ESCAPE ROOM: NEIL WILLIAMSON

My writing space is not here. In fact it’s anywhere but here. I don’t find it easy to settle down to writing at home, so I tend to be one of those cafe writers. You know the ones with their laptops and their carefully-paced consumption of one-drink-per-hour, hogging the table by the power point closest to the window for the decent light but furthest from the door to be out of the draught. The ones whose orders the barristas know by heart. I’m one of them.

Since I’ve been writing in cafes for a while now, most of what I’ve published over the last ten years or so has been at least partly written in one or other of the cafes I use. I’m proud of everything I’ve written, most recently my novel, Queen of Clouds, which is currently on submission.

Over the years I’ve built my writing into my working week as well as my weekends. I write in a cafe for up to an hour before going in to work every morning, and then have another stint at lunchtime. At weekends I’ll spend somewhere between two and four hours in the cafe across the road from our flat.

I listen to music all the time when I’m writing. I’ve got a playlist of writing music on Spotify that contains a collection of instrumental music such as movie soundtracks and abstract compositions. The big thing for me is that it acts as a barrier to the outside – in effect, becoming the walls of my writing space – without itself being distracting. So: no words, no hugely distinctive melodies. Currently my list contains work by Max Richter, Johann Johannsson, Dario Marianelli, Olafur Arnalds, Poppy Ackroyd and Mogwai.

The biggest distractions for me while writing are people talking and the internet. I use music to cut myself off from my environment and I use a phone app to make myself focus for 25 minutes in every half hour which seems to work pretty well. The only thing I can’t write without is tea. Which tends, I think, to make me look like a bit of a cheapskate when there’s so much fancy coffee on offer in the places I choose to work in, although the reality is that I’m simply not a huge fan of coffee while tea runs hot and steaming in my veins

The two most enjoyable things about writing for me are 1/ creating things that have never existed and 2/ making the words on the page sound good. As a reader myself invention and craft are what I value above all else in a book and nothing beats the feeling of reading something back that I’ve written and being surprised, even delighted, by the art I’ve made. Knowing that readers are going to have that same experience. The least enjoyable thing about writing is making the little bits of logic all fit together. The longer the story is the worse that is, and you find yourself constantly stopping to check whether what you were just about to write clashes with something already in the story, or might clash with something in the future. That’s such a frustrating experience.

I’ve not long started a new novel (currently) called The Poisoner’s Road. It’s more of a traditional style fantasy than I’ve done before and features a wandering poisoner master, a runaway warrior and a holy transcriber joining forces to save a sculpted forest city under seige by an army of napalm-filled paper golems. Among other things. It’s keeping me busy anyway.

Neil Williamson is a writer of short stories and novels. His most recent novel THE MOON KING is available from all reputable vendors (and some disreputable ones too) and his website can be found here.

ESCAPE ROOM: TRACY FAHEY

I write in various places: coffee-shops, my living room, my back garden, but most commonly in my study. It’s a south-facing room that overlooks the hills, with a comfy green leather chair and ottoman, lots of horror books, an old writing desk my father found for me in an antiques shop, a collection of pens and quills, various skull prints on the walls and esoteric objects on the shelves including a phrenology head, a skeleton candle-holder, a Gubu doll, a Tibetan demon mask, jade figurines and a typewriter with a skeletal hand attached. Did I mention I like skeletons? Good. I was afraid I might forget to say that.

When I’m writing, I like best to listen to music with lyrics I don’t understand, so words don’t distract me. Sigur Ros are my ultimate writing soundtrack. But I’m also fond of atmospheric music. I listened a lot to Villagers’ ‘Becoming A Jackal’ when I was writing New Music For Old Rituals because it’s Irish, creepy and contemporary – the mood I was aiming for.

I couldn’t claim to have anything like a routine. But I try to get up early and write for an hour or so before work claims my soul. It gives me a sense of self before the ‘real’ day begins, and it’s my most productive time. I find I write most coherently either early in the morning or late at night. I wish I had the discipline to have a writing method, but it mostly consists of scribbling, pacing, typing, making cups of tea and looking vacantly around. I write scraps and ephemera when inspired, and when I’m feeling workmanlike I’ll start shoehorning them into an actual form. I find it useful to break up writing if I’m uninspired – I’ll take my dog for a walk, or draw, or take photographs of ruins or make prints. Sometimes moving about and thinking in non-verbal ways will suddenly present me with a new way in to what I’ve been worrying at.

Silence outside and warmth inside are essential for writing. I need my series of ink-stained kimonos a.k.a. writing clothes. I also need a notebook and my special pens which are hybrids; Uniball eye micro pens with a Staedler stick cap to make them feel longer in my hand. It’s a thing. If I were being truthful, at one point I would have said I needed anxiety to write; I write a lot about fear, and anxiety informs that. But that’s not healthy, so I try not to write from that place, but from a place of wanting to tell a story.

I’m working – very slowly – on a collection titled I Spit Myself Out. The title is a quote from Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror which deals with (among other subjects) the idea of the body and the abject – that which the body casts off. In this collection I’m interested in interrogating terrors that arise from simply being ourselves; exploring the divisions between what-is-us and what-is-not-us, and what happens when these boundaries are perforated and transgressed. So it’s dealing with illness, dysfunction, skin, blood, contagion – writing the body.

When I’m in the wrong mood EVERYTHING distracts me from writing. Social media is bad – leaving Facebook was a good step, although I have yet to block my ears to the siren song of Twitter. Noise is the worst distraction, and I’m eternally grateful that my room faces the back of the house and not the front where my little neighbours play. They’re sweet kids, but nothing fans my rage when I’m trying to concentrate like the dulcet tones of happy children at play. Yes, I use headphones or ear-plugs, but I prefer not to have to. If I hit The Flow, everything disappears; tea cools, time is forgotten, words suddenly fit and sequence and dance. Magic stuff.

Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction. Her latest collection, NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS, is published by Black Shuck books. You can find her website here. .

dinosaurs and distress-biscuits

My author copies of This House of Wounds arrived this week, and they look amazing! I didn’t expect that getting copies of my book would be so emotional, but there is something very moving about holding your own book in your own hands. It’s not just the gorgeousness of the cover and design, or the fact that having a book like this has been my ambition ALL MY LIFE (and I am very old). It’s also the kindness and generosity shown by so many friends, acquaintances, and actual, literal strangers that has been so moving and wonderful to experience.

I’m so ridiculously grateful to everyone who has pre-ordered This House of Wounds from Amazon, bought it from Undertow, downloaded the e-book, requested an ARC, or marked it as ‘to read’ on Goodreads. I’m super grateful to everyone who has posted, tweeted, shared, liked, or commented about the book on social media. I’ve always known writers to be a kind and generous bunch, but the support I’ve received has been unreal. You are all so nice. Have ten million dinosaurs 🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕

It’s early days yet for reviews, but words like “intense,” “haunting,” and “disturbing” are flying around. One reader claims that it gave her nightmares, for which I am very sorry (and also a little proud). My suggestion to alleviate reader distress by taping complimentary biscuits to every copy sold is apparently “a bit impractical” but I still think it’s a good idea. If they are dinosaur-shaped distress-biscuits, so much the better!

ESCAPE ROOM: LAURA MAURO

For the last five years my ‘writing space’ has been a laptop placed anywhere with enough room. I spent a long time living in a room at my in-laws so space was a luxury. When I finally moved into my own place we talked about converting the small bedroom into an office space so I could finally have a place of my own in which to write. That finally happened late last year. So, in my writing space, there is a desk, which is usually quite messy and covered in weird trinkets, half-read books, unfinished sewing projects and sketchbooks. There are bookshelves behind me, but apparently not enough of them, or perhaps I just need to KonMari my book collection. There is a cushion for my cats to sit and judge me, and a notice board which I fill with postcards from friends and small pieces of art I’ve picked up here and there. There is a window in front of me to gaze out of, especially when it’s raining. And there is a cardboard cut out of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, just because.

I aspire to being the kind of writer who has a routine, but I’m largely quite chaotic when it comes to writing. I’m so busy a lot of the time that routine basically means carving out chunks of time between work/commuting/freelancing/uni/life admin which isn’t always easy. So it’s all very ad-hoc, which isn’t ideal, but I’ve never been very good at setting and sticking to routines – though I would like to be! Maybe I need a life coach. I do try to make sure I have a cup of tea, though.

Music can help or hinder my writing. It very much depends. Sometimes I end up responding so strongly to the music that it’s almost impossible to focus on the writing. One thing I do always have on is a background noise generator. I use mynoise.net which has a range of sounds from rain, waves and forest sounds to tonal drones such as chanting, white noise, or even randomly generated piano sounds. It’s also super good for anxiety. Unsurprisingly, my favourite setting is Japanese Garden. If I do listen to music, I try to pick soundtracks or orchestral stuff which I won’t be tempted to sing along to.

Chatter and conversation, if they’re close by, distract me from writing. But also total silence can be distracting because my brain fills the void and that’s never advisable. Some kind of unintrusive sound is necessary, even if that’s background chatter in the office at lunchtime, or in a coffee shop. Otherwise, I’m pretty adaptable. I wonder if that will change as I get used to working at a desk?

I am slowly getting over my weird OCD superstition which tells me that if I talk about a work in progress my brain will shut down and I will be completely unable to ever finish it. (I still can’t give my stories titles until they’re finished, though, due to the same irrational fear!) So, the quick answer to what I’m working on is: TOO MANY THINGS. The longer answer is: finishing a short story which riffs off Alice in Wonderland, set in an abandoned Japanese Inari shrine populated by yokai (folkloric monsters and demons). Then I need to start work on another short story, which has something to do with number stations (look them up, it’s a weird and fascinating rabbithole to fall down.) And finally, I’ve got the beginnings of what might be a novel or novella to go back to, which seems to be heading down a distinctly SF route…

One more thing. Please could someone come round and teach me how to create and stick to a routine. I will pay you in hot beverages and possibly money if I can find any. I have so much stuff to do. You are my only hope.

Laura Mauro’s short story LOOKING FOR LAIKA won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2018. Her debut collection, SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP, is forthcoming from Undertow Books. Her blog can be found here.

fresh monster soup

Thanks to my excellent brother, Matthew, I have finally got an updated and working website. Matt designed the creepy haunted house theme for me some years ago and I am sad to see it go (and will hope to resurrect it in some form) – but it’s lovely to have the very striking cover art from THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS on the header now. Catrin Welz-Stein is the artist and her work is well worth checking out. I’ve also got some AMAZING content on the way, starting this weekend with the first of the Escape Room interviews.

My debut collection is now available for pre-order, so I am being very un-me-like and attempting to flog it to all and sundry. Pre-order on Amazon UK, if that suits you. Other Amazons are also available, and USians can pick it up at Barnes and Noble. The very wonderful Undertow can sell you a copy, and will offer you a tasty subscription deal with their other 2019 story collections – Laura Mauro’s debut SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP and Michael Kelly’s ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE – both of which are going to be unmissable.


big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

dark dark dark… we all go into the dark

Well, maybe not all of us, but definitely meeeeeeeeeee! “Her Bones the Trees,” my blood-soaked, bear-infested, twisted Twin Peaks fan fiction is to be reprinted in acclaimed literary horror magazine THE DARK. Looking forward to sharing this story with more readers.

The story was originally published as “Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees,” in The Silent Garden journal of esoteric fabulism – a truly beautiful book chock full of illustrations, essays, reviews and stories from weird fictioneers such as D.P. Watt and Helen Marshall (whose story really ought to win awards galore – check it out).

In other news, edits are done on my forthcoming collection! Michael Kelly is a brilliant, sensitive editor and it’s been a very positive experience. I’ve had to dial back my tendency to get typographically extra, but my House of Leaves homages are set to continue with my current work in progress, which is going to put the punk in punctuation… 🙂

this house of wounds

Delighted to share the news that my debut collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, is being published by the extraordinarily brilliant Undertow Publications, and should be out within the next few months. There are a number of new, previously unpublished stories in there, which I’m super excited about. But the book also collects some of my earliest pieces, such as Crow Voodoo, which was one of the very first stories I ever had professionally published. It’s exciting to look back over my career so far and to see themes and concerns emerge and coalesce. My writing has always been woman-centred, concerned with the physical body and with competing realities. Themes of madness, perception, parallel universes, doubles and others have deepened and enlarged. And lately my stories have become more concerned with issues of representation, especially the visual image. I think my work has become weirder and more complex over the years. I also think I give the reader an increasing amount of space in the story, and an increasing amount of work to do. But as is the ways of these things, the stories don’t belong to me so much anymore – they belong to the readers and I very much look forward to seeing what you make of them.

THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS is one of the titles in Undertow’s impressive 2019 catalogue which also features Laura Mauro’s debut collection, a collection from Michael Kelly, and reprints of wonderful books by Lynda E. Rucker and Joel Lane. As always, Undertow have gone out of their way to make beautiful books you’ll want to keep forever.

I’m hoping to share more news soon regarding my novella, HONEYBONES, and I’ve recently embarked on a new novel which I’m sure will be taking up every spare moment. I promise to try to blog a bit more this year and to keep this space a bit more up to date. In the meantime, you can find me on the twits (@monster_soup) or drop me an email. Happy new year!!

the big-headed people

who are the big-headed people

No one is brilliant the way the author/recorder of these stories, Des Lewis, is brilliant. I thought I’d try to gestalt-real-time-dream-catch-review ‘The Big-Headed People’ but found myself instead foundering, sunk by the weight of these stories, through the floor and into the basement and then somewhere underneath that opened up into great vistas of strange incomprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say these stories are radical. A kind of un-writing that speaks to the unconscious spirit, translating the everyday and quotidian into its sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd, sometimes godly language of feeling and knowing. It’s impossible to do justice to these stories in a brief response. They are small but TARDIS-like in that they are bigger, infinitely bigger, on the inside. Which is funny, considering Des Lewis is the outsider-artist of our times, the one who sees it all.

THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE

“What happened between then and now is told, I’m told, in detail elsewhere, by another source…”

The first story in the collection sent me reeling. I didn’t know you could tell that story. I didn’t know it was possible to completely transform every recognisable element of a story into something else, and present the reader with such a generous trusting invitation to make her own art from it. This story shocked me. At first I thought of Kafka, and Borges, especially his labyrinths. But the closest comparison I could make to an existing work of art is to Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. The labyrinth doesn’t look like a labyrinth, but it is, a maze sunk underground. An understory. The rest of the story is “elsewhere,” generated by an anonymous source, unreliable and distant. We are left with the part of the story that can’t be told.

The mannequins with their leaking, rusty groins put me in mind of my own Dreemy Peeple: inarticulate and broken, they haunt the story, perform operations, move with the sick compulsion of a dream. The derelict tower is a tarot card, signifying breakdown. A level of dysfunction that drives the narrator to find a primal connection to his own birth.

A HALO OF DRIZZLE AROUND AN ORANGE STREET LAMP

“I am depending on hearsay and rumour…”

Alma wants a real experience, something that matters, a “real-time fact of her diminishing life.” But her connection to the world is attenuated, alienated; again, the story has been told elsewhere, by anonymous others. In this case, only understanding one facet of the story, Alma invites sinister shadow-stories into her world. There can be no record, no story, not even the Family Bible can keep Alma tied to this world where “things are all technological and nobody has proper picnics at all.” There is a loss of simplicity, a loss of connection to the past, to family, to memory. The sun is “panicking” and so are we.

THOUGHTS & THEMES

“It was my turn to stand watch at the front room window tonight…”

Two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon in another dimension, take turns to pay attention to the world and meditate on its themes, as a circus rolls into town. Entities and urges are disguised as normal people and everyday things. Behind their masks/clown-faces, an unfathomable intellect. Beyond that, a physical mystery. The two (?) characters are emphatically not “normal human beings” by their own account. And yet there is something familiar and domestic in their attention. Characters in these stories are growing older, monitoring and documenting the world as it changes and morphs into unrecognisable forms. Trying, perhaps, to capture something real or meaningful and keep it alive.

ORIGAMI SHADOWS

“This story knew where he was, all the time… sure in its own heart that reality was its gift to the world, not make-believe…”

This story opens with a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, which reminded me of a jubilee street party, long ago in a different time, where my brothers were dressed up as Bill and Ben, and I adamantly refused to be dressed up as Little Weed, thinking I was being made an insignificant feminine sidekick to the main characters. As well as Bill and Ben, I spotted Alice and Escher in this story, my own ‘White Rabbit’, and that Ian McEwan story about the geometrical shape that disappears people. For all its spreading web of connections to story after story, this is the most blatantly un-written story in the collection. It seems to be admitting to its project of undermining story in order to get at reality… or something deeper. “The origin of the shape was slowly pre-dating the shape itself…”

THE SOFT TREAD

“A black rose.”

The past is mysterious, illusory, a tapestry of lies. A suspicion of noises. The sound of stone revolving over stone, a sound we pretend not to have heard. The soft tread of the story, following us along the hallway. A ghost story that made me feel like the ghost.

This collection of stories is tiny, but it weighs incredibly heavy. We are so lucky to have Des Lewis in these times. His project as a reader and as a writer is dazzling huge but touchingly intimate all at once. A genius, no doubt. But much more than that – his writing is a resource for all of us who think stories matter. READ THIS BOOK.

white rabbit wins british fantasy award

Absolutely delighted to report that my shortstory ‘White Rabbit’ has won the British Fantasy Award 2017 for short fiction. It was published in Black Static #50 and illustrated by the insanely talented Vince Haig (who also took this photo of me roargrowling in victory). Back copies still available! The same issue contains Gary Budden’s excellent (also shortlisted) story, Greenteeth – so well worth picking up.

I’ve never won an award before and I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to go on about it before everyone starts hating me. Or maybe it’s already too late! All I really want to say is thank you, thank you. I’ve been writing all my life, but for a long time I didn’t think people like me could be ‘real’ writers. But I’ve been steadily and seriously working away at this for the past couple of decades. Work and life commitments have meant my progress is slow and halting. I’m well past the age where I might have been a “new talent” and into the age where women tend to get written off as irrelevant. But I have no intention of giving up. Getting this award is hugely encouraging and you can’t stop me now!

In other news, I’m currently working on a novel (or is it a novella) and planning a themed collection of stories. And a new story, ‘The Book of Dreems’ is coming out in the next Black Static, so… subscribe! Oh, and another new story, ‘Little Heart,’ will be in the ‘Imposters’ anthology from Dark Minds Press, coming soon!