Thursday, September 2, 2010

Interview: Adam LG Nevill

There’s a bookstore a few minutes from my house with a vanishingly small horror section. You’ve got several shelves of Stephen King, one of Dean Koontz, and every once in a while you get a Lovecraft collection. A few months ago, I saw something new there: Adam LG Nevill’s Apartment 16. Now, having read and reviewed both Apartment 16 and Banquet for the Damned, I can say that Nevill deserves his spot on that shelf without the slightest doubt (though his proper shelf would have far more MR James, I believe). Nevill’s books blend the best elements of classic and modern horror, and they just might leave you quivering in a corner, drinking cup after cup of coffee because you are too afraid to go to sleep. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed a horror novel, Nevill is a name that you need to add to your list. Nevill was kind enough to say yes when I asked him for an interview, and we talked about everything from the horror genre at large to musical adaptations. The results are below:

Everyone knows that both M.R. James and Stephen King are horror, but the two are so different. The classic horror authors primarily stuck to short stories and were generally uninterested in character, while modern authors like the aforementioned King, have works that are built entirely upon the characters’ backs. What do you think unifies the whole field, and how do you go about melding both aspects of the genre together? On the same note, do you think that the supernatural is an essential part of horror, or have books like Silence of the Lambs changed that? If you think it isn’t, would you ever consider writing a horror novel with no supernatural element?

For me, horror as a definition in fiction is that which is written to intentionally horrify, frighten, or to at least disturb a reader; whether it uses a supernatural or a human agent to deliver this result is the same. It’s why horror as a literary field is not solely restricted to stories and novels within the modern field of “horror”, but crops up in many other genres of fiction too. Often, the best examples of horror appear to me in non-genre books.

Like you, I first noticed a sea-change from the over-published supernatural, or animal horror of the late eighties and early nineties, to crime and thriller primarily through Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. He popularized the human agent as the horror in such an effective way, it made a lot of supernatural horror/crazy animal horror just look silly. The appetite for blockbuster serial killer crime just seemed to leap from there, and many people buying the jaded and over-published horror jumped ship, because serial killer crime was fusing two genres effectively, and more plausibly, and didn’t disrupt natural law so much (one of the hardest things to pull off in fiction, which is why most horror novels end badly, I believe). There are dozens of writers I could name who have been writing borderline horror, within the crime and thriller genres. This suggests to me that the appetite for horror in fiction was always there; it just needed reinvention to remain vigorous. It will not die, despite changes in taste, it just absorbs new influences and evolves. In fact, the first novel I read that seemed to be a precursor to the modern trend of serial killer horror, was John Fowles’s The Collector, which is very disturbing. I thought it was almost the first and last word on that topic: he gets the psychology of his characters just right, and it eschews the sensational aspects of commercial serial killer thrillers.

And yes, I would consider writing horror without the supernatural element. I think 1984 and The Road are two of the most affecting books, in that they are disturbing, that I have ever read. Everyone should read them. They have universal human dimensions that non-fiction and news footage cannot replicate as a warning to us all.

Whether the source of a story’s horror is supernatural or physical, unless a writer is manifestly driven to write about something disturbing – as opposed to merely choosing it to entertain a reader, or to catch a trend - it just doesn’t cut it with me. That’s the important thing; not the source, but the intention.

Banquet for the Damned seems like a very ambitious project in a lot of ways. The writing is present tense, and the novel is very realistically grounded, both in the location of St. Andrews and the number of referenced sources on the occult and witchcraft. What led to all those risks, and did you ever feel like it was doomed to fail because of them?

It was ambitious and more than once I sat back and thought I had failed at what I set out to achieve, massively. I wanted the power of a short story to endure throughout a long novel. What was I thinking? In hindsight, I realise many seem to believe that it cannot be achieved in a horror novel. So stylistically, it was a bloody ambitious book to write, though the occult element may appear conservative and ‘old school’ to many as it deals with possession and witchcraft.

I paid a lot of attention to cultivating subtlety through glimpses and suggestions, as opposed to full reveals. There are no better examples of this style in the field than in the fiction of M R James, who only wrote fiction with the full intention of frightening and disturbing a reader. It was my goal to combine the stylistic traits of the better late Victorian and the Edwardian authors, like James, within a thoroughly modern multi-plot structure that Stephen King and Dan Simmons made their own, and to also write in the present tense to emulate a cinematic feel. If a reader could accept that immediate-tense narration, I hoped the actual appearances of the supernatural in the novel might take on a more vivid nature within the reader’s imagination. Perhaps in a personal film.

Banquet was every bit as much of an example of a new writer trying to achieve a particular set of criteria within a novel, and also hoping that it would be a good story for an average reader who would be unaware of the scaffolding.

In terms of research, as a student at St Andrews, I remember having 40 books on witchcraft and the supernatural on my post-grad library card, when a curious librarian finally asked me what I was doing at the university. It was Lovecraftian – some of the books had not been borrowed since the sixties and I would scurry back to my room and pour over them. I had a year up there and had the time to read dozens of secondary texts on the subject of the unworldly. From that I took great creative license with specific histories and idioms to create the sense that my fictional scholars were authorities in order to make the supernatural element seem authentic. I blended bits and pieces from many documented stories and phenomenon to create my own history of a forgotten pagan god/witch’s familiar that had been called by many different names and moved through the ages, worshipped by one cult or another. I wanted it’s origins and long story to reflect the patterns of how real history is interpreted and revised, so that even the documentation and sources seemed authentic. Making the supernatural believable in a modern setting is no easy task, so the carefully wrought history, the scholars, the academic environment, are designed to add credence to a preposterous notion I wanted a reader to accept.

Elliot’s book, Banquet for the Damned, influences almost every character in the novel of the same name, but we never get to find out too many particulars about the book itself. Do you have the contents fixed in your mind, or was it more an idea than a concrete thing?

I spent a great deal of time reading Colin Wilson when younger, and I think his Outsider series is masterly. I imagined a book that was a curious blend of Crowley with Wilson’s Outsider. Wilson also wrote a book about music called Brandy of the Damned, which is what George Bernard Shaw called music. So my mythical book and Dante’s adoration of it, and the title of the novel, was a personal homage to Colin Wilson – a writer who meant a great deal to me. I’d say reading The Outsider definitely changed not only decisions I made in my life, but the way I saw the world too. Probably the highest accolade I can pay any book. Trying to write passages from an actual book would have been a mistake.

Apartment 16 shows us the world with its glossy veneer stripped away. It’s a place where the dominant emotions are apathy and rage and where people are horribly assaulted for no reason save bloodlust. Do you think there’s truth in such a vision, or did you construct it purely for the aesthetics/power of the landscape?

Apartment 16’s horror aspires to transmit itself in a cosmic sense of one’s total defenselessness; as if the apparently indifferent universe is actually conspiring to enact some terrible punishment upon the individual; a kind of living damnation. It’s horror is also of a gradual psychic dissonance that erodes a stable perception; of actually being confronted finally by the true nature of things, the true horror of humanity, by a swift unravelling of all previously held opinions and understandings taken for granted in life. Everything leads to and ends in incremental disintegration, inside the vortex.

But also, the story’s horror in a treatment of the material world, arises from the essential indifference of society to the individual. And a choking terror for Seth that not only is he scapegoated, exiled and brutally persecuted by those he has fallen amongst, down there at the bottom of the world, of which most people know nothing, but he is also despised by those in positions of responsibility and social superiority. By pausing to actually look about himself, he perceives only the futility of his every endeavour, of his entrapment by poverty and circumstance, of a hierarchy shaped by greed and envy and sociopathic will. The world of the novel is a suspension of decency, of humility, of anything noble or compassionate. And he is trapped within it. It’s why the book comes across as claustrophobic, relentless; I deliberately use repetition, deliberately exert the power of the horrid paintings as a subconscious force, to try and entrap the reader within this perception of the actual world as an unrelenting horror on every level.

Not a day goes by when I am not just aghast at my own species: life and mankind is the stuff of horror. And for so many their lives become an unrelenting horror on every level. So horror fiction is a legitimate reaction to the world, and affecting horror in a reader is as legitimate as affecting any other kind of emotional response in a reader.

You’ve mentioned that, in an early draft of the novel, Apartment 16 did not include Apryl’s storyline. Can you elaborate on the initial idea/version of the novel? Was Seth’s role the same throughout, or did that change over time as well?

Originally, it was just Seth and his dialogue with himself and with the unseen presence that may/may not have existed in the building. Imagine just those chapters? And there were many others I cut out of the later versions that were stream-of-consciousness, or prose poetry. One friend read that version and, fearing for my mental health, offered to come and save me from London. Then I added a female art historian in a later version. But her subplot became too academic and dry – in effect a reimagining of 20th century art, like an alternate history plot. It had to go. I kept bits of that material for Miles Butler and his book, but then added an innocent, receptive, sympathetic girl – Apryl. It was the right decision because her ordinariness then amplified the horror, while also serving to open a window for the reader to breathe some unpolluted air that was overburdening earlier drafts.

So far you’ve given two hints about your next novel. One is that it’s a “great outdoors” novel, the other that it would be awesome as a movie with Rob Zombie. Care to fill in a few more details for us?

The book begins at a moment of crisis just beneath the arctic circle in Sweden, in Europe’s last great wilderness. It features a walking holiday that has crossed the line from recreation and leisure to survival and horror. It’s almost entirely set in a wilderness scenario, and nearly every facet of character and story arises from the action, as in a film. I mostly eschew flashback etc. The story arises from reactions to an unfolding crisis as it unfolds. Very much written in a modern cinematic, thriller idiom too; my Edwardian overtones are absent, but the poetry remains. I also love the Rob Zombie film, The Devils Rejects, and both versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and how horror cinema is so often inspired by an urbanites terror of rural backwaters. It’s a horror staple, but one I wanted to reinvent with more McCarthy and Dickey aesthetics. I’d like to see Rob Zombie’s dark humour, rock and roll sensibilities, and character camaraderie used in a film with a strong supernatural horror element, as opposed to a human element. I like his music too; his overall vision, in fact.

We’ve got the perfect movie adaption covered, but that still leaves music. If your dream band came to you to ask if they could do a song or album based on your fiction, who would they be?

What a great question! I’d love to see American metalcore band Throwdown, conceptualise a book. Their Deathless album is loosely conceptual and a classic work. My gut says a power metal band like Nevermore would be perfect for a collaboration too. Marilyn Manson’s musical take would also be superb. Iron Maiden of course, for a song. Avenged Sevenfold of late also.

What’s your opinion on cover art? Is it the first taste of the novel’s atmosphere, or just a marketing tool? What do you think of the cover art you’ve had so far and how much say did you have in designing it?

My take is that I have been very lucky, and that cover art is vitally important. For the PS hardback limited edition of Banquet for the Damned, I had a superb Edward Miller painting; for the paperback, a very talented young designer at Virgin, to whom I only gave key words and a photo of St Andrews skyline, designed a cover that I loved, and that also caught the spirit of the novel.

For Apartment 16, Pan Macmillan scored perfect marks with the first design I saw. It captures both the supernatural element and the literary element I strive to achieve in my writing, as well as depicting the perfect building. It was perfect. The cover for the next book, is possibly the best cover I have ever seen on a horror novel.

Every publisher I have had has consulted me, but I have been pleased with their ideas straight away without any arguments whatsoever. That must be unusual. I blanch and gibber at the thought of having a terrible cover on one of my books. I’ve seen some shockers out there, though British publishers are pretty good. I’d say British publishers are the world leaders in book cover design. It’s the foreign editions and US covers that often confound me.

But writers do need to listen to their publishers. As an editor, some of my authors would want to design their own covers, which were always unacceptable. The sales force of a publisher knows the trade and its book buyers better than an author does.

Let’s say you meet someone who’s never read horror, but is curious about the genre. If you had three books to try and convert them, what would you give them?

World War Z by Max Brookes

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Any advice for new writers?

Read the best in your field; work at the craft, struggle with the craft; find a mentor on a creative writing course – and I’d suggest a good poet - to improve your actual writing, and get them to show you how to rewrite i.e. how to really think about the choices you make with descriptive language, and with syntax; take at least a one month break between all drafts, and never ever post first drafts to agents or editors. Also, try going ‘deep’ and writing something that makes you really uncomfortable and ashamed, and don’t let self- consciousness interfere and don’t self-censor at all, don’t worry about style, don’t mimic other writers, just let it flow from your core. And that might unlock your voice as a writer and point you in the direction of how affecting and original your own work can be. Nothing is written in stone; you can then work at it at your leisure.

Thank you once again for the interview, Mr. Nevill, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for having me, and for your gracious reviews! My hat is raised.

FURTHER READING

Nevill has done several other interviews, including one at Kamvision and one at Horror Reanimated.

5 comments:

  1. Awesome interview; I liked your questions too, it gave him an opportunity to say quite a bit

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  2. Generally good interview, though I think that the Chainsaw movies and Rob Zombie mixed with MR James would be like mixing a firecracker and a slideshow.

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  3. I'm not sure I understand the comparison there...

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  4. Theyre too different.

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