Interview conducted by Steve Jensen
SJ: Please give us a little background on yourself and your writing career.
SB: I’m 35 years old, single, and live in a former mining town in Lancashire (this probably sounds more picturesque than it actually is.) I’ve worked in a succession of day jobs over the years- currently in a call centre, an ideal job for anyone who’s trained as an actor as it allows them to babble on all day!
My first published short story, Once, was written back in 1997 and published in Unreal Dreams. I’ve written constantly since then- more short stories, novellas, plays for local radio and novels.
SJ: When did you first aspire to become an author?
SB: Very early on. I always saw writing and acting (not to mention directing) as basically the same impulse- when I was younger I wanted to be an Orson Welles figure, starring in films I’d write and direct myself. But I spent far more time daydreaming about what I was going to do than I did actually doing anything. When I left University and started slaving away in the first of many crappy day jobs, I had to buckle down and start doing something instead of talking about it, otherwise I’d just be a fantasist office drone. I came back to the writing because actors need something to act and directors need something to direct. And because to make a film or put on a play you need a lot of money and organising. To write a short story you don’t need anyone else; all you need is a pen and paper, or a keyboard.
SJ: Does your acting background provide any useful insights as regards your writing?
SB: Like I say, they’re basically the same impulse. You see things in broad strokes initially- whether it’s a character you’re playing or a story you want to tell. Then you focus on the details, breaking things down smaller, and work and rework what you have to make it truthful and particular. The basics of screenwriting, as explained to me, showed me a lot about acting; likewise, the basics of building a character and creating a role informed my grasp of writing.
SJ: What was the inspiration behind Tide of Souls, and what, if anything, does it say about modern Britain?
SB: The inspiration? I could be glib and say ‘a paycheque’… I got the opportunity to submit to Abaddon’s Tomes Of The Dead series. From the start I was determined not to write just another rehash
of George Romero, but to put my own stamp on it somehow. My first attempt involved taking an idea I’d had for a while- a prison ship cast adrift by a Biblical-scale flood- and shoehorning some zombies into it. Not surprisingly, that got bounced, but Jon Oliver, the commissioning editor at Abaddon, liked the idea of the ‘flood zombies’. Basically I picked out the elements he’d rated, along with certain elements I’d particularly liked- the character of Katja, for example, came more or less unchanged from the first version- and shuffled them around until a story developed. In the end I actually liked the new story a lot better than the old.
As to what it says about modern Britain… I don’t think it says anything about Britain intentionally, although I suppose my take on it seeps through whether I mean to or not. When I wrote the first draft, I didn’t really know what I was writing about at all, to be honest. What snapped it into focus was realising what the zombies actually represented- I owe that little insight to a letter in the Guardian by Simon Pegg. He argued that the figure of the zombie represents death- the inevitable fact of your own mortality. When you’re young, you think you can dodge it. You get a bit older and you start to slow down, but you still think diet and exercise will keep you ahead. But mortality is relentless, and sooner or later it always wins. Which is why zombies are generally slow and shambling creatures. At first you think you’ll never have trouble keeping clear of them… but they never tire, they never stop, they never give up. And in the end, they will get you. That’s basically what all the main characters in Tide Of Souls are having to deal with.
SJ: Which contemporary writers do you admire?
SB: In no particular order- Ramsey Campbell, Joel Lane, Stephen King, Conrad Williams, David Peace, Derek Raymond, Trevanian, Simon Louvish, George Pelecanos, Jonathan Carroll, Joolz Denby, Alan Garner, Paul Pinn, Walter Mosley, Mo Hayder, Joe Lansdale and Cathi Unsworth. That’s far from an exhaustive list.
SJ: What do you feel is the most important and fully-realised story you've written?
SB: That is a very good question. And like all good questions, very difficult to answer. I find it impossible to pick favourites (not just out of my own work, but out of anyone else’s!) There are a number of stories I think of as marking watershed moments for me as a writer. Two earlier stories, Close My Eyes and Vecqueray’s Blanket, which both appear in Pictures Of The Dark, spring to mind, as does my novella The School House. Close My Eyes marked the shift from writing solid genre fiction to something driven by very strong personal emotion. Vecqueray’s Blanket is similar in that respect, but is a much longer and more complex story, one written without the slightest clue as to where it was going. The School House is one of the darkest things I’ve written in the sense of using material from my own past and in having a sense of being trapped in the head of someone going insane. Both are ‘important’ to me in that sense, but I see flaws and weak spots in the plotting. ‘Fully-realised’ stories- which I take to mean stories where I feel I got it all exactly right- are very rare. I would list Love Among The Bones, the opening story in Pictures, as one; The Narrows may be another.
SJ: Which books have influenced your thinking, and your writing, more than any other? And whose writing style do you aspire to equal?
SB: The Crow Road by Iain Banks confirmed me in my atheism. Simon Louvish’s The Therapy Of Avram Blok is a dazzling novel that stretched my idea of what fiction can be capable of, although I don’t think I can claim to have done quite the same in anything I’ve done. Writing styles I aspire to- Stephen King and Joe Lansdale are two great storytellers. That’s a much abused term, usually applied to hacks like Dan Brown who can string together a series of plot twists and explosions but without any sense of style, characterisation or language. Genuinely great storytelling fuses all these together. You can’t separate King or Lansdale’s narrative gifts from their skill with language, their gifts for dialogue and characterisation, and the thematic concerns that permeate their work. There’s a unity between form and content. I certainly aspire to that. I should also mention Ramsey Campbell, although his prose style is pretty much inimitable- but if you’re writing in the horror field, it’s impossible not to acknowledge his achievements and his abilities. I don’t aspire to equal his writing style, but would certainly hope one day to equal what it does.
SJ: Is there an underlying theme to the twenty-three stories in Pictures of the Dark?
SB: Not intentionally, but certain themes and motifs crop up again and again. The abuse of power- whether in a familial context or a political one- a healthy disrespect for authority, and the importance of love, courage and integrity, even if they can only be expressed on a gestural, personal level in the face of something impossible to overcome. But I also believe that acting in concert, we can influence the society around us for the better. I don’t buy the doctrine of universal selfishness anymore than I do the medieval crap about original sin. I think that comes across in a number of the stories.
SJ: A BFS Award nomination; praise and recognition for The Narrows; this has been an exciting time for you. What do you feel is the next step in your writing career?
SB: To keep writing.
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