One Foot in the New Wave:
An Interview with John Travis
The celebrated Yorkshire author John Travis kindly took some time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions, some of which I’m sure he’s been asked many times before. I acknowledge his innovative fiction by riffing on the title of the best British sitcom in history.
How did your very original (I think of the series as Raymond Chandler meets George Orwell) Benji Spriteman & Company come about?
In a way, it’s Tim Lebbon’s fault. In 1999 he sent me some guidelines through the post (!) for various short story markets. One was for a series of books whose title always began ‘100 Crafty Little…’ or something like that. The brief was to write very short stories on a given theme – vampires, haunted houses, or whatever. One was ‘Crafty Little Cat Crimes’. From what I could gather, the editors basically wanted very cute stories in which domestic cats disrupted burglars by tipping plant pots on their heads or something. Which sounded a bit too cute. I had an idea about a world where animals are now in charge and the cat is a Private Detective, solving crimes. It didn’t make it into the anthology although it got some nice feedback, and I eventually sold it a couple of years later. A year or so down the line from this, I was inching my way towards trying my hand at a novel and realised that my story ‘The Terror and the Tortoiseshell’ had the potential to be a novel. Then, as I was writing it, it dawned on me there was an entire series in it if I wanted it. So far that comprises of three short stories plus the novels The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, The Designated Coconut and most recently, The Clutches of Mimi Bouchard.
Can you tell me about your writing process? What is it that inspires you to start a work, and how long does it take you?
What usually happens is that an old idea will be sparked off against a new title or a new idea against an old title, and when it happens it’s not just a case of them maybe going together, they do go together – I just have to figure out how. Sometimes the idea or title can be years, decades old, and suddenly this new thing pops into my brain and I have to fathom what it all means. I then go through any other ideas which I think belong with these two. Sometimes there might be one or several, but there’s always something else I’ve thought about or written down that connects with them. Then I try to arrange what order they all go in and how everything relates to each other.
I’m a slow, methodical writer – even at my quickest a short story can take weeks, sometimes longer. I’m also not a very durable writer in the sense that I can’t sit at a desk for hours at a time – usually after two I’ve had enough and produce nothing of note after that. Although when I move away from the desk I still feel like I’m ‘in’ the story for quite a while afterwards. I read somewhere that when actors come off stage they sometimes find it hard to come out of character – so maybe it’s a common thing when doing anything imaginative.
Do you use pen and paper, computer, laptop, typewriter? Do you work alone or in coffee shops? Music or silence?
I tend to write by making notes in pen on pads, and try and work out some kind of plot, knowing it’ll probably change over time. Then it’s onto the computer to write it. I love sitting in coffee shops, watching the world go by, but I’ve never been able to write anywhere other than at home, although I’m hoping to alter that. I write in a tiny room and need silence, or as near to it as I can get. I’ve wondered about having music on in the background, but I imagine I’d either be listening to the music and not writing or writing and not listening to the music. And if I did end up doing both I’d feel that whoever created the music should also get a writing credit!
Do you keep a commonplace book, or rely on memory?
A bit of both, although I think I need to start using the former more regularly as my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. I really should carry an ideas book around with me at all times – Tom Waits has a wonderful way of putting it, saying that a notebook is like your butterfly net.
What do you think of trends such as AI to write novels?
This whole thing worries, amuses and puzzles me. I really don’t understand it. The author and reviewer Des Lewis has started to create AI paintings (or AI has) based on his reviews, and the paintings represent the stories. They are extremely bizarre – some are really interesting, but the thing in common they all have is that they look like they’ve been done artificially – there’s something ‘off’ about them. I definitely don’t think I’ll be reading any AI novels. Or then again, will I?
I think you're spot on in re the AI being ‘off’... Favourite authors?
HP Lovecraft right at the top. His work changed my life. Early on it was James Herbert and Terry Pratchett, then HPL, and I read everything of his I could get my hands on. His non-fiction led me to writers he was inspired by – of these, Arthur Machen and Ambrose Bierce became favourites of mine. Then it was onto people like T.E.D. Klein, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, before finding authors like Philip K. Dick, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler – but for every author I’ve mentioned here I could probably have included a handful more. These days I love Leonora Carrington’s work. Lately though I’m finding I’m getting as much creative inspiration from non-fiction, music, art and experimental short films as from books.
Favourite movies/documentaries? TV shows?
Rear Window, Harvey, Double Indemnity, The Shootist, Carnival of Souls, Hell Drivers, The Swimmer, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, plus a ton of others. My favourite horror film is the original Black Christmas. As mentioned above I love short films, so the works of Jan Svankmajer, The Quay Brothers, Maya Deren, Luis Buñuel. My all-time favourite TV show and one of my main three influences (the other two being Lovecraft and the group Pixies) is the sitcom One Foot in the Grave.
Any plans for branching out, say, writing a theatre or screen play?
Not unless I was asked and offered a ton of money! I think I’d be out of my depth.
Do you think your works would make good movie adaptations? Actors? Directors?
For a brief time after The Terror and the Tortoiseshell was published there were a few enquiries about film rights, but as the characters are human/animal hybrids nobody was sure how they could be filmed. Other than as an animated feature, the only way I could think it might work would be as an experimental film or play – with people wearing masks. For some reason when I had this idea I kept thinking of Jim Jarmusch… I never really think about actors or voices for my stories, but for Spriteman I do have a Humphrey Bogart voice in mind, or Tim Hutton when he starred in the Nero Wolfe Mysteries years ago.
Perhaps someone should send the novel to Wes Anderson, whose Fantastic Mr Fox is a shot in the arm for us non-fans who call the animation studio Disnae, after the Scottish word for ‘doesn’t’ (Walt's animators famously dubbed the studio ‘Mouseschwitz’, then when reprimanded, amended it to ‘Duckau’).
May I ask if there are any upcoming horror writers you'd recommend?
I’m sorely tempted to list a bunch of my friends here, most of whom are horror writers, but I’m not sure that would be right. And them aside, I don’t read that much modern horror anymore. My reading tastes seem to veer between old European weird fiction and vintage American mystery novels. But a modern writer who really impresses me is Priya Sharma. She has an enviable way with words.
Which comes first, the title or the idea? Has there ever been a work where the title was really difficult to find?
As I mentioned above, it tends to vary. But yes, titles can be difficult. Unfortunately I really struggle to write anything without first having a title. A case in point was The Clutches of Mimi Bouchard. Not only was writing the book like pulling teeth (six years, one week and two days of it) but even the title only came a word at a time – the word ‘Clutches’ eluded me for months.
Do you think you work in a specific genre or a cross genre and what are the challenges?
I used to think I wrote horror fiction, until someone pointed out to me that I didn’t. When I asked what I did write, they couldn’t give me an exact answer. So I asked a handful of people who’d read my stuff (at that stage probably the only people who’d read my stuff) what they thought it was. Every one of them gave a different answer, and only one said horror.
I suppose saying that I just write weird stories is the best answer I can give. I always write for myself and 99 percent of the time never with a market in mind. Then I try and sell them. Sometimes I get lucky and it only takes a year or two, but the record is nineteen years! I’m fortunate in a way that I put very little in my stories which dates them, so if it does take a long time to find them homes, they (with any luck) haven’t dated. The publisher of my latest collection Gaseous Clay and Other Ambivalent Tales, said the stories exist somewhere in an area between Horror and Outsider Art. I’m currently reading a fascinating book on Outsider Art and I’d say this is a pretty accurate description.
Do you have to market your work, or do your publishers do it for you, and if the former, do you enjoy it or find it a necessary evil?
It’s something that seems to be done between both of us. I’d rather it be more like it was in bygone days, when writers wrote and publishers did the rest. But the bit I do isn’t too bad, although I wouldn’t like to do more of it – it’s written into pro-writers’ contracts now that they have to spend so many hours a day on social media, which I wouldn’t like at all.
And the other necessary evil, reviews: how do you deal with bad ones?
Interesting question as a few months ago I got my first ever really bad review for a book. I'd had a fair few negative comments for stories but never a whole book. The reviewer in question detested everything about it except the layout and artwork (which are rather stunning). The thing was, if I'd gotten a review like that say ten years ago, I'd have been completely crushed - now it was more a mild stinging disappointment which lifted after a few days. So I suppose I must be learning something! The odd thing is, I'm not sure that the good reviews last much longer in my memory either - the feelings last but I very rarely remember the comments - there's always that next thing to be getting on with...
Find John's books via his Amazon Author page
Called ‘a writer of considerable energy’ in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Travis is the author of six books – two short story collections, Mostly Monochrome Stories and Gaseous Clay and Other Ambivalent Tales; two novellas, Greenbeard and Eloquent Years of Silence; and two previous Benji Spriteman novels, The Terror and the Tortoiseshell and The Designated Coconut, the former attracting the attention of several Hollywood film companies.
His many short stories and novellas have been published in anthologies and journals such as Terror Tales of Northwest England, Nemonymous, British Invasion and in both volumes of The Humdrumming Books of Horror Stories, his story from the second volume, ‘The Tobacconist’s Concession’, appearing on the 2009 shortlist for a British Fantasy Award. He’s also had his work praised by T.E.D. Klein and David Renwick, and had an invisible poem read out on Radio 1 by John Hegley. Writing what he can, when he can, if by some miracle he ever did make any money from his stories about talking animals and various haunted objects and people, he’d like to move to the country or the coast, possibly Scarborough, and live in a detached house surrounded by books, films, and musical instruments.
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