The New York Times, you suggest that moving in with your significant other, without a marriage in the works, or a clear commitment, is a bad idea, because, in your words, “people slide into cohabitating and then don’t slide out.” Do you think it’s an unequivocally bad idea for people to move in together without a plan to get married?

No. I’m not into black and whites as much as I’m into educating people. I think what we know about human development and about behavioral change is if you educate people  about decision-making, they can be more self-reflective about they’re own behavior. The reason I include that in the The Defining Decade and wrote the op-ed, I think if twentysomethings are aware of sliding, and are aware of lock-in, they’re gonna be more likely to say, “Oh, am I doing that?” And that will hopefully lead them to make better decisions. Not necessarily to say, “Well, I’m never living with somebody”, but maybe not to slide into it. Maybe they’ll be a little more conscious about getting in and be a little more conscious about getting out.

Because I mostly work with twentysomethings, divorce is not really a big topic on the table for most of my clients, because they’re mostly not married yet, but I’ve seen too many say “I spent half of my twenties on someone who wouldn’t have been around more than a year had we not been living together.” And you hate to hear that.

It’s personally of interest to me, because I live with my girlfriend now and we haven’t ever really talked about what happens next, because we’re both in career modes. And when I read your op-ed, I definitely felt weird about how we kind of jumped into living together.

And people do. And I’m not saying people are bad for doing that. Just that that awareness will lead to more intentional decision-making about staying, or how long you stay. And that’s always for the best.

I agree with that. It was good to read, because I could see how, two years down the line, sliding into a marriage because that’s “what people do.” And that’s not how we should, hypothetically, do it.

Exactly. And I think this is something true for couples who live together before they get married. I mean, I lived with my husband before we got married. I think if you decide to get married, you need to do a bit of extra work around claiming it and making it clear that everybody is re-choosing this. So there’s not any leftover feeling of, “Am I doing this because I don’t want so start over?” And that’s something you can consciously do, which is good for your relationship.

And we live in San Francisco, so you could see the mindset where we’d say “Ughh, rent is so expensive. To move out, I’d have to move to Oakland.”

That’s funny. My husband and I lived in San Francisco, so yeah, exactly. It’s no small deal to move out. It’s a major logistical concern.

But I guess spending the rest of your lives together is a much bigger logistical concern.

(Laughs) Henry, you got that right.

What do you think this generation of new adults should be doing better – your top things that everyone should keep in mind?

Ok. [Firstly,] be intentional and educate yourself. Read my book, The Defining Decade, or read other things about how to make the most of your time.

[Secondly,] think about time. The human brain has trouble grappling with time. It’s not just twentysomethings. Fortysomethings don’t like to think about saving for retirement but they need to wrap their heads around it. Don’t be afraid to sketch out a timeline for yourself. You don’t have to stick to it, but at least get yourself think about what do you want for your future?

What do you see that makes you think well of this generation?

I think it’s such a positive developmental shift, actually, that marriage and career and babies are happening later. You could read my book as saying it’s a negative shift, but I think it’s a positive shift. What that means is you’ve got a crop of smart, interesting, dynamic people who can use that time to have lives that are far better than the ones their parents had. And that’s what The Defining Decade is about. I think twentysomethings are optimistic and smart and dynamic and courageous, so they should make the most of this sweet spot.

Republished from

Kimberly Rae: Self-published Writer

Kimberly Rae writes largely for magazines and curriculums but also writes fiction. She lives in Lenoir, North Carolina with her husband and young children. This interview highlights two of her self-published novels, Stolen Woman and Stolen Child, and her thoughts on writing.

You’ve written two novels, Stolen Woman and Stolen Child, with a third book to follow. Can you tell me about this series?
Stolen Woman features a college-aged girl Asha, who is Bangladeshi but who was adopted and now lives in the West. One summer, she goes to India to work with orphans. There, Asha meets a 16-year-old girl who had been trafficked and she is determined to rescue her. Mark, her boss for the summer, and to whom she’s secretly attracted (of course you’ve got to have romance in there), tells her that he’ll take care of it and that she shouldn’t get involved, but she decides that he isn’t planning to help. Asha sneaks out to meet with this girl in secret and try to plan her rescue. The question is, can she help rescue this girl or will she be trafficked herself?

In Stolen Child, Asha goes back to Bangladesh to find her birth family and to find out why they gave her up. Babies have been disappearing from her home village, and she uncovers a child trafficking scandal. Woven through it is the continued romantic tension between Asha and Mark.

Why did you decide to write about human trafficking?
If you google “human trafficking”, over 12 million sites come up. It’s a huge subject right now, one people really care about, but it’s such a big issue that they don’t know where to start. I found a few books that focused on the problem, but I wanted a book that focused on the hope and would give women real, lasting freedom. I couldn’t find that book anywhere. Someone once said, “If you can’t find the book you want to read, you have to write it.” So I did. I have been writing for about ten years now, mostly for magazines and curriculums, but I’d thought about writing a novel. My mother asked me, “If you could write about anything, what would it be?” and by the end of the day I’d written three chapters of this book. I knew it was the book I was meant to write.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from writing fiction?
You can make a big difference through fiction because you can convey truths about reality. People see themselves in stories. I find non-fiction hard to digest at times, but I’ll learn things quicker through a fictional story because I can relate to the characters. Writing fiction allows me to express life lessons I’ve learnt. The main character is young, idealistic; she wants to change the world. I went to Bangladesh as a 22-year-old, and I discovered that the world was too big for me. What do you do with that? What do you do with the fact that you can’t fix everything, you can’t save all the street kids, you can’t rescue all the trafficked women? I put that into a story, which I felt would have a bigger impact than just an account of my own experiences.

Tell me about the process of publishing the first book.
It was a learning curve, especially since publishing has drastically changed. I looked into traditional publishing, but it takes a long time to get accepted, and even then it’s about a year before the book is on the shelves. Human trafficking is a huge subject right now, and who’s to say what’s going to be the big subject next year? I decided to use Print On-Demand (PoD) through an Amazon-based company called CreateSpace. I had to do more of the leg work, but it also meant I was more in control of the specific details, like the cover art. I’m pleased with how it turned out. I do have an agent to help introduce it to the mainstream market, hopefully in the next few years, but PoD allowed me to publish it while human trafficking was in the spotlight. Also, in this economy, publishers look for PoD books that are already doing well because they know there’s less risk in taking it on. That was the reason I did it, so I could say, “I’ve sold this many copies.”

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I have stories that I wrote as a ten year-old about teddy bears rescuing people from fires. My parents gave me a kids’ typewriter, and I would type out my own version of Nancy Drew stories. I’ve always been telling stories. I’m not very good at small talk, but I love to throw a story into conversations.

What do you think makes good writing?
I’d say passion. The best books I’ve ever read are by authors who write about what’s important to them or what has strongly affected them. You can tell when someone writes just to make money – it’s often entertaining but it doesn’t always impact people. Good writing happens when you put on paper what you deeply care about and share it with the world.

How do you conquer writer’s block?
Actually, I rarely experience writer’s block because, with a toddler at home, I can’t write often enough to get stuck. Lots of ideas, not enough time. If I sense a scene is becoming flavourless, I lay down for 20 minutes, and that helps me picture the scene, almost like watching a film. The words come then, and I get up and write them down.

Tell me about the planning process for these novels. Do you make an outline first?
For the first book I didn’t plan ahead. I wrote the most important chapters first and then filled in the rest. The subsequent books continue the storyline, so I had to be more organised. I have chapter topics picked out for the third book. It’s gone from mostly random to a bit less random because I have to tie up loose ends, and it’s my last chance to say what I want to say in the series.

Where do you get ideas for your characters?
The main character’s story is based on my own experiences in Bangladesh and what I learned about the world. The male character I based a lot on my husband because I know his brain better than any other man’s. We’re both middle children, very non-confrontational, so I thought, “If we were much more intense, what would we be like?” I had so much fun writing their argument scenes. I wondered what it would sound like if we just spit out whatever we were thinking. It was actually good therapy. I’d show my husband a scene and he’d laugh and say, “Wow, spot on.”

Describe the atmosphere most conducive for you to write.
I curl up in the corner of the sofa and type away. I’m worthless at a desk – my back hurts and it feels too much like work. I used to be a notebook-and-pen person but I type faster than I write. My best writing time is the middle of the night, alone with my thoughts, although I’m often writing with Thomas the Tank Engine in the background, or with my kids asking questions. It helps keep me grounded, because as I write about heavy subjects like human trafficking, hearing “Mommy, I need to go potty,” brings me back to Earth.

What’s one of your favourite books?
Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. I love how she makes a difference with her stories. She was my inspiration. A friend who had a difficult childhood read that book, and she told me once, “This book changed the way I see God.” I thought, “Wow, a book of fiction can do that. I want to do that with my stories.”

Any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t freak out when people say no. Nine times out of ten your work will be rejected, but don’t take it personally because editors look for something specific. Write what you want to write and keep looking for the right audience. Also, learn to love constructive criticism. When I started writing, if people didn’t love it, I’d think, “Oh no, I’m a terrible writer!” I finally learnt that if people gave me suggestions and I actually followed them, my writing improved. Now, before I submit a manuscript I send it to at least 30 people. I don’t use all of their ideas, but I learn from their perspectives.

Stolen Woman and Stolen Child are available in paperback and e-book on Amazon UK.

Nina Melero: Spanish “Horror” Short Story Writer

Litro Magazine Editor Katy Darby discusses genre fiction, literary influences and the horror story tradition with Spanish writer Nina Melero.

Nina Melero is a translator and writer. She teaches Spanish and Translation Studies at Kingston University and at the University of Westminster. Her publications include research articles on applied translation theory and literary translation as well as short stories, some of which have been awarded literary prizes (Art Nalon Letras 2007, Planeta Jóvenes Talentos 2005 and 2007). Tenebrario is her latest collection of short stories. Nina is currently completing her next book, Messiah 2.0, a cyberpunk novel about us humans and our relationship with the non-human.

Nina Melero has also been published in Litro. Read her story "Dirty Intentions".

Why do you choose to focus on genre writing and do you think it’s hard to get horror stories in front of mainstream readers?

Well, I wouldn’t say that I consciously decided to write a book of a certain genre. The process was different—I didn’t plan to write a horror book, but the stories which were born in me when I was writing the book happen to deal with topics which some people may associate with “horror”. All the stories are constructed upon the same idea: they present extraneous elements which suddenly invade our everyday life, intruding into our comfort zone and forcing us to remember how little we actually know and understand about the world. However, my aim when I was writing the stories was not so much to “scare” the reader, as to explore some of the topics that I personally found disturbing. And the only way to find out what I really feel and I think about them was to write these stories. To be honest I am not very sure how accurate it is to define all the stories in the book as “horror” stories, but I guess it makes it easier for future readers if we help them identify what they could possibly enjoy reading (or not) by trying to define the content of a book in general terms. And “horror” is certainly a very broad term.

I remember that Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer, once said that one day he had gone to the library to look for a book he wanted to read, but he could not find it anywhere. So he decided to write it himself. I guess that is what happens to me sometimes—I try to write what I think I would like to read.

What does the genre of horror mean to you, personally? What frightens you?

I think that horror has traditionally been considered a “minor” genre, especially in Spain. Sometimes we seem to forget that horror is one of the oldest genres in the history of literature. The horror tale is as old as human thought, and it is present in the folkloric tradition of any culture, anywhere in the world, feeding on people’s natural fear of the inexplicable and the unknown—that which cannot be controlled. If you think of it, horror is an essential part of books such as the Greek Iliad or even the Bible. We also need to consider that the belief in the supernatural is the basis for any religion, so in a way it is a universal value. In general, I think that if we can define literature as the description of human passions, then the attraction and repulsion that fear provokes is not to be underestimated as a literary topic.

As for what scares me personally, well, I am sure your readers won’t have the time or the patience to read the whole list… (laughs). Because the list is long, from empty bathtubs to cats that stare at you for too long. There are lots of absurd things which scare me, which I guess is something positive, because I think that in order to write horror stories you need to be a bit of a “scaredy cat”. (Laughs.)

Not a lot of English readers will be familiar with Spanish horror fiction. Do you consider yourself to be writing inside our outside a Spanish (or other) horror tradition and if so, can you tell me about that tradition and those writers?

Well, Spain, unlike English-speaking countries, does not have a long tradition in horror literature. Nevertheless, in the last two decades there has been an unexpected emergence of the genre, especially in cinema. As you know, many of the latest Spanish films belong to the horror genre—The Others, Orphan, The Orphanage, REC, etc. The critics have labelled this current the “New Spanish Horror”. However, horror fiction in Spain is not a totally new phenomenon, and it is not only related to film. From the 80s there are many writers, such as Pilar Pedraza and Cristina Fernández Cubas, who have been regularly publishing modern horror fiction, and who have been received with enthusiasm by both the public and the critics. So, there is not a long tradition in this genre in Spanish, but I think it is increasingly becoming more popular among both readers and writers. I don’t know if my texts are related to what other Spanish authors write, but this current is something that I certainly find interesting.

Who are your literary influences (English/Spanish/other)?

It is difficult to say what authors have influenced my writing, and I think my readers will definitely be in a better position to answer that question. What I can tell you is which writers I do enjoy reading and which books have been important for me as a writer.

If I think of it, the three books which have impressed me the most happen to be short stories as well.

The first one is of course “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, which tells the story of Gregor Samsa, who as you know turns into a giant insect overnight. That is probably one of the best stories I have ever read. I particularly like the way in which Kafka creates “monsterness” without describing anything. In “Metamorphosis”, the monster—the giant insect—is not described at all, only suggested, and it is rather the absurdity of the situation and how people react to it that makes the story a horror story.

The two other short stories which for me represent good writing and style are “Company” by Samuel Beckett and “The House of Asterion” by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote the story from the perspective of the Minotaur.

I read with interest about the significance of the “tenebrario” in Catholicism; “tenebrous” in English means dark and gloomy, shadowy. Do you see those qualities in your stories? Do you try to include light as well as darkness?

Yes, the word is related to darkness. As a matter of fact, “Tenebrarium” is the name of an object. It is a ritual candelabra used during Easter. It has many branches, and it is not the custom for the candles it holds to remain lit throughout the religious ceremony; instead the candles are put out in a rite to conjure up the darkness. I thought the name was suitable for the book because it provoked many interesting associations. The book is, however, not only about the darkness, but also about how we face up to it, about the candles we use to fight against the darkness. And as the readers may have noticed, most of the stories present characters that may be alone and very confused by the absurd situations they have to face up to, but they are not destroyed by the darkness—rather, they learn from it.

I’m fascinated by the final story in the book, “The Last Line”, partly because it plays around with metafictional ideas—a character in a story who is literally disappearing bit by bit—but also because it draws on the life and work of a very famous British writer, Saki (a.k.a. Hector Hugh Munro). I assume you’re a fan of his but how did you get the idea to write this story and is the piece a homage to Saki in style as well as content?

Yes, Saki is one of my favourite writers—an author I had been missing out on until relatively recently. Some years ago, when I was working at the University of Exeter, I visited a town called Exmouth and saw a plaque on a house which said, “Here lived the English writer Saki”. I didn’t know who he was, but grew curious about his name. Then I discovered one of his stories, “Sredni Vashtar”, and fell in love with his way of writing.

The idea for the story you mention, “The Last Line”, came to me while I was reading a book about his life, which explained how he was writing something when he was killed in a trench during World War I. He was having a rest with some fellow soldiers and someone was smoking a cigarette. It seems that according to some versions, his last words before he was shot were, “They are going to see us, put that bloody cigarette out!” and then a sniper shot him. So I kept fantasising about what he was writing at that moment (and wondering how someone could be writing in such a situation!) We will never know because his notebook was lost, so I decided to imagine the character he might have been writing and to create it myself. In my own story, “The Last Line”, I made that character interact with other characters Saki have actually wrote, the ones who were read and will never die because they were published and became famous.

What are you working on right now?

At the moment I am working on a novel about us, about humans, as an animal species. The novel is set in a threatening future time, when we suddenly cease to be the only species considering itself superior to others. I wanted to explore the topic of our relationship with the non-human. With non-human, I mean anything which is not us, be it an animal, or a creature of any kind. By imagining our species in a context where our identity as “rational, superior beings” is challenged, I came across many unsolved questions, and my way to address them was to try and write a novel about them. The title is Messiah 2.0, and I hope it will be ready soon.

This interview was conducted on Monday, 18 October, at the launch of Nina Melero's short story collection Tenebrario, available (currently in Spanish only) at The European Bookshop. To find out more about Nina and her work, please visit her website at