Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Interview with Toby Venables
Don't miss my review of The Viking Dead.
Firstly, many thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. To kick things off, could you tell me a little about yourself and your work, and why you chose fantasy/horror as your genre?
I’ve always been into horror, though much more horror cinema than literature. I’m a screenwriter, too, and tend to think in those terms (as a kid I used to watch Universal horror double bills late on Saturday nights when I was supposed to be asleep). As I was writing The Viking Dead I was picturing it on a screen, figuring out how (and if) it would physically work – directing it in my head, in effect. For me, that’s necessary to give the sense of physical reality. In film (and therefore in a script) you can’t be vague. You have to put things in front of the audience – to show them – so you have to work out all the details, even of those details don’t make the final cut. I dislike fiction that glosses over logistical problems by simply leaving them out of the text. Appropriately enough, perhaps, most of the horror writers I really like are dead, and probably a bit obvious – M R James, H P Lovecraft, Mary Shelley. As for fantasy... It’s not really my bag - and I have a serious allergy to fantasy novels about dragons. You know the sort of thing – books in which they are really noble, magical creatures for the ridiculously-named main character to bond with. Big, scaly, My Little Pony horses, essentially. I have a book in mind which features a more traditional dragon – a huge, merciless, destructive monster. My agent also represents Anne McCaffrey, though, so I have to be slightly careful what I say.
When did you start writing? Is it something you have always been doing? Were there any books you read as a child that inspired you to take up writing?
I always wrote stories of some kind or another, and they usually had some kind of horror theme, often with a terribly obvious twist. I remember writing a couple of ghost stories at primary school. We had a great English teacher who treated our attempts as proper pieces of writing and read them out in class. I don’t think I understood until years later how significant this was; it was the first time I realised I could potentially write something that had an effect one people like all the stories I’d read had on me. As far as reading matter goes, a few things stand out. My mum and dad had a series of books containing illustrated stories from mythology. One was mostly classical Greek and Roman, with pictures of idealised heroes like the figures from a Greek urn. They didn’t interest me at all, but near the back there were also Norse myths, with some quite grim pictures of dwarves and giants that I loved. I also remember having the story of Beowulf and Grendel read out at school. I think that was the first time I was aware of a story being ‘horror’ (it was the ripping off of the monsters arm that really got to me). I’ve kind of been obsessed with Beowulf ever since. Another big thing was 200AD, which I read avidly throughout my childhood – and quite a bit beyond it. Now here I am, writing about a Norse world with a character named Bjolf (the Norse version of the name ‘Beowulf’) published by Abaddon, whose parent company publishes 2000AD... Funny, that. I wasn’t a particularly avid reader of contemporary horror, but I lapped up science fiction: H G Wells, Asimov, Arthur C Clarke – all the classic stuff. And I watched late-night horror double bills when my parents thought I was asleep – Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney...
As a first time writer, what are the good and bad things so far with being a writer?
I’d been writing and having stuff published for some time as a journalist before I started tackling fiction seriously, so I was in some ways used to the process, and to seeing my name in print. But finally having a book in your hand – the long fought-over text turned into a real, physical object – is a real thrill. I hope it always is. One of the things I love about people like Spielberg and Peter Jackson is that when they talk about films, they’re like kids; they still have exactly the same excitement about it that they always had – a kind of boundless, youthful enthusiasm. Ray Harryhausen (who I met once, and whose work I love) has that too. You need it, I think. There’s nothing worse than being jaded, even though some seem to adopt it as a cool pose. It’s actually deeply unattractive – and if you really do become jaded, it’s the death of your art.
Bad things? I don’t know! Sometimes it just is a slog – lots of unglamorous hard work with long hours, like any other job. But the hardest part for me is spotting glaring errors or jarring bits of syntax once it’s in print. To some extent, you have to get past that urge to perfect everything and just do what you can. Like anything else, you’re working to a deadline, and you have to draw a line under it when the deadline hits.
How do you juggle working and writing?
Well, writing is my work – but there’s a lot of it, and many different plates to keep spinning... I do copywriting and editing – ads, websites and so on – bits of journalism and PR, and also teach film and journalism at Anglia Ruskin University in addition to the scripts and books. It can get a bit manic at times, but to be honest, I’m happier when there’s a lot going on.
Any advice you would like to share to anyone thinking of writing their first book? Did you receive any advice?
Write what you love. Write a lot (like anything, it takes practice). Understand that nothing is wasted - even if a particular thing doesn’t get published, it’s helping you develop. Read a lot and see how others do it. Develop patience on a geological scale – some people give up after a couple of years because they haven’t got anywhere; give it ten. Just keep sowing the seeds and move on – sometimes something from years ago can sprout and flourish when you’d given up on it. Be open to feedback (from editors, agents, critics), but firm about the core idea; suggested changes can improve your work, but hold fast to the key concept that made you want to write it. Find people to give you that feedback, if you can; parents and friends are good but mostly they are predisposed to love what you do – and they’ll spare your feelings when it doesn’t quite work. You need the harsh truth! Also – and I think this is in some ways the most crucial lesson of all – understand that you need to give people reasons to be interested in what you write. No one is interested in you just because you write – you need to have something to say that touches them. Then they’ll be interested. They’ll go with you. But you have to earn that. I did get some very sound advice from my first editor when I started writing journalistic features, the most imprtant of which was ‘show, don’t tell’. You don’t explain a story. It isn’t just information. You have to bring it to life (very Frankensteinian...). If you create world that feels real, people will easily accept what happens in it.
Viking Dead is your first book. I’d love to hear more about those early days. Did you have to pitch it to many publishers? How did you come into contact with Abaddon Books?
I can’t remember exactly how I heard of them – online or in an email from someone I think, when they put out a call for submissions. I initially put in a slightly crazy proposal for a novel in their steampunk series, which ultimately didn’t get accepted (rejection actualy spurred me to try again). This is one of the book series that has connecting storylines, and a massive ‘bible’ for writers describing the universe and timelines within which the stories are to take place. It can be quite tricky slotting into an already established world like that. With the zombie series, however, they decided to make each novel standalone, which offered complete creative freedom, and I’d been doing a lot of research on the viking age for another project, and it suddenly struck me that putting zombies and vikings together would be pretty good... The outline was written very quickly, though originally it ended differently, with Bjolf and the remaining crew simply sailing away after the final battle, feeling the salt spray on their faces... But I started to to ask myself why the zombies existed in this time, how they came about and how come we hadn’t heard about it. I also realised that zombies (Romero zombies, not voodoo ones) were kind of a modern phenomenon. Then I understood what the ending had to be. Initially, they loved the idea – except the ending. It was rejected, in fact, on that basis (at this point, the novel did not exist; it was just a proposal, though they’d already seen examples of my writing and liked it). Then, almost a year later, Jon Oliver of Abaddon phoned me up out of the blue. The conversation went like this:
‘You remember that viking zombie proposal you sent us a while ago?’
‘Are you still OK to do it?’
‘Great! I’ll get a contract in the post tomorrow...’
And that was that.
While being Swedish does not necessarily make me an expert on vikings I did think that Viking Dead was very convincing. Did you do a lot of research? Any favorite viking rites or customs?
Yes, I did do a lot of research. Or rather, as I mentioned, I had already done a lot of research for another unrealised project (I was always interested in the viking period anyway) and that led me to the idea of setting a zombie story in that period. It seemed such an obviously good combination that for a while I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before (maybe it has, but I couldn’t find anything). In some ways, it was hard to establish exactly how ordinary people of that time lived their day to day lives. There are lots of books of history, or that deal with major customs, but very little on the ordinary, trivial things. How did they light fires? What did they eat and when? How did they tell the time? How were things organised aboard a ship? Some of these have fascinating answers – others we don’t fully know the answers to, but re-enactment groups have often come up with practical solutions based on the resources available. Also, I was very aware that whatever archaeologists and historians may tell us, there was no viking rule book. They were every bit as intelligent, imaginative and eccentric as us, and would very likely have done many things entirely their own way, just as we would. Most writing on the subject will tell you that a viking crew would never, under any circumstances, leave their ship unguarded. But I liked the idea that Bjolf and crew would completely flout this – partly for practical reasons, because they wanted all hands for the raid, but also because under certain circumstance they were completely confident that the fear they would inspire in the local population was enough. It doesn’t matter whether it was the viking way. It’s Bjolf’s way. Like Grimmsson having iron spikes on the prow of his ship, and a red-painted sail. They’re personal affectations. I figured if you were that kind of person, with that kind of independent lifestyle, no one was going to dictate to you what to do.
Having said this, the viking mindset is hard to fully get to grips with. In the sagas, it’s immediately apparent that they are very much like us in so many ways – all the same needs, loves, fears, ambitions, humour, weaknesses and so on. But it’s also a warrior society, and killing comes easily. That’s a shock. Sometimes things seem quite contradictory. The ‘hero’ of Egil’s saga can ruthlessly kill a couple of men, and then, moments later, compose some poignant, thoughtful poetry about the vicissitudes of life. If someone did this these days, they would be considered completely insane – but Egil clearly is not that. Also, from the writings of Ibn Fadlan, an arab traveller among the Rus (Swedish vikings in Russia) we have an account of a funeral involving human sacrifice. It’s likely that this was an ancient and somewhat anachronistic practice even then amongst Scandinavians, but still is hard for a modern mind to accommodate. Like many ancient peoples, they combined pragmatism with a huge capacity for superstition. One great discovery was that in their world a ‘ghost’ (draugr) was not a spirit, but a restless corpse that had risen up to threaten the living (see Grettir’s Saga for a good example of). In other words, they had zombies.
I often hear that characters have their own will and sometimes even surprise the author. Is this something that you have experienced?
Not exactly. For me, it’s not that the characters have their own will, but that they – and in fact the entire story – have needs and a logic that you need to discover along the way. If there’s one thing the human brain is brilliant at doing, it’s telling a story. But often, too much concious thought can get in the way. You have to listen to the story as you go (and, I suppose, the storyteller in your unconscious mind) and see where it seems to want to go. It’s always right. Usually, all the elements you need, all the answers to plot problems, are all in there somewhere right from the start. It’s like sailing a ship. You steer, but you go with the prevailing wind.
So which character is more like you, Atli or Bjolf?
I think we’re all a little bit like both of them, and as you read it I think you also realise that they are very like each other. That’s the idea, anyway. Bjolf wasn’t born a viking – in the true sense of that word, i.e. a ‘pirate’ - he became one. In some sense he is also perhaps somewhat anachronistic. His attitudes are pretty fair, even ‘moral’ - perhaps more so than the sagas suggest would be the case. But, like I said, there was no rule book on how to be a viking. Many were fiercely independent. The colonisation of Iceland was largely due to large numbers of Scandinavians leaving home because they did not wish to live under a king. Bjolf also has no truck with superstition or religion, which makes him seem more modern (and more like me). I feel pretty sure there were people like that, though – and in horror, the main character always starts out as a sceptic! He does have his slightly psychotic side, of course. When he fights, it’s total. Hopefully, that’s where he’s less like me.
Not to give anything away, but Bjolf and his crew have a very tough jorney ahead of them and there will be casualties. How hard is it to kill off a character, do you ever worry that you are being too nice or too harsh with them?
It is hard, killing off a favourite character. But you have to do it once in a while. It would be easy to just kill off characters who don’t matter, but if you do that, then the story ceases to matter. The threat to all your characters has to feel real – all the more so in horror – and you cannot achieve that if readers sense a kind of protective bubble around them. I think it’s also important sometimes that you don’t see it coming. Bjolf’s world – crazy as it may be – is based on a real viking world, where death could come in a number of ways and without warning. I wanted death to strike at some who we really did not want to see go, and for there to be a sense of tragedy in that. There are also times when Bjolf kills and hopefully it is a bit of a shock (I have one particularly gruesome example in mind); again, it’s true to his character, and reminds the reader that they cannot afford to get too comfortable in this world. One reader wrote to me making comparison with James Clavell – enormous flattery, really – but what made them say this was that he, too, kills off characters and doesn’t look back. That’s a shock when it happens. I didn’t want readers to become used to the violence and horror – quite the opposite.
What books are you currently reading and are there any must reads you would like to recommend?
Funnily enough, I’m reading a book about zombies! I don’t actually do this very often – honestly – but I am giving a paper at an academic conference on zombies at Winchester University on 28 October, so wanted to do a bit of homework... It’s called Book of the Dead by Jamie Russell – an excellent history of the zombie movie. I’m also re-reading Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland, who’s a friend of mine. It’s a massive scale space opera – the only SF novel to win all three major British SF awards – completely mad, packed with big cinematic moments, but very very smart. And funny.
Any advice on how to survive the coming zombie apocalypse?
Learn to live without relying on electricity, petrol and piped water. Learn to live off the land. Become better tuned to your environment. Carry a machete. Guns attract unwanted attention, so don’t rely on those either. Plan for the long haul – but be ready to move on at short notice. Don’t fight if you can avoid it. If you can’t, go all out. Basically, be a viking! They are the ultimate survivors, zombies or no zombies. They’re self-reliant, tough, resourceful, ready to fight and skilled in getting or making what they need – the kind of people who could get into a ship, sail to a completely unknown land and establish a community from nothing. We’ve lost a lot of those basic abilities because modern life takes things out of our hands, but they’re exactly what we’re going to need...
Most importantly, are you working on something at the moment?
I’m always working on something – several somethings, usually. I’ve just finished doing the press and PR for Cambrudge Film Festival, which was great (I got to chat with John Hurt and Gary Oldman!) and am now putting the finishing touches to a screenplay which we hope will be made next year. It’s called The Hill and isn’t horror at all – kind of a Western in a contemporary setting with a massive heist at the beginning. Then there are a couple of new proposals for Abaddon – both zombie ideas – one contemporary, one set in 1880s London. We’ll see how those go. Meanwhile, if anyone is interested in my services, they can find out about them here: www.infinitemonkey.co.uk