Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Interview with Gary McMahon

I've been a massive fan of Gary McMahon for a couple of years so getting the chance to interview him is about as cool as it gets around here. If you haven't read his books before, well, then I pity you, fool. Read this, then read his stuff.

LW: For the benefit of people who might not have read your stuff, can you give us a bit of background to who you are? How did you get started with writing and publishing?

GM: I’m the author of several novels, including Pretty Little Dead Things and The Concrete Grove, and my short fiction has been reprinted in various “Year’s Best” anthologies. I’ve always written, ever since I can remember. It’s just what I do. I can’t stop myself. I got into publishing via the small press magazines of the late 1990s. After selling a couple of stories to these markets, I then stopped writing to concentrate on living. When I finally came back to writing, the landscape had changed. Luckily I met a man called Gary Fry who convinced me that I had something to say. He also encouraged me to start submitting my work again, and leading on directly from that I started to get published.

LW: You write horror that’s more than the standard tropes and your characters are occasionally flawed and damaged. Are both those issues deliberate choices?

GM: Deliberate, yes, but I don’t think we necessarily get to choose what – or who – we write about. I simply find flawed and damaged characters more interesting than those who are not. Someone once said that happiness writes white on the page, and that’s kind of how it is for me. I can empathise with flawed characters because I think we’re all flawed – I know I am. For a lot of people life is combative; it’s one battle after another. Those are the people I want to write about. The people with real-world problems: troubled souls who are then touched by the supernatural just to make things even worse.

LW: I’ve noticed setting and location plays an important role in your fiction – particularly in stuff like The Concrete Grove trilogy. You’re not afraid to get down into the less pleasant parts of Britain and make those locations into one of the characters. Do you have a goal in mind when you do that or are you going with the ‘write what you know’ idea?

GM: I generally write about the geography that I know. When I lived in London, I wrote a lot of stories set in that city. I now live in Yorkshire, so most of my recent stuff is set here. I’m originally from the northeast of England, so I also tend to set a lot of my stuff there. It makes the research easier. I don’t have to travel far to write a story about that place – I already know it, or it’s on my doorstep.

LW: With writing horror set in the real world (rather than a fantastical setting), do you find people expect it to be more cynical and pessimistic rather than the good guys win and everything’s fine at the end?

GM: I’m not sure what people expect – I’m not good with judging other people’s expectations of my own work. A lot of folk seem to focus on the bleakness in my writing, and I think that’s kind of missing the point of what I’m trying to do. Yes, there is bleakness, but there’s also a lot of hope. It’s just that the hope is fought for and most victories are pyrrhic. I don’t like grimness for grimness sake, but I can’t tack on a happy ending to sweeten the pill. I just try to get to the truth of the characters and their situations, and that usually involves a lot of darkness before there’s even the briefest glimpse of the light. I also believe that a writer should find his own voice and then spend the rest of his or her life trying to perfect it. My work might not be perfect, or to everyone’s taste, but my voice is my own. I’m fucking proud of that.

LW: Are there particular books of yours you’d advise people new to you to read first or should they just get stuck in?

GM: Just get stuck in. I think I have enough books out there that people interested enough in the genre will find something to interest them. If not, then my work probably isn’t for them. I do think my novels get better with each one, though, so maybe pick up the newest one first.

LW: What’s your average writing session like? Do you have set times for it?

GM: I used to sit down and write every night, after work and family commitments, from 8pm until about 1am, or 2am in the morning, but that intense schedule put me in hospital twice. These days I don’t feel guilty about not writing for a day, a week, even a month. Because when I’m not sitting down at the computer, I’m writing in my head. It’s all part of the process. It took me a long time to realise that. Too long, in fact.

LW: Spinning off that, do you have an average day/weekend off writing where you do real life stuff?

GM: As a rule, I don’t tend to write much at weekends. I save that time for family, for doing stuff, for having a life. At one time I let the writing push everything else out of the way. That didn’t really get me anywhere, so now I don’t let it happen. Writing is important to me, but so is a lot of other stuff. There’s room for it all.

LW: I read a blog post of yours in which you mentioned not enjoying writing itself, but having written is more your thing. Has that always been the case?

GM: I’ve always found writing very difficult, but recently it’s shifted over into being torturous. That’s the only word I can think of to do the feeling justice. I don’t write for fun – I do other things for that – but I can’t not write. I’d give up if I could, but that’s impossible. Writing is a compulsion for me. It’s a form of therapy. I know that sounds as if I’m up my own arse, but at this point in my life I’m beyond caring about what other people think about me. I write for myself, not for some imaginary audience. My relationship with the craft, the art, of writing is incredibly complex. So much that even I don’t understand it.

LW: Writing is obviously a solitary activity. How important do you think it is for a writer to have a life and support outside of making stuff up?

GM: I couldn’t write without the life experiences I’ve had to give me creative fuel. I believe that a writer should live, make mistakes, get into stupid situations…and then write about it all. That’s what I’ve always done. I mine my own life for stories.

LW: Can you sum your fiction up in one sentence?

GM: My stories are usually about broken people and I like to explore the area where the quotidian meets the weird.

Thanks to Gary for taking the time to answer my questions. You can read more about him on his site and check out his books here..

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