Today I have another interview from my friend, Soraya Murillo Hernandez, from Spain. Soraya speaks Spanish, and I only speak English, so our friendship has leaned heavily on technology and Google Translate.
Soraya has so many incredible interviews that I’ve created a category for her work. This time she shares her interview with Adam LG Nevill, an English writer of supernatural horror, most well known for his book “The Ritual.” Prior to becoming a full-time author, Nevill worked as an editor, so he will have good insight on all the different aspects of writing.
Adam offers three free books to readers of horror: “Cries from the Crypt,” downloadable from his website, and “Before You Sleep” and “Before You Wake,” available from major online retailers. Adam lives in Devon, England. More details about Adam Nevill and his books can be found here.
You can find all of Soraya’s interviews here.
Soraya—What do you think when you are cataloged as the English King Stephen as a writer?
Adam LG Nevill—I think that’s only been said once, but because it was in the Guardian newspaper my publisher didn’t ignore it, and the phrase appeared on every book cover of mine … and I now get asked for a reaction in every interview!
To give some background, the critic who wrote that comparison is a renown science fiction writer and steeped in genre fiction, so it wasn’t an unexamined opinion, but most mainstream reviewers and readers are likely to have read little horror beyond King, Rice, Koontz, etc, or the other writers of that stature, because those were the only writers with books on sale in most bookshops for many years. So when horror fiction is reviewed in the mainstream, it is always reviewed in relation to Stephen King; he is the yardstick against which all others are judged.
In some ways, modern horror writers owe King everything, while none of us can escape his vast shadow. There seems to be no other writer for us to be compared to, while no one will ever attain his success. But I was flattered, as I am an admirer of the King and he is an influence of mine, but I keep the accolade in perspective.
I think all I probably have in common with the King is a love of writing horror. I’ve not come across anyone who has tried my books because of that shoutline either; in fact, it’s more counterproductive as some of his hardcore fans have taken objection to the comparison.
Soraya—Your novel, “Banquet for the Damned,” recalls the supernatural terror of M.R.James. What other classical writers do you admire?
Adam LG Nevill—A great many, but Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen are also primary influences, as are H Russell Wakefield, Oliver Onions, Edith Wharton and Walter del la Mare. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber are probably my primary American influences. From a more modern middle period, Shirley Jackson, Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell and M John Harrison are classic writers, in my opinion, and all influences too.
More than influencing how you write, or your style, I think literary influences make you want to write, and also transport you in such a way that you find things in your imagination and memory to shape into fiction that were kind of scrabbling beyond reach for a long time.
Soraya—Critics praise you and recommended read, at least in Spain, my country. Why do you think that the critics are so benevolent with you? Are you afraid of criticism?
Adam LG Nevill—I have no real idea of how my books have been received in Spain, other than through Jesus Palacios’s work, who has been so kind, because though I can find reviews online I cannot read Spanish. But I’m grateful to you for letting me know the reception has been positive. I really like Minotauro and wish they’d translate all of my books!
I think the reviews have been mixed for everything I have written, though, but at least the novels are being discovered, read and responded to. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. My weirder stories – “Apartment 16” and “House of Small Shadows” – receive the greatest number of bad reviews and outright condemnations. The novels using more traditional narratives, and ideas more palatable to a general reader, like “The Ritual,” “Last Days,” and “No One Gets Out Alive,” have received mostly positive reviews.
The taste, patience, education, reading ages, and sophistication of reviewers are all primary in understanding their reviews. And I always take this into account, but I still dislike bad reviews. And one thing is for sure now: writers have never been subjected to so much scrutiny and opinion, because of the internet and social media, which is a vast cosmos of opinion, some considered and informed, some not.
I can better endure bad reviews these days. Experience has hardened me. But as I put so much of myself, so much time and work into my books, of course I am disappointed or even wounded by some bad notices. If someone writes “it’s just not my thing,” I’m OK with that. But if someone says, “This is terrible writing” I flinch.
Some of the reviews are so spiteful and hateful I have actually wondered how I wrote a book that someone could object to so strongly. I have been shocked by some reviews. I’m just not as sensitive now, but I’ll never stop caring about readers and what they think. Without readers I am unread.
Soraya—Where do you take the inspiration for your novels? Do you just begin writing and allow that the story to develop or do you plan the story first?
Adam LG Nevill—Where a novel comes from is always a combination of things. Memory, observation, experience, the impact of reading, instinct, perception – all of these parts of consciousness notice things and store them away, where they distill and refine themselves into images and ideas, like fragments of dreams that try and process the world, while also reacting to it and against it.
And some of my books have even grown from a single image – like The Ritual – and the story eventually grew out of one scene with one defining image. I had planned to write about men of my generation, and to try and bring horror cinema into a novel, but how? Once I had that image of the effigy in the attic, it all began to come together in ways that I could not predict.
There were other books that served as guides too, from Scott Smith’s “The Ruins,” McCarthy’s “The Road,” Blackwood’s “The Willows” and Dickey’s “Deliverance.” Films too, like “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Objective.”
“House of Small Shadows” is the best example of this process; I wanted to go right back to my earliest terrors and enchantments as a child and turn them into a story; I had so many images and ideas but no story. But the story began to form and then magically link everything as I began writing, so the process of writing itself often gives me the story. I could never have predicted that I would have written that novel, in that way; the outline I gave my publisher didn’t even have a title and barely resembled the finished book. It felt like the biggest risk I had ever embarked upon as a writer, but I trusted my imagination not to fail me.
In other books, like “Last Days,” I did far more planning because the story was so complicated and stretched across 400 years, so I needed more structure than usual before I began.
Soraya—When the great English writer James Herbert died, what was your opinion about his work?
Adam LG Nevill—I’ve enjoyed a great many of James Herbert’s novels. I can pick holes as we can all pick holes in each other’s writing based on our preferences. But how much he cared about language and how considered much of his writing is, in novels like “The Magic Cottage,” “Sepulchre,” “Shrine” and “Crickley Hall,” is unfairly overlooked.
He cared about what he was doing and was very good on atmosphere. There are scenes in his novels worthy of M R James and Clive Barker and Lovecraft, so he was a much better writer than the one painted by the prevailing opinion amongst many critics.
I also think he was important; more than any other writer, when you consider “The Fog” and “The Rats,” he seems to have shaped modern horror into a literature of protest, and from voices lower down the social order – writers not privately educated at the best schools and universities or born into more privileged and cultured lives.
I don’t think he ever tried to shock readers; he wrote what he was compelled to write out of his own experience, and that in itself was shocking. And it’s great that a working class writer like Herbert, and a horror writer, became the most successful British writer of the nineteen eighties and nineties.
Soraya—In your book “Last Days,” it was very gratifying to see how you had documented the topic of the sects. What do you use for documenting your works? Can there be so much documentation that the writer loses the essence of the story?
Adam LG Nevill—I think you mean research? I do research a great deal for most of my books. I don’t think you can do too much research because it all helps, but the more that you do the harder it becomes to include all of your ideas in a way that is still good fiction. More research = more rewriting. But I’m not going to change.
Soraya—I think that you write the narrative suspense very well. In “Apartment 16” you touch upon the supernatural. Do you believe in life after death? Do you feel attracted by the secret world?
Adam LG Nevill—Thank you. I’m glad “Apartment 16” worked for you. For me, that will always be a special book.
Yes, I do feel an immense fascination for the “secret world,” and my mind remains open about the paranormal. I don’t follow any religious doctrine or dogma, but neither do I deny the possibility of an afterlife or the existence of places beyond our senses and comprehension.
I think our brains are like the computers of the 1980s trying to process the information available online now; this computer I am using has 16 gigabytes of memory, but thirty years ago personal computers had 48K of memory. We have limited capacity; we cannot possibly understand everything.
Sometimes, perhaps, the imagination has the greatest reach of all, centuries ahead of reason. The imagination may not be precise, but it suggests what may exist.
Soraya—Please tell me about your way of writing. Explain to me what a typical day is when you’re writing a book.
Adam LG Nevill—I don’t think any day is typical, other than I try to write a scene on each day dedicated to writing. I have about four days each week when I can write for most of a day, sometimes depending upon childcare, or life taking over. And sometimes I can sit down and write all day and produce a scene that almost seems to have been transcribed to me, but I might only get six days like that in a year.
I can write another scene and rewrite it twenty times and then delete it during final rewrites. It can come so slowly and tortuously, or burn out like a compulsion that is euphoric. I can make a great start and then get interrupted; I can flounder for five hours and then suddenly find the zone and then not look up until I need to urinate so badly that it’s causing me pain.
The books I write are never the books I imagine at the start either. But, I never give up on a book, no matter how great the temptation at times.
Soraya—Is writing an addiction? Did you ever stop writing?
Adam LG Nevill—Between the mid nineties and now, the longest break I had from writing was six months in 2005 – 2006, and this was because of a bad relationship. But I was miserable and lost without writing in my life; I was a man without a purpose or much enthusiasm, and without writing something it seemed to me that my existence was futile, and destined to repeat certain pointless patterns, and that I lacked control.
So I have learned that writing is a “purpose” for life, and the purpose for most of my days; even if I am not writing I am thinking about writing, or reading, or doing something connected to writing. I fear its loss, despite all of the trouble it has caused me over the years. So writing is a purpose, and a compulsion in that it is a sluice for part of my consciousness that desperately requires an outlet.
I also now feel a responsibility to regular loyal readers and I do not want to let them down. I also have a family and my writing has been good to us, and I see my writing as part of caring for them too, so my relationship with writing has gathered new motives.
Soraya—What kinds of books do you read? What is the last one you read?
Adam LG Nevill—I read a lot of quality horror, and I read a lot of literary fiction, from regional American literary fiction to British and translated writers. I also read more non-fiction than ever now. The last books I have read, or am rereading, are John Gordon’s “The House on the Brink” (which has eluded me for years), “The Clock Strikes 12” by H Russell Wakefield, “Affinity” by Sarah Waters, and I am just about to finish “Night’s Black Agents” by Fritz Leiber. All brilliant.
Soraya—You have suggested that we saw the work of Francis Bacon when we were reading “Apartment 16.” Do not think that the reader must create their own visions?
Adam LG Nevill—I think the reader creates their own visions anyway. I don’t think I ever suggested the reader saw the artistic works of Francis Bacon, but maybe I did indirectly through the epigraph? Is that cheating? I have never even considered that.
But Hessen was based on a group of expressionist and abstract artists of a certain period who are all mentioned in the story; I offered that information to add a realistic context to the art history, and maybe too, now that you suggest it, as a guide to the affecting grotesques in the work of those painters.
I don’t think that is unusual or wrong; one of the things that allows fiction to work is the communication of common experience. I suppose I could have only described the viewer’s reactions to the paintings without ever describing the paintings, but I don’t think that could have been sustained across such a long novel without losing effect.
Soraya—Do you worry about the death of the printed paper?
Adam LG Nevill—Yes, greatly. And not only that. I also fear the commercial and social changes that would enable the end of print to happen. Many things are currently contributing to this: books having no value as digital files because of piracy and low prices, and we are already in the age of the 20 pence ebook; the disappearance of bookshops and libraries; the congestion and paralysis of published electronic matter (approximately 1.5 million ebooks were uploaded onto Amazon in the US in 2011, and it has since grown) so that the best new writers are never discovered, or discouraged from writing as they find no readership; the squeezing into extinction of writer’s incomes from retailers forcing down prices to nothing, while publishers take most of what little money is generated; copyright abuses leading to the shortening or end of copyright.
All of this is happening now in the UK and the US. I think in Spain, France and Germany you still have regulation that protects culture, literacy and the arts, but in an unregulated market-driven economy, I think book shops and most small to midsize publishers will disappear, as will the champions of the best literary writers, the printed periodicals and newspapers, and the value of most books will soon be reduced to nothing. The impact that this will have on literacy, culture and even civilization, no one seems to have thought through.
Soraya—How long you spend reading? Is it necessary to have read much to write well?
Adam LG Nevill—To my mind, you cannot become a good writer unless you read widely and voraciously. Reading for pleasure, for life, as much as you can, seems synonymous with writing well. I can always tell that I am reading a writer who reads narrowly; they may even be successful, but I never feel the need to read any more of their books. They seem stuck in one way of telling a story and in their own voice too.
Soraya—Has the e-book helped you? What do you think of Amazon?
Hard to say how I have been helped. Over half of my sales now seem be in digital format; in 2010 to 2012 nearly all of my sales were in print. My ebooks are sold at fairly low prices, and they only really sell in great number when they are in price promotions and when the books are priced under £1. This trend is representative and has now become the new reality of bookselling in the UK.
My books are also pirated massively, which is why I no longer have audio books. Most of my Google alerts that I use to alert me to new reviews, actually bring back pages and pages of pirate sites giving away my books. How can that not destroy my sales? So like all writers, beside the top 100 who account for half of all revenue from books, the new digital formats of our books are either pirated or sold for low prices, while our more lucrative print formats are disappearing along with bookshops and libraries.
There has been a massive change in reading habits from paper to screen too. So what is the endgame? I’ve never been more popular with readers that when my physical print books were stocked in a wide range of bookshops, and were widely available. My books were more expensive then too – £5 to £7 – but they weren’t actually expensive. I think a book priced up to £10 was really good value anyway.
But the internet’s culture of entitlement that everything should be free, or sold for pennies, from music, TV and film, to games, is now very active in devaluing books too. Amazon has been a key player in this trend, as it accounts for 95% of all ebook sales in the UK, and its core brand value is low prices. By having millions of titles available for very low prices, and arguing that it is good for the consumer, which it is, the giant retailer is undermining every other thing that produces the products, from the writers to the publishers.
Publishers are as much to blame for the plight of writers by maintaining their cut – 90% of print and 75-85% of digital. Because of these changes, publishers are now lowering or removing advances too. Writers incomes have dropped by 40% in the UK in ten years. On the other hand, Amazon is too good to be true; it’s an amazing retailer that makes everything available and gets it to you fast – I watch more films, buy more books, and listen to a greater range of music since Amazon came along.
It is wonderful for the consumer. In some ways, the best shop in the world if you love books, music and film, as I do. But I think there must be a middle ground between these two positions. Not everything can just be disrupted and driven by market forces without thought about the consequences – you could say the same about water, public transport and domestic fuel.
Business is rarely ethical or farsighted, because that is counterproductive to short term gains. So I think higher prices combined with the existing wide range, as well as regulation to stamp out piracy, is now required. A value should be attached to every other part of the food chain, and not just to what benefits the consumer. We are trying to do this with the environment, so why not to protect books and writers, musicians, film makers, game designers?
Soraya—What age were you when you started writing? What motivated you?
Adam LG Nevill—I started writing seriously, with my writing and a life in books as my purpose every day, in my mid-twenties. I knew I was going to become a writer at 16, and believed that nothing else would satisfy me, but I needed life experience, and to try other things before I became really serious.
At a point when I thought I cannot hold back my compulsion to write any longer, I made it my mission. What could I have written at 16; I’d never even had a girlfriend? The initial impulse to write came from my father reading to me, right through my childhood and until I was about thirteen. Most nights he read to us.
Soraya—In your novel “The Ritual,” I was thrilled as you describe the friendship of the characters. It gave me the feeling that it hurt you to kill them. Which were you the most endeared with?
Adam LG Nevill—I think they were all flawed, like all of us, and all good men in their own ways; none of them were bad people, though Luke was the most unstable and each man was annoying and selfish, or over confident.
They died because that’s what life does to people in difficult situations; it kills us. Nothing is fair; you are just in a bad situation that you have little control over, and many people do not survive. This is horror. Life is horror.
It’s not about being good or bad, deserving or undeserving of death. Such considerations are instantly meaningless in disasters or in times of war, as they are for people lost in a place of strange ancient forces. Life without the safety net of human rights, the rule of law, and good governance is horror.
Being in an absurdly vast and hostile environment, or at best an indifferent environment, is cosmically horrific too – ultimately this is our fate as a species. All of my characters go through a process in which they are forced to witness and reflect upon their insignificance, but still struggle to live a bit longer.
That quality may make “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, “1984” by Orwell, and “War of the Worlds” by H G Wells, the greatest horror novels for me: they examine the crushing weight of our insignificance and lack of meaningful control.
Luke was probably the least likable character, but he survived. I took a risk there, but I think the characters are authentic – it’s the most I can hope to achieve, authenticity. Hutch is the hero but he was the first to die. Dom and Phil were fathers and husbands and probably resembled most of us in that situation – we would be useless, but undeserving of such fates.
People must find themselves in this situation every day now, somewhere in the world. Heroism seems too simple a concept for me, even in fiction. Luke was the character I most identified with – a man embittered and exhausted by life, by underemployment and crushed hopes, by futility, by being an outsider, and a man made extreme in his views and behaviour.
Soraya—What is your favorite and most important book? Why?
Adam LG Nevill—I cannot say. I like them all for different reasons. In each book I tried to explore new territory, new ways of writing, new kinds of character and situation, and to unleash all kinds of ideas and feelings that I have experienced. I gave them all the same level of care and intensity.
Soraya—My heart is with people trying to gain a foothold in the world of writings. What advice do you have for them? What do you think now that you’re already known worldwide?
Adam LG Nevill—It was all very different for writers when I was first published. The internet was not what it is today; there was only the traditional route through agents and mainstream publishers, there was no self-publishing as it exists now, or so many small presses.
After I finished “Banquet for the Damned,” I waited four years for the novel to be published by a small press, and another five years after that for mainstream publishing to even consider my next two novels.
Besides the big authors from the seventies, horror was dead to publishing for most of the time I have been writing it, as well as for my first fifteen years as a serious writer. Now, a writer in that position would just self-publish. That was not an option for me.
It took a very long time to get here, over twenty years and I didn’t get my first big break with an international publisher until I was forty. I wrote nine erotic novels too, for morale, for practice, to cut my teeth and to learn the craft while I waited for horror to come back, if it ever did.
These days, I never take my position for granted, and it has exceeded all of my expectations of what might have happened. I always imagined the worst outcomes for myself. An old, lonely man, living in one room full of unpublished manuscripts.
My writing became everything to me; my commitment to it was quite extreme, even unbalanced at times and I made lots of bad decisions and suffered and made life difficult for myself. But I’m not the first on that account. What actually happened for me as a writer, though, ended years of frustration and restless anxiety
For new writers today, getting published is not difficult, but the traditional path of a writer reading the field, acquiring the craft and finding a voice and writing something that is good and that resonates, has never been more important. Writers have a responsibility to be as good as they can be, to care, and to try and make their work matter. Who wants a world of amateur, poorly considered, hastily written books that have little or no value?