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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Interview with Conrad Williams

Order “The UnblemishedHERE (UK) + HERE (US)
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Reviews of “The Unblemished” via Horror Read + SF Site

Even though UK author Conrad Williams has been published since the late 80s and sports an extensive bibliography to his name, I hadn’t heard of the writer until last year thanks to Jeff Vandermeer. Since then, I’ve read—and been blown away—by such works as Conrad’sThe Scalding Rooms” novella (Reviewed HERE) and his contribution to The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. The one book though that I’ve been itching for is “The Unblemished”, and now thanks to Virgin Books’ new Horror Line, the novel is being made available as a mass market paperback. In promotion of the June 10, 2008 US publication of “The Unblemished”, I thought it the perfect time to interview the writer and Mr. Williams could not have been more accommodating—thank you very much :) So readers, this is your chance to learn more about one of the most exciting and underappreciated authors writing today, Conrad Williams:

Q: According to your bio, you’ve been in print since 1988, have sold around 80 short stories, is the author of three novels (Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished), four novellas (Nearly People, Game, The Scalding Rooms, Rain), and a short story collection “Use Once, Then Destroy”. You’ve also won the Littlewood Arc Prize, the British Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the praise of many critics & peers. Yet for all of that, there are many readers who haven’t read, or even heard of Conrad Williams. So, could you give us a little more background information?

Conrad: I was born in Warrington in 1969. Warrington is an industrial town in the north-west of England, pretty much midway between Liverpool and Manchester. It was a town famous for its wire production, but all of those factories are gone now. I wrote my first short story when I was seven years old. It was about a fire in a house. It was called ‘Fire’. Since then I’ve had more rejection slips than you could shake a stick at, but I laugh in the face of rejection and expose my buttocks to the concept of failure. I now live in south Manchester with my wife and three young boys and a Maine Coon cat that likes to lick magazines, chew plastic bags and sleep on my clothes. I like to take photographs and play the guitar (badly – I’m thinking of having lessons) in my spare time.

Q: As a writer, you’re mostly known as a horror author, but your work also encompasses elements of fantasy, science fiction, noir, et cetera. You’ve also been described as a “prose stylist”. How would you describe the kind of material & prose that you write, and do you see yourself as a stylist?

Conrad: I try not to describe it. I write what occurs to me. What usually occurs to me is pretty dark, but I’d like to think I have a broad range of interests and ideas. And yes, certainly I’m a stylist. The way words are put together is as important to me as the stories they convey.

Q: For readers new to you, where would you recommend they start?

Conrad:Use Once, then Destroy” is a good kick-off point. It contains some of my best work from the early 1990s to 2004 and includes my first novella, “Nearly People”. “The Unblemished” won’t be difficult to get hold of, but my first two novels are quite hard to find now.
Nightshade Books produced “London Revenant” in hardback and paperback or you can buy UK editions direct from me at my website. I’m hoping “Head Injuries” might attract someone who wants to do a nice reprint. It’s ten years old this year.

Virgin Books is publishing your International Horror Guild Award-winning novel “The Unblemished” as a mass market paperback (In April for the UK + in June for the US). Originally, the book was released by Earthling Publications in 2006 as a limited edition which has since sold out. Can you explain how Virgin came into the picture, why you went with them, what you’re feeling about the book being released as a mass market paperback—I believe this is your first—and what, if any changes there are between the two versions of the novel?

Conrad: My editor at
Virgin is a horror nut. He knows the genre inside out and understands and respects what it is I’m trying to do. When he told me he wanted to start a horror line at Virgin I showed him “The Unblemished”. It’s a grand privilege to be the writer whose book is first to appear on that list. I’m very happy to have finally found a mass market publisher. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point and I feel I deserve my day in the sun. In terms of changes, I did quite a bit of work on the novel. There were a few flabby bits, a few plot points that didn’t quite hang together, a few characters who needed tweaking… Some stuff has been deleted, some new stuff added. On the whole, I think it’s a much tighter, sleeker beast now.

Q: As far as the story, what should readers expect in “The Unblemished”?

Conrad: I tried to write a book that I would find scary. I went back to the books I read in the 1980s, when I was discovering horror, and thought about what it was about them that got to me. I wanted to write something that was claustrophobic yet global; relentless, filled with really nasty monsters and unreliable heroes. I decided that I would not hold back and immerse the reader in the blood-streaked, shrieking moment. It’s about friendship and loyalty and the lengths we go to in order to change our lives. It’s about cities and hunger and blood.

Q: “The Unblemished” actually features a couple of characters from two of your short stories in “Bloodlines” and “Outfangthief” (written under the pen name Gala Blau). How much did those short stories influence the novel?

Conrad: It wasn’t so much the stories as the characters that attracted me. Gyorsi Salavaria, who, in “Bloodlines”, is incarcerated in a high security prison, really excited me. I loved writing about him and was a bit disgruntled when he was killed off. He’s been tapping me on the shoulder for the best part of ten years, so it seemed a natural decision to bring him back for this novel. Manser, Claire and Sarah (although the two women’s names have changed since Outfangthief) are back too. Again, Manser was just too juicy a character not to play with again. He and Gyorsi are the real monsters in “The Unblemished.”

Q: Do you have any other short stories that you’d like to use for a novel?

Conrad:The Owl’ and ‘Rain’ are both short pieces of fiction set in France. I feel I’m not quite done with that ‘family in jeopardy overseas’ theme and I’m planning something bigger that will use those two stories as its rubric.

Q: What about revisiting any characters or settings, or writing a sequel?

Conrad: MacCreadle, the character who appeared in my first anthologized story, ‘MacCreadle’s Bike’ in 1992 has a cameo in each of the novels I’ve written so far. And I’ve written short stories that are sequels to both “Head Injuries” and “London Revenant” (The Return and O Caritas). I think “London Revenant” might get a proper, novel-length sequel at some point. But it will be some years off yet. I’ve got at least another four or five books I’d like to write first.

Q: Speaking of short stories, I’ve noticed that the vast majority of your bibliography is of the short fiction variety. Why is that and how different is it writing short fiction opposed to long-form novels?

Conrad: Instant gratification, I suppose. They don’t take long to write. I cut my teeth writing short stories. I remember the summer of 1987. I’d just finished 6th form and had royally fucked up my A levels. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, other than write. I spent the whole summer typing in my room, putting stories into envelopes and jogging down to the post box to send them off. I was posting off two or three stories a week. That was the summer I made my first sale. I wasn’t ready for anything bigger until I decided I wanted to write a horror novel before I was 21. I wrote at least a thousand words a day, sometimes as many as 5000 until I had a 70,000 word novel. It took me about six weeks. It was called “Domino” and it was shit. But I’d discovered a little about structure and shape and texture and pacing. I wish I had some of that energy now…

Q: I know what you’re saying :) Moving on,
Solaris Books recently announced a deal HERE for your upcoming book “Decay Inevitable” which is described as a “gritty modern fantasy” and a “masterful dark thriller”. First off, I know that editor Mark Newton is a pretty big fan of your work, but how and why did you sign with the publisher?

Solaris were interested in “The Unblemished”, but I was a little unsure because it’s such an obvious horror novel and I didn’t want it to be published under the banner of dark fantasy. I’d met some of the Solaris team and really liked them. I was flattered by their interest in me and so I offered them a novel I’d written after “London Revenant”. I’m really glad they went for it, because it means I get to work with a really great bunch of people who are genuinely interested in the material and will do a great job.

Q: Secondly, “Decay Inevitable” is the only title listed under your ‘Fantasy’ category on your website. How different is it from your other works? What about similarities?

Conrad: It’s not that different, actually. It’s about death, or rather the borderline between life and death. What exists there. There are some very nasty characters and incidents. But there’s more a feel of a different world existing in parallel to our own. There are instances of crossover, and exploring new territories – tropes familiar to any fantasy reader. You could quite easily put “Nearly People” and “The Scalding Rooms” under the fantasy banner too.

Q: Lastly, “Decay Inevitable” is the first book where you’re published as Conrad A. Williams. Is this one of those deals like
Iain Banks and Michael Marshall where one version of your name reflects a certain type of story like horror, and another version a different genre? If so, why?

Conrad: My agent is quite happy about it. He said we can always move on to Conrad B, Conrad C… But yes, I have joined that gang of writers who have had to offer a slight variation on their name. It’s a publishing thing. I’d be more than happy to have everything I write under the Conrad Williams byline. But there are all these pigeonholes and publishers like you to fit into various ones. I initially offered the novel as written by Gala Blau, but
Solaris wanted my real name. Virgin wouldn’t have been happy about that, so the compromise was that middle initial, which stands for Alexander if anybody’s interested.

Q: Can you tell us about any other writing projects that you’re currently working on or plan on starting in the near future?

Conrad: I’ve stepped back a little from writing short stories. There are a couple I need to write this year, but I’m trying to build a career and to do that you need to be writing novels. So I’m on the verge of starting a nasty horror novel called “One” – and that’s all I’m going to reveal about it. After that I’ve got something subtler I want to do. I also want to write a Howling Mile novel to expand upon the world I invented for “Nearly People” and “The Scalding Rooms”. I have enough ideas for novels to keep me busy for the next four or five years, hopefully. I have a novel called “Blonde on a Stick” that has been doing the rounds with my agent. It’s a very dark crime novel… but we’re going to need another pseudonym for that one, I fear…

Q: You’re obviously a very prolific author. After writing as long and as much as you have, what helps you through the dry spells, what still challenges you, in what areas do you want to improve as a writer, and what do you still want to accomplish?

Conrad: It helps that my wife is also a writer. She understands the frustrations and difficulties, and she’s good to talk to if I need to hammer out a plot or test a narrative voice or throw an idea past her. In terms of challenges, I feel as though I’m still trying to rise to the first one, the big one: getting my stuff out there, getting read, getting some shelf space. It’s been such a tough slog getting to a point where people are only just beginning to ask ‘Conrad Who?’, but you have to keep on your toes. Writing the best book I can is always the challenge.

Q: In another interview, you expressed worry over whether or not your writing was relevant. Do you still feel that way, and what real-world issues have been finding their way into your stories lately?

Conrad: Like most writers, I have a self-confidence problem. After 9/11 and 7/7, I found it an effort to write anything, because of all kinds of reasons. It felt somehow inappropriate, offensive almost, to be writing my little fictions when people were dying and everything was turning to shit. But you have to get over that. I write because I have no choice. If I wasn’t writing, I’d be miserable. So I write to be free, and that’s my response to al-Qaeda. Also, the way food, especially meat, is farmed and prepared for the table in this country is a horror story in itself. I wrote “Game” and “The Scalding Rooms” after reading Eric Schloss’s superb book “Fast Food Nation”.

Q: That’s interesting… So your novel “Head Injuries” was optioned a while back by a production company with you actually writing three drafts of a screenplay, while BBC also expressed some interest in you. Have there been any new developments on adapting any of your stories?

Conrad: There was a lot of heat around “The Unblemished” after it got a starred review in
Publishers Weekly. I was getting emails forwarded to me from big Hollywood studios. About a dozen wanted to see the book. Very exciting. But there were no bites.

Q: Well maybe later :) Regarding your works, what would be your dream adaptation?

Conrad: I love questions like this. All writers have played this game, I’m sure. I’d love to see “The Unblemished” turned into a film. My dream director would have been Stanley Kubrick, but the Coen Brothers or Michael Mann will do fine. I think Paddy Considine is a brilliant actor – if you don’t know him, track down Dead Man’s Shoes, a superb film. He’s one of those actors that is quite inconspicuous, but has an air of real danger about him. I think he’d make a great Bo Mulvey. Sarah would have to be played by Eva Green, who is in the running to be the second Mrs Williams (sooner than she thinks if my wife reads this). Emily Blunt as Claire. Paul Bettany as Malcolm Manser, another fine English actor who exudes menace. And Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gyorsi Salavaria. I’d watch it…

Q: An excellent cast! Hoffman always seems to impress me… So in the past, you’ve expressed interest in writing a screenplay. Is this still the case and if so, are you any closer to attaining your goals? What about exploring other mediums like comic books, television, videogames or a genre completely different from what you normally write?

Conrad: My stuff tends to be very visual, so I’m hoping that will mean it will find favour with film and TV before too long. As long as I’m interested and I’m engaged, I’d write in any genre. Comics too – I’d like to write something in that medium. It would be very interesting to team up with an artist and get the look of what goes on in my brain down in inks and colours.

Q: I think artist
Ben Templesmith would be a great choice in my opinion :) As far as horror literature, what are your thoughts on the genre’s evolution since the 80s and its future?

Conrad: I think there’s a danger of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s coming round again. You can already see it in the cinema. That danger of saturation. There have been some very smart, very good horror films in recent years, but there have also been some clunkers. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m getting a bit fed up with the whole Asian horror scene. I’m coming back to kill you because you made fun of me at school… that kind of thing. Horror literature was published to death in the UK. Too many bandwagons. The Rats spawned all kinds of killer critter novels. Horror moved away from what it should have been, what it might have been, to something that was about large body counts and weapons and violence and teenagers having sex getting picked off one by one. There was no periphery. It was all centre stage. And it was all gore. The writers I liked to read started being marginalized. I’d go into a book shop looking for Ramsey Campbell or Thomas Tessier and be met by spine after spine of stuff about man-eating snails.

Q: Are there any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel about horror literature?

Conrad: Well, it’s a difficult one, because horror fiction is basically about death, or its threat. And some people just don’t want to be reminded of that. Which is fine. But it isn’t just about death. The best horror fiction, like any fiction, transcends the genre it’s attached to and you can get the same insights into the human condition reading The Ceremonies or The Immaculate or Koko as you can from the so-called mainstream novels that are held up by the establishment as being worthy of our attention.

Q: Very true. So you’ve been published by a wide variety of press, the majority of which are indie publishers. Is there a particular reason that you continue to work with indies, and what do you feel are the positive/negatives between a major & indie publisher?

Conrad: I was published by the indie press mainly because I couldn’t find a major publisher when I was starting out. But I love the indies. I love how they are willing to take risks and in many cases produce books that are superior in quality to the mass market. The drawback, of course, is that the indies can’t produce as many copies and have more trouble getting into the bookshops.
Amazon might be sounding the death-knell to bookshops, but at least you can find the more outrĂ© material there that isn’t on the shelves at Waterstone’s.

Q: Do you have any horror stories to share about the publishing world? What about your most enjoyable experience?

Conrad: The horror stories aren’t really horror stories, just the usual frustrations that you find as a writer trying to get a foot in the door. Manuscripts that sit on editors’ desks for months and then end up getting lost, so you send another one and a few more months go by and you get a Joe Bloggs rejection. Actually, no, that is a horror story. It’s no wonder some writers get labeled as miserablists…

Q: Considering how long you’ve been writing and the accolades you’ve received, are you at all frustrated that you haven’t achieved more mainstream success as a writer? Would you ever change your style or write a particular story in an attempt to sell more copies?

Conrad: Of course I’m frustrated. I gnash my teeth whenever I read the books pages of the newspaper and see some pre-pubescent git smiling smugly at me having just sold his/her first novel, which isn’t even written yet, at auction and it helps that (s)he’s got an exotic background/name/look. Or a famous parent. But no, as tempting as it might be to write for the market, I’d balls it up. You have to keep faith with your own material. You have to try to bend others to your way of thinking. I firmly believe that if you have talent and you’re hungry enough and you work your arse off, you’ll get there in the end.

Q: Of the literary awards that you’ve received including the Littlewood Arc Prize, the British Fantasy Award, and the International Horror Guild Award, what do they mean to you and is there one that you are more proud of than the others?

Conrad: I love awards. I’m always checking the shortlists to see if I’ve made the cut. It’s great to see “The Scalding Rooms” on the shortlist for the inaugural
Shirley Jackson Awards this year. I’m lucky to have won a few gongs and they mean more to me than they probably should, but I can’t help it. I see it as a vindication of what I’m trying to do. They are enormously encouraging things. And of course, it looks good on a book. The BFS award was special because it was my first, voted for by my peers. And the IHG means a lot to me because it was juried, and because I beat Stephen King, a massive influence on me when I was starting out, in order to win it.

Q: Congratulations on the Shirley Jackson Award nomination! Okay, I know this is bad form, but do you have a particular story or character of yours that you consider a favorite?

Conrad: No particular favourites, although there are some stories that stand out for me, that seem to signify a step up in some way, or a subtle change in focus. The Owl, The Machine, The Veteran. Rain, my novella, was a very personal piece of fiction. I’d probably pick that out if I was to choose one.

Q: In other interviews you’ve stated that film, music and art have all influenced your writing, not to mention authors and books. Additionally, London and living in France have also been inspirational. What other people or experiences have influenced you?

Conrad: Before I moved to London, I was quite a shy boy. I wish I’d pushed myself to be a bit more up front. But that shyness has served me, I feel. My writing has been quite introspective and claustrophobic, which I think suits the kind of horror I try to write. Coming to London opened me up in many ways, which was in no small way due to the number of people I met, many of them writers, who became good friends of mine. When I was studying at Bristol, the novelist
David Peak was running a creative writing class and I signed up. There were a lot of people in the first week, but just me in the second week. He was a bit forbidding, but I found him very helpful. He wasn’t allowed to carry on with the course because of the lack of numbers, but he had me round to his house every week and we talked about writing and he read everything I produced. He certainly nurtured the lyrical side of my writing. I don’t think I’d care quite so much about the rhythms and textures, the aesthetic of words if it hadn’t been for him.

Q: What is the one interview question that no one has ever asked you, but you wish they did, and how would you respond to it?

Conrad: Would you like a lifelong writing contract, lots of money, and no danger of ever having to work in an office again?


Q: LOL. Since you weren’t able to participate in the 2007 Review/2008 Preview
HERE, I thought I would take this opportunity again. Basically, what were your favorite books that you read in 2007, and what titles are you most looking forward to in 2008?

Conrad: I’ve recently discovered
Cormac McCarthy. “The Road” is probably the most important novel I’ve read in the last twenty years. It tore me apart. I was in tears by the end. A harrowing, thrilling, moving piece of fiction, fully deserving of its Pulitzer. I’ll probably spend 2008 ploughing through his backlist. I’m also interested to catch up with some books I’ve not had a chance to read yet, which include Jim Crace’sThe Pest House", M John Harrison’sNova Swing”, Nicholas Royle’sAntwerp”, David Peace’sTokyo Year Zero”, Rupert Thomson’sDeath of a Murderer” and Michael Marshall’sThe Intruders”.

This year I’m also looking forward to
Ramsey Campbell’s debut with Virgin (it’s a thrill and a privilege that he is now a stablemate of mine) “The Grin of the Dark”. Stephen Gregory and Thomas Ligotti are also to be published by Virgin – it’s a very strong list.

Q: Finally, do you have any last thoughts or comments that you’d like to share with readers?

Conrad: Yes – could anybody who has worked as a saturation diver get in touch?



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